Date: May 12, 2013
Title: “For Us or With Us”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Ruth 1:6-18
Introducing the Scripture:
The book of Ruth is an Old Testament story hundreds of years before Jesus that contains hidden ironies known only to native Hebrew speakers. It begins with a famine covering Bethlehem, which means literally “the house of bread.” Naomi marries into a tribe of Ephrathites, meaning “fruitfulness” and yet the whole tribe dies out without any fruit—children—to show for it. They die leaving Naomi to fend for herself and her two daughters in law Orpah and Ruth.
And more than that, it is a story of Ruth, who is a detested Moabite, which is what Ducks fans are to Beavers fans, and Beavers fans are to Ducks fans. And yet she exhibits a faith surpassing the Hebrew people. The final irony and lesson for us is that even an outsider to the beloved people of God can be incorporated into God’s plan for God’s people—indeed, only four women are mentioned in the Geneology of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, and Ruth is one of them. Listen now as Cheryl reads the Scripture for us about Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.
Scripture: Ruth 1:6-18
I have a confession to make to you this morning. I’m in my thirties but I’m pretty sure I’m turning into a curmudgeon.
Because I find that holidays disappoint my expectations. The more you read about holidays, their origins, and their current forms, it seems that every holiday is watered down in some way from its original intent.
- Obviously Christmas is made to be more about gifts bought for each other than about Jesus’ birth.
- Easter is made to be more about bunnies that lay eggs rather than Jesus
- Thanksgiving is made to be more about meals and turkeys rather than enemies seeking reconciliation for however short a time.
- Martin Luther King Jr Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth of July are more about having a day off than honoring our fallen heroes. Worst of all is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts is more about a day off to run the Marathon and go to a Red Sox game than to honor our veterans. Perhaps after this year, they should rename it “First Responders and Police Officers” Day.
And today being Mother’s Day, we have strayed far from its original intentions, though to be fair, its original intentions did not even last as long as its originator was alive.
The original Mother’s Day proclamation in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe was not a rhyming poem on a greeting card, rather these are sections from it:
“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
We, the women of one country, Will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Mother’s Day in this country began as a cry for peace. This proclamation is more than tender reverence for mothers; it is a cry of protest amid a violent nation. Mothers everywhere are called to say no to violence and yes to peace, called to reveal God’s love for humanity in a resolute stand against the world’s warring madness.
The other name most associated with Mother’s Day is Anna Jarvis. She lobbied for Mother’s Day but then a decade after its creation she turned against her own invention. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She crashed meetings, protested florists and greeting card industries, and got arrested to stop the commercialization. It’s said that when she went to eat at a restaurant and they had a “Mother’s Day salad” on the menu, she ordered it, paid her check, and then threw it on the ground in a huff. To her, Mother’s Day had been taken over and she fought its recognition for the rest of her life until she died at 84 years old…the bill for her final arrangements paid for by a group of appreciative florists.
I have a theory this morning. My theory is that holidays begin to fall short of their intent when we focus more on the word FOR rather than the word WITH.
It seems that the word that epitomizes Holidays is “for.” We cook Easter Ham “for” our family, we buy presents “for” others at Christmas, we offer to do chores “for” our mother on Mother’s Day…all to say we lay ourselves down “for.” But there is a problem here. All these gestures are generous, and kind, and in some cases sacrificial and noble. They are good gestures, warm-hearted, admirable gestures. But somehow they don’t go to the heart of the Holiday problem. Doing things for other people isn’t nearly as important as doing things with other people.
What if holidays were more about who we spent it with rather than what we bought for them? What if the national holidays were days were we spent time with our wounded veterans and working with those seeking justice and equality rather than time set aside for a day off? I suspect we would turn back the clock and restore such holidays to their intent as being not for the named persons but with the named persons.
I’m convinced of theory because in the Scriptures, God is lifted up as “with” us not just “for” us. Today’s scripture is of a mothering spirit between Naomi and Ruth. They were not related by blood—Ruth had married one of Naomi’s sons. The sons and the father were all dead, and the three unrelated widows including Orpah were left on their own. Naomi tells the daughters to go back home and to leave her—there is no Jewish prohibition against widows leaving one another or a daughter in law abandoning a mother in law. Orpah obeys her mother in law and returns home. Ruth refuses and pledges that “where you go, I will go” and eventually changes Naomi’s mind. Orpah chose to do something “for” Naomi and satisfy her wants, but Ruth chose something “with” Naomi to satisfy her needs.
The simple truth is that “for” is not the way God relates to us. God does not simply do things for us. God does not simply shower us with good things. “For” is not the heart of God.”
Theologian Sam Wells writes that in Matthew’s gospel, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get in a single sentence the Cliff Note’s succinct statement of what the Christian faith means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” With us. “The Word was with God. The Word was in the beginning with God. Without the Word not one thing came into being.”
“With” is the most fundamental thing about God. Jesus’s very last words in Matthew’s gospel are, “Behold, I am with you always.” In other words, there will never be a time when I am not “with.” And at the very end of the Bible, when the book of Revelation describes the imagined end of the world, this is what the voice from heaven says: “Behold, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
Throughout Scripture, God said unambiguously, “I am with.” Behold, my dwelling is among you. I have moved into the neighborhood. I will be “with” you always. My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us. Sure, there was an element of “for” in Jesus’ life. He was “for” us when he healed and taught; he was “for” us when he died on the cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended to heaven. These are things that were done FOR us, certainly. But the power of these things God did “for” us lies in that they were based on his being “with” us. God has not abolished “for.” Doing things FOR others is fine. But I’m convinced that doing things “for” others follows a commitment to be with others. That is the good news of the incarnation.
On a day like today, it is perfectly appropriate to describe God as “with us” while lifting up the motherly images of God.
