Wherever You Are

Ephesians 2:14-22

Years ago, several Israeli contractors overseeing the construction of a wall between themselves and the Palestinians were prosecuted for stealing Palestinian olive trees. You see, they’d been uprooting these thousand-year-old trees and selling them to Israeli settlers to create new gardens and parks. And the trees they couldn’t sell they destroyed. To their owners, these trees represented their economic lifeblood. To the thieves and buyers, they were merely ornamental details.[I]

It seems to me that peace cannot happen without reconciliation.  I know that sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that unless we find common ground with our neighbor, propagating peace is nearly impossible. The contractors, and the buyers of the stolen trees, never considered what the trees meant to their neighbors. Why? Because their neighbors were Palestinian, and Palestinians were considered the “other.” And making someone “the other” is the easiest way to justify stealing from them, persecuting them, or even killing them. But making someone the other is the opposite of what Jesus taught; of why he died.

Paul affirms this for us once again this week. He says that Jesus “…canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body.”[ii] Let that sink in for a second. How often has society, and by extension the Church, sought to separate or divide? How has the Church been guilty of creating “the other”?

I once had a conversation with a woman who was estranged from the church I was serving at the time. We’ll call her Mary. And although it had been many years since the incident, Mary was still hurt by what had happened. The incident? A dispute over potato salad. Yes, I said potato salad. It seems that Mary was famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her potato salad. Apparently, it wasn’t very tasty, but no ever had the courage to confront her directly about her less-than-pleasing side dish. Instead, one day at a funeral lunch, Mary came into the kitchen only to discover her potato salad hadn’t been served but was in the garbage. She left without a word and never darkened the door of the church again.

Now, those trying to justify their action might say, “Well, Mary was too sensitive, she should have had a thicker skin” or “What will people think of our church if we serve bad potato salad.” But, of course, these excuses miss the point. Mary was cast as the “other” and as a result, the body of Christ was wounded. And until reconciliation and forgiveness take place, the wound will continue to weep.

I sometimes wish I could go back to that day and share with that church the words of William Slone Coffin. “Of God’s love we can say two things,” he said, “it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the lowliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.”[iii]

Mary has value whether or not her potato salad tastes good. The Palestinian people have value. The Israeli contractors and the buyers of the olive trees all have value. Paul says that Jew and Gentile alike have value in the eyes of God. Maybe that’s why Ephesians has been called one the Bible’s great hymns to God’s reconciliation of all things and this passage in particular, as God’s call for us to participate in the good works of reconciliation.[iv]

And I think Paul’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a community of faith. So, what might a community that affirms the love of God for all people and espouses reconciliation as the beginning of peace, look like? Well, I think it would be a church that looks beyond itself and embraces “the other.” It would be open and affirming and welcoming to all people. It would advocate for good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food, clean water, and affordable health care for all and not just some. It would promote steps to combat global climate change, providing breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us.

My friends, God’s vision of peace means that we as people of faith must promise to save lives rather than destroy them. It means understanding that God’s house is all of creation and all of it is sacred. And finally, being the church means recognizing that God’s breath dwells within each and every person on this planet.[v]

One final thought. In this epistle, Paul emphasizes the unity brought about between Jew and Gentile through the brokenness of Christ’s body. If we were to view this text through a spiritual or a devotional lens: How might we as a faith community be “broken” for the sake of peace in our world today? I don’t know. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today. But let me leave you with one example of reconciliation.

I read somewhere this week that a group of Israeli rabbis have started a tree-planting movement. Through their efforts, hundreds of new olive trees are taking root in those Palestinian villages where the old trees were stolen. Now, it’s a fragile gesture, a sapling is not the same as a thousand-year olive tree. It can’t bring back all that was stolen.

But tree by tree, a little optimism returns. Tree by tree, you see it, something new.[vi] Tree by tree, reconciliation is being planted. Tree by tree God is building all of us, all people and all creation, into one household. And tree by tree, hopefully, peace is becoming a reality. This is my dream.  This is my prayer.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Mary Luti Under Trees (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2018

[ii] Ephesians 2: 15-16a Common English Bible (CEB)

[iii] William Sloane Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 6

[iv] George W. Stroup Feasting on the Word David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)

[v] Katheryn Matthews, Household of God (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[vi] Ibid. Luti.

God Inspired Joy

Philippians 4:4-9

(Sing: If your happy and you know it clap your hands)

That’s a fun song to sing… when I’m happy. But what if I’m not happy. I mean, I can’t be joyous all the time, can I? Sometimes I don’t what to clap my hand or stomp my feet; sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m feeling apathetic, or sad, or afraid and I find no joy when I’m feeling those emotions.

But Paul says that we should “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS” Always. So, what gives? Is he saying “put on a happy face” or “fake a smile” no matter what’s going on around you? I don’t think so. That doesn’t square with we know about Pauline theology or even the rest of today’s text. No, I think Paul was talking about something beyond momentary happiness, he was describing to the church in Philippi, and to us, what a deeper sense of joy might look like even in tough times.  

