Resurrection Joy

Easter Sunday 2019

I would like to begin today by sharing Joy’s story. Joy was a typical high school junior. She worries about things like cheerleading, grades, what other girls posted on social media, and, of course, about prom. Joy had a new boyfriend, Tommy, they had gone out a couple of times, he seemed nice, and he had asked her to the prom.

But suddenly, everything changed. During a routine physical the doctor found something she didn’t like. After a cat-scan and a biopsy, Joy was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery replaced cheerleading and chemotherapy eclipsed any thoughts about the prom. That is, until the morning of prom rolled around, and Joy awoke to discover that she had lost all her hair. She we inconsolable. There was no time to have a decent wig made, and she dismissed any talk of buying a costume wig, or wearing a scarf, or a hat. Instead Joy insisted she was going stay home. She called Tommy to share her decision, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I’ll be there at 5,” he insisted, “be ready to go.”

Well, Joy reluctantly put on her prom dress and waited for 5pm to roll around. And, right on time, the door bell rang. It was her date, dressed in a black tux with corsage in hand, and to Joy’s shock and amazement, her date, standing there in her doorway, had not one stand of hair on his head. You see, he had shaved his head so Joy would not feel out-of-place. But that’s not the end of the story. He then invited her to step out into the yard, where the entire cheerleading squad, along with their dates, were waiting for her. And like Tommy, they too had all shaved their heads. It was in that moment, for the first time since her diagnoses, that Joy didn’t feel alone.

As we consider Joy’s story this morning, I can’t help but this of Mary Magdalene as stood before the empty tomb. Like Joy, I think she must have felt alone, isolated, hopeless. Grief does that. Grief isolates us, it causes us to turn in on ourselves and build walls to keep others out.

But I can also imagine the look on Mary’s face in that moment of epiphany; that moment when Jesus spoke her name, “Mary.” One word, and she knew. One word, and Mary know the power of resurrection. And it was through one act of extravagant kindness, that Joy came to know the power of resurrection as well.

You see, for us here in the 21st century, the resurrection narrative doesn’t end with an empty tomb; isn’t finally about angels, or gardeners, or even about physical resuscitation. Resurrection is about the presence of God within, around, and through all of life. Resurrection is about taking those places in our lives, those dark and painful, isolating places, and exposing them to the healing and light and life of the Spirit.

After Mary left the tomb and went back to the disciples and shared what she had witnessed, they too became convinced that Jesus was a living and present God. The Apostle Paul thought so as well. In Paul’s writings the Living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never separated; for Paul the two are the same. So, when he says, “Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,” he is talking about the same Spirit that you and I can experience in our lives.

And, my friends, this is way I believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as some distant event in the past or dusty old doctrine, but as a very real presence.  William Slone Coffin expresses this same theological understanding in his book Credo. He says that “…today, on Easter, we gather not, as it were, to close the show with the tune “Thanks for the Memories” but rather to reopen the show with the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”[I]

So, here’s the pressing question surrounding all this: How do we know that resurrection is something we experience? How can I tell that the Living Christ, the very Spirit of God is present in the world today?

Well, the presence of God, what we pastor types like to call the revelation of God, comes to us in many ways. We can experience God in nature, for example. Who here hasn’t felt the veil between God and humanity become a little thinner on a beautiful fall day in the woods? We can also experience God through relationship, through the other people we encounter as we walk this earth. God can also be revealed through art, through music, through communal worship or personal prayer, or whenever we take a moment to quiet our minds and open our being to listen for the still-small voice. My friends, God is Still-Speaking in the world today, our task is to listen and then respond.

I’m going to conclude my remarks today by focusing on our response. Specifically, our response to the resurrected presence of God as a faith community. Community is the key word here. Like the girl from our opening illustration, Joy’s disease isolated her from her primary community. And we all know that there are many, many people in our midst who feel isolated, alone, outside the love of God. It’s true. For any number of reasons, many people they feel they are not worthy of God’s love, and therefore by extension, not worth of the Church’s embrace. That why our calling as a faith community is to reach-out with an extravagant welcome to all people. No one, people, no one is outside the Grace of God, period. And it’s our task, our calling as a people of faith to share that message.

How? Well, when we become an Open and Affirming congregation, (Well, when we grew into a congregation that opens its arms to embrace everyone,) we said to LGBTQ people, you’re not alone. When we support the food pantry, we’re saying to those who are hungry, those whose bills have out-distanced their pay-check, those who have had to choose between medication and food, you’re not alone. When we give to our United Church of Christ special offerings, I’m thinking especially about OGHS, we’re saying to those here in our nation and around the globe who have been displaced by natural disaster or war or famine; you’re not alone. And when we invite someone who’s on the outside-looking-in, for whatever reason, we, like the bald-headed-cheerleaders who embraced Joy, are saying; you’re not alone. And there are so many more examples I can’t even list them all. But the essence of what I’m saying here is that when we open our arms and hearts to a wide diversity of people, we’re saying to anyone who will listen, “even when you’re by yourself, you’re not alone.”

