Monthly Archive

Palm/Passion Sunday Homily: “Who is this?” April 9, 2017

Texts:  Isaiah 50:4-9a;  Matt. 21:1-9;  Matt. 26:1-16

Who is this?  The whole city—in turmoil—asks.  Who in God’s holy name is this man entering our city occupied by the damnable Romans at the beginning of our Passover holy days, disrupting the status quo, endangering us all?  Who is this clown, masquerading as a prince, yet riding on a stupid donkey, coming down a side street with a crowd of radicals trailing along, stripping branches from the trees to wave, and throwing their garments before the donkey’s feet?

The city was in turmoil, Matthew tells us.   That holy city of David is yet today in turmoil…but not because of a pretender king, a state endorsed ruler, or a popular public figure…but because human hearts still haven’t learned how to love God and their neighbor—as all of the three great religions of that city teach.

“Who is this man?”, we ask, in our own time.  “Who is he, and what has he to do with me, with us?”

Surely one of our answers is the same as that of the people who answered the question long ago:  “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”   Over the centuries he has been made into so much more—a divine being occupying a human form—God in human flesh; the sacrificial lamb whose blood and death is perversely required by divine justice as the pure sacrifice to atone for all the failures, the evils, the misdeeds and mistakes of us humans.   “What kind of God is that?” we ought surely to ask in our own time.

Who is this? Who do you say?  Who is he, for you?

Most of us would prefer to jump from what we, in our minds’ eye,  have made a triumphal entry with throngs of people waving their palms and throwing their coats down on the road in front of this strange parade, to Easter Sunday morning with its lilies trumpeting beauty, and life from a dead bulb.  We don’t want to have to go through the middle part of the week, thank you very much.  It is just so overwhelmingly tragic—and we are living in times that are tragic enough, we think, that reliving that awful story comes as an assault.  Palm Sunday is the Trojan horse of the Christian narrative:   We get lured in by the festivity, but before we know it we are being assaulted … by the long agonizing story of the last supper, of betrayal by one who has been loved, of gut-wrenching prayers, of arrest and taunting and torture, of a cruel mockery of a trial, and then the most degrading and terrifying death that humans can inflict on someone—to nail them to a cross and leave them hanging there, gasping for breath, with birds attacking their eyes and wounds, until they die a piteous death.

Who is this? The question pounds away at us: On one level, the easiest level, we can see him as a historical figure:  a wandering teacher who saw himself as a prophet, a simple man from Nazareth in Galilee…born over 2000 years ago.  However obscure his beginnings, however unimportant his time, the politics of his place—on him has the hinge of history swung around and the world is forever different.  There have been lots of story tellers, and truth tellers, and prophets over the millennia….so there must be something more.

Our fragile emotions carry us away from dwelling too long on what more there might be about this man.  We don’t want death to have center stage.  We don’t want the dreadful fear of what is to come to haunt our sleep and cloud our consciousness.

Our very reasonableness keeps us from dwelling too long on what more there might be about this man.  We both want, and don’t want, the eternal to enter time and space, our times and our spaces.   And yet it is also true that we do not want death to have center stage.  We are tired of this stuff in Jerusalem, these suicide terrorists.  We are heartbroken by the assault upon OUR emblems of our wealth, and upon the everyday lives of our fellow citizens.   We don’t want the dreadful fear of what is to come to haunt our sleep and cloud our consciences.

Yet the purpose of Holy Week is to empty us—to empty us all of the fullness of self by which we live too much.  Do I need to tell you the lies by which we all console ourselves, the little and big moral adjustments we make to getting along and going along? I think not.

I have learned, my friends, in my long years of living and preaching and trying to live the Gospel, and lots of conversations with others who do not share my religious convictions,  that there are many paths to truth, to wholeness—that word which really defines salvation.  I have come to see that the Ground of all Being, holiness itself, whom we name God, has, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, many sheep outside his fold.  Truth, hope, love, compassion, kindness, grace, and wholeness and salvation are available in many spiritual paths, some religious and some not religious.   I choose the Christian path because the narrative has soaked into the very marrow of my being, and I know that regularly, I need the emptying, purging, death confronting emotions and experience of this man, this “shabby hero and forlorn sainthood in rags, and courage without means, grace in disgrace, royalty stable-born,” as Amos Wilder described him.

The unnamed woman, who on Holy Monday, anointed Jesus with the very expensive ointment from an alabaster jar, knew who he was.  He was one who sat at table with lepers, breaking an ancient taboo and all reasonable regard for his own health. He was one who did not reject her presence in the room of men, much less the actions that she took.  She knew him as a man acquainted with grief, who had, as the old poet Isaiah had said, the tongue of a teacher and knew how to sustain the wear with a word.  She knew him as one about to die—and thus worthy of being prepared for that death in advance with the soothing oils of mercy and kindness.  So, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she did is told in remembrance of her. Sydney Carter’s song on your insert suggests what Jesus had said earlier in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, that the poor of the world are his body.

Who is this?  Who is this evocateur of our heart’s deepest anxieties and fears?  To the Judas Iscariots who continue to roam the world, he was one who failed to be the leader that they dreamed of, exercising righteous judgment and punishment on everything and everyone whom they believe are wrong—in their ideas, in their behaviors, in who they are.

For people like us, the reasonably thoughtful, the reasonably reasonable and realistic, this holy week  always comes to us as a surprise.  But we are surprised again and again, I think, by our own need, by the way in which even the crucifixion, the torture—a word which means to twist—reflects our own half-seen, half understood, perceptions about life and our lives.  For we too are men and women of sorrow and acquainted with grief.    When he cries out, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, we know that God knows what it is like to know the desperation that comes when we know that all is lost.

Who is this?  Who IS this man?  Ecce homo.  Behold, the man.   This man, who drives us to our knees, who empties our sated self-centeredness, who feeds us with bread and wine, with his own body and blood.  Who is this man we see afresh when we too, as Barrie Shepherd says in his poem, “find yourself slammed right up against a cross, a jagged crown, torn flesh and blood, with cries of dereliction”?

And so we come to this Holy week once more, wondering, “Who is this?” and “what might rise from all of that?”  For the humble woman who dared to enter the leper’s house amid the room of disciples, and anoint him with costly love, he was—as he is for me, and for you, I suspect as well, on this Palm Sunday,  simply Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: The Calling and the Called April 2, 2017

TEXTS:   Isaiah 61:1-3; Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

The 50th Anniversary of my ordination to ministry

Fifty years ago, on this day, over at Woodland Christian Church in Lexington, a number of people gathered around as I knelt and they laid hands upon my head, in a peculiar ritual in which prayers were offered that the head upon which the hands were laid would have a mind similar to that of Christ; that my speech would be marked by truth; and that I would grow in faith, be strong in times of trouble, that my words and work would prosper, and that through it all, God would be glorified. The act of laying hands on the head of an ordinand—the person being ordained to ministry—was meant to be a transfer of authority and power in the name of the Church.  Not that I–or many women ordained to ministry have ever had much authority and power easily granted to us.

This morning, I want not so much to wander down a lane of nostalgia and self-indulgence, but to invite you to think with me about the calling God, acting through prophets and Christ, from long ago until this very present moment, to each of us as Christians, as members of Christ’s Church—which St. Paul called “the body of Christ”, and how we are each called to ministry in our own time and our own way.

The word ministry means service.  A minister is an agent or an instrument.  From time to time, we pray the prayer of St. Francis:  Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.   Make me a minister, a servant, an agent of your peace.

We have arrived today at the 5th Sunday in Lent, in the annual pilgrimage of Christians following Jesus to his destiny—and ours—in Jerusalem.  The lectionary readings for today are not those we have already read—but rather were the vision of Ezekiel of the valley of dry bones, and how the Spirit of God blew upon them and put fragmented, broken, dead bodies back to life.    The Gospel lesson was to be the long story about the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, and how belatedly Jesus arrived to grieve with his friends, and then how Jesus had the stone of the tomb of Lazarus moved away—prefiguring the time when the stone of his own tomb would be moved—and called Lazarus to come out!  To come out of death to life.

In some profound and obscure ways, the task given to all of us as human beings is, I have come to believe, to put sinew and breath into the dry bones and parched places where life tries its best to turn us to dust, and to be called and to call others from death to life.  I said during my campaign that running for office was merely an extension of my life-long mission which was to mend what was torn in people’s lives, to try to fix what was broken in institutions and society, and to create communities of care where people could be sustained together for the challenges of living in our particular times.

The texts that were used in my ordination service 50 years ago were perhaps indicative of how those 50 years for me would unfold.  The first passage, Isaiah 61, may refer back to the Servant of the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  The opening lines:  The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me….could also have been a self-reference to the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus used the passage  as a reference to himself in Luke 4, when in his home town of Nazareth he opened the scroll and read this passage from the prophet Isaiah.  His townspeople were not upset that he was using this passage to refer to himself.  They were only angry when he compared them to the resistance of the Jewish people to the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were unable to perform their mighty deeds in their presence, but were able to work among foreigners.

I don’t remember choosing this passage from Isaiah 61, and think that it might have been chosen by the minister of Woodland at the time.  Certainly, I would not have been so bold as to claim that God’s Spirit was upon me.  The tasks outlined for the prophet, however, I would claim:  to bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and so on.  They are the tasks of the church in every age.  They are YOUR tasks, not just the responsibility of those who are paid to work for the church.

