Sunday, July 30, 2017

Seasons of Love

July 30, 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Sermon: "Seasons of Love"
There are many commentaries on this Ecclesiastes passage. But I have a favorite: it’s a song from the musical RENT, called “Seasons of Love.” Now, I’m no Susan Rush, so you really don’t want to hear my attempt at Broadway. I will leave it to the professionals, and just let you enjoy their commentary on Ecclesiastes yourselves, from the opening scene of the movie version of RENT:

How do you measure a year in the life? Or how do you measure 5 years and 7 months of life together in ministry at Cameron Presbyterian Church? I’d like to do that now. 
Here’s how I measure it:

I measure it in Earl jokes.
I measure it in “mighty, mighty elder” chants led by Cathy.
I measure it in Italy stories told by Clinton in waiting rooms while Kay faced a procedure with her usual nonchalant bravery.
I measure it in neighborly chats about world travels, during rainstorms on Linda and Dave’s front porch.
I measure it in walks in the park with Juanita, and in her wise, prophetic words.
I measure it in sing-alongs with Jane on the way back from presbytery meetings
I measure it in Millie and Martha’s powerful Sunday School lessons.
I measure it in movies and Valenti’s pizza with Taylor, Traci, Karen and Alex, and I measure it in Bronson and Brandon’s e.p.i.c. Christmas sweaters.
I measure it in deep conversations (and conversations about Bread Cat) with Sarah.
I measure it in daily visits with Joe McKay and Beau when I first arrived.
I measure it in Natalie’s plays, and in Ashley’s smile.
I measure it in Phyllis’ amazing laugh.
I measure it in serving Alan communion for the first time, and in Marilyn’s Jazzy pictures.
I measure it in dancing with Claire at the cantata.
I measure it in Mack’s stories, that were just getting started when he paused for breath.
I measure it in Corinne’s knitting, and in Carlisle’s incredible love for her.
I measure it in Mexican food lunches with Billie, and in Bob’s children’s sermon interruptions.
I measure it in a little turquoise Fiesta ware mug Laura gave me, and in Mike’s big bear hugs.
I measure it in scones and coffee with Jim and Sandy.
I measure it in Easton’s baptism, and in Leon’s incredible memory.
I measure it in Marcene’s enthusiasm, and in the deeply spiritual look on Bill’s face when he sings.
I measure it in Andrey’s Indy 500 style driving on mission trips.
I measure it in Shan cleaning the wound of a man affected by homelessness, without blinking an eye.
I measure it in Ed’s inner Baptist preacher, and in Dine Times with Lynda.
I measure it in relaxation yoga with Jane, Linda, Cheryl, Sandy and Sarah Hilmer on Mondays.
I measure it in lunch at Lady Bedford’s with Louise.
I measure it in the gift of a massive coffee mug from Tony and Ginger.
I measure it in stories about war with Jim Kelly, and in Kay Kelly’s incredible dog whisperer skills.
I measure it in thoughtful cards from Phil and Patsy, and their steadfast support.
I measure it in Art’s deep faith, and in Doris’ resilience.
I measure it in Bruce and Joe’s patient willingness to do anything, even hang a wild Pentecost mobile from the center speaker.
I measure it in Larry’s songs, and in Christie’s graceful ability to really listen.
I measure it in Peggy’s hugs, and the way she says, “Thank you, Jesus” each time she takes communion.
I measure it in Marty’s sermon comments that always manage to pick out the *most* Presbyterian thing I said, and in Cheryl saving my bacon (pun intended) in chimes more times that I can count.
I measure it in Terry Kerr’s incredible energy, and in Judy’s passion for justice and equity.
I measure it in Karol Boyd’s clever grin, and in Dale’s smiling eyes.
I measure it in PW Bible studies in Carol Thomas’ and Laura Younts’ living rooms.
I measure it in Walt’s fearless chiming, and in Pat’s loving listening.
I measure it in deep biblical discussions about Revelation with Julie, and I measure it in Andy’s impressive array of Hawaiian shirts.
I measure it in Temple theater shows with Pete and Marilyn, and in Patrick’s basketball games with Dwayne and Debbie.
I measure it in Sharon Shaw’s infinitely patient emails, and in Sharon Bettini’s prayerful heart.
I measure it in Tom’s “Whatcha say, Whitney?” greetings, and in Dawn’s “Need anything, Rev.?” knocks on my door.
I measure it in Tommy’s passing-of-the-peace hugs, accompanied by, “Hey, buddy!”
I measure it in Barbara’s music, and in cups of coffee with Butch.
I measure it in Rick’s ever-amusing ties.
I measure it in Kathy Oldham’s ever-deepening search for God.
I measure it in Audrey’s smile, and in Joe Nelson’s flirtations.
I measure it in Mark’s head nods as we chat.
I measure it in cups of tea at Rose’s, Summer’s solos, and in Colton and Matthew giggling at each other through the whole service.
I measure it in Doris Jean’s “Hey” every time I see her, and in Hayes’ sneaky, witty humor.
I measure it in Dick’s White Castle burgers, and in Norma’s hospitality.
I measure it in Gene’s Garrison Keillor-esque liturgist voice, and in Lois’ mission focus for our community.
I measure it in s’mores and cornhole, while listening to Backporch Music, with Terry and Tonya.
I measure it in delicious Costco meals with Marco and Polo (otherwise known as Rex and Dot). 
I measure it in prayers with Doris.
I measure it in Jim Cameron’s love for Westerns, and in discussions about old movies with Kay McKay.
I measure it in discussions about my dangerous driving with mean Dean from Aberdeen, and in Debbie’s laugh.
I measure it in Susan Rush’s mismatched earrings and perfectly matched talent.
I measure it in Star Wars theme songs being snuck into the offertory by Mary, and in her general magical humor and musical gifts.
I measure it in saying goodbye (for now) to beloved family on sunny afternoons in the Cameron Church Cemetery; and I measure it in saying hello to newly married Brenda and Nick, who grinned like teenagers when I pronounced them hitched last Saturday.
I measure it in bread broken and shared (and yes, that includes hushpuppies from the street fair).