My friends, as we continue to live-into our resurrection calling, may we do so with the Grace of God, the Compassion of the Christ, and in the Presence of the Spirit. My prayer for each one of you here today, is that if you feel isolated from your community, for whatever reason, if you feel like you’re the one whose on the outside-looking-in, that you will indeed experience the presence of the Divine, feel the nearness of the Spirit, and that you will hear the cry of this congregation, saying to you, “you’re not alone.”

My friends, it is with great enthusiasm, and passion, and with a hopeful spirit that I wish all of you, a very meaningful and joyful Easter. Amen, and the people of God said, “Amen

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[i] William Slone Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 28

Shouting Stones

A Celebration of the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Luke 19:28-40

I wonder if we give Palm Sunday its proper due?

Why? Well, the story of Palm Sunday, often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry,” is featured in all four gospels. The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover celebration, the story of a humble donkey, of shouting crowds, branches, coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, this story has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now, making the cut in all four gospels, that’s a big deal, biblically speaking anyway. I mean, Christmas didn’t even make it into all four gospels for crying out loud. We find birth narratives only in Matthew and Luke. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers, the prayer the church has recited over the course of more than two thousand years; the Lord’s Prayer. It only made the cut in two gospels. The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are found only in Luke’s account. And finally, The Beatitudes, you know, blessed are the peacemakers, the meek, blessed are the poor; only two gospels. But the Palm Sunday story, the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, this story is retold in all four gospels. [I]

Which makes me wonder if we’ve overlooked the importance of this event in the past. I mean, over the course of the past couple of decades, there’s been a movement in protestant churches to piggy-back the passion story with the triumphal entry. It’s actually listed in the Revised Common Lectionary as Passion/Palm Sunday. And I can see the rational. Some have called it the “celebration to celebration” problem. In other words, many people come to church on Palm Sunday, like today, and it’s a time of celebration. Most then skip the holy week services altogether, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and then return to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on Easter. The challenge here is that we miss the darkness of Christ’s journey through holy week. The Passion Story is a journey that takes us through the upper room, into the anguish and betrayal of the garden, and deposits us on the steps of the Temple to witness Christ’s arrest and trial, his humiliation and suffering, and of course, the heart-ache of his execution on the Cross. So, many-a-theologian has thought, “Hey, let’s cram it all into the Palm Sunday service.”

But, as you can probably tell from my tone, I’ve never been a fan of Passion/Palm Sunday. I think we need to celebrate for a while. I think we need to bask in the joy of this moment. I think we need to let the Triumphal Entry story stand on its own. Why? Well, in order to answer that question, I think we need first to set-the-scene.

The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival was a lot like Cable during the Burkie. Our town swells with visitors from all over the world. It’s alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price and Rondeau’s have stocked their shelves to capacity. There are vendors selling their wares as nearly everyone makes their way to the starting area. It seems like the whole world has come to Cable; or rather, to Jerusalem. Expectation was in the air.

Now, this is why I think the Triumphal Entry story is so important! Up until this point in the gospel narratives, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive, reflective. I mean, when Jesus argued with the religious officials, I can imagine the disciples watching, tense and riveted. When Jesus defended a prostitute, they must have gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and challenged the commonly held understandings of the day; understanding of clean and unclean, of rich and poor, of outsider and insider; I can imagine the disciples quickly glancing around to see who was listening. When Jesus heals a leper and as he restores those with mental illness, with broken bodies or spirits; the disciples must have whispered to each other with fascinated awe.[ii]

But on that first Palm Sunday, with the gathering crowds all around them like Cable at Burkie time, we see a shift occur; we see a transformation begin to take place. As they enter Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers became leaders. Yes, there would still be challenges as they grew into this new role. Most of the disciples would scatter later that week and Peter would deny even knowing Christ three times. But despite these setbacks, Palm Sunday, in my mind, is the day that the followers of Jesus found their voices, summoned their courage, and assumed their role as champions for God’s Reign of justice and peace; vessels of Christ’s compassion, grace and forgiveness, and tellers of the Divine story. And here in Luke’s version of events, in recognition that the disciples had found their voice, Jesus says, “I tell you, even if these bystanders were to keep silent, the stones themselves would shout!”

So, where does this leave us? As today’s disciples, as post-modern leaders of this ever-changing, ever-evolving entity with call the Church, what are we shouting

Now, at this point, I need some help up here. I want all the young people to come up here once again, no rabbit this time, but I want you all to be our “shouting stones.” Every time I say, “can I get an amen?” I want you to shout, “amen.” Let’s practice. Can I get an amen? Amen. Okay. Here we go.

We’re shouting stones when we open the door for someone who’s on the outside looking in; when we provide an extravagant and wide welcome to everyone. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when we us our voices to speak-up for the oppressed, when we speak-out against racism, against hatred; when we use our voices to speak for the voiceless; the immigrant, the refugee, the child in a cage on the border. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when we seek justice for all of God’s people; when we celebrate the diversity of humankind, our many colors and languages and faith traditions; we become shouting stones when we live in peace and harmony with one another and encourage others to do the same. Can I get an amen?

We’re shouting stones when seek environmental justice. When we use our voice and our vote, our hands and our feet, to work toward conserving creation rather than destroying it; when we make sacrifices to limit the lasting effects of global climate change for our grandchildren and their children. Can I get and amen?