Most people think that clergy must surely have had a transcendent holy spiritual experience of being “called” directly by God to be a minister.  I never had such an experience.  Elizabeth played the popular hymn, “Here I Am, Lord” as her meditation this morning.  You’ll find it at #452.  The chorus says, “Here I am, Lord.  Is it I, Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.”  Nope.  Not me.  What I felt then—and now—is the calling of every Christian in what the writer of I Peter, in the second chapter, calls “the priesthood of all believers.”  We are all called, as members of the church, as Christians, to be priests and ministers to each other and to our world—with those tasks that Isaiah outlined.  I had grown up in the church, attending worship from the time I was a baby, and it had seeped into the very marrow of my bones.

The church was a place that I loved:  full of interesting people with lives marked by success and failure, by energy and by declining strength, a community of care where I could be paid to be a scholar, to read—what luxury; to play with children and young people; to enjoy the wisdom of the elderly; where I could use my musical training, my skills in public relations acquired as a newspaper editor in high school and college, my training as a public school teacher (acquired because my father didn’t trust that I could find gainful employment in the church, and he wanted me to have something by which I could earn a living!).   Ministry was a calling, but also an occupation where many of the talents and skills I had acquired could be put to gainful use.

The passage from Ecclesiastes was a text I chose for my ordination and reflected what I had learned at that point in my 25 years of life:  that there were no guarantees, that there is no certainty to be had. Not anywhere. Ecclesiastes is a rather cynical old preacher of ancient wisdom.  By 25, I had gone through the murder of a close friend; a terrible accident that left a young man I loved a paraplegic and a different perspective on life; and a broken engagement.  The minister of my youth had written to me when my friend was murdered, when I was hunkering down and very fearful about the world, that I should not be afraid to take risks—but, he cautioned, always ride a bit loose in the saddle of life lest the sharp turns unseat you.  Cast your bread—the stuff of your life, as it were—on the waters—the flow of the years to unfold...He who observes the wind will not sow; and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” Or, as Bill Coffin later said:  “First you leap, then you grow wings.”

This morning, I suggest to you that we are all “called”  in a special way with gifts to offer.  Many of you have been ministering—not paid to do it but as members and leaders of churches—for most of your lives.  This may be my 50th anniversary of a specific event but you, too, have anniversaries of membership, of leadership, in church and world.  You too are called to cast your bread upon the waters, to risk something good for something great.  There are no guarantees, no certainties.  Our calling is to cast our bread on the waters of life, to bring good news, to proclaim liberty, to help those who mourn.

Some of you, I know, may be worried about the younger generation’s lack of belief. I’m not.  Where once I might have felt that ministry was about helping people believe in Jesus, and that the people in the church were the ones who needed the liberating from captivity, or in need of the good news because they were the oppressed, I no longer think that the church’s job is to help people BELIEVE, to assent to some list of creedal affirmations—but rather to help the people of the whole world, and my particular corner of it, live together with grace and compassion, in kindness and caring.  The church, its clergy and its members, are a specially called community of care whose calling is to do just that:  to extend grace, forgiveness, compassion, kindness and hope in a world that is like that valley of dry bones.

If the younger generation doesn’t believe in God as a supreme being, we ought not worry if they still believe in treating their neighbors as they would like to be treated; if they believe in justice and truth and are working for it in their daily lives; if they extend grace and acceptance to those who are different or left behind or discriminated against, if they find ways to give hope to our beleaguered world—then the open source Jesus and the God of all being—is still at work in their lives and in our world.

Fifty years ago, the pledges I made were narrow in their scope.  My years in the United Church of Christ broadened that perspective, as did life and experience in churches with people in many places and of many generations and backgrounds.  I think they have it right in their ordination service where they say that they affirm “the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression and in purity of heart before God.”  Then a couple of sentences later the service says that the UCC, [as does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and most other Protestant communions], “recognizes that God calls the whole church and every member to participate in and extend the ministry of Jesus Christ by witnessing to the gospel in church and society.”

Are you called?  Absolutely.  Your calling, in each and every day, should you choose to accept it, is to bring life to the valley of dry bones—where African American men are incarcerated at rates far exceeding their population; where transgendered people still face oppression and persecution; where religious minorities are victims of hate crimes; where lies and alternative facts have replaced truth and seeking after truth; where greed has replaced generosity as a virtue.  Your calling, should you choose to accept it, in each and every day, is to raise those who are wrapped up in the stone cold tombs of death-dealing war and violence, in self-absorption and narrowness of vision, to the life that God always intended.  You are called, and your calling is to join Jesus in calling to Lazarus wherever he may be to “come out.”  You are called, just as I am still called, to stir up life in those who are imprisoned in empty lives, to awaken what’s gone dead in our society—such as our values—and to bring hope wherever there is despair and grief.

It’s a pretty good gig, my friends—and I thank you for sharing a goodly portion of my 50 years in this calling with you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Sermon: Called to Hope

Texts:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Ps. 29Acts 10:34-36a;  Matthew 3:13-17

[A note to all readers:  what was written as the manuscript for the sermon is not necessarily what is said verbally.  The manuscript version of the sermon is close to the presented verbal sermon, but almost never identical.  New ideas occur to me in the moment, perhaps through the work of the Holy Spirit, perhaps through my  imaginative editing.]

 

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins….   by Howard Thurman

 

In the course of human history, whether the history of all humanity, or of nations, or of just our own small lives, there come moments of thunderous and shocking revelations.  We call them an epiphany.   Occasionally they come in moments of utter holiness and sacred beauty, when we were all by ourselves, or at least, attuned to our inner selves, and not our communities of meaning.  And sometimes, whole peoples—nations, organizations, communities of meaning like families or churches—will experience the in-breaking of some mysterious power that turns everything around and upside down.  In the case of epiphanies that strike nations, groups, and circles of meaning and purpose, the events that evoke the epiphany—the sudden new understandings and determination for a new direction—have been banal, or far worse, evil.

Perhaps in your own life there have been moments—and probably more than once—when you realized in stunning clarity that you didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations but your own, that you didn’t have to be defined as the “goody-two-shoes”, or “the athlete”, or the mean kid, or the brat, the fatty, the wall-flower, Miss Popularity, or the nerd.    When all the old feelings of unworthiness fell away in the dawning realization that there was, in this world, a reality, a force, a being, perhaps, that loved you for who you were and who you were meant to be.

Sometimes that moment came in a tap on the shoulder from a friend, or a mentor who gave voice to what would be your life’s calling and joyful work, inviting you to try on an occupation, a role….and you knew, in a heartbeat, that it was right for you.

Or maybe, as in the case of the conscience of nations, as well as of  smaller communities and individuals, it was some great evil that awoke within you a deeper sense that some transcendent power was calling you to “turn around”, to be changed, to allow transformation – or at least profound examination of conscience – to occur.  I frankly suspect that in the year ahead of us—perhaps over the next four years—there will come a moment to decide what kind of person we are going to be, what kind of nation we want, and this church will be facing a decision about what kind of Christian community you are going to be after 183 years.

The assault here in Kentucky this past week on workers and the stripping away in less than 4 days of their hard won rights, and the utter disregard for the dignity and intelligence of women in our Commonwealth are just two examples of what may unfold on the national scene once the Trump administration begins.  If I am being too political, tough beans.  I have 6 months left here, in my 21st year of ministry in this place, and the culmination of 50 years of being a preacher, and I will feel few constraints.  I will try not jeopardize your non-profit status, however.

The gospel comes to us to tell us of Jesus, going to John the Baptizer—the voice crying in the wilderness, the spokesman tapping people and a community on the shoulder, who has been saying loudly, dramatically:    Repent.  It’s time for transformation, for turning around from the path you are on, to die to your old self—because that old self is rotting away, is corrupt, is blind to privilege and to what really matters—and then letting the old ways be washed away in the river Jordan, and to rise to be the persons and the nation that God intends for you to be.

What possibly could this text from Matthew have to say to us today?    First, let us remember that Matthew has a theological perspective in which he is placing the events of Jesus’ life as they are known to him.   He has jumped from Jesus as a baby, transported to Egypt by his father Joseph—much as the Joseph of Genesis helped transport his own people in a time of famine to Egypt where his dreams had led to provisions for the time of famine.  Joseph then brings his family back to Israel, to Nazareth on the death of Herod.  The very next action in Matthew’s Gospel is, in effect, an exodus event for Jesus:  from one time in his life, from one way of being, to a new identity as he enters the waters of the river, and rises with a confirmation from a voice from heaven.

Second, it became a theological problem for Christians after the 4th century when the church decided that Jesus had to be DIVINE, that Jesus would allow John, the baptizer who calls for repentance, to baptize him.  Did Jesus need repentance?  This was not a problem for Matthew.  I’ll be blunt again, for me, Jesus is no more divine that you or me, no more the Son of God than you or I are the Sons and Daughters of God.   Jesus was, however, for Matthew a new Moses, a new religious leader and guide who could transform not merely Israel, but the whole world.

Matthew answers this question in two ways:  first, as the symbolic opening movement of Jesus’ new ministry, his new focus on the fulfillment of his calling, his personhood, Matthew has Jesus suggest to the hesitant John that the act must be “collaborative”.  And that’s a good rule of thumb:  transformative work, new reformations, need to be communal and collaborative, to give outside credence to an individual impulse, and to hold individuals accountable.  Beware of anyone, anyone, who says “I alone”.

And secondly,  Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). John must concede to baptize Jesus; Jesus must seek the baptism of John. Together, their obedience to God’s plans is a step on the path of righteousness.   To “fulfill all righteousness” means to act in obedience to God in a way that coordinates internal dispositions and external action. Jesus’ first steps in public ministry are a combination of a compliant spirit and a powerful, public display of his obedience to God’s call.

You and I are called to “fulfill all righteousness”, too, and to have our internal attitudes and character be consistent with our words and deeds.  It is a hard struggle, and easily set aside. Jesus becomes “Lord”, “Messiah”, the revelation of God, and God’s anointed with whom God is well pleased, because he refused to set aside that struggle throughout his adult life and ministry.