I measure this season of our life together in all these ways and more. I measure it in the love I have for y’all, a love that will not go away. 

Today, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for all the ways you have blessed me, and for the privilege of inviting me to be your pastor. And mostly, I want to say ‘thank you’ to God, for calling me to a tiny place I’d never heard of, that has become the biggest place there is.   

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” 

Thanks be to God for this season of ministry together, for the good we’ve done, for the life we’ve lived, and for the love that binds us together for all time. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Holy Heights

Jacob's Ladder Textile Art by Eszter Bornemisza

July 31, 2017
Genesis 28:10-20

10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19aHe called that place Bethel…Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”

Sermon: “Holy Heights”

Jacob was a mess. It’s amazing how we often make out most (male) biblical characters to be perfect heroes and not flawed humans like us. Jacob may be the many-times-over-great-grandfather of Jesus, but he was trouble. It actually takes less time to name what he didn’t do wrong than what he did.

He cheated his brother Esau out of a birthright.
He took advantage of his father’s blindness to trick him.
Not caring about impressing the in-laws, he took everything from his father-in-law Laban: his daughters (yes, both of them), his livestock (hopefully of less worth than the daughters), even his household gods.
He cheated his brother out of a blessing a second time, and ran off toward Haran to let Esau cool down a bit (and save his own skin). Much later, still obsessed with blessing, he sowed jealousy between his sons and grandsons by blessing some more than others.

If Jacob was a character in a story outside the Bible, he’s surely play the villain, not the hero. He’d be the vengeful Voldemort, the impulsive Anakin Skywalker, that jealous Wicked Witch of the West. In short, he’s not the good guy.
So, it comes as no surprise that, when we find him in Genesis 28, though he’s a fugitive from the well-placed anger of his brother, Jacob is able to sleep like a baby in the wilderness on a stone pillow, with an even stonier heart. Regret is a result of conscious, and as far as we can tell, ol’ Jake didn’t have one. He slept as the blissfully ignorant do, and God came to him in an incredible dream.
It would be fitting if this was a Scrooge-style transformative dream, where he awakes to finally be a good guy. Spoiler alert: it’s not, and he doesn’t. God brings him a dream of a ladder, or a staircase ascending into heaven, with angels going up and down between heaven and earth. Jacob isn’t invited to those holy heights. He’s simply invited to get a brief glimpse of them. God promises that this troublemaker, this villain, will have land, offspring and blessing beyond what even his selfish mind can dream up. 