You see, Paul know about tough times. He was in prison and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians was written as much to himself as it was to them. Because, being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, I think he was writing to himself as much as he was to others. Because, you see, we’re not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”[I]

And it’s in our response to the challenges of life, that “…we begin to find and become our true selves; it’s when we notice how we are already found by God; how we are already entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”[ii] And it’s in this discovering of ourselves, our authentic selves, that we find this deeper joy, this unsurpassable peace, that Paul espouses.

“Well, that great,” you might say, “but how can I find this deeper joy within myself, really?” Glad you asked. When we read this text, we tend to focus on the “rejoice in the Lord, always” part and maybe the “excellence” part, but there’s a key line in this passage we often ignore. Verse 5 reads: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” followed by, “the Lord is near.”

Now, you could easily read and understand this passage without verse 5; “Rejoice, in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything, but in everything…” Okay, it makes literary sense but Paul though verse 5 important enough to include. Why? Well, if we desire a deeper sense of joy, if we long for a deeper sense of inner peace, Paul says, we must show an outwardly gentleness.

As I thought about gentleness, I remembered a cute story I heard many years ago. It seems that an elderly woman took her freckle-faced grandson to the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws. “You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line teased the grandson. Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head. But his grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles,” she said. “When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles, freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandma’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”

Now, that’s one way to let one’s gentleness outshine bullying. I mean, the grandmother could have chastised the little girl, called her a name back, or the grandson could have punched her. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the grandmother chose a non-violent solution.  And believe me, it’s not always easy.  It’s not always easy to espouse and practice non-violence in a violent world. It’s not always easy to “turn the other cheek” when someone calls you a name, or trashes your family, or belittles your faith. We’re taught and eye for an eye, right? But you all know Jesus took that Old Testament sentiment and turned it upside-down.  He offered, no, he commanded us to seek non-violent solutions.

You know, Gandhi once said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in though, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress toward it”[iii]  

And I think that’s the golden nugget here. Paul’s “letting our gentleness be known to everyone,” is finally not a weakness; it’s a strength. My friends, it’s when we find the strength to practice non-violence, as individuals and as a nation, that we can truly begin to love our neighbors in earnest.  It’s when we find the courage to “turn the other cheek” that we can truly feel the presence the God. And, it’s when we practice gentleness, and all those “excellent” things Paul listed, that we can truly gain a deeper sense of inner peace; it’s then, that we can truly “rejoice in the Lord, always.”   

My prayer for all of us in the days and weeks and months ahead, is that we will find that “always.”

May it be so. Amen.  

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[i] Rev. Dr. Douglass Oldenburg. It’s Your Choice (www.Day1.org) 1996

[ii] Quote from Anne Lamott in Who Does God Say We Are? Katheryn Matthews (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Mahatma Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

Healing Powers

We were taught in seminary to read between the lines and behind the words of the gospels. Quite often Scripture holds a deeper message for us, but we sometimes miss it because we’re overly preoccupied with the small picture. In other words, what was happening to people, right then, in that moment, instead of considering the bigger picture. Here’s an example of what I mean. Have you ever noticed that many of the narratives about Jesus begin with him crossing the sea.

Now, on the surface, we can view these crossings as kind of a bridge between stories. This happened, they got in a boat, crossed the lake and then that happened, right? But what if we were to look in-between the words? What if we were to look behind the obvious meaning and search for clues to a deeper understanding? For instance, what might it mean that one side of the lake was Jewish territory, and the other Gentile? Can you feel the tension and the risk, even danger, in going somewhere less hospitable, less comfortable, less safe? If you were a first-century Jewish Christian, would you have needed anyone to set the scene for you? Probably not, you would have felt the tension as you listened to the story.

And the same is true in our time. Think about border a crossing into North Korea or Syria or Iran today: consider the danger such a crossing would hold and the international crises it would provoke. And what about the border crossings during this most recent immigration crisis? What tension might these refugees from Central America be feeling?

Well, it’s this same kind of tension that we find in-between and behind the content of Mark’s Gospel. A tension between words and action. You see, Jesus was not just telling people what the Kingdom of God looked like, he demonstrated how we might live and love and serve God and neighbor in light of, or because of, the present Kingdom or Reign of God. And this understand of the Reign of God leads us to the deeper theme that runs in-between and behind the words found in this passage. And that theme is the tension between faith and fear. In other words, is the faith of the characters in Mark’s narrative, and by extension our faith, strong? Or has it been overcome by fear, or confusion, or hard-headedness, or maybe even hard-heartedness?”[i]

Our text for this week hinges on this tension between faith and fear. The tension between the faith of the woman with the hemorrhage as she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and her fear of retribution for breaking the law by touching him or her fear of being disconnected from her community forever.  As well as, the tension between the faith of a desperate father, Jairus, and his fear of losing his daughter; the fear of death.