One of my clergy friends in New England wrote the following: Scripture after Scripture describes God not as a conquering king but as a loving mother: God is a woman in labor whose forceful breath is an image of divine power; God is a mother who does not forget the child she nurses; God is a mother who offers comfort with her children; God is a mother who births and protects Israel; God is a mother who gave birth to the Israelites. The early scripture writers understood the ways in which the Divine is known to us through our mothers and those who offer a mothering spirit to us. Through this human love we come to know divine love in God, as we are birthed, fed, nurtured, comforted and cared for.
Lest you think that Mothering is all about soft-focus pastels on the Lifetime channel, God’s love as mother is also portrayed as fierce. In scripture we read of God as a Mother eagle and mother bear, fiercely protecting their young against life-threatening situations. Jesus himself is described as a mother hen who gathers with her brood, shelters and cares for them, to instruct and teach them in the ways of the world.
The Good News for us today is no matter what our gender is or what our family looks like, we can live into this mothering spirit of being present WITH one another rather than simply doing things FOR one another. And in doing so, we live into that fierce protective spirit found in the Bible as God cares for the marginalized and the oppressed.
I spent some time in the Library this past week reading old sermons. For at least the latter years of Dr. Ray Balcomb’s tenure here, he would do biographies on Mother’s Day, outlining the life of a courageous woman who exemplified a mothering spirit even if she wasn’t a biological mother to anyone. People like Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Howard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, and others. And in each one, I was started to become critical (a curmudgeon, remember? Don’t cut my mic off, Gene) because there was no sermon intro or conclusion, no wrapping up their lives in scripture or prose, but simply outlining their service alongside the marginalized and allowing their lives to stand alone as testimony to the God who is with us.
We live into both the biblical narrative and our historical traditions when we choose to serve with and alongside one another rather than simply doing things for one another. This Church 20 years ago began a Shelter for homeless families. And there were concerns! We were inviting people to be here and to eat meals with them and spend the night with them. How much less scary it is donate a canned good for someone or donate clothes and items for someone. But this church persevered and now service with and alongside the marginalized is part of our DNA, passed down to every person who comes through the door, choosing to name each one as a beloved child of God. We rose to the occasion.
Twenty years ago this year, our church was in the midst of many transitions not only with the Shelter. The church voted to become Reconciling 20 years ago, we’ll celebrate that milestone in two weeks. Your senior pastor Larin Hall died a few months after leaving the pulpit, embodying what it meant to be a suffering servant. The new wing and Chapel were built to invite even more of the community to be here with us. I’m convinced that if you were here during those formative years of 1992-1994 that there’s something grafted onto your spirit that recognizes the value and strength of ministry with one another.
The challenge from scripture and elder stateswomen and men of our past is to respond to the marginalized in society. We are great at “for” we have successful offerings for groups and individuals and sometimes all they need is what we can give for them. That’s fine. But in what way will you choose to serve with? Will it is be serving in our Shelter? Will it be advocacy for marriage rights for all? Will it be reaching out to that family that you’ve never spent time with? What will it be?
The choice is yours. And the Good News is: you are not alone. God with us, Emmanuel, is with us. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: April 21, 2013
Title: “The New Creation”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Romans 8:18-25
The New Creation
What a week.
As a preacher, we stand, like you, with what Kart Barth called “a bible in one hand, a newspaper in another.” One is eternal and challenging but predictable to preach from, and the other changes rapidly. A bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday, an earthquake killed 35 in Pakistan on Tuesday, Ricin laced letters sent to elected officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate failing to act on gun control on Wednesday, an explosion in West Texas killing 14 people on Wednesday night, a shootout and police casualty at MIT on Thursday night, an unprecedented Boston lockdown and a successful manhunt that did not result in more loss of life on Friday. An earthquake in China killing over 180 people happened on Saturday. That scribbling sound you heard each night was preachers writing prayers for the victims and rewriting their sermons to reflect the world’s events. But this is Sunday, the beginning of a new week, where we gather. Some are perhaps hoping for a narrative to make sense out of senseless death and human failings. But I suspect some are just hoping for a blank slate, a reset button where the horrors of last week are forgotten, looking for Good News after the Bad News of last week. We want something new.
This week we continue our sermon series called “The New Normal.” We are focusing on what has changed after Easter, what has changed to the followers of Jesus after he was resurrected and what has changed in our own lives now. Our scripture today, chosen a month ago and relevant no matter the news, speaks of the whole earth groaning in anticipation, pregnant with possibilities. Like the people in the Roman church, we yearn for the release of something new being born, the release of 1 week, 9 months, years, decades of pain and discomfort. But there’s a difference between our situation and the Roman situation. In Paul’s writings, he expected Jesus to return in his lifetime, so for the long-suffering followers of Christ in Rome and all the other places, all they needed to do was hold on a bit longer and the New Creation would take place. They had to be faithful for another few months or years, and they would definitely see the return of Christ. For us, 2000 years later, that expectation, while still part of our hope and expection, is less a guide for our day-to-day living than it was for the Roman church. The Old Creation has not passed away, we still live between the times.
So how do we navigate this tension between the old and the new creation? On this Earth Sunday where a week like ours has us questioning the goodness of our human and our natural world, how do we navigate being faithful to God while wanting to hit the reset button. I’d like to start with the tale of two Bostons. First is the Boston of 2013, people running towards the blast, people who ran 26.2 miles and ran a few miles more to Mass General to give blood, people opening up their homes to displaced runners who couldn’t reconnect with the finish line meetup spot. Story after story of help and support, which is surprising because Chelsea and I lived in Boston for six years and compassionate is not the term we would use to describe Bostonians.
But there was also the Boston of 2009. I was in my third year of pastoring a local church in Boston when on a Sunday morning, Helen Jackson, an 82 year old woman got her scarf stuck on the metal grating at the bottom of an Escalator. She was pulled down to the ground and suffocated to death over the course of two minutes where people just walked by, assuming she was sleeping or homeless or who-knows-what and the two passerbys who tried to help were unable to get a knife or scissors or anything to cut the scarf from anyone walking by. She died and people just kept walking by in a 2009 version of Kitty Genovese.