And finally. We’re shouting stones when take the gospel seriously. When we attempt to live-into and reflect Christ’ command to love one another; to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as ourselves. Can I get an amen?

My friends, Palm Sunday is a time of celebration. A time when we celebrate the beginning of Christ’s journey through the darkness and into the light of the Resurrection. May each of us here today, symbolically, take this trek as well. May we emerge from whatever darkness is surrounding us into the Light of Easter; into the restoration and healing of God; into a Resurrection of Life.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen& amen.

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[i] Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor Players and Protagonists in the Kingdom of God (www.Day1.org) 2016

[ii] Ibid. Taylor

Weathering Storms

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Who has ever heard of Wikipedia? Show of hands. Well, if you haven’t or aren’t really sure what it is: “Wikipedia is a multilingual online encyclopedia with exclusively free content, based on open collaboration through a model of content edit by web-based applications like web browsers, called wiki. It is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Web.”[i] Do you know where I go this information about Wikipedia? Wikipedia.

Now, this isn’t humanity’s first attempt to accumulate “all-knowledge.” There was the Great Library of Alexandria, for example. It was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. The Library was part of a larger research institution and quickly grew by acquiring a large number of papyrus scrolls. Now, it’s unknown precisely how many scrolls were housed there, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height. And because of this great gathering of information, Alexandria became known as the capital of knowledge and learning in the third and second centuries BCE.

Side note: Despite the widespread modern belief that the Library was “burned” and instantly destroyed, the Library actually declined gradually over the course of several centuries, starting with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BCE. Given, the Library, or part of its collection, was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, it’s actually unclear how much was destroyed and it seems to have either survived or been rebuilt shortly thereafter.[ii]

Anyway, burned or declined, the Library of Alexandria was, historically, one the great attempts to gather all knowledge. By the way, guess where I got this information on the Library of Alexandria? That’s right, Wikipedia!

But what do these attempts to gather knowledge have to do with Jeremiah and the New Covenant? Well, Jeremiah says in this passage, “They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord!’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” And, according to the Prophet, God will do this by putting God’s Instructions within us and engraving them on our hearts.

What a powerful image! I mean, think about it! God’s instructions, God’s law it says in some versions of the Bible, IS actually engraved upon our hearts! In other words, according to Jeremiah, we should know what God wants us to do; we should know right from wrong, good from bad, innately. Deep within in our very being, we should know when something is ethically questionable or morally corrupt. The very Instruction of God is within each and everyone of us.

So, what happened? Why is the world so corrupt? Why does the human experience range from ethically questionable to down-right disgusting? When did humanity lose the ability to access these engraved instructions?

Well, I would contend that we haven’t. Instead, it’s a matter of keeping things in proper perspective. Do you remember the Genesis story about the Tower of Babel? Humanity tried to build to tower to make themselves equal with God, which, of course, isn’t possible so, the tower fell. By the way, I didn’t get that one from Wikipedia.

But the point of this teaching is that however we view God, whether it’s as a being, or a consciousness, or as the energy that lies within, thru, and around every atom of the universe; God by definition must but be, at least partially if not mostly, beyond our comprehension. Jeremiah didn’t say, “all the wisdom of God would be given to us, but instead, that God’s Instructions, God’s law, the moral and ethical understanding that we need to be better people who desire to make this world a better place, would be installed within us, engraved upon our hearts.

Which brings us back around to the accumulation of knowledge. The Library of Alexandria, and Wikipedia for that matter, are not bad things in and of themselves. On a personal level, I have dedicated most of my adult life to the pursuit of gaining a better understanding moral philosophy, humanity’s relationship with the Divine, and all things Spiritual. And I feel like what little knowledge I have gained through the years has been a worthy endeavor. And on a broader scale, I firmly believe the rise of anti-intellectualism that I have witnessed in my lifetime is one of the greatest dangers we face as a nation and a global community. It’s easy to deny a problem or blame it on someone else in a tweet. It’s a far greater thing, however, to think our way through the challenges that face us, and then act to correct them.

But that being said, if we try to put our accumulation of knowledge above the deep-seated instruction of God, we get into trouble. Like the tower-builders of old, it all comes tumbling down. Why? Well, think about it! If I think I know more that God then I kind of set myself up as a god, right? And if I’m a god than my self-interest, my self-fulfillment, will naturally lead to my grabbing all the power and wealth and notoriety that I can.

The Instruction, the law, that God engraved upon our hearts, however, leads us in the opposite direction. God’s instructions, which we can come to understand through the teachings and actions of Jesus, include things like humility, the pursuit of peace and justice for everyone and all of creation, faith and hope, reconciliation and restoration, …resurrection. The Apostle Paul expounded upon these virtues in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, when he said in essence that faith, hope, and love abide within each of us, but “the greatest of these,” he said, “is love.”

And my friends, that’s where we’ve come in this great evolution of God’s covenant with humanity. God is love. And our task as individuals, as a faith community, and as people in general, is to reflect God’s love in the world today. We are called to live-into God’s engraved instructions in all of our relationships; with those in our own home, with those who live next door, and with those who live across the globe. The greatest knowledge we can pursue, my dear friends, is the Love of God and how to share that love, every day.