If then the Lord can acknowledge the need for public assent to submit his life to God, so that his internal sense of identity could be meshed with an outward act that confirmed that calling, are we not—as persons in the various moments of our lives, as a church, as a nation—in need of that same righteous cleansing ritual?

The beginning of a new year is always a good occasion to remember our own baptisms—which may, or may not have been with water at the hands of a religious figure, when we were infants, or pre-teens, or even adults entering into a sacramental rite.  Baptisms come by fire, by truth, by terrible beauty and awful tragedy as well by the more subtle and sneaky ways of politics.   When and where have you been baptized lately?  My most recent one came on Jan. 10, when this congregation was holding its annual meeting, and clarity dawned that I was being called—in a holy way—to run for Congress.

Baptism is God’s call through all the wilderness voices asking us for repentance, and to allow what needs to die in us to be drowned forever that we might rise to know that love is what makes us whole and sane and productive persons and communities.  We too must allow ourselves God’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness.   And then, like Jesus, we will want to be about the work of God’s servant people:  being a light to others in dark times; helping the blind to see; working to bring those imprisoned out of whatever dungeons they may find themselves.  It is to be a people who have God’s spirit placed upon us so that we will work for justice.

Heavy decisions await each of us as citizens of this nation and this Commonwealth over the next four years.  We may be required to consider non-violent civil disobedience.

In this church, you are going to have to decide what kind of leadership you want and whether you are willing to pay a fair and just wage for that leadership.  Again, I’ll be blunt.  You have underpaid me for years.  I have let you do it, because I have loved you and loved my ministry here, and money has never been a big thing with me.  But a future part-time minister will need far more money than you pay me to survive, even with a second part-time job.   When I started there were about 10 giving units or households. We have grown steadily if very slowly, but for the light of this church to continue to be cast into the dark world, you are going to need to make individual and communal decisions about what you give to support the ministry of this church.

There’s an old hymn that I love and that Bill Coffin loved, and that is no longer in our hymn books because it is difficult to sing and because the language is not gender inclusive. It is based on a poem, titled “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell.  The hymn takes selected lines from that poem, and I’ve enclosed the words of the hymn in the program for you.  The opening verse speaks to my theme this morning—and from Christmas Eve—

Once to every man and nation

comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood,

For the good or evil side;

Some great cause, God’s new messiah,

Offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever,

‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

Bill Coffin ended his memoir by saying these words:  “…what human beings seem most to fear is not the evil in themselves but the good, the good being so demanding.  …So while not optimistic, I am hopeful.” he wrote.  “By this I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life.”

Hope is our calling.  Hope is our light.  Hope baptizes us with a passion for wholeness in our broken world.  May you continue to be a place and a people of hope, where hope is born and replaces despair.  Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing with Joseph Advent 4-A, 12/18/16

TEXTS:  Isaiah 7:10-16;  Matthew 1:18-25

In most crèches, manger scenes, and children’s pageants performed at churches everywhere, there is one who stands at the back of the stage, usually given only the task of knocking on the door of an overcrowded wayside inn, and then standing mutely by while the action unfolds.  His name is Joseph.   My father’s name was Joseph, and that may explain some of my fascination with this story.

Perhaps Joseph stands for all the good and moral people who  periodically acknowledge a hunger for some sense of holiness but who remain puzzled, mostly, by religion.  Christmas can evoke an special sense of spiritual hunger, longing to know what the good life might be, and perhaps, to experience God.   I believe it true to say that one of the human heart’s greatest hope, AND greatest fear, is that God will truly come to us.   At the same time, there are lots of people who think of themselves as believers who just want a little inoculation of Christianity, or religion—just enough so that they don’t catch the real thing; and Christmas, more than Easter, serves as their annual booster shot.   To be touched by the holy spirit, as was that good man Joseph, that could be a fearful thing, radically changing everything we ever thought or hoped for or on which we have based our lives.

Most of us, of course, have merged the two  nativity stories, unaware of how vastly different they are.   Luke focuses on Mary, but Matthew’s central character is Joseph.

In this season, we love the sentimental strains of “Away in the Manger” with the animals cooing theologically over the “little Lord Jesus.”   But those are Luke’s stage scenery and characters.

Matthew, however, literally does “away WITH the manger”.  There is no manger or stable in Matthew’s version.  Jesus is pictured as living in a house when the magi arrive.  What Matthew gives us is the heart-ache and head-ache  of Joseph—his dilemma of what to do about Mary, his interrupted sleep, his demanding, insistent dreams.  We get the fear of Herod.  We are told of the terrible slaughter of the innocents.  Matthew’s story is far from sweet.

Old Matthew was a scholar for sure:  he knew his Bible.  He knew his vocation:  to set forth the message that would continually reform the life of the community around the one who, for him as a Jew, was surely the new Moses, giving a new law or Torah, preached from a new mountain, to a community who would constitute a new Israel.

Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, but it really isn’t the genealogy of Jesus, but of  Joseph.  There are 42 generations listed, 6 blocks of 7 names.  The 7th age was believed to be an age of completeness and wholeness.

Matthew likes to do things in fives.  There are 5 sections of his Gospel, symbolic of the five books of Moses.  There are 5 OT citations in Matthew’s Christmas story.  There are 5 women in the genealogy—all women with a reputation:  Tamar and Rahab are prostitutes; Ruth a seductress and foreigner, as was Rahab; Bathsheba an adultress.

Then there are these curious parallels of the Joseph of the Torah and this Joseph, who will be called the husband of Mary—one from the beginning of the people named Israel; the other whose story will begin the story of a new covenant.  In Matthew’s telling of this story, it seems as if nothing is left to chance.  He has carefully crafted his story so that the  central character is an adoptive father of the one who would bring new community,  and appropriately bears the name of the old Joseph—whose name means “God will add”—who was sold into slavery by his brothers and who became an adoptive son of Pharaoh, and who would become an interpreter of royal dreams and the one to save his family from famine.

Again, nothing is left to chance in Matthew’s gospel—except…except the way that God leaves so many things to real human beings whose capacity for wisdom has always proven chancy at best, over the centuries since the dawn of creation.

Babies are the ultimate in chanci-ness.  “Babies are pot luck”, a doctor once told me when I was pregnant with my first child and my husband was about to undergo life-threatening surgery for a genetic disorder.   When it comes to babies, and children, so much is chance, so much is uncertainty, so much has the potential to unseat our certainties from their thrones in our thinking, if not in our feelings.

Joseph knew that, surely.   If he had been a biblical literalist, he would have had Mary stoned to death, or, short of that, as Matthew says:  “being a righteous man (a word here that means not only “true” to his convictions, but “generous”)  and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Matthew, in his few sparse words about a puzzled and confused man, a decent man, a quiet and generous man—touches all those aspects of human life that we know so well:  fear, concern for what people will say and think; impatience with the interruptions of life plans and career paths.  Mathew offers us, in Joseph’s very human dilemma, the reality we need in a season overwrought with sentimentality and saccharine sweetness.

Matthew’s  story is testament, if nothing in the rest of what follows convinces us, that being a Christian is not going to protect us from ambiguity, from decision-making, from determining how we will re-act to life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fate.

Joseph’s dilemma with Mary and this child she is carrying is precisely the same as God’s dilemma with humankind:  how to reconcile justice with mercy?   Absolute justice requires consequences to misdeeds.  Mary should not only be divorced but stoned to death, according to the law.   Truth with grace?  Absolute truth rarely enhances interpersonal relationships.  The old saw that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free, also says:  “But first the truth will hurt.”  Perhaps Matthew knew that. As we sense the tension that surely must have been in Joseph’s heart and mind in this regard, we can come close to seeing the scandalous love of God for us.  Joseph doesn’t whine or argue.  Joseph takes Mary’s situation upon himself.  Joseph prefigures in his own sacrifice how the story Matthew has begun will end.

In some strange and mysterious ways, Joseph bears the stigma in Mary’s place.  No wonder that he is the central person in Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord.

So Joseph waits with a Mary that is not the Mary of whom he dreamed, and to whom he originally pledged his troth.  They both wait, as we too must wait for God to come to birth in our lives.

Joseph is the realist, practical, and, remarkably, not one to substitute an idolatry of Scripture with his own discernment of God’s will for his life.

Through Matthew we hear again of God’s assurance to be with us, a promise to be born in fact, in time, in  the material realm.   Because of Joseph, this child he did not know what to do with, will become the messiah we do not expect and who will be enthroned as king in awful degradation, crowned with thorns and not the gold we would want.  We know the story, that this one who was born will also die, die in agony such as the worst physical agony a human being can know, and with the deepest feelings of abandonment.  We know the story—that death’s abyss is bridged at last by God’s sacred, and powerful love.

Joseph had room in his mind to accept that God might ask him to set aside all the rules and regulations of the Holy Law.  Even if he was a “by-the-book” kind of fellow, he went beyond the letter of the law to act out of Grace—and all that before the angel came to him in the dream.  And Joseph had room in his heart for God with us.   Joseph did more than wait:  he acted to take into his life, into his estate and care, an infant that was not his, much as God takes us on for life, and asks us, as well,  to act as responsible agents for the weak and vulnerable among us.

He comes.  He comes for all of us.  “Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither old or young or white or black or brown or gay or straight—he simply comes for all…as a vulnerable, threatening embodiment of love.  He asks us to love him and to allow ourselves to be used by him.  To temper truth with grace.  To add more mercy to justice than punishment and consequences.  To bear, with Joseph of long ago, the stigma of being a Christian in a world that seems to prefer the multiple illusions that God is in charge of everything that happens and leaves nothing to us chancy, risky human beings; that God is a magical fixer-upper for those who adhere to some ancient set of taboos, or that the Bible contains the only truth there is.