The two stories of Boston beg the question. In both cases, people were dying, hurt, in need of help. So what was the reason why people helped in droves in 2013 but others kept walking in 2009? What changed between those two worlds? I think it comes down to tipping points. What pushes us to act, what pushes us down the hill? What causes us to turn the corner? A visible explosion and a visible need for help? People respond. An elderly inner-city person stuck on the escalator where people sleep and drunk people fall over? People walk by.
What is the Tipping Point when we are willing to help? Our televisions seek to push us over the tipping point and open our wallets. TV commercials with starving children pleading that for only 19 cents a day you can feed others. The ASPCA commercials with rows of shelter pets and Sarah McLachlan singing that you can save these abused animals. Entire cable news networks whose sole purpose, after they make money, is to push you over the tipping point and hate everyone that they want you to hate. Our human psyches are often either really vulnerable or completely immune to the media’s pushing of us over those tipping points.
But the truth is that our natural world also encounters tipping points, times when humanity, as stewards of Creation, have to decide to act even if there’s no obvious disruptive danger. There are tipping points in nature where things just don’t go back to normal. In Greenland the ice sheet there is bright and reflective and redirects much of the sun’s heat. But in recent decades, the more ice is melted, the less sunlight is reflected, and the more ice gets melted, and the less sunlight is reflected, and so on. We’ve reached what scientists believe is a tipping point, a negative feedback loop from whence it will be very very difficult to recover.
That’s the bad news. But hear the Good News. The tipping point for us to change our lives, our families, and our natural world is present already. There are two ways to live into the New Creation written about in Romans. The first is to see that before we can truly be part of the New Creation, we need to be in love with the current Creation around us. This New Creation, according to Paul, started with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, it started earlier with Jesus coming into the world and providing a way, according to John 3:16. However, the farmer and writer Wendell Berry takes it back even further than that. Quote: “People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in this statement: that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world–not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness–the lovability–of the world.” The pattern of salvation is that God loved the world first and then sent Jesus to inaugurate the New Creation through community and spirit.
In Romans, the birth pangs follow a pattern too, starting in the world. They start in the world, then they go to the community of the church, and then they go to the spirit. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, felt this same pattern. Wesley’s emphasis on “cleanliness” came as he observed a world of open sewers, impure water, unplanned cities, and smoke-filled air. In the mines and mills of England, squalor and filth were everywhere, as was disease. The substantial decline in the death rate in England from 1700 to 1801 can be traced to improvements in environment, sanitation, and a wider knowledge of concepts of basic health such as those advocated by Wesley. The birth pangs of a new way to live began in the world, moved to the Church through Wesley, and now that sense of connectedness is part of our DNA, born of the Spirit anew in each church across the globe. We are called to live at the overlap of the New and the Old Creation. Not to passively wait for the New, or reject the Old, but to live in the tension.
The second hope for us today is how to be part of the New Creation in everyday ways. That tension of being between worlds can get the better of us sometimes. This past week, day after day, news alert after news alert, text message after text message “have you seen the news?,” the tension has us in its grip. But we are not without hope. From the Book of Discipline, the book of United Methodist doctrine, it states: “We assert that God’s grace is manifest in all creation even though suffering, violence, and evil are everywhere present.” Even though violence and spectacles get most of our attention, our everyday attention ought to be in small, incremental changes. The way the natural world works gives us much-needed guidance. So much of environmental change and preservation is as slow as those ice sheets melting in Greenland. But each community that does choose the small actions, the different levels in your bulletins, they choose to be part of the solution–the agonizingly slow, methodical, and quiet solution–rather than contribute to the problem.
In short, this is a very Methodist way of dealing with the issue of the environment and of a world that some weeks is full of pain and suffering. John Wesley was on a boat with some folks and there was a terrific storm, a storm only matched by the anxiety in his heart. You see, he had been a preacher for a decade or two but he had gone through a spell where he was unsure of his role and unsure of his faith. He confided in a colleague on the boat who said “then you preach faith until you have it.” Little wonder that after this he began the small accountability group, Wesleyan bands, that would be a weekly meeting place for people to explore the bible and each other’s lives. While large-scale conversions and lived experiences of the divine did take place, for the majority they noticed a gradual growth in the spirituality and their dedication to God known in the church, in each other, and in the natural world. My hope for us is that we preach the New Creation until we have it. That we hope, yearn for something new that redeems the old. That we do the small things that in aggregate can pile up and make a difference.
In conclusion, if Creation is to be renewed, not abandoned, and if that work has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus, Christians must be in the forefront of bringing God’s healing to bear upon Creation in all levels. The Methodist way is one of those quiet, methodical ways. We may not be flashy, we may not have big-time authors or speakers. We are not abolishing the old world; we are being transformed into a new one. The groaning is a sign of hope. So may we groan in our labors. May we groan when we take out the recycling. May we groan when our natural and human worlds fall short. May our groanings be signs of our yearnings for this New Creation to come in its fullness. And may we continue to endeavor, to work, to persevere in spite of the groaning, because behold, through the Spirit we are building something new. Glory be to God. Amen.
Lest you think because you’ve done most of the things on your checklist provided by Planet Church, here’s a quote from Bill McKibben: “You’re not a member of the Resistance just because you drive a Prius. You don’t need to go to jail, but you do need to do more than change your light bulbs. You need to try to change the system that is raising the temperature, the sea level, the extinction rate – even raising the question of how well civilization will survive this century.”
Date: April 7, 2013
Title: “New Life”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Happy Easter! Oh wait…that was LAST week! Last week we came to an empty tomb with wonder and fear which turned to joy. Last week we sang our “Alleluias!” and put on our Easter best. So now what? Now, it must be “back to normal” for us… or is it?
The bulletin says something else. The bulletin suggests that we are not going “back to normal”, but rather that we are moving forward into a “New Normal”. A New Normal – that is what Easter promises on this Sunday after the fact.