And if we do that, if we share God’s Love consistently, both as individuals and as a people, God says to us, “I will be YOUR God, and YOU will be my people and I will forgive YOUR wrongdoing and never again remember YOUR sins.”

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] www.wikipedia,org

[ii] www.wikipedia,org

New Growth

Isaiah 43:18-26

You know the old story about the man who bought a mule, right? Well, it seems that one day there was a mule for sale, cheap! So, Sam thought, “why not? I could use some help around the far.” So, Sam bought the mule. Now, the seller told him that the mule understood English, so, he would do whatever he was ordered to do. The problem was, however, when Sam tried to get the mule to go forward and he just stood there. Sam couldn’t get him to move, at all, nothing. So, he turned to the original owner and said, “You lied to me, this animal doesn’t understand a word I say.” Well, the seller looked at the mule, looked at Sam, and then picked up a two-by-four and hit the mule right in the head with it. Then he said, “go forward.” The mule did it. Sam was shocked and said, “why on earth did you do that?” The seller looked at the mule, and he looked at Sam, then he smiled and said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do something dramatic to get their attention.”

We are creatures of habit.  We like things to remain the same, stable, predictable, under control.  And when a change is introduced, I think we’re like that old mule sometimes, we need a wake-up call. Because as you already know, life is constantly changing. It’s anything but predictable.  And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity!  You know what they say, “If you want to hear God laugh, just share your plans.”

Now, sometimes our discomfort with change leads us to make some irrational decisions. I read this week that one of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past-tense. By that, the author meant we look back with great fondness to a time when everything was just way we liked it.  And we hold onto that ideal image as a sort of security blanket when life in the present becomes overwhelming.  Of course, if we really went back to that point in time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we remembered it. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.

Now, the same thing is true of our faith.  We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith.  It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times.  Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time.  But when we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past.  I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.

I think that was at least a part of what was going on with the people of Israel in our lessons for today.  The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness.  These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared.  It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water.  You could die in the wilderness.[i] The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness.  The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” promised to do something brand new:  he would make a “way in the wilderness”.  God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[ii]

Now, it’s also possible, perhaps even more likely, that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins.  Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger.  The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city.  Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.[iii]

But what does all this have to do with Lent?

Well, in this Season of Introspection, on the journey inward, and as we attempt to create a time and a space to just be with God daily, a deep and lasting “change” is required. And that change of mind and heart isn’t possible unless we, like the Israelites of old, bring our faith in the God into the present situations of our lives and in our world. And, I know, this kind of connecting our historical faith with the issues of this world can be complicated, confusing, maybe even a little bit scary. But we cannot let fear overcome us. Do you know that phrase Jesus uses more than any other in the gospels? “Fear not.” And there’s a good reason for that. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear paralyses us while faith frees us. Fear keeps us in the darkness while faith exposes us to the Light. And fear wants to keep the status quo, at any cost, while faith invites us to step into the future.

My friends, we cannot deny that there are many challenges that we face in our world today. Global climate change, violence, on-going wars and genocide just to name a few. And the loudest voices in our society continue spew racially-charged and hate-filled rhetoric, dividing this nation rather than attempting to do the hard work of uniting us. And there’s our personal situations: loneliness, illness, grieving a loss or disappointment. All of these things can cause us to recoil in fear and dream of past days when things were different. And believe me, I can understand that. But I also believe with every fabric of my being, that God loves each of us. And in that love, there is hope, there is healing and restoration; there is new growth.

I would like to leave you today with a very hope-filled poem that I shared with the As Time Goes By group this week. It’s called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.[iv]

My friends, as we continue on this journey may you come to realize that you too have a place in the “family of all things”. And that you’re beloved, cherished, and interconnected with all of life by and through a loving Creator. And no matter what challenges you may face, no matter what change is coming down the pike, you don’t have to face them alone. You don’t have to be mired in fear, because in the end, “the world offers itself to your imagination.” In my mind, that’s finally the nature of faith; that’s finally the nature of God.

God is doing a new thing. Let us grow and be glad in it!

Amen and amen.

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[i] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.

[ii] Ibid. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”

[iii] Alan Brehm Present-Tense Faith (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2013

[iv] Wild Geese from Dream Work published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver

 

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.

…from Sleeping in The Forest by Mary Oliver © Mary Oliver

Natural Rhythms

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – Lent 3

Welcome to spring! Yes, spring, or as we like to refer to it “mud season” has begun. Now, spring is awesome because it represents a re-birth of sorts. Soon, the snow will melt away, the crocuses will poke through the tired earth, and the woods will begin its annual transformation from the dull, lifelessness of winter, as it adorns itself with the green cast of new life. And, for me anyway, one of the special things about living in the Northwoods is experiencing these seasonal changes; becoming a part of these “natural rhythms.”

Now, in addition to the changing seasons, our lives are also subject to natural rhythms. This concept was not lost on the author of today’ text. Called Qua-hell-et in the original Hebrew, and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes) in Greek, this wise person understood time quite differently from the way we often do in Western culture. You see, he wrote during a historical period that fell immediately after the Babylonian Exile, an event that taught the Hebrew people that the human experience wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park. It was a time of great fear, suffering, and change that was beyond their control.