You know, there’s often a tension between faith and fear in the Bible because the Bible reflects the real-life tensions and the real-life experiences of God felt by its many, many authors. That’s why this ancient collection of books still speaks so loudly to us today. It’s a reflection of the real-life tension we feel between our faith and our fears as well.

Now, contextually speaking, what we have here is a “story-within-a-story.” This was a common literary technique of that time. “Framing” is the term we use today. So, how does framing work and why is this important? Well, an author “frames” one story with another to create a link between the two; A bond if you will. A bond between characters who are often polar opposites.  And two framed stories we’re looking at today are no exception.

Consider that the woman was probably on the lowest rung of the social ladder. She was a woman, unclean according to Jewish law, and a social outcast.  The little girl however, was the daughter of a religious leader. She would have had a comfortable life; a privileged life. But that’s where the differences end. Mark is careful here to make sure we understand that these two women in crisis were both “daughters” of Abraham.  He accomplishes this by linking them through the use of the number twelve. The woman with the hemorrhage has been bleeding for twelve years and the little girl was twelve years-old. He makes this connection because he wants us to see that Jesus doesn’t make a distinction between them based upon their social standing.  He heals them both.  As a matter of fact, he pauses on his way to heal the privileged one to heal the outcast.

And this is where the faith over fear part comes in. In this passage. Jesus chose to ignore the taboos surrounding uncleanliness brought about by blood and death, and he provide a healing touch to both of these women. He chose to practice the law of grace rather that adhere to the letter of the law. Jesus touched these suffering souls even though tradition forbade it. He didn’t let fear keep him from doing a just and faith act.

So, what does this mean for us? Where might we as individuals, as a faith community, and as a nation become providers of a healing touch? How might our faith overcome the fear of crossing the boundries society has laid down?

My friends, as we celebrate our independence this weekend, I invite you to pause and consider what it really means to be “patriotic.” Does patriotism mean wearing red, white, and blue to the fireworks; or cooking brats on the pontoon boat; or waving a flag at the parade?  I would say that’s a part of it. But can patriotism be something more?

As we celebrate this week, maybe each of us could spend a little of our time trying to figure out way to live-into the final words of our pledge of allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.” I mean, what if “liberty and justice for all” were to become exactly that; liberty and justice for all people. Perhaps, we should take these words to heart and focus our energy and our means on bringing this ideal to light. The American ideal that all people were created equal by God and that all people deserve the same opportunities, the same respect, the same life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, no matter how long they’ve been here, the color of their skin, or what religion they choose to practice.

Now, it’s an American ideal that, frankly, has faltered in the past and continues to be under attack today. But it’s an ideal that worth refreshing and refining. And as we’ve seen in today’s text, liberty and justice for all is the very foundation of Christ’s mission of healing; His ministry of restoration.

My friends, as we continue to evolve as individuals, and grow as (St. Paul) (Cable) United Church of Christ, and progress as a nation, may we learn the art of reading in-between and behind the challenges present in this world. Might we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and then act. Act to make this world a better and more just place for all people.

Happy 4th of July to all of you and may all your crossings be smooth.

Amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Brushing Up Against Grace. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

 

In the Boat Together

I remember the first sermon I ever preached. I was filling in for the pastor at the Apple River United Methodist Church in Illinois.  And to say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century. I was terrified! Now, I don’t completely recall the point of the sermon I preached that morning, but I do remember some of the content.  It was about the faith of Moses and how he needed an Aaron to fulfill his covenant with God.  But the amusing part was the delivery. My text was about a page long, maybe part of a second, single spaced, in a small font, and I held it in front of my face and read it as fast as I could. I just wanted it all to end. But I did get some complements afterward.  I remember on man commenting that since the entire service was only thirty-five minutes long, they would beat the Presbyterians to lunch.

Now, as I stand here eighteen years later, I have to ask myself, “what was I afraid of?” It seems silly now to be so afraid of speaking in front of a small congregation, but was it? I mean, there’s the fear of being in front of everyone, of public speaking, that was a daunting task for me at the time. But there was also a deeper, unnamed fear as well. You see, delivering a sermon on Sunday morning takes on an additional opportunity for hesitation: the question of authority.  In other words, what gives me the right to interpret the Scriptures and share the application of the text with a congregation? Believe me, the question of authority can produce a lot of anxiety.

And the question of authority is a part of what’s going on in the background of our gospel lesson for today and within the wider context of Mark’s witness. In the sinking boat, Jesus asked the disciples the same question I asked myself, “Why are you afraid?” But his question goes deeper than just a mere “question of authority,” and addresses the disciples immediate reaction to the situation.

Remember now, some of Jesus’ disciples were seasoned fishermen, who knew the Sea of Galilee well and the dangers of a storm. But, despite their best efforts at keeping the boat afloat, it was beginning to sink!  We don’t know how far they were from land, but in Mark’s version of the story, swimming for shore apparently wasn’t an option.  These experienced fishermen knew that their chances of surviving in open water under those conditions were not good.[i] So, it’s understandable that they would be afraid for their lives, right?