Imagine for a moment if Voldemort had bested Harry, or if Anakin had defeated the Force forever, or if the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys had won. It fights against every concept we know of justice. So it is with this crook Jacob getting such a blessing. He’s not even gracious about receiving it. I love how Barry Robinson describes his reaction to God’s promise:

Jacob responds to God's completely unconditional promise of blessing and protection with a completely conditional promise of his own. "IF you will give me the land, food, clothing and protection, THEN I will be your man." In response to this incredible blessing of God, all Jacob can think of saying is, "SHOW ME THE MONEY!" I mean, can you believe this guy! God, out of the unbelievable goodness of God’s heart, gives Jacob holy heaven instead of holy hell, and Jacob, demonstrating that he hasn't learned a blessed thing, says in response, "Prove it to me!”

Jacob does not deserve God’s blessing. He does not deserve to look upon the holy heights of God’s glory. He does not deserve to share space with angels, or to have God come and literally stand beside him. But that’s because God’s goodness is never dependent upon our own — which can be summed up in one big little word: grace. In Jacob, God annoyingly shows us that grace has little to do with what’s deserved, and everything to do with the character of God. God forgives, God blesses, God brings us to holy heights and stands beside us, not because it’s earned, but because that’s who God is. And no matter how menacing, how enticing, or how amusing, the villain is never the main character of our lives, or of our Bible for that matter. God is.

We all like to be the main character of our own stories, though, don’t we? It’s no different in the story of the church. We see this in language of entitlement, of assuming God’s blessing runs along the lines of wealth, or privilege, or status, or even political opinion. We see this in how grudges, bitterness, and prejudice are cherished like inherited traditions (perhaps first passed down by that trickster Jacob). We see this in forgiving only when we think it’s deserved, or churches acting like it’s us against the world, and assuming a posture of pride and defensiveness, withdrawing more and more from those who need us most. We want to be the main character. And slowly, so slowly we don’t even notice it most of the time, we begin to look more and more like our ancestor Jacob. And we forget that God is the biggest part of any of our stories.

But if grace is anything, it is God refusing to leave us where we are, even if we we’re sleeping rough on a stone pillow in the wilderness. God comes beside us, us imperfect, struggling, tired people, and smiles and says, “Look up…I’ve got something beautiful to show you.” And what we see is that the barrier between heaven and earth never was the barred door we thought, only opening at the right time, but has in fact been a staircase of angelic movement all along. It’s just hard to see it when we’re awake to all our pain and frustration and fear, thinking we’re the only ones, because we’ve tried too long to be Number One.

But, whether we see it or not, that beauty is always there. Like the stars that shine through the day as well, God’s holy heights are there, calling us to be humbled by our place in the order of things, and our utter dependence upon God’s grace, not just for the life to come, but for every moment of this life. We’re invited to joyfully, fearlessly celebrate that we aren’t the center of our stories — God is.
Whether we want to claim him or not, Jacob is part of our faith family. He’s like an unruly uncle we’d rather ignore, but we can’t. He reminds us that God's grace does not discriminate. What would our church be like if we went into our community and the world proclaiming that we don’t have it all together all the time, but instead are a place of imperfect people desperate for grace, humble enough to put ourselves second, or third, or fourth, or as Jesus would have us do, last?

Anne Lamott describes well how unexpected this grace can be, telling a story of when she went to church after a particularly trying morning with her crumbling family.

Then I headed to church.

And it was not good.

The service was way long, and boring, and only three people had shown up for the choir. There was a disruptive baby who had about three hours of neck control but was already spoiling everything for the rest of us. I sat with a look of grim munificence, like so many of your better Christians, exuding mental toxins into the atmosphere. I decided that this church was deteriorating.

I had come for a spiritual booster shot and instead got aggravation.

I was going to leave, and never come back.

Then something amazing happened. I would call it grace, but then, I'm easy. It was that deeper breath, or pause, or briefly cleaner glasses, that gives us a bit of freedom and relief. I remembered my secular father's only strong spiritual directive: Don't be a [jerk], and make sure everybody eats. Veronica quoted a fellow pastor recently: "I'm only a beggar, showing the other beggars where the bread is. There are many kinds of bread: kindness, companionship, besides the flour-and-yeast kind...I realized I was going to get through this disappointing service, and anyway, you have to be somewhere: better here, where I have heard truth spoken so often, than, say, at the DMV, or home alone, orbiting my own mind. And it's good to be out where others can see you, so you can't be your ghastly, spoiled self. It forces you to act slightly more elegantly, and this improves your thoughts, and thereby the world.