No, we believe that the Word was made flesh, and it is him we follow—not what is written in the book.  Joseph stands as the alternative to that illusion that the Bible has the only truth, with a keen and courageous eye for reality, and with grace and mercy.

I don’t know whether any of Matthew’s story is true in the historical sense of truth.  But I do know that Joseph’s story is among the most true stories I’ve ever heard.  And I thank God for Matthew’s telling of Joseph’s truth.

 

Advent 2-A: Imagine!

Note:  The sermon below includes an illustration taken from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation”, which was not included in the oral presentation of the sermon.  On the other hand, a slightly political joke that was told is NOT included in this version of the sermon.  Readers should be advised that most sermons  in their oral form come out differently than as written in the manuscript version.

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10;  Rom. 15:4-13;  Matt. 3:1-12

Last week I said that the spiritual clocks of the faithful are in for a workout during Advent. If our necks are still feeling a bit creeky from our rubbernecking towards the future end of time, and then looking back to the present, today again we are asked to consider ancient prophesies and promises as we are pulled and pushed towards the future.

I want to talk about imagination today.  When hearts are sore, and minds are burdened by worry and grief, imagination is in short supply.  This Second Sunday of Advent invites us to join with people across the ages to imagine a different future.  Old Mark Twain got it right, I want to suggest, when he said “you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  How’s your imagination these days?

Let’s look at each of our texts briefly and see how imagination functions, and what it might mean for us.   Our first reading from the ancient prophet Isaiah paints a picture that seems wildly fanciful and impossible.  He claims that new life will sprout from what is essentially a dead tree, that has been cut down.  It may be referring to the exile, in which the Davidic monarchy certainly was cut down, or the downfall of the proud Assyrian empire (Isaiah 10:33-34) or it perhaps refers to the young  King Josiah, whose father Amon was assassinated (2 Kings 21:19-26), and under whom many reforms in Jewish life were instituted.

What seems likely is that this image would have been relevant at numerous points in Israel’s history, and especially at times when the future itself, by all outward measures, appeared destroyed. Whatever the case may be, the text imagines a new beginning for Judah’s monarchy. In this hopeful future God’s spirit will alight upon the ruler, resulting in justice for the poor and lowly of the land (verse 4) and a fundamental reordering of creation’s priorities (verses 6-9). Life emerges from death. Isaiah paints word images of the peaceable kingdom led by a new kind of king…a ruler who will be wise, understanding, who will be a gentle yet strong counselor.  This new ruler will have great knowledge and yet also possess a deep sense of holy awe.  His reign will be characterized by justice for the poor and by judgment and punishment for those who are wicked.    The peacefulness of this imagined kingdom– portrayed in so many variations by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks—seems wildly improbable:  wolves living with lambs—their natural prey; calves and lions together; cows and bears grazing side by side with their babies sleeping together; toddlers playing with poisonous snakes.  If you haven’t seen one of the hundred or so variations of Edward Hicks’  paintings of the peaceable kingdom in a museum somewhere, you need to look up them up on the internet.  It’s often a picture hung in a children’s Sunday School room, or a child’s bedroom.

The Psalm echoes Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, praying the most imaginative of all possibilities—that a king would possess God’s sense of justice and morality.

Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians dealing with external threats from Roman authorities and torn internally by tensions between the Christian Gentiles and the Christian Jews—many of whom had been expelled from Rome in 49 AD by the Emperor Claudius—imagines an alternative reality too.  Instead of bickering about whether Christians had to follow Jewish law, or whether Christ was a sign that God had abandoned the Jews, and that Christianity had superceded Judaism—Paul imagines a community of faith living together in harmony.  He exhorts the readers of his letter to “welcome one another”—as Christ has welcomed each one of them.  If this admonition had been kept, one wonders if we might have avoided the fracturing of the church into over 4000 different sects and denominations, and such that we cannot break bread together at the Lord’s table even today.

In the Gospel reading, John the Baptizer reaches across the ages—from his wilderness time to our own wilderness time—for us to imagine a new order, new possibilities, a new future, a new way of being.  “Repent,” he shouts, meaning that we should turn around,  “for the kin_dom of heaven has come near”, or literally, is at hand—within our grasp, so close we can reach out and grab it.  He calls out to those who are caught in circumstances where political, economic, and personal potential for the future feels destroyed.   Perhaps the reason so many people were drawn out into the wilderness to hear this strange prophet is that he awakened their imagination.

While too much religion at this season of the year focuses on events that happened in the past—the birth of a child born to refugee parents who couldn’t find a place to stay, Advent is a tradition that is meant to work like a magnet to pull us and our traditions into the future…to imagine a new future for ourselves, with possibilities of new behaviors and new outlooks, and a new future for all of creation itself.

About 20 years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book in which he described how America is “amusing ourselves to death”, by our constant preoccupation with television, with entertainment, with celebrity.  It has led to what some analysts are calling a “post-truth” culture.  A simpler way of saying it would be that people will believe most any lie, if they think it will benefit themselves.

I think Neil Postman was probably right, but I want to add to his critique another:  if we don’t begin to use our imaginations, we will truly die.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the wonderfully imaginative and fanciful Harry Potter books, has said that “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation, [but] in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experience we have never shared.”  In other words, imagination reveals the holiness, the goodness and health for ourselves, our communities, our environment, for which we yearn.  Imagination, as she suggests, transforms.  Imagination is the first step toward repentance—that turning around to alternative ways of living.  Imagination opens our eyes to see others in different ways.  Imagination creates and  builds our empathy for people we do not know and whose realities may be utterly foreign to us, but whom we can see and hear because we can imagine ourselves in their realities.

On the First Sunday of Advent, the end of history was at stake.  On Advent Two, history is not concluding; rather, it is re-imagined.  God is doing something new.  The voices of the prophets—Isaiah, the Psalmist, John the Baptizer, the Apostle Paul, and yes—even people like John Lennon–cry out in the midst of difficult times, imagining a different world.  You may say they are all dreamers, but as John Lennon sang, “I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

In a Flannery O’Connor short story, Revelation, [which you can read in its entirety on the internet], the main character, Mrs. Turpin is a domineering pig farmer, and a terminal racist.  She categorizes everybody (black and white, rich and poor) according to a scale that she is constantly adjusting.  Worst of all, she actually thinks her ability to make fine distinctions based on race and class is one of her great virtues.  Mrs. Turpin is intent on sorting all the people out, and making clear who is on the top, and the middle, and the bottom of not only society’s ladder, but God’s preferential list.  Then one day, while sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and holding forth on her ideas about the proper ordering of class and race. Mrs. Turpin is assaulted by a young girl who hits her with a book and who calls her, a warthog from hell.  This accusation overturns Mrs. Turpin’s world.  Mrs. Turpin understands this message to be one sent directly from God.  The story goes on to describe Mrs. Turpin’s struggle with this terrible indictment. At the close of the story, Mrs. Turpin has a vision.  She imagines a ladder with all the faithful people ascending to heaven, walking and singing together in the groups into which she had divided them.  The ones she has designated as trash, are at the front of the parade.  She and those like her—good, decent, church going people–are bringing up the rear of the procession.  They are the last, and are behind all of  those whom they have despised for so long.  And O’Connor writes, “They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

John the Baptizer would have liked this story, I think.  For he too believed that there is in us evil that only the white-hot flame of the truth—another name for Messiah–can cleanse.   Even things about ourselves that we consider to be virtuous are at risk when the Messiah comes, when truth hits us in the head like the book and words thrown at Mrs. Turpin caused.      And maybe that’s the one of the points of Advent—we oughtn’t get through another year without being scorched by God’s truth.

But the other is this marvelous insight:   Repentance, you see, means change, transformation, a turn toward shalom—God’s peace—which is wholeness in self and community.  Imagination is at the heart of change, of repentance.   Imagination may create fanciful scenarios that may never be, but without it nothing happens.  Einstein once noted that the “true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

There are atheists who say that God is a figment of our imagination.  Perhaps so.  But it is imagination that transcends the present; it is imagination that paints beauty where there is great ugliness; it is imagination that envisions people welcoming each other and living in harmony; it is imagination that sees the planet as a holy habitat where life is precious.

God is imagination, doggedly pursuing wayward people, holding out the possibility of life when the situation—such as the old tree stump—points to death.  So we have a shoot growing from a stump, fruit from the roots of a felled tree, and a return to paradise where all creatures live at peace.  The wolf dwells with the lamb.  The enemy is made the guest.  The poor and vulnerable need not fear.   And isn’t that PEACE?

Advent imagines peace, shalom—a word that means “wholeness, health”– and pulls us out of lethargy, out of our pessimism, out of our conviction that disaster is upon us, to energize us, to reveal a different way to us, and to empower us to transform the current reality into God’s reality.  So may we have imagination, may we not judge by what our eyes see, or decide by what our  ears hear.  Let us seek the fullness of the knowledge of God.  Just imagine.  Imagine that!   Amen.

 

 

 

Advent 1-A: On Alert

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5;  Psalm 122;  Romans 13:11-14;  Matthew 24:36-44

I cannot read these lessons for the first Sunday in Advent without hearing echoes from William Butler Yeats great poem, The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand….

Wake up, the Apostle Paul writes to the Roman Christians, whose persecution is about to begin.  And Jesus, in the section of Matthew’s Gospel known as the little Apocalypse—a section about endings and end times instructs his followers to be on the alert, to stay awake, to be ready.

