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

Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38

“Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” We know these words as the Golden Rule, right? But what you may not know is that they’re not unique to Jesus. Some version of the Golden Rule can be found in the writings of the ancient Greeks; Homer and Seneca and Philo and in virtually every major religion: It’s found in the sacred writings of Hinduism and Judaism, it’s been echoed by the voice of the Buddha and Confucius and Lau Tzu, and it can be found in the Koran, the holy text of Islam. The Golden Rule is a concept that crosses cultural and religious boundries. “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the kind of practical wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we’d like to be treated.

Now, it’s sometimes tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one verse like this one. It’s a verse we can understand, and it gives us a foundation upon which we can begin the process of peacemaking; the process of getting along with each other. But unfortunately, it’s not possible to boil the whole of Scripture, or even today’s reading, down to just one verse, even one as awesome and as wise as this one. Because if we pull the Golden Rule out of today’s text as a summary of everything Jesus said, then we’ll miss the deeper message.  In other words, “doing onto others” is predicated upon “loving our enemy.” And, Jesus says, loving our enemy is lived out when we practice that laundry list of seemingly impossible or at least, improbable tasks.  A list that includes turning the other cheek, giving up your shirt along with your coat, praying for someone who’s done you wrong. In our time and in our terminology, we would call this “non-violent resistance.”

Now, we need to pause here for a second and acknowledge the fact that Jesus was speaking to those who were victims rather than victimizers; to those who were oppressed rather than their oppressors. AND this is an important distinction. It’s important because we must understand that Jesus wasn’t calling on victims to roll over and play dead! Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean be quiet and continue taking the abuse. Praying for someone who’s oppressing you doesn’t mean you’re giving them the win. That’s not it at all! Jesus isn’t telling people to remain victims, but instead, to find new ways of resisting evil.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. And that, in concert with “do onto others” is the crux of this passage. Loving leads to peace, both inner peace for ourselves and an external peace among tribes and nations. Sharing what you have, both your material goods and of yourself, builds relationships. But it’s a two-sided coin. Violence leads only to more violence. The old adage “if you hit me, I’ll hit you back harder” doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because an even harder, more violent response will be coming your way. “You were taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you,” Jesus said, “when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other one to them also.” Non-violent resistance.

This is the ethic that moved Dr. King to march across that bridge in Alabama, to kneel down in front of water hoses, and to be arrested without returning any of the violence being perpetrated upon him and his followers. Now, many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they told him. But the authorities didn’t know what to do with this kind of non-violent resistance. They knew the power of violence and they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn’t seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely.[I]

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

And I know, these are tough word to wrap our minds around and maybe even tougher to live-out. But when I hear these words from Jesus, I can’t help but remember the words of a grieving mother; grieving for the loss of her son, Matthew. Mathew Shepherd. Do you remember him? Matthew Shepherd was brutally beaten for no other reason than being gay. Two homophobic men beat him over and over again, they tied him to a fence on a country road and left him, bleeding and alone, to die in the freezing night. And by the time someone found him the next morning and got him to the hospital, there was no way to save him. Matthew Shepherd died as hundreds stood in candlelight vigil outside the hospital.

Now, the two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of a hate crime. Proved guilty of first-degree murder, they were given the death penalty in accordance with the law of the state of Wyoming. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge asking the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men; these men who brutally murdered her son.

I cannot begin to understand what she must have gone through in all the agonizing months leading up to the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? What sort of people could do this to another human being? But there she was, pleading for the lives of her son’s killers.[ii]

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

Matthew’s mother, I would contend, demonstrated a faith that was shaped by a gospel that’s deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. And that’s the gospel that Jesus would have each of us take out into the world as we continue to be the church.  A gospel of inclusion, of extravagant welcome, of opening our hearts and door and minds to all kinds of new possibilities and people; it’s a gospel that challenges us to think of the “other” before “self” by sharing our lives and our faith and our wealth with those who are lonely or struggling or hungry. It’s a gospel that, on the surface anyway, may not seem very practical, or even probable in our nation’s climate of hate-filled rhetoric and distrust. But, my friends, it’s finally a gospel of love, love of God, love of neighbor, love of the environment, and yes, love of enemy; it’s finally a gospel of love that will change this world.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.”

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Barbara K. Lundblad. Simple, But Not So Simple (www.Day1.org) 2001

[ii] Ibid Lundblad.

A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

Give me a text on “fishing for people” and I will give you fishing jokes! I think it’s the law. Anyway, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi decided to go fishing and to keep things fair each of them agreed to bring something. The priest brought the sandwiches, the minister brought the drinks, and the rabbi brought the bait.  But after only an hour of fishing, they ran out of worms. So, the rabbi said, “no worries, I’ll just go and get some more.” And then he proceeded to step out of the boat, walk across the lake to get more bait. A few minutes later, he returned in the same fashion. Now, the minister couldn’t believe his eyes, but since the priest wasn’t phased at all, he chose to be quiet. Well, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the rabbi got back, they ran out of food. So, the priest said, “I’ll go and get some more.” And, you know it, he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake, retrieved some more food from the cooler in the car, and returned to the boat in the same way he had left. Well, the minister was shocked, and to be honest, feeling a bit “spiritually outgunned.” So, when the drinks began to run short, he boldly announced, “I will go and get more.” He then proceeded to step out of the boat and sink straight to the bottom. Now, perhaps feeling a little guilty, the priest turned to the rabbi and said, “do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones?”