We’re all beggars, like that juvenile Jacob. But with God, there’s enough bread to share, enough to get us through. And, if ever we wonder where to find it, how to get to those holy heights once more, how to find out the truth that God has been beside us all along in stories that have always been bigger than us, we come home. We come here, however grumpy, or guilty, or imperfect we are. We come. And God says, “Okay, do I have your attention now? ‘Cause I’ve got something to show you…and it looks an awful lot like grace.” Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night...

Image Source
July 16, 2017
Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Sermon: “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”

It was a secret I hoped never to tell. But it’s hard to keep secrets when it’s a dark and stormy night, and you’re terrified. My name is Andrew, and it means “manly” of all things. You perhaps know me as a disciple of Jesus the Christ, but before that, I was a fisherman. But my deepest, darkest secret is this: I have always been afraid of the sea. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Like a circus performer afraid of elephants; like a chef afraid of tomatoes; like a musician afraid of pianos. It’s absurd. But I couldn’t help it: even though fishing was the family business, and I was raised by my dad to swim almost as soon as I could walk, I was afraid that, someday, the sea would claim me. My older brother, Simon, didn’t seem to be trapped in such fears. He threw himself fully into everything he did. But not me. I was cautious, timid, and every single time I went into a boat, I was afraid. I never meant to tell anyone my secret. But a dark and stormy night told it for me.

Life changed dramatically for me when I met a wayfaring stranger named Jesus. Leaving my nets to follow him was liberation for me in a way I suspect only he and I knew. I thought my boating days were over. How little I understood then.

One day, after Jesus had been teaching parables and had talked himself hoarse, he said to us disciples, “Let’s go across to the other side of the sea.” We got into a boat, and my secret, all-too-familiar fear crept up, until my stomach churned as much as those wild waters. The wind rose, the waves crashed, and suddenly I realized my worst nightmare was about to happen. This was it. This was the way I would die. All of my calm, collected fisherman’s facade washed away with those waves, and I shouted in a panic to wake up our slumbering savior, “TEACHER! Do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, with an exhausted look, but did not respond to me. Instead, he turned to the waves and the wind, as odd as that was. “PEACE.” he shouted. And the wind stopped, and the waves died. I did not, much to my delight.

Ever since that day, I’ve been haunted by the question I asked Jesus in my panic. “Do you not care?” It’s perhaps the most human question there is to ask of God, or whoever we talk to in the middle of the night. You’ve asked it, to. I can see that.You’ve asked him if he cares when you hear that terrible word ‘cancer’ from a stone-faced doctor who’s worked one too many shifts for empathy.

You’ve asked her if she cares when your loved one doesn’t remember who you are. You’ve asked him if he cares when change comes like waves brutally bashing against the battle-worn boat of your life.
You’ve asked her if she cares when your soul feels as empty as a bottle, forgotten and tossed about in a sea of stress and isolation. That question haunts us all: does God care?
But I’ve not just been haunted by that question; I’ve also been haunted by the look on Jesus’ face that day, because that look revealed that I wasn’t the only one keeping a deep, dark secret. Jesus’ deep secret was that he was completely and totally exhausted. Burned out. Soul weary. Bone tired enough to sleep through a sinking boat, more desperate for rest than even breath. You know this feeling, too, don’t you?

Often we like to think of God as an “Andrew” a manly, strong one. A God who is unmoved, resilient, ever powerful. But Jesus did not show us that sort of God. Jesus showed us a God who was exhausted. Exhausted by the suffering of the marginalized and forgotten. Exhausted by the sickness of our bodies, minds, political systems, and inward-looking faith communities. Exhausted by the dark and stormy state of our souls, who pretend to be a calm, placid sea on the outside, and are anything but. Exhausted by all of us who walk around all day as if we’re fine, all the while burying our deep, dark secret stories within us, afraid to let anyone see that we are actually human, made in the image of a God who chose radical vulnerability.

We might not expect such a sensitive, raw God. But that is the God we have in Jesus. And so, when he speaks “peace,” it’s not just to the external storms we can see. It’s also to the internal storms we can’t, speaking peace even into his very own storm of exhaustion within.

I know this, because that day Jesus calmed the storm within and without, something changed for me. I stopped being afraid to tell my story, my deep, dark secret. I let my fellow travelers know that I didn’t love boats, okay that in fact I hated them, and because I did that, they could actually be Christians to me. They did not judge me, but understood. Each time we were on a boat after that, they surrounded me, so that, should the waves beat against the boat, I would feel more protected. If church is anything, it is that: the place where we’re brave enough to tell our stories to each other, and treat these as holy things to be celebrated and protected.