But instead of confirming their fear Jesus questions their faith. In essence, he’s saying that it’s easy to have faith when the waters are flat and the sailing is smooth, but where’s your faith when the winds kick up, when the waves begin to roll, when there’s a real and present danger? One of the main themes we see throughout the Gospels is that, despite all that they witnessed Jesus do and say, despite all that they discovered him to be, over and over again, Jesus’ closest followers lacked faith.[ii]

Which leads to the obvious question for us to consider. Is it really a deficiency of faith to be afraid when our life is on the line?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do think there’s a distinction to be made here. I don’t believe this passage is necessarily speaking to the obvious fearful situations of our lives.  Let me explain what I mean here. There are some things that are simply frightening, right, and it’s only human for us to respond to them with fear; fear of heights, or of a spider, or a fear of public speaking. It’s one thing for us to feel fear, but it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we don’t just feel fear, we turn it into something that occupies our whole lives. [iii] We don’t just experience fear, we let it move in and take up residence.  We don’t just encounter fear, we turn it into a giant, category-five storm that sends us running for cover and cowering in bunkers.

So, bearing this in mind, we must ask ourselves another question today. How this “environment of fear,” how has letting fear “take up residence” in our collective lives separated the Church from her true mission?

I mean, just look at the news this week. There’s no way people of faith can justify ripping children away from their parents and subjecting them to internment camps, right? Yet, some try.  There’s no rationale from a Biblical perspective, there’s no Scriptural law, not even a misinterpretation of Paul’s understanding about the place of the law in our lives, that demands we simply accept these horrific acts being perpetrated on our Southern border, and keep our mouths shut. None. As a matter of fact, it’s these kinds of injustices, injustices against the most vulnerable of God’s children, that the prophets railed against. They risked life and limb to call-out the powers-that-be, the leadership of their nation, to have compassion for the weak and the powerless. This is the kind of fearlessness that Jesus was demanding in this passage.  He wasn’t challenging their immediate feeling of fear as they faced dying, but he was calling them out for the deeper lack of faith that lead them to panic.

And that, my friends, is what lies at the core of this issue. A deeper fear. A panic that drives people to irrational actions. A panic caused by a fear of the other, a fear of losing dominance, a fear… of the unknown. But Jesus was very clear in this passage and in the wider context of all the gospels when it came to the subject of fear.  He said time and again, “don’t be afraid.” He wasn’t saying, don’t jump when you see a snake. But rather, don’t let that initial fear of the snake lead you to campaign to irradiate all snakes from the face of the earth. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Fear causes humanity to exclude, to push-away, to insulate ourselves from the unknown; the other. But faith, faith can overcome fear and help us to realize that we are all in the same boat. Faith challenges us, the followers of Christ, to be a voice for the voiceless, advocates for the most vulnerable, and it’s our faith that calls us to be champions for justice and equality for all people. This is the authority that we have been given. As people of faith we have the authority to speak on the side of justice because we have been appointed by God, nay commanded by God, to be a prophetic voice for justice.

One final thought. There’s an African Proverb that says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”[iv] We as individuals, as a community, and as a nation have not and will not always find smooth sailing. Sometimes the seas will be rough.  But it’s in the rough patches, in the times when we need to take a step back and evaluate the current situation; it’s in these times that we must choose faith over fear.  And it’s in these moments when Jesus says to each of us, “why are you afraid?”

May we overcome our fear and may our better-selves, our faithful selves, shine through. That’s my prayer for today, tomorrow, and beyond. Amen.

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[i] Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm, Stilling Fear. The Waking Dreamer. (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012

[ii] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 267-68.  Cf. William F. McInerny, “An Unresolved Question in The Gospel Called Mark: ‘Who Is This Whom Even Wind and Sea Obey?’ (4:41),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Fall, 1996): 259.

[iii] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17.  She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering.  It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”

[iv] Katheryn Matthews, Agents of God. She offers this quote for an unknown author as an addition to the understanding of this passage from Mark. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

Flourishing

Mark 4:26-34

I’ve always enjoyed gardening.  When I was first ordained, Becky and I were serving a country church in Iowa and our parsonage was at least a quarter of a mile from the next house. We liked to say that 3,000 hogs were our closest neighbors. Anyway, because we were in such a rural location, we had the opportunity to plant a large garden. Now, it didn’t matter that I’d been gardening most of my adult life or that I had a background in the garden center industry, I was still the recipient of unsolicited gardening advice from some the members of my congregation.

One piece of advice that stands out came when our youth group was planting the back part of my garden with pumpkins and gourds for a mission fundraiser.  I was standing there, hoe in hand, contemplating the best way to plant these seeds, when, one of the kids took the hoe from my hand and, without a word, began to make mounds of dirt. He then planted a few seeds in each mound. It was an amusing and humbling moment. So, I decided that I needed to check my ego and listen to the advice offered by these experienced farmers, even if the farmer was only twelve-years-old.