I think the early Christians may have understood this better than we typically do. In the early Church, they were not content to let Easter end on Easter Sunday, In fact, with the celebration of Communion in the early hours of Easter Sunday, a period of joy began for the Church, a period which lasted 50 days. These were 50 days in which they were to remember:
- We are saved
- We belong to Christ
- We give ourselves up to a life of joy as children of God
A New Normal, where we give ourselves up to a life of joy as children of God! Really? Joy every day? Surely, this is what the new life of Easter is all about, if it is about anything at all. It is about choosing to live a life of joy. Frederick Buechner puts it this way when he writes:
“In the Gospel of John, Jesus sums up pretty much everything by saying These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11) He said that at the supper that he knew was the last one he’d be able to eat. So it is no wonder then, while happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it – in a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation – joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.”
Joy is the New Normal of Easter’s New Life. It’s the only thing that makes sense when you think about the disciples after the resurrection. There they were, locked away in their fear. They had plenty to fear, you know… first there were the Roman soldiers and the religious authorities. If Jesus could be so brutally murdered, who knew what might happen to his followers? And then there was Jesus himself! It was weird enough to think of him risen from the dead (that could inspire fear on its own)… what if he held a grudge? I mean, the last time he saw those disciples, they hadn’t been exactly loyal friends. They had not been courageous followers.
So the first disciples had plenty of reasons to be afraid, plenty of good reasons to hide away behind locked doors. But none of that stops Jesus, who flows as easily through their fears as he does through the locks on the doors. And when Jesus greets them with Peace…in that moment, Joy becomes the new normal for us all!
Like Thomas, we may take a little convincing. We may take a little convincing if we are going to choose to give ourselves up to a life of joy. Because we can’t obtain happiness, any more than we can obtain the weather. It comes and it goes – just look outside! It was raining
just a minute ago, But now, I see the sun is shining again. It comes and it goes, it changes; you can’t obtain happiness. But you can stop shooing it away, when you find it outside like a dog, sniffing around the backyard, thinking it might want to come in sometime.
Like Thomas, we are prone to do that, are we not? We are prone to shoo happiness away with our worry or our anxiety, or even our inattention to the present moment. We may shoo happiness away thinking it is someone else’s story – it is not for us. For whatever reason, we all do it, from time to time.
Which is why I appreciate my friend Matt Smith, an improvisational actor, who teaches something he calls “The Failure Bow”, which we are all going to practice today. The first step in learning this technique is to think of a mistake you’ve made recently. Now, if you have a hard time thinking of something, you might just want to ask your spouse sitting next to you there, or your children, or even your friend in the pew behind you. We all have more than enough to choose from, when it comes to mistakes we make. Perhaps you neglected to return a phone call or an email in a timely manner? Maybe you forgot someone’s birthday, or you put recycling into the garbage bin by mistake?
In any event, think about some recent mistake, and then think about how it feels. If you let your body do the bidding for the mistake, you might kind of curl in on yourself something like this. You might assume what my friend Matt calls the “cringe” mode – where it feels like your options are limited, and your vision is narrowed. When you are stuck in this cringe mode, you can’t really see much of the world around you; you can’t imagine much of the possibilities presented to you; it’s hard to move from this position and even hard to appreciate moving.
Again, as Matt says, “You are not likely to invite happiness into your life when you are in cringe mode.” You are highly unlikely to give yourself up to a life of joy when you are stuck in this place, where you cannot see anything other than your mistake and you might even begin to imagine that you ARE the mistake itself.
But here you are – here we all are – and the amazing thing is, Jesus is not deterred by any of our mistakes. Even our deepest cringe cannot keep him from giving us peace or from calling us out of ourselves into a life of joy. So again, with thanks to Matt, here’s what you do…First, you stand up straight. Your mother was right – posture is important. So you stand up straight and tall, and then you throw your arms high up into the air. Not halfway up – Matt says that just says “Don’t shoot!” – but high into the air, go your arms. Next, you add a silly grin on your face as you open yourself up and you become vulnerable to possibility. And then, you say, right out loud – “Thank you! I failed!”
Now, we are going to stand up and practice this – right now. We are going to practice it because there is a lot of intelligence in this room right now. We are all pretty smart (we are Methodists, after all!), and nobody here thinks that their mistake-making days are over. WE all know we have plenty of mistakes yet to make, so let’s have a plan of response! Stand up! Throw your hands high into the air, put on that silly grin, and then on the count of three, shout out Thank you! I failed!
Matt says you can do this anywhere. Now you probably don’t want to walk into an work or a state dinner late and say, “Thank you, I failed”…but you can still fend off the cringe mode. You can reward your own availability to the present moment, your own intention to give yourself up to a life of joy. You can open the backyard gate where that dog has been sniffing around, that dog called happiness. And as Matt says, “You can let it in, even if it means you have to clean up after it. You can let it in, knowing it will be worth it.” It will be worth it to live Easter’s New Life – which it turns out is the life which Jesus wanted to give us all along… a life of joy! It will be worth it.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday, 11:00 am
Title: “Another Chance…And Another”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
Brady Udall has written a short story entitled “Otis is Resurrected” – about two brothers and the power of love to redeem us and our mistakes. The story begins w/the death of the brothers’ father, who loved animals, esp. the armadillo.
“Not the smartest or the prettiest,” he would say in describing the armadillo, “but the hardiest, the most resourceful”. The one brother is 17 when dad dies; the other, 19 year old Donald, suffers from schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and manic depression.
Donald deals with his grief by taking a bus into Mexico and buying an armadillo for his brother. They named the armadillo Otis and Donald “cared for him, worried over him, tormented him, teased him, then made up with tearful professions of regret and affection.”
Five years pass w/the brothers sharing an apartment with the armadillo, and then the younger one falls in love, and makes plans to marry and move into an apartment nearby. When he tells his brother about this plan, Donald goes wild with grief and responds by trying to drown Otis in the laundry tub. “I unlocked the laundry room door and grabbed Donald from behind, but he resisted, grunting and plunging Otis deeper into the water. I wrestled him out into the living room, where we fell sideways against the couch. Donald twisted away from me and stood up, the water dripping off his elbows, forming a puddle around his shoes. Otis was curled up in a ball, just like when he slept. Donald’s face twisted into a mask of concentrated grief. “See?” he wept. “See what I did?”