So, I’m going to give you a moment to do just that: to tell your deep fear to a person near you. If you’re not ready for that sort of vulnerability, I invite you to just sit in silence and offer that fear to God. We can’t help each other if we’re not honest with each other. We can’t experience the peace Christ has for us if we pretend we’re fine all the time. So, share your story, your fear, with each other for a few minutes.

(story sharing time)

Allow me, Andrew, to leave you with a final thought. After that day with Jesus on that sinking boat, I actually do believe it’s possible to be a fisherman and be afraid of water. I believe it’s possible to be a circus performer and be afraid of elephants. I believe it’s possible to be a musician and be afraid of pianos. I even believe it’s possible to be a chef and be afraid of tomatoes. But here’s what I don’t believe: I don’t believe it’s possible to be a Christian and be afraid of telling your story. Be brave enough to show you’re not as brave as people might think.

For, we have a Savior who speaks peace with a hoarse, exhausted voice, calming his own storms and ours. We have a God who chose to identify not with the put-together and the powerful, but with the most vulnerable, judged, and underestimated. And we have a Spirit who never stops hovering over and within whatever chaotic waters we find ourselves in, weaving our stories into one beautiful, messy, gospel of life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Too Close to Home

Those gathered for the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig, Germany.
July 9, 2017
Luke 4:16-30

16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I’ll never forget my first seminary sermon. It was fairly well reasoned and worded. It also happened to be a snooze fest, because I preached the entire thing without-any-inflection-in-my-voice-like-a-factory-new-Presbybot. It turns out my first seminary sermon was also a lesson in humility!

I take comfort in the fact that Jesus’ first official sermon wasn’t received very well, either. In fact, no one tried to run me off a cliff after mine (but perhaps that is a lesson in taking more risks). 

You can picture that day he preached. Palestinian Christian Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb set the tone well in our Bible study on this text ,at the World Communion of Reformed Churches General Council the last 10 days in Leipzig, Germany. Like Jesus, he also did not mince his words, saying the setting for Jesus’ entire earthly life was one of occupation. In Palestine, to be exact. Jesus’ people were occupied by Rome, and so his ministry was never just about personal salvation; it was communal salvation,  saving oppressed people from the tyranny of political and religious occupation. Raheb, one who has experienced occupation as a daily reality for his Christian flock, names the saving those under it need saying, “Occupied people are not poor, they are made poor as resources are exploited by the empire. So Jesus doesn’t offer aid or food, but good news.”

This gospel against empire is a tricky business. It’s a get-yourself-run-off-a-cliff-sort-of-business, because religion and empire have always been complicated bedfellows. But the carpenter’s kid doesn’t back down. Naming something of a mission statement, he reads from Isaiah his 5-point plan. 
1. good news to the poor
2. release for the captives
3. recovery of sight to the blind
4. freedom for the oppressed
5. a year of jubilee

Jesus was preaching what we preachers (and all people of faith) should always proclaim: good news. But sometimes it’s not recognized as such, especially when it means things have to change. Change rarely feels good, or cozy, or welcome. 

Jesus’ message hit way too close to home, because he dared critique his own people and faith, naming that while some good was done in the past, God wasn’t nearly finished. 
And God wouldn’t be finished until there was no such thing as poverty, captivity, blindness, incarceration, or despair. (Which means of course, God’s still not finished.) This good news would require turning the world upside down, and those religious folk simply didn’t have the energy for that. They’d rather let their hometown boy die than have to change. What do we sacrifice in order to hold onto some semblance of staying the same, I wonder?

But each time we try to run that message off, to stick to we’ve-always-done-it-this-way, Jesus, that wily Savior, slips on through our shortsighted fingers. He lives on, bringing good news everywhere he goes. Sometimes that’s in the walls of the church, and sometimes it’s not. 

I’ll tell you this, though: I saw him spreading that gospel joy all over the place in Germany. Gathered with Reformed Christians from Indonesia to Northern Ireland to Lebanon to Madagascar, I saw that wily Jesus still sharing his gospel with all who would listen.