As the days grow shorter, and as the current events of our political life move from nightmare to what many thought was unthinkable reality—where we have ensconced in the highest office in our nation—a nation with the strongest military power the world has ever known—a man who has no comprehension of foreign affairs, who even now is not listening to daily briefings, who is vulgar, self-aggrandizing and worse—many of us simply want to pull the covers over our heads and huddle down for that “long winter’s nap” that Clement Moore made famous in his poem, The Night Before Christmas.

Matthew has Jesus speaking of the coming of the Son of Man—a title, by the way, that has no divine overtones but merely means the Human One—perhaps the embodiment of all that human beings can be at their best–, as the indicator of the in-breaking of the fullness of God’s kin_dom, and it too was addressed to followers of Jesus who had anticipated the establishment of a holy empire soon after Jesus’ death, and were having trouble making an adjustment. It is written to people after Jerusalem has fallen, and the Temple has been destroyed.  Hope is vanquished for those people.

The disciples come to Jesus with the perennial questions of all thinking people:  When will it come to pass that the world will learn God’s ways, that God’s justice will be done, that all may walk in God’s ways, that we might beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?  They—and we—are perpetually anxious.  Jesus tells them  that the world and its problems are transient.  So too is heaven.  Heaven and earth may pass away, but the word of God keeps on entering the world, addressing our lives.  And it comes in strange moments—when we are working in the field, when we are grinding our corn to make our evening meal.  God’s coming can’t be fixed, or set in some regal gold-bedecked temple during a worship service designed to manipulate your mood.  God’s coming will wake you up in the middle of the night, like a thief.

Despite our desire to know a time table, Jesus says, concern yourselves with being ready.  That’s it.  Just be alert—alert and ready for those times when God does come into your life.  Paul understands that message clearly when he says:  ‘Salvation—that is, wholeness of body, mind, and spirit—is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.”

The point is not to get fixated about religious gobbledy-gook, but fix our attention on what we are to do NOW in the time we have—the time between the first advent and some last coming.  Paul says:  “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”  In short, to love one another as we have each felt the love and grace of God.  In verse 8 of this 13th chapter, Paul writes:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Ahead of us will come days of trial and testing.  Of that, I am very certain.  The moral fiber of church and state will be on trial.  The question is whether we will be ready to stand, as the poet Auden once wrote, for “what all school children learn:  Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”  The question is: will we be prepared to build arks of safety and sanctuary for those whom the flood tides of populist nativism would sweep away?  The politics of fear have finally unleashed a beast who has gnawed through the bars of civility that kept it caged, and that beast now writes ugly white racist epithets on African-American church doors in nearby Evansville, Indiana; it threatens our Muslim neighbors and their places of worship; it is the white bully who stands up on an airplane and yells to all the women on the plane, calling them the word that rhymes with “witches”, that Trump now rules and that they had better get with it. If he had been Muslim, Sikh, African-American, that drunken fool would have been removed from the plane.  Instead, the crew meekly let him continue on that flight.  That beast will want to pass laws claiming religious liberty to discriminate against all sorts of people:  we could be next, but that should never be the motivator for us.  Rather, what is done to a neighbor is done to us as well. 

All three of the Scripture readings for this first Sunday in Advent have within them a profound sense of yearning and longing for a promised time.  Marsha Charles, now the pastor of Bluegrass United Church of Christ spoke of a new song she had recently learned.  The words are:

There is a yearning – in hearts weighed down by ancient greed and centuries of sorrow; there is a yearning in hearts that in the darkness hide and in the shades of death abide a yearning for tomorrow … a yearning for the promised one … a yearning for the Lord who visited his own ….” And, the song continues … “Emmanuel, Emmanuel, within our hearts the yearning”.

Don’t we all have a deep yearning in our hearts?  A yearning for a life congruent with God’s intentions for us, a life without pain and suffering for those we love, and for those whom we know who suffer with addiction, from poverty, or prejudice and exclusion?  Aren’t we yearning for the beloved community where every person is accepted for who they are?  Aren’t we yearning for that time of peace when swords are hammered into ploughs?  Aren’t we yearning for a deep sense of being loved and valued?  Aren’t we yearning for forgiveness for past mistakes and grace to make a new self, a new world?  Those yearnings reveal our hope and vision of the times fulfilled.

The late  20th century theologian Paul Tillich famously said that the most painful human reality is that we don’t know the future, and yet must choose.  The Apostle Paul exhorts us to choose to put on the Lord Jesus Christ—by which I take it that he means we should look at the world and our lives as we might imagine Jesus would look at them; to relate to other people as we imagine Jesus would relate to them.

The church liturgical year always begins with the ending of time itself.  The presentation of this vision is meant to shake us awake, toward repentance and conversion, away from apathy to preparation, turning us around so that we might be fit to bear love and hope and light and truth in a world of dark lies, of profound beastly anxiety.  Now is the time—not chronological time, but KAIROS time—that is HOLY time.  Sacred Time.  Something new faces us and it may just be that amid the temporal and political threats of the coming four years, we will meet the revelation of Holy Love coming to meet us and to strengthen us, to feed our hungry spirits, and to save this precious planet.  If we are alert.  If we are ready.

May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to receive, the mind and spirit to hope for Christ’s coming into our world, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.  Amen.

 

 

Sermon: Crossing Boundaries October 4, 2015

Texts:  Ruth 1:1-18;  Psalm 146

The relevance of scripture to our modern lives and contemporary politics regularly jumps out to demonstrate how pertinent these old stories are, and how informative they can be for the lives of human beings on this small blue planet orbiting around a small star in a vast universe.  The events about which we read may or may not have happened, and it really doesn’t matter whether they did happen or not.  The stories, however, passed down from generation to generation have become sacred agents that shape the trajectory of nations and communities, and of individuals as well.

The story of Ruth and Naomi that we have heard today has many things to teach us.  That it is even in the canon of Scripture is due to the wisdom of some scribes who knew that Ruth was a foremother of the great King David. The book barely mentions God at all.

The story of Naomi and Ruth tells us about refugees from a terrible famine where people facing starvation had to leave everything behind to find some way to sustain life.  Further, we can see that such migration does not always offer an easier way, and may instead include yet more struggle, suffering, and sorrow.  Most of us have no idea what absolute desperation spurs the refugee to leave everything they know to go to a new land in hopes of something better.  Any of you have ancestors who came to these shores within past 3 generations?  If so, you might know some family stories, but for many of us in this room, our ancestors came here perhaps as much as 150 years ago, or maybe even in some cases more than 300 years ago.  Those family stories of why our forebears crossed oceans and carved out new places to live in a wilderness are not encumbered with the desperation of current immigrants and refugees.

In addition, the story teaches us that families come in many configurations. In this story, two women constitute a new family, after their husbands have died, and it shows us two women of two different generations profoundly committed to one another.   Naomi and Ruth witness to the beauty of cross-cultural friendships, and cross cultural marriages.  And finally, the story speaks to us of possibilities, great possibilities when we cross those boundaries that we think define us and confine us.

Here are my five points for today’s sermon—and you didn’t even have to wait for the summary at the end of the sermon!  See if you can find these points in what follows after I give you the summary points.

1)  The Holy often comes to us via the outsider, the stranger, via those who push through the barbed razor wire of cultural prejudices, boundaries, and exclusion to bring hope and new life.

2)  Refugees not only need a safe haven, and their repeated presence in Jewish and Christian scriptures suggest that compassion for the refugee ranks high among holy priorities.  Refugees matter.

3)  Families come in many age, gender, and numerical configurations.  Their diversity echoes our human diversity and strengthens our society, however they are shaped.

4)  Friendships across generational divides and cultural divides bring many blessings.

5) Enormous possibilities open up when we are willing to cross conventional boundaries in society or in our hearts, or break down the borders of nation, tribe, community, and of our hearts.

Ruth—the Moabite widow woman – is the ultimate outsider, the alien, the representative of cultural accommodation during times of exile and national oppression by outside forces. Ruth has no claims to any status within Judaism.

Ruth becomes one of the great heroic figures of Judaism, a personal demonstration of God’s sense of humor and radical inclusiveness to be the God of all people.  The book of Ruth begins with death—and ends with new life. The book was written to oppose the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah in the period when the two leaders were trying to purify Israel by getting natural born Jews to cast off their  foreign wives and children.   Ezra and Nehemiah, trying to restore the nation after the exile, want to deport all the foreigners whom they believe are causing their nation so many problems.

Hmm…sounds like some of our current political candidates to me.   One scholar notes that Ruth [as]…a foreign woman and wife…does not diffuse Israel’s essence by being who she is, but instead, in a marvelous reversal of expectation, acts as a savior of the nation.”  [Feasting on the Word, “Theological Perspective”, Proper 26, Ruth 1:1-18, Kathleen O’Connor, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 244]

One wonders if those who some portions of American society or some parts of Christianity keep trying to cast off—the non-English speakers, the immigrants—legal and illegal; all whom they deem to be outsiders, or ab-normal, gays and lesbians say, might be the very ones whom God is using in our own time to “save” our world.  The new pastor at Simpsonville Christian Church once felt himself to be such an outsider, and fell into terrible alcohol addiction, but, as he says, through grace, he has been sober for over 7 years—a fact he mostly kept to himself, until at his ordination, he found himself speaking afterward and telling of his past and his recovery.  Those we most keep at arms length, and out on the streets, might be agents to remind us all that we stand in need of mercy and grace.