I don’t remember if I looked away, or if it was as sudden as it seemed, but one moment Otis was a sad, wet corpse, as dead as an armadillo could be, and the next he was huffing and twitching and scrabbling to his feet. Donald let our an arching shriek which sent Otis zigzagging into the kitchen where a mad chase ensued, Donald slipping and flailing, knocking over chairs and pulling down the drapes, still choking and sobbing, now with relief. He finally herded Otis under the table and once he had pulled him out, he held him up, his fingers locked in a death grip around his little body, and cried, “Otis is resurrected! Otis is resurrected!”
The story goes on to tell of the marriage of the younger brother, and how Donald and Otis live in one apartment while his brother starts a family in a nearby home, where he never quite loses this image of hope…
…a vision of Donald clutching a newly revived Otis, his face slick with tears, transformed from a man twisted inside out with grief, to someone awestruck at the realization that our worst mistakes can be retrieved, that death can be traded in for life, that what has been destroyed can be made whole again.”
This is what resurrection really means when you come right down to it: it is the assurance that you and I can be changed – we can be transformed. Even when we are twisted inside out with grief, we have not reached the end of our story. And we – like those first women who went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning – are awestruck when we realize that the worst mistakes can somehow be redeemed!
As Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg put it, Easter is God’s revelation of hope. They say, “Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.” At Easter, God says “no” to the oppressors, “no” to injustice, “no” to hatred – and “yes” to possibility”, “yes” to freedom, and above all else, “yes” to love.
Regardless of how tightly we are wound, or how deeply we are wounded; regardless of how broken and grief-stricken, fearful and lonely we may be; Easter gives us another chance…and another…to be transformed.
Anne Howard suggests that Mary Magdalene and the other women knew how to tell the story of that empty tomb. It wasn’t all sunlight and daffodils, bunnies and rosey hues of spring out there in the graveyard. Howard writes: “The women talked first about being afraid. And then they told about looking into that dark place and seeing light. That was why they kept looking…” That was how they first found Easter.
That is how we will find it, too. God knows there are plenty of reasons for any of us to be afraid in this life. The domination systems of the world are alive and active in every part of the world. And we each have our own individual moments of uncertainty, confusion, and grief. So that we – like the women – are sometimes afraid. But if we keep looking into our fear, we will be given a chance…and another…and another…to find Easter.
Again, in Howard’s words:
“The women found Easter when they told their story about being afraid and yet looking into the dark place to discover the light. They found Easter again when they dared to keep on telling that story – despite the power of the Empire to stop them.
They found Easter again when they dared to tell the other stories – about loaves and fishes and the good Samaritan and the banquet table. They found Easter again when they carried on the practices that Jesus taught them about sharing their goods and welcoming the stranger and caring for the least among them.”
They found Easter when they stopped being afraid of the dark – as we will, too. After the resurrection, things do not return to normal. That’s the good news of Easter. Once we have peered into the darkness and discovered the light; once we have made friends with our fears and let go of our mistakes, we find that it is not just Jesus’ tomb which is empty. It is also our own.
Those tombs which diminish us and marginalize us; the tombs which limit our possibilities and dash our hopes and belittle our dreams; the tombs which tie us to our addictions and identify us only with our failures…it turns out, they are empty!
Those are the tombs and that is the darkness we need to peer into this day. Don’t be afraid of the dark! The tombs are empty – for we all have been given another chance…and another…and another…for life! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 31,2013- Easter Sunday, 9:00 am
Title: “One More Chance for Life”
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
When my daughter Sarah was only three years old she witnessed a very sad event right in our own front yard. At the time we had a little smooth-haired For Terrier named Ace. Now Fox Terriers are outgoing, alert, active dogs. They were originally bred to be independent hunters, to chase game because they are so quick. Mr. Ace was no exception! Try as we might to keep him on a leash or contained within the house, that dog always wanted to run.
One day, about a week before Easter, Ace managed to escape out the front door just as a large pickup truck was winding its way down our street. Those big, rolling tires proved to be just too tempting for Ace, who undoubtedly thought, “They don’t look very much like foxes, but I’m sure I can catch ‘em!”
So he began to chase – and unfortunately he did catch that truck – or more accurately, it caught him. And of course Ace lost in that transaction. Later that day we were standing together at a make-shift grave out in Ace’s favorite woods, when three year old Sarah looked up at me, sniffling through her grief, and said, “Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring Mr. Ace back home.”
Sarah’s broken little heart was trying its best to put the pieces back together again, to find some hope in the midst of heartache and some joy in the presence of sorrow. Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring Mr. Ace back home…she may have gotten the focus wrong, but little Sarah was definitely onto something as she voiced an archetypal yearning for “one more chance for life”.
There is, deep within each of our hearts, this yearning for new life. Why else do we come to church on Easter morning? Yes, I know – some of you are here out of habit; others have come for a sense of community or for the beautiful music; some of you came because your mother asked you to come. But deep down – isn’t there a desire to know that life – your life – is ore than what you will be able to make of it all on your own? Isn’t there a part of you that doesn’t want to settle fore things as they’ve always been? Isn’t there some small part of you that is holding out hope for transformation, and for one more chance for life?
Bruce Epperly puts it this way:
Resurrection is always personal, even though it is universal in scope. If resurrection means anything – then and now – it means that we must be open to transformation and to the birth of unimaginable possibilities in our midst.
Certainly that was true for the women who came to that now famously-empty tomb. They were not alone in their defeated state. No one expected Jesus to be resurrected – never mind that he several times had predicted his death and his resurrection. Still, no one greeted the first Easter morning with shouts of “Alleluia! Praise God!”, much less by commenting quietly, “I knew it … just like he said!”
Perhaps the real miracle here is that those women somehow found the courage to move beyond their expectations, and to be open to the birth of unimaginable possibilities in their lives. And what about us? Can we participate in such a miracle? Can we find the same courage to open ourselves to transformation? As David Lose reminds us:
Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an “idle tale”. That’s actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek word “leros”…the root of our word “delirious”.