That’s my first fishing joke and the other one is this: Yes, I know only two fishing jokes and you’re being blessed with both of them today! A grandpa and his grandson go fishing. On their way down to the river they encounter a fisherman, so the grandpa inquires, “are they bit’in today?” “Are they bit’in!” replies the fisherman, “they’re bit’in so good I had to hide behind a tree to bait my hook!”

Now, you may have noticed that I sometimes like to start my message with a little humor, especially when the text is one that challenges us to leave our comfort zone and strike out into the unknown. This is kind of my way of living-into the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”  I think these words encapsulate so well the meaning of today’s text. Jesus, as we just heard, wanted to share the good news with a gathering crowd. So, to be better heard and seen, he borrowed Peter’s fishing boat, and pushed out into the shallow water at the edge of the lake. And from there, he offered his message of reconciliation and renewal; his message of release, recovery, and liberation.

But I think it’s important to pause here for a moment and recall one of the hallmarks of Luke’s writing style. You see, for Luke, when Jesus says something, it’s followed by an action. He doesn’t just “talk the talk” as it were, but he “walks the walk.” And this is present in all the gospels, but I think it’s especially prevalent in Luke and key to understanding Luke’s deeper desire for us to view Jesus through the lens of social justice.

Now, this “fish of people” narrative that we have today is no exception. Jesus pushes out into the lake, gives his address, and then proceeds to offer them, and us, a miracle of abundance. Peter and the boys had been fishing all night and caught nothing. But Jesus tells Peter to go out further and cast their nets. And of course, they catch so many fish that their boat begins to sink. Peter almost had to hide behind a tree to bait his hook!  And Peter is so moved by this miracle, so convinced that he and James and John drop everything and follow Jesus and to fish for people.

Now, that’s wonderful you might say, an inspiring story and the jokes were funny, but what does all this have to do with my life; with our shared journey of faith? How is a teaching about fishing with nets, and catching a bunch of fish, relevant in 2019?

Well, I’m glad you asked. They deeper meaning here seems to dwell in the realm of “leaving everything and following Jesus” I think Luke is challenging us to let go of the idea of “security in the form of the known.” What does that mean? Well, security in the form of the known, sometimes referred to as “our comfort zone”, describes those things that prevent us from growing, from adapting, from changing our thinking in ways that are necessary to shake the world in a gentle way.

Now that being said, security in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We all want to feel safe, respected, and at ease in our lives and especially in our church. Amen? That’s why things like a “safe-space” and “Open & Affirming” (http://www.ucc.org) polities are so vital to who we are and what we believe.

But if your security is actually fear; fear in disguise, then it really isn’t secure at all. As I’ve said many times and will continue to say, “fear is the opposite of faith.” Fear causes us to withdraw while faith challenges us to expand. Fear attempts to shield us from the “other” while faith calls us to embrace the other. And finally, fear wants the status quo to remain, at any cost; But not faith, faith seeks to shake up the status quo; in a gentle way, faith would have us shake the very foundations of the world.”

But How? How can we gently shake the world?

Well, in response to that question I’ll defer to two wonderful theologians: Parker Palmer and Madeline L’Engle. Palmer says, “In my view, the mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.”[i]   And Madeleine L’Engle supports this position when she says, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[ii]

My friends, the world hungers for the good news and today Jesus challenges each of us to “fish for people” not by telling them that their wrong but by showing them that the Light of love and compassion and gentleness is so lovely that they will, with all their hearts, to know the source of it.

And this is key as we think about evangelism in our context? Evangelism, effectively “fishing for people” can only occur if we’re passionate about the ministry and mission of this church. When we truly have an attitude of inclusion and forgiveness, of grace and wonder, as I believe we do; it’s then that we will naturally want to invite others to come alongside us on this journey of life and faith. It’s kind of like real estate: but instead of location, location, location, it’s invite, invite, invite. And I know, inviting someone share something as personal, as intimate, as one’s spiritual-self and practice of faith; that takes courage. But invitation, even if it takes several attempts, and even if it ultimately goes nowhere, is still worth the risk. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

One final thought. Perhaps the last thing those tired fishermen were expecting was a miraculous showing of God’s abundance right there, at the end of another long day. And the same might be said of our “long-days”; that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and in the world around us. Someone once said that “God still shows up and surprises us, and next thing you know, our lives are changed forever;” the next thing you know, we’re gently shaking the world.[iii]

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Parker Palmer. In the Company of Strangers (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[ii] Madeleine L’Engle. (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel)

[iii] Katheryn Matthews. Being Surprised (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019