Ruth, you will remember, eventually marries the kinsman of Naomi’s late husband Elimelech, and her husband Boaz, and their son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, and grandfather of David the king, and eventually an ancestor of Jesus, born in Bethlehem.  Their names are full of meaning:  Naomi means “pleasant”, but she calls herself “Mara” which means “bitter.  Her husband’s name, Elimelech, means “My God is King.”  Mahlon and Chilion mean, respectively, “sickness” and “spent”, while Orpah means “back of the neck”.  Orpah turns her back to Naomi but there is no judgment on Orpah for going back to her own people.  Indeed, Naomi’s love for both her daughters-in-law is such that she wants what, in her view, will be best for them. And isn’t that the essence of love, of true friendship:  that we want what is best for our friend, our beloved—not necessarily what will make us happier.  Each chooses what will be best for herself. The name, Ruth, means friend or companion. Ruth’s future second husband, Boaz means “In him is strength.”

Yet Ruth is all the things despised by Ezra and Nehemiah:  she is first of all a foreigner, a Moabite.  Hebrew scripture has a strong bias against anything good coming out of Moab, just like the Family Foundation, Liberty Counsel, and Kim Davis are convinced that nothing good can ever come from gay or lesbian persons; just as some politicians think that nothing good comes from the immigrants from Mexico; and just as many think the millions of desperate Syrian refugees, fleeing the devastation of war and starvation in their homeland, will corrupt Europe and be a pipeline for the jihadists. Moab was a place for the people of God to avoid, and a people with whom the Hebrews were NOT to associate.

Ruth is a woman and a widow—that most dependent of individuals in ancient society.  Yet it is she whom God chooses to provide the genealogical seed for Israel’s greatest king, David.  Ruth is the political and theological counterclaim that God is the God of all people.  Ruth crosses the boundaries of culture, bringing her status as a hated Moabite, into Judah.  She crosses the boundaries of what constitutes a normal family by committing herself to an older woman, rather than going back home where she might have found a more traditional familial environment.  Ruth crosses the boundaries of religion, to swear her allegiance to Naomi’s God.  The story of Ruth is a story of someone whose hesed (the Hebrew word for “steadfast love” or “womb-like love) will not be restricted by ethnic or religious boundaries.

Naomi’s story as a refugee in Moab might have brought her food and relief from starvation, but she found herself starving in another dimension of her life when her husband, and then both her sons die, leaving her stranded.  Ruth’s decision to stick with an older woman and return to Naomi’s homeland is a striking decision, especially if she was aware of the antipathy she would face in Judah when they returned. Naomi, too, has no idea how she will be received upon returning to Bethlehem—a name which means, ironically, House of Bread—and especially when she also has a foreign companion to be explained.

Friendship, of the sort shared by Naomi and Ruth, can be sufficient to get us through life’s worst difficulties.  It is no wonder that the  language of Ruth’s pledge to Naomi finds its way into so many marriage ceremonies:  “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge;  your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”  The numerous families of Port William, so beautifully portrayed in Wendell Berry’s many novels, seem to have this same sort of commitment to one another.  And so Wendell could say in his speech upon winning the Jefferson Prize from the National Endowment for the Humanities several years ago, “it all turns”—it being everything about human life, society, politics, economics, and ecology—“it all turns on affection.”

Finally, Ruth herself embodies the later teaching of Jesus that we must die, in some sense, to all that keeps us confined within borders of what we think, or of what our privilege has made us think, or of what keeps us enslaved to the ways of death, in order to find new life.  Ruth is willing to die to her past so that her mother-in-law and she may live anew.  In doing so, she finds God’s people and God.  Ruth crosses all those boundaries, from death, to life.  Her story today invites us with good news to give up all those external boundaries that prevent us from seeing the person in refugees, from recognizing how God might be at work in our everyday relationships, and especially in those who are different from ourselves, from forging the sort of life-giving friendships that will sustain us and communities across time. Through the care we extend to and receive from one another, we encounter the gifts and grace of God.  May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive this good news.  Amen.

 

Sermon: David Faces Goliath June 21, 2015

Text:  I Samuel 17:32-49

Most of us loved the story of David defeating Goliath when we were growing up.  It was a Sunday School favorite.  We cheered for the underdog in the story, the boy David with his sling and five smooth stones.  We booed Goliath and the Philistines who were attacking the Israelites.

The story comes from the time of Israel’s nation building, first under dark depressive King Saul, and later under the leadership of David.  The Philistines were a culture that was comprised primarily of mercenaries, who traveled from the Aegean and wrought havoc from Syria to Egypt.  And among these Philistines, Goliath, was the fiercest warrior of the entire group. Goliath was the largest and strongest human, long experienced in warfare, and prepared for both hand-to-hand combat with the sword as well as distance battles with his spear.

Against this alpha-male, we have David, who was called a “boy” by both his own king (v.32) and enemy (v. 42). David had zero experience in war. He could hardly move when wearing armor. He was never trained in sword, nor spear, but had to rely on the device of a boy, and stones from the wadi.

But David had a special background. As a tender of sheep, he was used to protecting the flock against renegade animals.   He was later to be known for his poetry and music.  Perhaps spending such long periods of time alone led him to spiritual sensitivity God’s presence with him and around him.

There are other characters in this story as well,  Saul—the reigning king who feels the Philistines are unbeatable.  If we had read earlier verses we would have heard about David’s brothers, Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah, to whom David was sent by his father Jesse with special food to them while they are fighting in Saul’s army against the Philistines, and who accuse David of leaving the sheep untended.  Finally, there are the troops, who, challenged by Goliath, were dismayed and greatly afraid.

It would be tempting in this week of terrible evil unleashed by a young man who somehow became filled with rancid hate to think that this is a story about the good guys—those people full of grace and mercy from Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston—and the bad guy with his gun who was welcomed into their church and who sat and talked with them for an hour, but then as Otis Moss, III, said earlier this week, returned the church’s hospitality with unimaginable inhumanity.

It is not enough to condemn the actions of a lone gunman.  This boy whom I will not name was not a Goliath. There was great evil within him, to be sure, but he and his ilk are not Goliath. If there is a truth to be chewed on and swallowed painfully this week, it is this: these violent hate-filled people were not Goliaths; but they are the spawn of the  Goliaths within our culture that stand across the valleys of life and that threaten to destroy our nation.  Those Goliaths embody our nation’s addiction to guns and violence, so that even as we decry the Boston bombers actions we clamor for the surviving brother to be put to death; to militaristic displays of power by local police; the on-going scourge of racism and the blindness to the ways in which we continue to tell people of color that their feelings and lives don’t matter; the growing income inequality that puts people so deeply in the trenches of poverty that they can’t find any way to climb out; the ever growing belief among some that their country is being taken away from them; the overwhelming power of money in our national politics; and here’s another big Goliath—the anti-intellectualism that, for example, permits our senior senator, and other legislators to deny the environmental crisis our planet is facing because he says he isn’t a scientist even though he is considered one of the most savvy and intelligent members of the U.S. Senate.

I could go on a rant against any and all of these Goliaths, this morning.  I’m sure you could name some Goliaths that I haven’t mentioned, or might not consider.  But let’s at least admit together, with Pogo, that as regards the health and future of our beloved nation, these United States, that we have met the enemy and he is us.  Or as St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, said in the 5th century:  “Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside yourself.”

So what are patriots who love their nation to do?  What can Christians do against these mighty Goliaths who live amongst us and some within us?  Dismay and fear, like that shown by the Israelites against the giant Goliath and the Philistine army, won’t save us.  Moral isolation—thinking we aren’t part of the problem and that we don’t have the power to bring change—is not an acceptable response.  Apathy and moral isolationism, if not Goliaths, are like flesh-eating, nation-destroying bacteria gnawing away at the very backbone and fiber and heart of this nation.  When will we say “enough”, to gun addiction, to violence, to the racial prejudice that flies its flags everywhere, especially inside our attitudes about people of color that we may be too polite to show in public?

The story of David and Goliath, I think, offers us some ways to respond, things that may transcend our sorrow, our heart-ache, and help us—if we envision ourselves as the Davids in our land—to begin to bring down the Goliaths within us and our culture that beset us, and that are doing more damage to us than Al-Qaeda or ISIS has done so far, and which only make their recruitment efforts easier.

First, David stood up and was willing to tackle the problem of Goliath.   Bill Coffin used to quip that it is much easier to beat your breast than to stick your neck out.

Second, David possessed courage:  the root of the word courage is “couer”—or heart.  David says:  “Let no one’s heart fail because of [Goliath].  For Aristotle, a person cannot do anything without courage; for Aristotle, it was, next to honor, the greatest virtue.  Courage comes from our heart’s love; and even in the face of defeat or loss, courage enables action.  Moreover, courage comes from an honest and regular, deep meditation on the ultimate human question:  What is a life worth living?

Third, David found in his work to protect the sheep from lion and bear the trust and faith that he could tackle the impossible Goliath.   It is in our struggles that our faith is forged.   None of us escapes this life without having encounters with that which would destroy us, those figurative lions and bears that lurk in every life. They are what make us strong in the weak places.   From the Psalms and other stories of David we know that he developed a faith in the living God which would sustain him, even when he himself succumbed to his own lust, even when his own son would try to betray him.  I imagine that David’s faith developed as he wrote his psalms.  If you are having trouble with your own faith, I suggest trying to write a prayer a day—even if it is only a one sentence prayer.  It can be a lament, a confession, a prayer of thanks, a plea for help.  You might be surprised at the strength, courage, and hope it will give you.

Fourth, David possessed enough self-knowledge to know that he couldn’t use Saul’s armor.  He couldn’t use someone else’s methods.  He had to find his own.  But he did find them, and he did cast off the methodology that Saul tried to drape across his shoulders.   We cannot defeat war and war-mongering with the tools of war.