In short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense. And quite frankly…who could blame them? Resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was resuscitated; it’s the claim that God entered the stage of human history in order to create an entirely new reality altogether!
No wonder they thought the women were nuts. That can be more than a little intimidating. I mean – if the dead don’t stay dead, then what else can you count on? If it turns out that my own unforgiveable mistakes can truly be redeemed; if the world’s deepest darkness turns out to hold within it some light; if our greatest sorrows actually bless us with a measure of peace; if my most closely held fears are covering up my most improbably joy… then what other rules will God’s love break? What other astounding surprises are in store for any of us? And do we even want to know?
It seems to be a part of human nature, this tendency we all have to go “looking for the living among the dead” from time to time. It is a part of who we are to resist big change, and to fear transformation, even when it opens up amazing possibilities for us.
But it is Easter – Easter, my friends! – and we are being given another chance for life …for life among the living. Russell Rathbun puts it this way:
It is Easter, and you are loved. The soft insistence of Love has overwhelmed all other possibilities, to become the end, the final answer, the destination, the location for our wonderings and wanderings.
It is Easter and Love is possible. It is Easter and you are loved in an inconceivable, irrevocable, uncanny, prodigious way by God.
It is Easter and you are being given another chance for life amongst the living, another chance to truly and completely live. Mary Oliver suggests that is our goal, in her poem, “When Death Comes”, which ends with these words:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
It is Easter – and we are being given One More Chance for Life among the living. Christ is risen! Alleluia! So shall we rise, when we find the courage to go beyond our expectations, and to participate in the birth of God’s unimaginable possibilities. For you – for me – for all of God’s creation. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 24, 2013
Title: “Shouting Stones and Passing Parades”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 19:36-40
I love a parade…the colors of drill teams and floats, banners and flags; the smells of popcorn and cotton candy, flowers and greenery; the sounds of bands and horns, fire trucks and even the clop-clop of horses’ hooves as they trot down the street. I love a parade – and fortunately for you, I don’t know the rest of the words to that song! I love the drama and the pageantry and the pomp, the expectations we all bring to a parade, and the inevitable surprises.
There are always some surprises. No matter how well choreographed, how meticulously scripted, or how carefully planned, every parade has its share of surprises. I think of Salty Sea Days, 1978, in Everett, Washington, when I was in charge of the parade. Everything had been well organized (of course it was – I was in charge!), carefully timed out, and every detail had been planned. Things were going right on schedule, too – until the driver of the mobile playground suddenly became ill.
Now this was a full size city bus which had been converted into a playground. And it was lined up, ready to go – without a driver. Obviously I had to fill in the gap. We couldn’t just let the bus sit there, blocking the parade route. And I thought, how hard could it be? After all, I was just driving in a line, following the rest of the parade. Just driving a city bus…
We started off, horns blaring, kids squealing, and everything was great until I came to the one and only left turn intersection on the parade route. As luck would have it, there was a woman stopped at the opposite light, in her Toyota Corolla, watching as I began to make the turn. This was the first time I had ever driven the bus, and it didn’t occur to me that the turning radius was probably a bit wider than my usual ride. The bus was definitely bigger than my compact car, and I probably should have slowed down way sooner than I did. As the bus came closer and closer to the Toyota in the intersection, I began to hear plenty of shouting from the crowd, as the woman’s eyes got bigger and bigger inside that Toyota. And I doubt she was thinking “I love a parade”!
It seems there are always some surprises. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in that long-ago Palm Parade, it seemed like his success was guaranteed. It looked as if God had uniquely blessed Jesus to be the promised Messiah. So it made sense that he would be riding into town in triumph.
The crowd certainly thought this was the case. Their expectation was that Jesus would come into Jerusalem, raise up an army, and with God’s help, finally drive out the Roman occupation. They thought the parade would end in military victory and in social liberation. Imagine their surprise…
It is interesting to me that all four Gospels include some account of this entry into Jerusalem. They don’t all tell the story exactly the same way. Matthew, Mark and John include some mention of the crowd waving branches; Luke does not. Matthew, Mark and Luke have people throwing their clothing on the road in front of Jesus; John does not. Matthew, Mark and John tell us people were shouting “Hosanna!”; while Luke gives a much longer praise chorus – Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!
And it is only in Luke’s Gospel that the Pharisees chide Jesus for the peoples’ praise, saying he should order the disciples to stop. And only in Luke do we hear Jesus’ reply, If these were silent, the stones would shout out! As if to suggest, there are some surprises that just won’t keep. There is some hope that just will not be squelched. There is some joy that cannot be hoarded. And there is some liberation which can only be shared.
I recently watched the movie Argo, which is based on the true story of how CIA operatives posing as a Hollywood film crew rescued six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy in Iran during the 1979 seige at the American embassy. Now I knew even before I started watching the movie how it was going to work out. I knew that the ruse was going to work and that the six were going to reach freedom. But even so, I felt incredibly tense. The suspense captured my imagination as I watched the drama unfold onscreen.
So here we are, at the beginning of Holy Week, once more watching the drama unfold. We know how it will end up. We know where Jesus goes after the parade. Before the victory chants have even faded away, we can hear the soldiers mocking the “King of the Jews”, and we can see the crosses on the hill and feel the devastating pain. And yet – we think – maybe this year, things will turn out differently for Jesus, maybe even for us. Alyce McKenzie suggests:
Every Holy Week I am still filled with the persistent hope that this year it will end differently…Every year I want to rewrite the script. My rewrite would keep the protagonist as he is, a Messiah without pomp.
Isn’t it interesting, how all the Gospels have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – the very symbol of humility if there ever was one! McKenzie goes on:
My rewrite would keep the immediate supporting cast as they are portrayed in Luke – disciples devoted to his mission. But I would completely rewrite the outcome… Then it dawns on me suddenly, this is what God does in the Resurrection. [God rewrites the ending.]\0×2028 It is not my job, but at the same time, it IS my job, with God’s help. On a daily basis, from now throughout Holy Week, Easter Sunday, and in every day beyond, it is our job to help God rewrite the ending, in a world filled with vivid scenes where greed and violence too often reign.