Now, as I think about that experience, I realize that there are many ways to plant seeds.  You can plant them in mounds, as I discovered back in Iowa. You can scatter seeds. You can plant them neatly in rows, one at a time. You even get seed tapes that space the seeds correctly, so you don’t plant them too close together. There are many ways to plant seeds.

As we come to the Gospel reading from Mark for today, Jesus offers us two parables about seeds; two different ways of planting seeds as it were. First, Jesus shares a parable that compares the Reign of God with the mysterious, hidden way of a seed’s growth. A process that fascinates us even today, in spite of our technological progress. And in the second, the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus tells us that the smallest of all seeds, when it matures, grows into the largest of all shrubs. Now, it’s not explicit here, but in the later synoptic gospels, the writers directly connect the mustard seed with faith.

So, why is this important?

Well, this is a clever way to illustrate the nature of God. We know that God is mysterious, unknowable in many ways. But we also know that God plants seeds.  Seeds of wisdom, seeds of compassion; seeds that help us to understand the nature of God. Now, we don’t fully understand this nature, but we sort of know, because of Jesus and his example of how to live in relationship with others. And it’s when we live-out our faith, even the tiniest seed of faith, that the Reign of God, flourishes; that Jesus’ hope for justice and peace on earth, flourishes.

But what might the planting of one tiny seed look like?

Well, as I said before, there are many different ways to plant seeds. A small act of kindness or service perhaps, or a simple expression of faith, or the slightest movement toward God.  All of these things contribute to making this world a better place; which is what the Reign of God seeks to accomplish. These are the seeds of faith that have been planted within each of us.

As I say this, I’m reminded of the words of Thoreau, “I have great faith in a seed,” he once said, “convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” [i]

My friends… expect wonders. But it won’t always be easy. Whenever we plant seeds, there’s always a chance that birds will come and eat them or that a lack of rain will dry them up or that weeds will choke them out. But, as author Anne Lamott states, “When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”[ii]

We are called to do something amazing.  And whatever hardships we might be enduring right now can be transformed into something wonderful. And whatever “stuff” your friends or neighbors might be going though, calls on us to plant seeds within and around them; seeds of hope, seeds of faith, seeds of healing. When we tend God’s garden, when we become God’s gardeners, when our actions serve as examples of God grace and compassion and love for all people, and when we become preservers and restorers of this beautiful planet we call home; it amazing and it’s wonderful and …and, it’s all a part of the Reign of God; God’s present Kingdom here on earth.

Let me leave you with a quote that I read this week that kind of put all this in perspective for me. “Lord, when I feel that what I’m doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me, and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it.”[iii]

May we all go forth from this service today and continue to be God gardeners in this world. Planting seeds of hope, seeds of faith, seeds of justice and peace; and may we plant in a way no one else could. That’s our calling. That’s our challenge. That’s the seed of our faith.

Amen.

[i] David Henry Thoreau quoted by Katheryn Matthews in God’s Role for Me. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018.

[ii] Anne Lamott. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. (Riverhead Books, 2004.)

[iii] Brennan Manning. Souvenirs of Solitude: Finding Rest in Abba’s Embrace. (www.ucc.org/samuel, 2018)

 

The Will of God

Mark 3:31-35

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? I think we must begin this morning by acknowledging that this is a difficult text. As a matter of fact, several years ago I lead a Lenten study called: Scriptures that Make Us Cringe, and this is one of the texts that I used. I chose this text as one of my “cringers” because, if taken out of context, it seems to paint Jesus as disloyal son and a horrible brother.  And on an even more ominous level, it has been used to across the history of the Church to justify alienating family members who disagree on matters of religion. But this interpretation doesn’t track with the Jesus we know and love from the wider context of the gospels. And when this happens, we must look for a deeper meaning within and behind the text.

Now, as I began to think about his “deeper meaning,” I remembered a film that I watched many years ago called The Way. This film came to mind because it’s a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. The Way stars Martin Sheen, who plays Tom, an American doctor who went to France to collect the remains of his adult son. His son had been killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while on a pilgrimage known as The Way of Saint James. But rather than returning home, Tom decided to embark on the historical journey himself to honor his son’s desire to finish the quest. What Tom didn’t plan on, however, was the profound impact the journey would have on him. You see, because he was inexperienced as a hiker, Tom soon discovered that he could not complete the journey alone. On his way, Tom met three other pilgrims from around the world with whom he formed a relationship. But here’s the twist. Tom came to realize, through his relationship with these other pilgrims, the meaning of one of the last things his son said before their falling-out; “There’s a difference,” the young man said, “between the life we live and the life we choose.”[i]

There’s a difference between the life with live and the life we choose. What if we were to apply this wisdom to family? Is there a difference between the “family” we have been given and the “family” we choose?

In Mark’s account of this exchange, the family Jesus had been given was either frustrated with him, or just plain worried about him. They heard that he’d been drawing crowds again, so they went to restrain him. And it seems to me that his mother and brothers took this action because they were embarrassed; people were talking. So, in response Jesus expanded the definition of what it means to belong to a family. He expanded it to include the family we choose.