Now, some see Ecclesiastes as the ultimate cynic. And maybe there’s some truth to that. Thirty-eight times throughout the course of this book the wisdom writer says, “All is vanity.” A little cynical I must admit, but I think I would call him more of a realist than a cynic, a practical theologian who refused to look at life through rose-colored glasses.

And we see this reflected in today’s reading. It catalogs the various seasons of life, right? Twenty-eight of them to be exact, arranged in sharp contrast to one another. And this list rings so true because it’s an undeniable part of our human existence. You see, the Author of Ecclesiastes understood that the universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. [i] And, this is key, that inner logic is not liner.

Maybe think of it like this. The existence of this planet with all of its diversity of life, from the first single-celled-ameba to the beautiful flora and fauna we enjoy today, have been evolving and changing for billions of years. But if we try to view creation through a liner lens, in other words, as a straight line with a beginning, middle, and end, then our entire existence might seem like a single grain of sand on an endless beach. But if we choose to view time as cyclical, like Ecclesiastes, like the endless changing of the seasons, then the nature of being begins to make more sense. We are all a part of the fabric of the universe, and when the season is right, we are born into this life. We live and then, someday, all of us will die, becoming a part of the universe again. “We are made from the dust of the earth,” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us, “and to it is to dust that we will return.”

Now, I realize that this is getting a bit philosophical. So, let’s move into the practical. Ecclesiastes, later in chapter 3, contends that one should not waste time and energy railing against life; instead, he advises that the best thing we can do is to be happy and enjoy this time on earth for as long as we can. To my ear, that’s good theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it’s a wise choice to be happy and to look for joy.

How? Well, I believe that joy: real, deep, lasting happiness is found in propagating and maintaining meaningful relationships. It begins with strong relationships with friends and family and expands to include a compassionate and a loving faith community that finds joy through fellowship within the congregation and by extending an extravagant welcome to others beyond the walls of the sanctuary. We can also find happiness in service to others, in the preservation and conservation of the environment; whenever we think of the other before self. And, finally, we can find true joy by deepening our spiritual connection with God.

Ah, you didn’t think I abandoned our Lenten Spiritual journey, did you? Of course not. There’s a great letting go of self, of stress, and of trying to do-it-all-on-our-own that comes with an intensifying relationship with the Sacred. And, there’s a deep abiding peace that indwells our being when give up worrying about those things we can’t control and instead, enjoy the gifts, the blessings, that God has given us.

And this connects us to Ecclesiastes’ other prescription for life. He set up these pairings of life events, these “complementary opposites” to borrow a term of Taoism, in such a way that the first set, “a time to be born and a time to die,” serve as the bookends to all the rest. What do I mean? Well, we’re born and while we are living this existence, we encounter all of these sets of opposing emotions and challenges and callings. We all experience, for example, the time to mourn, the time to dance, the time to gather in, and the time to let go.

My friends, God created time. God set the “natural rhythm” of reality; a rhythm that transcends this world and this life; a natural rhythm that is enhanced and understood, if even a tiny bit, by creating a deep, thoughtful, and life-long connection with our Creator. And as we continue on the journey of introspection that Lent has set us upon, and as spring once again blossoms around us and within our hearts, my prayer is that each of us will attempt to move ourselves a little closer to the reality of the Divine presence of God, in both our lives and to all the ends of the universe.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Joanna Adams Should There Be A Clock in the Sanctuary? (www.Day1.org) 2010

First Clearing

Joel 2:12-17

Each and every one of us know something about the wilderness; what it means to be lost from time to time, what it is to grieve, what it means to wander aimlessly in the darkness. And, like I said last week, the wilderness, and wandering through it from time to time, is an important part of the journey. But I think it’s easy to say that none of us want to stay there forever; none us wants to grieve endlessly or suffer needlessly.

So, bearing this in mind, as we begin the second week of our Lenten journey, I think it’s important to look for a way out of the wilderness. And we can do this by selecting a practice to well help us to begin to clear a space for discernment, for healing; for new growth and renewal. This week is about clearing a space to sit in the presence of the Sacred.

It’s kinda like starting a new garden. As the snow continues to melt, and spring eventually replaces winter, I intend to expand my garden… again. And like last spring, there’s a lot of work to be done. I must remove the grass, till the soil, add compost, and build a fence. And all of these things need to be finished within a short window of time if I am to plant anything in that new garden space. Now, it’s been my experience that my plans for garden expansion have often been too lofty. I am, well let’s say, lee-than-patient when it come to my gardening projects. In reality, the process of expanding my garden will begin this spring, but I probably won’t see any produce until a year from this fall. A new garden takes patients and discipline.

Now, this concept can also be applied to Lent. Lent inspires patients and discipline. For generations we have been asked to “give something up” for Lent. Chocolate or pop or some other vice is given up as a sign of discipline, of faithfulness to God, and the beginning of the process of clearing one’s heart and mind in order to repent. And while that’s not necessary a bad thing, in recent years I think we’ve come to understand that “taking something on” is perhaps a more effective way to honor this sense of introspection that Lent inspires. When we “take on” some sort of spiritual discipline it challenges us to think or feel in a new way, rather than just miss something we enjoy for six weeks.