It is our job to help God rewrite the endings whenever justice is thwarted and people are diminished. It is our job to help God rewrite the endings whenever the planet is abused and creation is taken for granted. It is our job to help God rewrite the endings whenever fear begets hatred and love is denied; whenever peace seems impossible and possibilities are constricted.
It is our job to help God rewrite the endings. In the words of Julia Esquivel’s classic poem “Threatened with Resurrection”:
In this marathon of Hope,
There are always others to relieve us
In bearing the courage necessary
To arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…
Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!
To dream awake, to keep watch asleep, to live while dying… and to know ourselves already resurrected! That is the greatest surprise of them all, and the best ending ever. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 17, 2013
Title: “Forgiving Chances”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
It has happened to all of us. We are heading down the highway of our lives, or traveling the straight and narrow road to redemption when we run into a sign like this one… Detour. And our plans have to change as we take a new direction, even embark upon an unplanned route. Perhaps we find ourselves unexpectedly caring for a dying parent. Or maybe we are welcoming an unexpected baby. Perhaps we have to let go of an old job, or are asked to take on some new responsibility. Maybe we find ourselves coming face to face with our own mortality, or being forced to accept the limits of our lives.
It happens to all of us. But I wonder – what happens when the detours of the road are the ones which we ourselves have created? What happens when we are lost and alone, and the worst of it is, we are there precisely because of choices we have knowingly made?! We find ourselves wondering, “How will we ever get home again?”
When I was a child, Saturday morning cartoons were not usually a part of our lives. Saturday mornings were not for television of any kind, but were dedicated to household chores. That was when the inside cleaning and the outside gardening got done. And I thought this was a huge injustice.
One Saturday, I decided I wouldn’t take it anymore. That day I determined that I would watch cartoons. Of course, the only way to be granted that privilege was to be sick. I remembered my mother telling the story about the time she almost died in childhood because of a burst appendix, and I thought, “that will do”. So I went to the World Book Encyclopedia and I looked up “appendicitis”, learning all about the typical symptoms, and then I went to my mother and began to complain. “Oh, I have this bad pain in the lower right quadrant of my abdomen” I told her.
Now my mother was nobody’s fool. I’m sure she knew I was faking it, trying to get out of the Saturday morning chores. But she also had a pretty healthy worry streak in her, and she had experienced that scary time in her own childhood. So, she let me off the hook, told me I could watch a little television while we waited for my father to return home from his work. At that time dad’s office was about a 30-minute drive away, and it was not far from the Army hospital where we received all of our medical care. So, after a couple of hours, Dad came home, rather grumpily bundled me into the car and retraced his route back to the Base, to take me to the emergency room.
All the way there, he kept glancing sideways at me and growling, “You had better be sick!” Now at that point, I was committed. I could not see any way out of the mess I had created for myself, and found myself praying that somehow I might actually get sick between home and the hospital, as I wondered, “How will I ever get home again?!”
That is the problem facing the Prodigal Son in this morning’s Gospel story. That is also the dilemma each of us faces from time to time. When we leave the Easter road, ignoring the journey to grace in favor of something we think will be quick and easy. Or when we run after money or prestige, power or privilege, to pursue what we think will buy us happiness. Or when we become “prodigal” – recklessly extravagant in our living, or even in our loving. We are all tempted to ask, “How will we ever get home again?”
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells a scandalous tale. It is one which could have been taken right out of the “Palestine Enquirer”. And he tells it to an audience that would have understood the scandal. That first audience knew the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place. They understood that patriarchs did not run – especially they did not run after children who had publicly humiliated and disgraced not only themselves but the whole doggone family. This story borders on sensationalism and it reeks of the fantastic. Eric Barreto puts it this way, when he writes:
At first, it seems like the famous story of the Prodigal Son will follow the same patterns of Jesus’ other ‘lost and found’ parables [You remember the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep]. The Prodigal story begins with a father losing a son, then the father searches for the son unceasingly, and then when the son returns, the father celebrates extravagantly.
But the pattern breaks in this story, because the return of the son is not celebrated by all.
[There is that older, bitter, disappointed, angry son...] But notice the father’s reaction,[as he says, "We must celebrate, because your brother is back."]“He was dead, and now he is alive; he was lost and is now found.”
This is where the scandal begins and ends with Jesus. Jesus – who eats with sinners, breaking bread and cultivating relationships with the despised, the marginalized, the totally uncool. Jesus puts his heart into hanging out with the lost and with the dead. Again, in Baretto’s words:
As long as the one is lost, the rest are incomplete. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, case aside as irrelevant, called a sinner by the rest of us, then we are at a loss, and God’s heart is broken… God will never stop reaching for the lost one because God’s love is too wide. God’s grace is too rich to cease looking for the lost, for those whom we so often deem irredeemable.
God’s grace is too rich, because with God there are so many forgiving chances. It is as if with God, love is more important than justice. It is as if reconciliation and community are more valuable to God than individuality and honor. It is as if all the detours in the world cannot change the fact that we cannot stay lost – that nobody can stay lost forever.
Annie Dillard, commenting on the Gospel of Luke, says this:
The Gospel of Luke ends immediately and abruptly after Jesus’ Ascension outside Bethany…the skies have scarcely closed around his heels when the story concludes with the disciples. What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. The disciples turn into the early Christians between one rushed verse and another.
What a pity, for who can believe in the Christians? They are like us. Who can believe in them? Who could believe that salvation is for these rogues, that God is for these rogues? They are just like us, taking all the detours we take… [And judging everyone else's journey as if ours was alone the straight and narrow one.]
Dillard goes on: Unless, of course…Unless Jesus washing the disciples’ feet means what it could possibly mean, that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, full or error, prone to the detours of life. And that God loves us, anyway.