I heard his voice, echoes of this first sermon of his, through people like pastor and professor Nadia Marais from Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She named the relationship between the church and a changing culture, saying, “If we are unconcerned with those unwanted in our churches we cheapen God’s grace and the life-giving salvation of God. Grace is not up to us: it is given to all of us by God. Grace is unapologetically present. The church does not belong to us. The gospel reminds us that for this very reason, we do not get to choose who we don’t want in the church with us.”

The people who listened to Jesus preach that day in Palestine, who perhaps went for the novelty of hearing Mary and Joe’s son speak as much as anything, wanted to decide on behalf of God who was in and who was out. Using liturgical language, they labeled many “unclean,” excluding them in the so-called name of God’s law. But Jesus was never phased by such descriptors and categories: grace and compassion abounded in his every breath, even as they tried to kill him for it.

By the time he got to point 5 of his mission statement, those hometown folks weren’t even listening anymore. So, they couldn’t hear that last crescendo of a promise: a year of jubilee!

In Jewish tradition, a year of jubilee was part of God’s order. It was an ordinance woven through with grace, where slaves were freed, property was returned, and even the land itself was given a rest. It was a time of sabbath, of reformation, of renewal. 

I experienced something of this joyful jubilee in many moments at the WCRC, including an impromptu conga line at closing worship as we danced, singing, “Siyahamba…We are marching in the light of God!” with one voice in many languages.

Perhaps the most well known presenter at the WCRC (other than Joanna Hipp who did an amazing job preaching at the close of the women’s conference!) was German theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann. At 90 years old, he brought the word of God with great power and authenticity. He called for this good news of jubilee, even as he grieved the loss of his wife, saying, “Let us measure the positive dimension of the great joy in the broad spaces of God, who is closer to us than we think, and widens our lives more than we suspect.”

Sometimes jubilee can only come through change, like through an unassuming carpenter’s son becoming a prophet. Or through the WCRC General Council for the first time issuing a binding statement on the validity and importance of women’s ordination. Or through dismantling the systems of empire and occupation that keep poor people poor. As Moltmann reminded us, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is community. 

A beloved community where change is possible, where reformation still happens, and where sometimes that wily Jesus shows up. He hits close to home to remind us that this whole ‘church’ thing was never just about wherever we call home, but instead about the God who made a home with us all. And where God makes a home, no matter what change comes, no matter what newness is required of us, there is jubilee, great joy to be found in the broad spaces of God. 

That is the best news there is, not just for us, but for all. Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Children Playing at Peace

June 25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21
8 The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Once upon a time, there were two little boys. One was lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned. They shared a father. These half brothers didn’t know they weren’t of the same standing, as one was born to a slave woman and the other to a wealthy woman. They played together as equals, because that’s what children do until they’re taught not to. Their mothers did not always (okay, ever) get along. One had all the power and privilege; the other was property. Her name was Hagar. Hagar didn’t even have a say when Abraham needed a womb to carry his child. She resented the woman who made that happen: Sarah, his wife. She resented cleaning her floors; she resented being looked through like she wasn’t a person; she resented her boy being kept away from the finer educational opportunities. 
Sarah, in turn, resented Hagar. She was jealous of her fertility, and bitter about her ability to have dignity no matter how undignified a task Sarah gave her to do. No, these women did not like each other at all. But their boys were a different matter.

One day, as the boys were playing and laughing together (that Isaac nearly always laughed), both mothers looked on. For a moment their eyes met across the plain, and silently (in the way women do), they came to a decision together. They hated each other, yes. But their boys would not. 
They let the boys keep playing together. Specifically, Sarah let those boys play together, and play they did. Ishmael, though seen as less-than because of his skin color and mother, was an older brother, through and through. He taught Isaac how to tend the sheep, and was always in charge of whatever fantasy game they invented. Isaac, though first by privilege and inheritance, adored his older brother, mimicking his every move. Ishmael was his hero. 

The boys’ love for each other eventually thawed the frosty hearts of their mothers. You couldn’t notice it at first, but in tiny ways, Sarah started being easier on Hagar. She stopped mocking her openly, gave her more comfortable tasks, and finally, one night many years later, as Hagar placed Sarah’s plentiful dinner before her, and turned to go eat her own meager meal by the fire, Sarah put a hand on her arm. She asked, not told, her if she’d like to share her table. 

Hagar rightly expected it to be a trick, but it wasn’t. She saw genuine repentance and kindness in Sarah’s eyes, and so she did sit with her, that night, and nearly every night since, for dinner. And so it happened that two little boys, half-brothers, taught peace to generations after them, all because they were allowed to play together.