And fifth, David picked up five smooth stones, his wooden staff, and his sling, with which to throw them.  Not to push the analogy too far, but our sling as citizens and as Christians is surely our intelligence to know that we cannot continue as we are, and our staff, if we are Christians first, and Americans second, are the words of Jesus that we are to love our neighbors—and he told the story of the hated Samaritan to make sure we understood just who our neighbor might be—as ourselves.  And he taught us further, that if we are to save our lives, we must be willing to lose them.  Self preservation is an NRA value, not a Jesus value.

David’s five smooth stones, stones useful for us in the present dilemmas of our nation facing such giants as racism, poverty, guns, political corruption by money, and anti-intellectualism, include at least these, which we would do well to pick up and put in our pouches:

  1. The first stone is empathy which is  grown from intentional listening with reverence to the experiences of others whose lives may be very different from our own.
  2. The second stone is that of confession, which can only happen with honest self-examination. Let’s admit that we are very blind to our white privilege and deaf to the ways in which our culture continues to tell people of color that they are worth less, that their lives don’t matter.  Let’s confess that the Civil War was the greatest act of treason unleashed against the ideals of this nation.  Let’s admit that the “lost cause” wasn’t about states’ rights but about the right of states to allow people to own and enslave thousands upon thousands of other people. Let’s admit that Jim Crow laws continued to advance the belief in white superiority and the inferiority—both morally and spiritually—of people of color, and that the remnants of Jim Crow still exist.  Let’s confess that our status and privilege are more accidents of our births than they are of any inherent worth achieved from our own efforts.
  3. The third stone, a powerful stone, is the stone of our voice.  We can speak up.  We can write emails and letters to a member of Congress or the state legislature, or the local newspaper.  What about pledging to let at least one member of government know what you think, as a Christian, about one of the Goliaths threatening us and the world, at least once a month?  Would that be so difficult? And there is yet more we can do with our voices:  Let’s speak up and, for two other examples,  let the name of Jefferson Davis become a mere footnote in the history of Transylvania University and not ever let it be used again on a building at Transylvania. Let’s write to the governor of South Carolina and tell her that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum, not flying beside their capitol.
  4. The fourth stone is our right to vote:  let’s use it and make sure others use it.  Let’s elect people who are not beholden to corporations.  Let’s elect people who can be simultaneously conservative and liberal, people who put principle above loyalty to the money, folks who know how to think and dialogue and find compromises to complex problems. Let’s elect people who believe in using their intelligence, not denying it.
  5. And finally, my friends, there is one more stone that perhaps Christians should use, in conjunction with their voice and vote:  the power of the boycott.  For example, Christians should leave stores and restaurants where open carry of weapons of any size and capability are allowed.  Just walk out.  Leave your food on the table and don’t pay for it.  Leave the objects you were buying at Kroger or Target in the basket and just walk out.   We can stop investing in guns, putting pressure in equity firms and various funds to get out of the business of guns.  Today is Father’s Day, and no doubt many fathers will get a Hallmark card.  Did you know that Hallmark not only allows guns in its stores but has promised the arms lobby that they love guns?  And Hallmark rejected a letter from the National Gun Victims Action Council and the Newtown Victims and Clergy for Corporate Responsibility to change their policy.  Personally, I’ll be letting Hallmark know that I care enough to send the very best and it will no longer be a Hallmark card.

Our tools are nonviolent.  Our heart has to be more than hating the evil that we see more than we love the good, lest we become, as Bill Coffin once said, only damned good haters.  We have enough of those.  Our anger at events like the one that happened at Mother Emanuel AME Church this past week, our anger—with its two daughters hope and courage—must be like that of Christ and must always and only be a measure of our love for God and neighbor.

The church today can be David. And we should realize, too, that to love effectively, we ought to act collectively.    Goliath is before us and among us and within us.  Let’s take up our staff and sling and five smooth stones so that all the earth may know that there is a God who does not save by sword and spear.

Amen.

 

 

Easter Sunday Sermon: Without End

Text:             Mark 16:1-8

Do you know why this central holy day in Christianity is called Easter?  No doubt you have read it somewhere, and the grey matter in your skull tells you that it remembers vaguely that Eostre was a pagan goddess of springtime and fertility.  Actually, she was an Anglo-Saxon goddess.  But I bet you have completely forgotten how we got the Easter Bunny.  There is a legend that once the goddess Eostre saved a bird whose wings had frozen during a long cold winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because it had once been a bird, that rabbit could still lay eggs, and so became our Easter bunny.  As far back as 11 centuries, people gave eggs to each other at this holiday, perhaps because they had been so scarce during the winter.  Some were decorated even further to remind all how precious an egg—and all it symbolizes—really is.

For some folks, the Christian holy day of Easter is just as far fetched as the story of a bird made into a rabbit who lays eggs.  And yet, in a most wonderfully peculiar way, it fits because Easter is the most potent myth in the history of human thought:  the idea that what has died will burst forth in a surprising and fruitful resurrection of new life.  Sadly, too many people are obsessed with literal truth, and the word “myth” means a fairy tale.  But a myth is not just any kind of story but a story with a truth so powerful that it takes us beyond the literal known facts, to a deeper realm of understanding.

Today Christians proclaim a myth, a story, a narrative about human life which says that God raised a prophet named Jesus from the dead, that the defeat of the cross and tomb was not the last word, and that the radical commitment and trust of Jesus in God and his kingdom were vindicated not just for him, but for all of us who follow him and commit our way to the Way of Jesus.

Mark’s version of this proclamation speaks most profoundly to any Easter bunny cynicism:    Mark begins his gospel with a man, John the Baptizer, shouting in the wilderness, and ends it with three women, in a city cemetery, shaken to the core of their being, made silent by their fear and holy terror.   “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, Mark says in his opening phrase….It’s more  of a title, certainly not a complete sentence.    The last sentence, also, if read in its original Greek, is  also not a complete sentence.  It is as if in the midst of everything, something totally unique intrudes and nothing can put an end to it.  There is no period to mark the completion.

And there’s another important truth to be culled from these peculiar last words of Mark, as well as from the accounts of the other gospels.  None of them know quite how to tell what they feel has happened.  Matthew tells us that even at the last of the so-called resurrection appearances of Jesus that “some doubted”.   So if you come to Easter each year with mixed thoughts, you aren’t alone.  Even among those immediate followers of Jesus, the understanding of what had happened ranged from outright disbelief to confusion, to warm fuzzy feelings, to a kind of certainty that came only by trust, not by any proof, that something extraordinary had happened.

Without Easter, of course,  we wouldn’t know about Jesus at all.  If his story had ended with his crucifixion, he would most likely have been left in history’s dust bin….just another Jew executed by the Roman Empire in a bloody century that witnessed thousands of such executions.  So Easter is utterly central, and yet it can’t be pinned down, fixed, captured in time.  It intrudes with its mystery.

No wonder then the women fled the tomb in terror and amazement…and no wonder, that even today, we find ourselves a bit afraid of Easter.  We know how to deal with dead Saviors. We honor them with perfumes and spices so that we can return to the sanity and predictability of our normal lives.   We know how to deal with God—erect stone monuments that enshrine some holy words so that we won’t have to carry the words around in our consciences.  Erect them at our places of Government.   We remember the past with awe, but we prefer our present less unsettling, thank you very much.

Far more terrifying, or at least confusing and puzzling, is the prospect of resurrection that comes with new expectations of us.  Resurrection, you see, is a word that means to be stood up again; to be put back up on your feet, after life has knocked you flat.  The world seems to think of death as tragic, when in fact, the tragedy of life is rarely death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.

If the cross means anything, it means that that the rule of domination and the power of might makes right represents the defeat of the idea that might makes right, and that violence solves problems.  Be clear about this:  Mark calls him “Lord”  to make the point that Caesar, the world with its self-aggrandizing ideologies, is NOT Lord..

Far more provocative than religion contained in rules and boxed up in a particular set of words, is the quiet invitation to go on to the Galilees of our lives with a promise that we will be met there by one who was crucified, who died, and who was buried.  Sadly, much of Christianity as articulated today would rather embalm God in the certainty of the past, entombed and contained in the surroundings of the familiar than to entrust our lives to the transformation of resurrection power, that always, always, asks something new of us.  A dead God may be safely approached, honored at any distance, near or far.  A God confined to the Bible, and especially a certain translation of the Bible, or defined in dogmas and creeds, is far less scary than one who asks us to relate to nature, to ideas, to every living creature and person as holy, and sacred—a way of relating to life that would make everything else in our lives secondary to that relationship.   A living God explodes into our present and reeks havoc on our assumptions, our expectations, our living.

Sometimes I wonder if the church has paid  more attention to Good Friday, and the notion of Christ’s sacrifice for us, because it is so much easier, so much more welcome to feel pity for that poor wretch hung on that awful tree to die in agony, and to think that the sacrifice was for me, for us.  Notice that our attention gets stuck on ourselves.   And it places all the responsibility on the actions of Christ.  All we are asked is to accept it rather dumbly.

But Easter is not for the dumb.  Easter cannot be blindly accepted.  Easter escapes finality.   Easter says things are not doomed;  our  lives can be different;  we can be new persons;  we can move from living death to life abundant and eternal now.

In the gospel stories of the resurrected Jesus, the intent is to show us the world according to God.  In Jesus Christ, the story doesn’t end, it is open to the future.  It is a story that goes forward, and in going onward, we will meet him.