So, what does “taking-on a discipline” look like? Well, in the study that this sermon series is based upon, there are six suggested Lenten practices. The first of these practices is Daily Prayer or Meditation. This is one I’ve referred to before. Daily prayer or meditation asks us to set aside some time each day and clear a space to sit quietly in the presence of God. Some people like to read a devotional or Scripture passages, while others prefer to simply be still. Whatever works for you!

Now, the second practice isn’t unrelated to the prayer and meditation: it’s a Media Fast. A media fast involves abstaining from watching TV, listening to music, or even reading for a prescribed amount of time. Say, 7 to 9 pm each day. In my mind, this clears the space to sit in the presence of God.

Remember now, the invitation here is to choose one or perhaps two of these practices, not to try and master them all. The third alternative is Reflective Walking. This practice, like the first two, provides you with the opportunity to intentionally spend time with God, except this third practice involves motion, movement, and a connection with nature.

The fourth choice is Art. Painting, sculpting, drawing, and pottery are just a few examples. If the arts interest you, consider using your set-aside time to engage in a creative activity. By understanding creativity as a channel for God’s on-going act of creation, you’re letting God’s energy flow into the world through your art.

The fifth suggest practice is Journaling. A daily practice of writing can also help you engage God more deeply. Journaling as a spiritual practice may involve simply writing your thoughts and feeling out or perhaps it may take the form of writing letters or prayers to God.

Now, the final suggested spiritual practice falls a bit outside the box: Community Service. If your spiritual life leads you to engage with your community in a new or innovative way, this is perhaps the path your Lenten discipline is calling you to take.

So, there you go, six suggestions for cultivating a deeper relationship with God, perhaps you can think of others? There are no limits here and no wrong answers, only your desire to move closer to the Divine; to emerge from the wilderness and begin to clear a space for God in your everyday life.

But what does all this have to do with the Prophet Joel?

Well, remember Joel said that God wants us “to return with all our hearts, – with fasting, weeping, and sorrow.” In other words, we’re invited to look for God in our presence with more than just our eyes or our minds; we are to return to God with all of our being, warts and all, weeping or sad, and we are asked to do this through spiritual practices. That’s what the “fasting” part is all about.

But Joel doesn’t stop there, God says, “tear your hearts and not your clothing.” Remember now, in that day when a person was grieving or lamenting, they would tear an article of clothing that they were wearing as a sign of their despair. But Joel is reminding us that there is something beyond lament, beyond the pain and suffering; and that something is God’s grace.

Joel goes on to say, “God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” And I don’t know about you, but I need to find a way to be in the presence of God’s grace every day of my life! I constantly stand in need of God’s compassion and patients, love and forgiveness. And I need to symbolically “tear my heart” everyday so that it may become open to God’s Justice for all people, no matter what country they come from, or what language they speak, or who they choose to love, or what religion they choose to practice; and I need to open my heart every day to God’s Environmental Justice, the responsibility of humanity for the care for this earth, it’s forests and animals, it’s air and water and land. And finally, I need to slow down, and open my heart to the presence of God so that it may be exposed to the Peace that Paul says, surpassed all understanding.”

Do you see what I’m saying here? The tearing of one’s heart, the opening of one’s spirit to the Divine presence, goes beyond my meditation time in my living room. Being the presence of God naturally instills within us the desire and the will and the courage to practice God’s ways of Justice and accept God’s deep abiding peace. This is the blessing that Joel says, “God will lead behind.”

My prayer for all of us as we continue this journey, is that we will find and share God’s blessing in whatever form that blessing may take.

May it be so. Amen & amen.

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Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005) pgs. 107-108

Exploring the Wilderness

A Clearing Season: An Introspective Approach to Lent

Luke 4:1-13 First Sunday of Lent

Lent begins in the Wilderness.

A couple of years ago, when we first moved to our current house, I couldn’t wait to explore the woods that surrounded our new home. So, on a beautiful spring day, I set out through the national forest to see what I could see. I immersed myself in the beauty of the wilderness that is my backyard. And I was happy! That is, until I realized that I was not really sure how to get back home. I wasn’t lost, no self-respecting man would ever admit being lost; I was simply “turned-around”. And since I didn’t think to bring a compass, finding my way out was a challenge. I followed a couple of old trails, but as I passed the same rock the third time, I decided to institute a new plan of attack. I looked up. By following the sun, I was able to determine east from west and eventually I did come out on Birchwood Road, a mile or so from where I began, but, in the end, the lost was found.

Now, the narrative that we have from Luke’s Gospel today, also has something to say about what we might find when we “explore the wilderness”; not a literal wilderness, like my experience in the Chequamegon, but a wilderness of the soul; a wilderness of self.