…but that’s not what happened, is it? Those two little boys, one lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned, weren’t allowed to play together after all. When their mothers’ eyes met across the field that day, Sarah’s were filled with rage. She heard the echoes of a lifetime of unjust judgment and patriarchy ring in her ears: “Barren. Less than a woman. Less than a slave. Empty. Nothing.” Trapped in her own bitterness, she then exacted that same unjust sentence on a child who’d done nothing wrong, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac!” she shouted to her husband Abraham.

If the boys were allowed to play together, then they were equals. And so were their mothers. And Sarah wasn’t so sure that, when measured up to the dignity and fertility of Hagar, she would come out on top. She couldn’t allow that to happen. Hagar and the boy had to disappear.

Hagar wasn’t asked, of course. She was ordered to go into the wilderness of Beer-sheba with her son Ishmael, a sentence somehow so-called justified by God. Abraham gave them a puny skin of water and a few crumbs, but she knew it was only to make himself feel less guilty. The water gave out soon, even though she never dared drink even a mouthful, so Ishmael could have it all. Though parched with thirst, her tears flowed freely as she laid the child she’d had no choice in having (or loving) under the shrub that gave the most shade. She wandered away, a broken person, less than a person, which is perhaps what Sarah wanted all along.

She tried to stop her ears to the cries of the boy, but she couldn’t. Each one broke her more than the last. But she wasn’t the only one listening. God was. God heard the desperate cries of that abandoned child, and spoke to Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

They survived, and God was with the boy, and he grew strong, making the wilderness his home. He missed his little brother desperately, but the look on his mother’s face when he mentioned Isaac made him eventually stop saying his name. 

And slowly, in the way that often happens, the bitterness and anger of parents got passed on to those boys, until playing together seemed childish, foolish, and even reckless. Isaac was told Ishmael was dangerous and cunning, a threat to his inheritance, and eventually he believed it. Ishmael was told Isaac wanted only to enslave and defeat him, and eventually he believed it. 

They came together to bury their father at Hebron many years later, but there was no love between them. Brothers in blood, but strangers in spirit. It turns out they shared an inheritance, after all: one of brutality and bitterness. And thus the spiritual children of Isaac and Ishmael – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – have struggled with that inheritance ever since, fighting even over the very burial ground of that common father Abraham.

But just because Sarah made a very wrong choice the day those boys played together, does that mean we have to keep making that choice? Thanks be to God, the answer is no. We don’t. We don’t have to let our prejudices and fears poison our children’s chances at peace. 

We can change the course of this sad story. Sometimes, the only way to interrupt the cycles of hatred and injustice, of oppression and conflict, is with creativity, with art. Art doesn’t take sides; it doesn’t demand a particular interpretation or indoctrinate those who experience it. It simply offers itself, freely and honestly. One such offering comes to us from Jewish poet Shin Shalom. It is named “Ishmael, Ishmael,” and speaks from the perspective of a conflicted Isaac. 

Ishmael, my brother,
How long shall we fight each other?

My brother from times bygone, 
My brother, Hagar's son, 
My brother, the wandering one. 
One angel was sent to us both, 
One angel watched over our growth -
There in the wilderness, death threatening through thirst, 
I a sacrifice on the altar, Sarah's first. 

Ishmael, my brother, hear my plea: 
It was the angel who tied thee to me ... 

The caravan progresses, out of breath,
Crossing the desert, a march to death.
But we have seen a mission divine,
Eternal secrets are thine and mine.
Why should we blind each other’s eyes?
Let us be brothers; brother, arise!
The heat of the desert has narrowed our mind,
Our common grazing ground we cannot find.

Let us remember our father’s kind heart,
Let brothers never again from each other part.
Remember “the well of the Living God Who sees me,”
Let bonds of friendship bring me to thee.
Time is running out, put hatred to sleep. 
Shoulder to shoulder, let's water our sheep.

If once upon a time, a mighty conflict that rages still was born through two little boys who weren’t allowed to play together, can you imagine all the good that can be done with even the tiniest of actions? It is time to put hatred to sleep, to create space for the brothers and sisters of this weary world play at peace. 

Because one day, there will be two little boys, one darker-skinned, one lighter-skinned, one Christian, one Muslim, playing together. And the world will begin to know peace. 
Is this story just a fairy tale? Is that day today? 