And this is an important concept for us to understand.  It’s important because families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. In other words, family was a foundational part of life, and thus, a foundational part of Scripture. The Bible begins in Genesis, not with talk of nations or tribes…but families. Big families. Real families.[ii]  But Jesus challenges this deeply embedded cultural assumption when he determines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God. No wonder some people are bent on killing him in this book.[iii]

But how does this affect us? How might this expanded concept of family speak to us, here, in the 21st century.  How can we, as individuals and as a faith community, “do the will of God.”

I don’t know. Perhaps, with this text in the background, we can live-into the will of God by expanding our understanding of family. Maybe the will of God is for us to find a way to live in community with the family we have been given and the family we choose. My friends, the will of God is for us to extend the boundries of community to include a diversity of family members. We are called to welcome and invite all people into this household and family of God. How do we know this? Again, we must look past these few lines and view them within the context of the entire gospel.  We must look behind this passage and remember that it’s just a small part of a larger whole; a wider concept.  And that concept, the foundational concept of the gospels, is love of God and neighbor.

And this is where Tom ended up in The Way.  He finally realized that his family had grown to include a dusty, somewhat dysfunctional Dutchman, a Canadian woman searching for her identity, and an Irish author suffering from writer’s block. In the end, Tom understood that the family he had been given and the family chose were one in the same. And the lesson he learned was to let love overcome any challenges that arise.

Sisters and Brothers, as we continue on our Way, may we too come to understand that the definition of family is grounded in love. And as we continue this pilgrimage we call life, may we let God’s love and grace and compassion be expressed in all our relationships; the ones we choose and well as the ones we’ve been given.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] The Way. Filmax Entertainment.  Emilio Estevez, director (www.imdb.com) 2010

[ii] Rick Morley. All in The Family. (www.rickmorley.com 2012)

[iii] Matthew L. Skinner. What Makes a Family? (www.huffingtonpost.com, 2017)

Stretch Out Your Hand

Mark 2:23-3:6

As we approach the topics of Sabbath and healing today, I would like to begin by sharing with you a story written by Philip Gulley. “Two or three times a week I visit the Dairy Queen in our town,” he writes. “When I was a child, I went for the ice cream. When I was a teenager, I went for the girls who worked behind the counter. Now I go to visit Leon, who owns the Dairy Queen and presides over the enterprise from a lawn chair at the back door. He has much time to think, and I like to stop by there and rummage through is musings.  We were recently discussing the peculiarities of modern life, when he said, ‘we’re so busy living the good life, we’ve forgotten how to enjoy life.’

Now, not everything Leon says sticks in my head, but that observation has. There is not one ounce of hypocrisy in Leon. He not only extols the merits of relaxation; he embodies it. I don’t know anyone who sits as well as he does –  hour after hour, moving from nap to conversation and back to nap again, every now and then reaching down to scratch his dog behind the ears. If leisure were an Olympic sport, Leon would be a gold medalist.

Leon is not lazy. For many years, he worked two jobs; he was an accountant in the daytime and king of the Dairy Queen evenings and weekends. Now it’s his season for leisure, and he pursues it with the same single-minded determination he’s shown in all his endeavors.”[i]

What Gulley has described here, I believe, is the common understanding of what we call “Sabbath.” I mean, when I say the word “Sabbath” what comes to mind? Rest? Relaxation? A day off? Perhaps someone like Leon?  Or maybe something more than leisure. Does it conger up the image of worshipping in church on Sunday? Does the concept of Sabbath encourage you to set aside a time and space in your busy life to just be with God? Perhaps none of these images pop into you head; maybe all of them.

The point here is that God intends for humankind, for you and I, to spend at least one day a week dedicated to resting our bodies from labor, focusing our minds on God, and devoting ourselves to a time of worship. This is, rightly, the common understanding of Sabbath.

Mark however, in these two little “vignettes,” these two short-stories that we have before us today, invites each of us to consider a deeper understanding of the connection between the Sabbath and God’s Justice. Mark wants us to see that Jesus embodied true spirit of Sabbath through his restorative actions.[ii] In other words, these two interconnected narratives tell us that Sabbath is finally about healing. In the first story, we receive a lesson about God’s abundance, a realization that there’s enough food for all people on this planet, demonstrated by the disciples picking the abundant grain and the following exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities. And in the second, we’re taught Jesus reaches out to the “least of these,” the social outcast, the infirmed, as pictured by the healing of the man with the withered hand. And in both cases, Jesus chose to ignore the long-established rules surrounding Sabbath. [iii]

You know, this is just one of the qualities I admire most about Jesus. I admire his ability to know when to follow the letter of law and when to allow the Grace of God overrule the law. He sums it up well here when he says that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. We’re not a slave to the rules or to doctrine or dogmatic principles, rather, we’re as Paul contends, “free under the law.”