Now, if our wilderness experience in any way resembles that of Jesus, then this passage tells us that the wilderness, those places of discomfort and chaos that arise in our lives, are important and valuable and are not to be overlooked. We all tend, I think, to attempt to separate ourselves from discomfort or chaos. And I’m right there with ya. I love logic, routine, and calmness. There are certainly times when an emotional or even a physical distance from chaos is necessary.  But that being said, this wilderness text challenges us to try a different approach. It encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable, chaotic places for as long as possible. Why? Well, because it’s only when we confront the discomfort, when we acknowledge our confusion, and when we recognize the chaos swirling around us, that we can begin to deal with it.  It’s only in the recognition of our dis-ease, that we can begin heal; that we can begin to move back to a place of harmony and balance. “Denial,” as they say, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we’re asked, or perhaps “led by the Spirit” to enter whatever “wilderness” is plaguing us. Now, finding these wilderness places is not all that difficult when we have the courage to look. The best way to find them actually, is to set aside some time, find a space free from distractions, and then sit quietly with God. The very act of sitting quietly can bring whatever wilderness you need to experience to the forefront.[I]

Granted, sometimes finding quiet can be a challenge. In my attempt to begin morning meditation this past Thursday, I was met with a groomed and ready for school Manny who wanted to watch You Tube. Not to mention phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook Messenger all “dinging” on my phone. The dog needed to go out, the goats and chickens wanted to be fed… My friends, the stuff of life can be a stumbling block to find our wilderness moments.

But it’s not impossible. Time and again, we see Jesus seek-out a secluded place, a place like the wilderness in today’s text, in order to face his challenges and temptations. And his temptations were much-the-same as the temptations we face in our lives. And upon closer observation, we see that the three temptations presented to Jesus all fall into the same category: putting self-need before the needs of others.

I mean, think about these three promises; the promise of a perpetually full belly, of absolute power, and of freedom from all harm. If I had these things my life would be awesome. But, what about the life of the person from whom the bread was taken? What about the vulnerable, voiceless person whose power has been usurped for my pleasure? How about those who remain in harms way in order to guarantee my safety?  Do you see what I’m driving at here? There’s a cause and effect in everything we do, in every decision we make. Our time in the wilderness is meant to help us to discern the outcomes of our decisions and to weigh the consequences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I saw a news story this past week that broke my heart. It was about the children of the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of an on-going civil war. With over 620,000 internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees, one in five Central Africans has fled conflict, leaving both home and land behind. In 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people, including 1.5 million children, two out of every three children in the country, will require humanitarian assistance. Of the 1.9 million people without access to safe water, 950,000 are children, and basic water and sanitation standards are not being met in many sites for displaced persons. Less than half of all children are immunized. In 2019, an estimated 38,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition.[ii] And these statistics say nothing about the abduction of young men who are then forced to fight in the war against their will or anything about the daily rape of young girls. This is a real humanitarian crisis.

But I was given a spark of hope by this story because they also presented some success that UNICEF has had in this region. They’ve recently been able, with the help of the United Nations, to distribute these ready-made food packets to children. They taste like peanut butter but are very high in nutrition. The news story ended by showing several children who earlier in the spot were on the brink of starvation but were now responsive and even smiling.

I share this story with you today, because as I reflect upon the wilderness experience that this news story led me through, I can’t help but think about all the distractions, the temptations that blind us to such great suffering.  It’s easy to turn-a-blind eye to places like the Central Africa Republic or South Sudan or Yemen or Syria or any of the other places where people, children, are suffering. It’s far more difficult, I think, to allow ourselves to “suffer-with” those who suffer.

Perhaps the greatest temptation to be avoided is apathy?

As we continue on this Lenten journey and as we explore the wilderness of our minds and lives, my prayer is that we all find our way out, not by using a compass, but by thinking of the other before self.  If all of us could do that, this world would be a little better and it would become more just place for all people.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

[i] Sarah Parsons A Clearing Season (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005) pgs. 13-26

[ii] UNICEF Official Website (www.unicef.org)

Love & Relationship

By Rev. Phil Milam

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us            -I John 4:17 (MSG)

Willian Slone Coffin once wrote, “What we need to realize is that to love effectively, we must act collectively.” (Credo 23) The author of the First Letter of John provides a foundation for Coffin’s assertion. You see, collective action, by its very nature, requires a certain amount of courage.  When I go-it-alone, I am in control, but it’s a little scary to surrender absolute control to the collective and journey together.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are two schools of thought when a pastor accepts a call to a new congregation. The first is to say, “make all the changes you can on day one because the honeymoon period is brief.” It’s been my observation that this line of thinking has led to many short pastorates. The second school of thought, however, takes the opposite approach.  It says, “change as little as possible in the first year, instead, use that time to build trust and relationships.” This second approach, relationship building, has enjoyed a far greater success rate than coming in like a whirlwind. But why? Why the disparity?

Well, perhaps the answer to that question goes back to Coffin’s statement, “…to love effectively, we must act collectively.” When we surrender a portion of our control in any relationship whether it’s a personal relationship, or in the work environment, even in church; in any successful relationship there must be some give-and-take; some level of shared responsibility. And the same is true when it come to our relationship with God.

Richard Roar says, “Instead of an Omnipotent Monarch, let’s try what God as Trinity demonstrates as the actual and wondrous shape of the Divine reality, which then replicates itself in us and in “all the array” of creation. Instead of watching life happen from afar and judging it… How about God being inherent in life itself?” (The Divine Dance 36) This understanding of God as relational leads us to conclude that God is known devotionally and not dogmatically, that all life is sacred, or, again in the words of Rohr, that “everything is holy, for those who have learned to see.” (37) My friends, as we continue to progress and grow and deepen our relationship with God, each other, and those beyond our circle, may we too see that everything is finally sacred.