That, my friends, is up to us. Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Waiting to Laugh

Image Source
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.3He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on-since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said."6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes."7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent."10Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"13The LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?'14Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."15But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
1The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.3Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.6Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."7And she said, "Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Sermon: "Waiting to Laugh"

What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait for something, I wonder? For me, it was 25 years. 25 years I waited for God to make good on a promise from another life, when I had another name. I was Abraham, not Abram. Sarah wasn’t Sarai anymore. But none of that “descendants like the sand on the seashore” promise had come true. We became what you might call expert waiters (which is just a fancy way of saying we were experts at disappointment).

After God changed our names with a ridiculous promise, we believed it for a while. Any little fleck of sun through the trees was a sign; any unexpected rain was a message from God; any internal nudge was God’s voice. Only it wasn’t. It was just the sun; just the rain; just indigestion. That promise became as old and weathered as our old bodies, and we stopped talking about it (which is a just a fancy way of saying we gave up).

I’d stared at those oak trees in front of our tent for decades. They were just trees: bark and leaves, roots and branches. But on that day, they became something different altogether. And so did ol’ Sarai and Abram. We became our new names. 

It was the heat of the day, and I was getting too old to be working in it. So, I perched myself outside the tent to try to get the best of the fickle breeze. I was admiring those old oak trees, and to tell you the truth, I was a bit jealous of their haphazard, thoughtless ability to give birth to new trees. Sarah and I told ourselves we didn’t need anything else in life (which is just a fancy way of saying we settled). But, jealous as I was, those trees were comforting, sheltering. They put my soul at rest. As I watched those fertile trees, suddenly in the wavy heat of the day, something else appeared in their shade. 

People. But not quite like any people I’d ever seen. I had thought my heart was only full of blood and obligation, and so it was quite a shock when I felt a real stirring (that wasn’t indigestion). I intuitively knew, the way you know when you meet the love of your life, that these strange foreigners were from God. 

I was surprised at how fast my old legs could take me — I ran to them, calling them holy names like “Lord” and begged not to pass by. Those old oaks became the holiest of sanctuaries and I asked them to stay, to rest, and to let me show them kindness. They agreed, and settled down to rest in that shade. I pulled out all the stops: freshly made bread, a fatted calf, curds and milk! Ah, you don’t sound that impressed. Trust me, on a hot day, you can’t beat curds and milk, y’all.

Anyway, I fed them because that’s just what you do when a stranger comes your way on a particularly hot day. I waited, wondering what might happen, or if these silent strangers had any message from God for me. 

Finally, one of them, wiping away his milk mustache, smiled and simply asked, “Where’s your wife Sarah?” 

With a shock I realized I hadn’t told them my wife’s name. The little flicker of faith in me burst to life, and I dared to hope that maybe God remembered a long-ago promise. 

It turns out, God never forgets God’s promises. That foreigner said the most shocking news as if he were simply reading the morning news: “I’ll be back to visit you again, in a year. By then, your wife Sarah will have had a son.” Sarah was of course listening from the tent and started laughing. And she never really stopped: we named the boy Isaac, after all, which means “he laughs” in our language. 

I’ve heard a saying from time to time (I have been around a while). 
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” 
Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but that seems awfully backwards to me! I say that if you want to find out God’s plans for you, follow your laughter. It will show you the way.

What, I wonder, is making you laugh these days? Not laugh at  someone, or with a sarcastic, desperate tone. I mean really laugh, belly to toes, eyes streaming tears of delight. When was the last time you laughed like that? How was God speaking to you through it?

If you feel like laughter is a luxury you can’t afford, that life is too heavy or you’re too old or tired for such frivolity, I’ll tell you this: you need laughter now more than ever. I’ll also say this: Sarah and I never would found our laughter — and our Isaac — if I’d let those strangers pass us by. If I hadn’t made my tired legs and heart run to them, welcome them, show compassion to them, we would have gone on laugh-less the rest of our days. If I hadn’t recognized that those old resting oaks were actually holy ground meant to be shared, we never would have lived into our new names. We would have been Abraham and Sarah, proud and solid on the outside, all the while remaining Abram and Sarai, bitter and afraid on the inside.

Do you want to laugh? Welcome the stranger in. 
Do you want to laugh? Don’t give up on God, or yourself. 
Do you want to laugh? Open yourself to the possibility that God is always doing a new thing, even (and in my case, especially) late in the game. 

Find your laughter. Find your life. 
I promise you, it’s worth the wait.