Now, this didn’t set well with everyone. The Pharisees failed to interpret the man’s healing as God’s approval of Jesus’ Sabbath work. Yet we know that God’s heart is inclined toward giving life and not denying the essentials of life to anyone. Thus, I believe that Jesus’ actions adhere to the Sabbath law far better than the Pharisees interpretation.[iv]

But how about us? What things are we “Pharisaic” about? Have there been times when we’ve let the rules trump grace?  Well, if your answer to that question is yes, rest assured, you’re not alone. “This passage asks readers in every age: ‘What are the essential categories of our lives that Jesus threatens?’”[v] In other words, in this passage Jesus changes the meaning of Sabbath. He transforms it from being an oppressive ogre, with denies food to the hungry and healing to the sick, to what it was originally: a reminder that we belong to God.”[vi]

Which brings me back around to Leon. You remember ole Leon, the leisurely king of the Dairy Queen passing the time in his lawn chair. Philip Gulley continued his thoughts about Leon by writing, “When Leon sits at the Dairy Queen, his back it turned to all the timepieces and their nagging, prodding authority.”[vii] My friends, the first step in letting go of societies pressure to judge others is to leave our timepieces at home, slow down, and once again, just sit in the presence of the Divine. And it’s from the slower pace of life that we can truly remember that we belong to God and that authority comes not by adhering to a set of directives, but rather, from opening our hearts and minds to the love and grace and compassion of Christ. And, it’s in these moments of clarity, in these precious moments of resting in the peace of God, of experiencing Christ’s healing in our lives and in the lives of others, that we discover the deeper meaning of Sabbath; the Sabbath life to which we have been called.

So, as you go forth from this service, on this Sabbath day, may you rest in the palm of the Creator, may you experience the healing and restoration of the Redeemer, and may you feel the assurance of God, always present through the gentle breeze of the Spirit. And as you go forth, may you be moved to share the peace and the healing and the grace of the Triune God with all people and all creation.

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

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[i] Philip Gulley. Porch Talk. (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2007) p.35-36

[ii] Diane G. Chen. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B. Ronald J Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 271

[iii] John M. Rottman and Matthew Lundberg. Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, Year B. Paul Scott Wilson Ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014) p. 18

[iv] Ibid. Chen p. 272

[v] Nibs Stroup. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. III. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor Eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 95

[vi] Ibid. Stroup p. 95, 97

[vii] Ibid Gulley p.37

Mysterious Encounter

Trinity Sunday – Isaiah 6:1-8

What does God look like? An old man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne? That’s the classic image of God. Or does God look like us? We’re created in God’s image, right? Or is God simply a breeze, a wisp of cloud on a sunny day? I don’t know. But what I’ve just described to you is how most people have come to view the Trinity.

Now, we’re not the first generation to struggle with the image of God. In the text we have before us today, Isaiah is utterly and completely mystified. I mean, think about his context.  He lived in a world where the Temple in Jerusalem was considered God’s earthly home. And to encounter the holy, to gaze upon the face of God, would mean certain and immediate death. So, picture the scene with me, there’s ole Isaiah in the Temple, doing temple stuff, when suddenly, he’s surrounded by smoke from the burning sacrifices and incense. And right then he had a vision; the mysterious encounter with the Divine that we read about today. But instead of death, Isaiah found restoration; instead of being destroyed, he received grace; instead of individual condemnation, he came to realize that God was sending an opportunity for repentance to the entire people of Judah.[i]

And this is where it gets really interesting. Isaiah knew God was holy. But his mysterious encounter with God redefined what it meant to be “holy”.  Isaiah came to understand that “God exists in community.”[ii]  God’s call for repentance wasn’t an individual mandate, but rather, God was telling the prophet to challenge the entire nation to turn from their destructive ways.

Now, let’s fast-forward to our context. Far too often I think we see God as the white-bearded judge, and as a result, we feel we must please God in order to avoid punishment.  So, we view holiness through the lens of individual piety.  In other words, we think, “if I’m good enough, if I keep all the rules, if I say the right creed and condemn those who disagree with that creed, then I’m holy.” But here’s the thing. The Triune God isn’t about individual piety.  Even Gods-self exists in community. Creator, Christ, and Spirit; Three-in-one.

But if God is more than an old man sitting on a throne in heaven, what does that “more” look like?  Well, Theologian Daniel Migliore, when speaking about the nature of the Trinity, invites us to see God in a different light. He says, “…to confess that God is triune is to affirm that the life of God is essentially self-giving love.”[iii] God is love. It’s that simple. Jürgen Moltmann affirms this position when he said that the story of the gospel is, “…a divine love story in which we are all involved with heaven and earth.”[iv]

Maybe this of it like a dance.  When you were in junior high, did you ever go to a dance? Did everyone there, dance? Did everyone have a good time? Probably not. Why? Well, some might have worried about stepping on a partner’s toes or, out of fear, chose to stand by the wall all night. Others may have felt they were too good for the rest. But whatever the reason, in some cases, the invitation to dance went unfulfilled.