In the gospel stories of the resurrection of Jesus, we now have  a world where the meek will inherit the earth, even when they don’t have a deed to it registered in the courthouse.  We have  a world where the poor in spirit, which is to say not those who are arrogant about their faith and wish to force it on others, but the poor in spirit have the only riches, and among them the bread is blessed and broken and everyone has enough.  We are given a new world of the resurrection where those who mourn are more than comforted; they dance before the Lord with their dead—often while they are still grieving.  It is a world where the peacemakers know themselves, and everyone else, as children of God, and the merciful know what mercy does—it turns our enemies into our sisters and brothers and causes weapons to rust and corrode or be transformed into tools.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in an Easter Sunday sermon in 1957:  “Easter comes out ringing in terms that we all hear if we seek to hear it, that the soul of man is immortal. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have fit testimony that this earthly life is not the end, that death is just something of a turn in the road, that life moves down a continual moving river, and that death is just a little turn in the river, that this earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening, that death is not a period which ends this great sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it to more loftier significance. That is what it says. That is the meaning of Easter. That is the question that Easter answers – that death is not the end.”   [Source: “Questions That Easter Answers,” sermon, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, April 21, 1957]

Easter isn’t a story to warm the cockles of our heart and make us feel good.   It is a story without an end because we are meant to be part of it, which means that we too must be turned inside out and upside down.  Whatever happened on that first Easter morning, we are left with only two choices, really:  we can either fight and guard against this day—as did the religious leaders and political leaders of that time—or we can embrace it even amid disbelief or puzzlement,  and give it a chance  to claim us, and  then, after we have been silent long enough to let God’s word replace our stuttering, to share it.

The women went to the tomb that morning filled with grief, expecting nothing extraordinary.  But their faithfulness in honoring Christ placed them at the center of something wonderful.  And that is the way it often is with faithfulness.  God meets us there in the Galilees of our lives where we strive to be true to the love of God that we have seen and known, and, over time, and occasionally all of a sudden,  we may receive the gift of faith, which is trust where we cannot understand….faith that resurrection is loose in the world.

We arrive at the wild impossible truth:  this story, this ancient myth of suffering, death, and resurrection can’t be closed up, finished.   We human beings may be able to kill God’s love, but we cannot keep it dead and buried.  The power of God is loose in the world, defeating death, and bringing new life.  Once it touches you, creeps into your awareness, moves your stony heart—O my God, then everything is forever different, forever new.  Alleluia!  Thanks be to God.

 

Sermon: Are We Listening January 18, 2015

Texts:  I Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; John 1:43-51

As a child, I had a children’s story Bible, and I would guess that most of you might have had a similar volume as well.  On one side of a page would be the story, usually somewhat shortened and simplified, and on the other side would be a romanticized picture, portraying what the story told.  I have searched my house, and cannot find that book to refresh my memory, but I remember well the story of Samuel and Eli.  Because my parents seemed to always be at church, I could understand being left at church under the care of the old man, who was the minister at Woodland Christian Church for over 38 years, Hayes Farish, and who at the time was far younger than I am now.  The picture in the book showed Samuel as a rosy cheeked child of about 7 or 8, with a head of tousled brown curls, and Eli as a haggard old man, losing his hair but with a full beard sitting slumped on a stool while the child stood before him holding a small candle.

This is one of the best stories for children in the entire First Testament, especially if there is no mention of the fact that Eli has two heart-breakingly greedy and evil sons. There is no death and destruction, but  simply a story of a child hearing God calling to him.   Samuel is the much loved and long desired son of Hannah, who had been barren, and Elkanah.   Samuel’s mother gives him to the Lord, leaves him at the Temple under Eli’s care,  and sings a song at the beginning of Chapter 2 of 1 Samuel, which Mary, the mother of Jesus, echoes in her magnificat, as reported by Luke.

Eli is very old, worn “…both physically and emotionally from the parenting heartaches as described at the end of Chapter 2. And as the young Samuel ministers under Eli, he hears God’s voice three times. Upon finally realizing through Eli’s direction that this was, indeed, the voice of God, he gives his stunning answer in verse 10, “Speak for your servant is listening.” The word God to Samuel reveals the next phase of God’s activity and in revealing to Samuel, his prophetic credibility is established.”  [Roger Nam, commentary on I Sam. 3:1-10, in Working Preacher.org for Jan. 18, 2015]

Writing in last week’s Christian Century magazine, Diane Roth, a Lutheran pastor, notes that the phrase:  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” ought to be a part of our worship liturgy every time we gather.  [“Reflections on the Lectionary, Diane Roth, Christian Century, January 7, 2015, p. 21]  (It was her remembrance of her childhood bible story book that brought my own memories to mind.)

Our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ,  where I have had my primary standing as an ordained minister since leaving seminary, began a special advertising campaign about a decade ago based on a wonderful quotation from Gracie Allen, George Burns’ wife and comedic partner, who, in her last letter to George wrote, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”   The comma became a logo for the UCC, which followed Gracie Allen’s quotation with this commentary:  “God is still speaking.”  In adopting this theme, the denomination was asserting another old statement by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:  “God hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word.”

“Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.”  Are we?  Are we listening?  Or have our spiritual eyes grown dim?  Are we hard of hearing, or not paying attention?

Mark Bryant, the husband of Sharon Williams who regularly helps Martha Jane with her computer, posted a cartoon yesterday on Facebook.  It portrays a preacher saying to the congregation:  “And if you ignore the crusades, the inquisition, witch burnings, planned parenthood bombings, and gay bashing, we Christians are appalled by religious extremism.”  In his column in today’s Herald-Leader, Paul Prather writes, “While the worst religious violence these days is committed in the name of Islam, no group is exempt from raging, mindless extremists.”  He goes on to point to the violence between Protestants and Catholics that raged in Northern Ireland, not so long ago.

We all like to claim our religions are religions of peace, but are we truly listening?  Are we working to build bridges of understanding even between our competing versions of Christianity?  In this week of Christian unity, when we point to verses in holy Scripture that point out that the dividing walls between various sects—Gentile and Jewish, slave and free, male and female—were broken down in Christ Jesus,  as the Apostle Paul says, are we conceding that there will always be differences between us that just must be accepted?  Are we listening, church?

Yesterday, I went to see the movie Selma, which I commend to you.  Afterward, I thought of my late father-in-law, the Rev. Robert Crocker who, just after being appointed by his bishop to serve the large, wealthy, and prestigious Methodist Church in the virtually all white Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, and with 5 children in college, responded to the appeal from Martin Luther King, Jr., to join the march from Selma to Montgomery, and went—risking much in the process.  I thought of classmates from Yale Divinity School and other seminaries who took their limited funds and went to join Bill Coffin, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Archbishop Iakovos (the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America), as white allies of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  I listened also yesterday to Congressman John Lewis talk with Krista Tippett on her program “On Being” about the philosophy of non-violence.  I thought of how Kentucky was on the right side of history when it brought Dr. King to Frankfort in 1963, and of how Governor Ned Breathitt helped Kentucky become the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law that went further than the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the movie portrays as the goal of the Selma marchers.

It was those acts of non-violent resistance to unjust laws that changed nearly 300 years of attitudes and laws.  I truly believe that all those people were like the boy, Samuel, who said:  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  They listened.  They heard.

Today, 55% of Kentucky’s public school children from Kindergarten through grade 12, live in poverty and qualify for free or reduced school lunches.  Are we listening?

Today, the Islamic Center of Lexington wishes to build a community center not far from where I live.  While I know nothing about possible traffic or loss of green space, I am appalled at neighbors who are so fearful that they think the proposed center would become a place where Muslims would spy into the backyards of surrounding houses; or that we ought to have “no-go” places where Muslims are not welcome in Lexington.   God is still speaking, Church.  Are we listening?

Three-fourths of the states of these United States now allow marriage by same-sex couples.  Kentucky is one of the last 14 states holding to a law that permits marriage to be only between one man and one woman.  History has been changing rapidly.  Will we be on the wrong side of history like Alabama in the civil rights era?  Or on the right side like our Commonwealth was when Gov. Breathitt led our state to a new day for people of color, so long suffering under Jim Crow laws?  Are we listening?  More and more, science is telling us that homosexuality and gender identity are not matters of a so-called “life-style choice”, but are unique genetic differences, just as being left-handed, or red-headed are minority genetic differences.  No law may determine that a person of color is less than a full human being, made in the divine image.  No law can control whom persons may love.  Should not our LGBTQ brothers and sisters be entitled to the legal protections of marriage and family life as heterosexual persons?  Do we really believe in equality?  Are we listening, church?

So far, in the 18 days of this year, 2015, there have been 1,738 incidents involving guns, and 571 deaths from gun violence.  That’s an average of 32 people a day dying because this country can’t seem to overcome the political clout of the NRA to do something to regulate the proliferation of guns, and especially guns meant for war.  God is still speaking, church.  Are we listening?

Nine churches a day in this nation are closing their doors.  Many people are turning away from religious affiliation, in large part because they have seen such meanness and cruelty from churches regarding homosexuality, and such narrowness of mind that denies what science is telling us repeatedly that we can’t keep living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.  There is no planet B for human life, so far as we currently know.  God is still speaking, church.  Are we listening?

The Gospel lesson tells us of Philip and Nathanael.  They listened to the law of Moses and the prophets.  Yet, they were met where they were.  Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip.   Jesus said to Philip two simple words, “Follow me.”  And Philip listened, and he found Nathanael, and told him what he had discovered.  Nathanael at first doubted, until he went with Philip, and was seen and appraised by Jesus as a man without deceit; a man who was totally honest with himself and the world around him.  The Lord spoke to him.  And Nathanael, because of being brought to Jesus by a friend, listened.  Are we listening?

Friends, that simple phrase:  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?” opens us up to the power of all that is holy.  It’s scary.  But it is also the way of the Lord.  And, as Martin Luther King, Jr., told us: the arc of history may be long, but it bends toward justice.  Are we listening?  Will we be pushing that bend toward justice, toward the time when we will live in peace, and truly love our neighbors as our selves?  Or will we either fade away or be pushed out of the way by history?  Speak, Lord, for your servants listen.