Shalom

Pastor Phil

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.

 

Astounding Glory

Luke 9:28-36 – Transfiguration Sunday

There was once a thriving monastery in a beautiful forest. It was a very spiritual place, full of devout monks and visitors coming to seek guidance. But the monastery fell on some hard times, which produced a negative attitude within the monks and a lack of spirit that was palpable. The pilgrims became fewer and fewer and there were no longer any young people coming to enter the monastic life. And this trend continued for a long time, until finally, there were only a handful of elderly monks left. It was a dark time in the forest monastery.

The elderly monk’s spirits were lifted, however, was when word would come to them that “the rabbi was walking in the woods.” You see, in the woods near the monastery, there was a small hut that a rabbi had constructed as a place of retreat, and he came from time to time to fast and pray. And the monks knew that they were included in his prayers, so they felt supported, affirmed and loved.

One day, the abbot of the monastery, hearing that the rabbi was walking in the woods, decided to go and see him. And when he reached the little hut, they greeted one another, silently prayed together, and then the abbot began to weep. He poured out his concern for the monastery and for the spiritual health of the monks. Finally, after listening intensively, the rabbi spoke. “You are seeking my guidance and I have only one piece of advice for you. My advice is this. Listen carefully. ‘The Messiah is among you.’”

Well, the abbot returned immediately to the monastery and gathered all the monks and to share the rabbi’s wisdom. “Listen carefully,” the abbot said, ” One of us is the Messiah.” Now, that wasn’t exactly what the rabbi had said, but this message caused them to look at one another in a different light. Is Brother John the messiah? Or Father James? Am I the messiah?

And in the days that followed things began to change. They began to treat one another with a new-found respect because any one of them might be the messiah. And this new sense of esteem and reverence was felt by the few pilgrims who came. Soon the word spread. The young people began to come again, and more and more pilgrims showed up to be blessed by the presence of God among these monks; all because they came to realize that God was among them.[I]

Now, this story reminds me of the Transfiguration narrative for a couple of reasons. First, I think this passage is meant to illustrate for us the paradox of a God who is both mysterious, transcendent, but at the same time, imminent, involved in human life. I mean, think about the elements of this story. There’s a sudden change in Jesus’ appearance, his face and his clothes were suddenly radiant; he was standing there talking with Moses and Elijah, Moses representing the law and Elijah the prophets. And don’t forget about the cloud that shrouded them and the voice of affirmation and direction from God, telling the disciples, and us, to “listen to him.”

I think the mystical elements of this narrative are inviting us to experience a transformation, a change in our hearts and minds. And what’s even more, the Divine affirmation of Christ is intended to instill in us a willingness to affirm others. And that’s the second similarity to the monks. When we listen to God, when we open ourselves to the mystery of the Divine presence, and when we accept others just as they are, for who they are, the astounding glory of God becomes apparent. Thomas Merton once said, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

But what does this transparency look like?

Well, it’s kind of like the little boy who was riding his wagon down the sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the wheels fell off. The little boy jumped out of the wagon and said, “I’ll be damned!” Now, the minister happened to be walking by, and he said, “Son, you shouldn’t use words like that! Instead, when something happens, just say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ and everything will be all right.” Well, the little boy grumbled and put the wheel back on the wagon and started on down the sidewalk. But about 10 yards down the sidewalk, the wheel fell off again and the little boy said, “Praise the Lord!” And here’s the crazy part! Suddenly, that wheel jumped up off the ground and put itself right back on the wagon. Now, the minister saw it all and exclaimed, “I’ll be damned.”[ii]

This is of course meant to be a humorous illustration of those mysterious moments in life when we become keenly aware of the transparent presence of God. But in our human-ness, like Peter, we sometimes want to bask in the moment; we want to build shrines and stay eternally in the feeling of awe. But you and I both know that we can’t, …or can we?

I don’t know. Perhaps we’re not looking in the right places. Perhaps the mystery and miracle of God is right before our eyes all the time.

My friends, God is in the beauty of nature, in all its glory; God is in those moments of unconditional, tender love we share; God is here, between the lines, when we share our stories and our fragile hopes; and God is here, in our suffering, and in every moment of rescue, restoration, and resurrection.[iii]

As we enter once again this Season of Lent, our shared focus and journey for the next few weeks will revolve around introspection; a deeper look at how God is always present in our lives and in the world. Beginning at the Communion table today, I invite you to open your minds and hearts, and to allow yourselves to become aware of the sacredness of all things, the blessedness of all people, and the intrinsic holiness of the natural world. And, through this Lenten journey, may we all discover a path that leads us closer to the Divine.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen & Amen.

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[i] Cf. Francis Dorff. The Rabbi’s Gift (Charles Duvall, Seeing Things in a New Light) www.Day1.org 2013

[ii] Robert Sims Connections that Count (www.Day1.org) 2004

[iii] Katheryn Matthews Living in Glory (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019