Now, we’ve all been invited to dance. We’ve all been asked to spin around the dance floor together in the seamless waltz of life.  All of us are a part of this earthly community. All humanity and all creation are encouraged dance with God on this wonderful planet.

But, being the human creatures that we are, we sometimes step on the toes of creation.  Or sometimes we’re afraid of change or to take a chance by putting ourselves in the company of what Jesus called “the least of my children.” And because of our fear, we choose to stand by the wall when God calls. But that’s not even the worst of it. Sometimes we might think, as Christians, that we’re too good for the rest, so we shun their very existence.

My friends, you and I both know from experience, through reason, and from the example of Christ’s life in Scripture, that God doesn’t exclude anyone. We know that God is the God of a Wide-Welcome. So, what if we were to view God from this perspective? Communal embrace rather than individual piety? What if God looks more like an act of compassion? What if God looks like a black child hugging a white child? What if God looks like a church community welcoming a refugee family, or an immigrant, or a transgendered person. What if God looks like the neighbor we are called to love and serve. I think this is what holiness looks like in the 21st century.

I’m going to leave you today with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard.  She said, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”[v] I can think of no definition of how to approach this contemporary definition of holiness than to “dangle limp” and let the Spirit take us where the Spirit will.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Michael Floyd. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. III.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 31

[ii] Daniel L. Migliore Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991) p. 69

[iii] Ibid Migliore p. 70

[iv] Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and Jürgen Moltmann, Humanity in God (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1993) p.88

[v] Annie Dillard. (www.ucc.org/samuel, 2018)

When All Are Welcome Isn’t Enough

Why become Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation? Well, historically, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) people of faith have experienced emotional and spiritual injury in churches that condemn their capacity to love or seek love. And as a result, they’ve learned that “All Are Welcome” usually doesn’t apply to them.  And this reality means that LGBTQ people simply cannot assume that all churches will be safe for them or their families. So, how do we let these folks know that our church is different; how do we let them know that this is a safe space for them and their family to worship and to be fully included in the activities and leadership of our faith community? I believe that making a public ONA statement is the answer. In addition to the hospitality aspect, I’ve also outlined three additional reasons for us to consider adopting an ONA covenant.

A public welcome by an ONA church sends a clear message to LGBTQ seekers that they have a home in the United Church of Christ. A congregation’s affirmation and support through an ONA covenant can be a life-changing and life-saving experience—especially for LGBTQ youth.

A public welcome helps churches grow. New ONA churches attract new members. Many of these new members are straight people who identify with the values ONA represents. And often, they’re young couples starting new families who want their children to learn the faith in a welcoming environment.

By adopting an ONA covenant, a congregation is taking seriously the inclusive actions of Christ. He welcomed people from all walks of life to join him on a journey of healing, compassion, and transformation. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7, CEB)

The church board voted (unanimously) in their last meeting to begin the ONA process here in our church. We are in the early stages of this process.  The first step is to form a “ONA Covenant Team.” The Covenant Team will be responsible for prayerfully leading us forward in this process by determining the steps to be taken, setting the timeline, and communicating openly with the congregation.  May our path forward be blessed as we continue to be and become a community striving to share the Peace and Justice and Love of the Living God.

A Wide Welcome

A Message from the Open & Affirming Covenant Committee, Cable United Church of Christ. May 15, 2018

Who’s welcome here?

If you’re Asian, Hispanic, Black, or White…

If you’re male or female or transgender…

If you’re three days old, 30 years old, or 103 years old…

If you’ve never stepped foot in a church; or if you’re Buddhist, Roman Catholic, agnostic or a life-long Lutheran…

If you’re single, married, divorced, separated, or partnered…

If you’re straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual…

If you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist,

or not registered to vote…

If you have, or had, addictions, phobias, abortions,

or a criminal record…

If you own your own home, rent, live with your parents,

or are homeless…

If you’re fully-abled, disabled, or a person of differing abilities…

You’re Welcome Here!

As a congregation we are committed to being a profoundly Loving and Welcoming community of faith. This has been a long-standing principle of our church and of the United Church of Christ. We offer a Wide-Welcome to all.

We are now embarking on a deepening of that commitment by engaging in the educational and spiritual process of moving toward becoming an Open & Affirming (ONA) congregation. The ONA process invites all of us to explore, together, ways in which we might become closer to each other, to those who are not yet among us, and to God.

The first step in this process was to form an ONA Covenant Committee, consisting of church members, the moderator, and the pastor. We’ve been meeting weekly and are beginning to envision the way forward.  Two important decisions have already emerged from our meetings.  The first is an expansion of the definition of what it means to be an ONA congregation. We wish to expand the meaning of ONA, which specifically welcomes LGBTQ individuals, to include all people, as in the “who’s welcome here” list above.

The second decision is to ask for your input as the congregation will be asked to vote on this issue in the future. The committee members sincerely invite you to contact them with you comments, concerns, and questions as we begin this faith journey together.

Thank you for your support and prayers.

The Open & Affirming Covenant Committee