Perhaps this is what the elder son – and you and I – need to understand. That God’s love and grace is addressed to every one of us. And that it does not matter how many detours we take, in God’s reconciliation even grace goes tabloid, as we are called to offer as many forgiving chances as we are given.
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the Parable of the Prodigal in this way:
Any way you look at it, this is an alarming story. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking the winners to foot the bill. It is about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise each other.
Jesus told this story to the ministerial association that was complaining about his dinner parties. He told them he could not hear them.
As they sat all the way across the restaurant, tsking and tutting about the outcasts and bullies, the table full of maladjusted, miscontented, motley characters sitting with Jesus, Jesus said he could not hear them all the way over there. Taylor goes on:
So Jesus said, “Come on over, pull up some chairs…come meet my friends…dessert is on me!” And as far as we know, Jesus is still waiting to see how the story will end.
In loving us, God forgives us. In forgiving us, God frees us. And in freeing us, God empowers us to forgive and free each other. So Jesus is still waiting to see if we will risk the detours we make and the ones we see others taking. Jesus is still waiting to see if we will offer the same kind of forgiving chances we have already been given. Jesus is still waiting to see if we will notice that God is here, running out to meet us with open arms and saying “Welcome Home!” and assuring us there is no shortage of forgiving chances for any of us, any time. Jesus is still waiting… Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 10, 2013
Title: “One Great OUR of Sharing”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-40
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake”, a coal mouse asked a wild dove. “Nothing more than nothing”, was the reply. “In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal mouse said.
“I sat on a fir branch, close to the trunk, when it began to snow. Not heavily, not in a raging blizzard… no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes setting on the twigs and needles of my branch. I counted all the way up to 3,471,952.
When the next snowflake dropped onto my branch – nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.” Having said that, the coal mouse fled away.
Tell me the weight of a snowflake…or the inspiration of a dream, or the testimony of one good deed, the impact of one righteous person, or the transformative power of one good church. Tell me that, and I will tell you so many marvelous stories!
I know that we might, at times, feel as if we are “nothing more than nothing”, that we can hardly impact, let alone change anything at all. But what is the weight of a snowflake?
I am so proud to be a part of this congregation! Over the past 20 months I have seen you, time and time again, risking yourselves for the sake of the Gospel. I have seen you, in essence, believing in the weight of a snowflake. I have seen you trusting the inspiration of a dream, the impact of righteous individuals, and the testimony of good deeds. I have seen you growing the transformative power of this one church:
- Through the creation and adoption of “First Fruits”, First church’s Strategic Plan
- Through the continued support for Goose Hollow Family Shelter, and the development of our first “Village Support Team”, designed to support and accompany one shelter family the first six months in their new home
- Through Volunteer-in-Mission trips, and Lenten Suppers
- In small group ministries and in local service projects
- Through music and fellowship
- In advocacy efforts and in countless compassionate connections
I know it might have been easier to ignore the needs around us. Like Jesus’ first disciples, when they were surrounded by a hungry horde, it might have been tempting for us to say Jesus – send the people away…send the world away… it is late, and they are all so hungry, and we don’t have enough to feed them all!
But Jesus invariably says, Take what you do have and offer it. Don’t worry that it’s not big enough, or good enough. Don’t worry that you are not smart enough, or strong enough. Just take what you’ve got and give it… and let me do the rest.
Indeed, the charge to care for the poor and the disadvantaged can be found throughout Scripture. But it is especially prominent in the ministry of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus announces the arrival of God’s Kingdom while he cures the sick, while he welcomes the despised, and while he provides food for the hungry. In today’s passage, Jesus tells us to carry on this ministry by doing likewise, because anyone who has experienced God’s love cannot go back to life as it once was.
Mark Twain is reputed to have once said, It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand. Perhaps he was thinking of today’s passage. It certainly pulls no punches. It minces no words, but is pretty darn clear. Stanley Hauerwas suggests: “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who follow no longer have any excuse to avoid the ‘least of these’.”
We no longer have any excuse to avoid the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the isolated, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned. We have no excuse to avoid anyone at the margins of life because we have met Jesus and have heard him call our names. Carl Gregg puts it this way:
“The criteria upon which we will be judged will not be what we know or what we say we believe…but rather, what we have actually done for the less fortunate. The closest we can come to a transformative face-to-face encounter with Jesus is to aid and be fully present to the poor and marginalized.”
Which is the whole point of this “One Great Hour of Sharing”. And the whole point of our sharing. UMCOR – the United Methodist Committee on Relief – has spent the past 73 years taking what we have and offering it to a world in need. This world-class relief agency was created in 1940 to be “the voice of conscience among Methodists to act in the relief of human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed.” Its immediate goal then was to respond to suffering in Europe after the onset of World War II.
In 1972 UMCOR was made a permanent part of the General Board of Global Ministries, and its work was expanded to include disaster relief here in the United States as well as around the world. Since then, UMCOR has helped survivors of earthquakes in Nicaragua, famine in Africa, and tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes in the US. We – you and I – have helped rebuild homes and support peace in places like Liberia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. We have responded to earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; to floods in Pakistan; to the tsunami in Japan; to the ongoing war in Afghanistan; and to hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and the like…and most recently, to superstorm Sandy here at home.
That is what OUR sharing makes possible, because God calls us to act as much as we hope. And still calls us to take what we have and give it…and then let God do the rest. We do not have to know every detail, contingency, or possible development awaiting us in any life. We do not have to know just who is thirsting for community today, or who will be hungry for God tomorrow. Because we do know who God expects to feed them and to care for them.
For the power of God at work within us is the greatest power on earth, when we take what we have and offer it; when we trust what we have and use it; and when we believe in that power of God within us. It is not just “One Great Hour of Sharing”, it is OUR SHARING which will make the difference from here on out. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: March 3, 2013
Title: “Cutting Losses or Redeeming Failures?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 13:6-9
In 1902, the editor of Atlantic Monthly returned a stack of poems with this note: “Our magazine has no room for your vigorous verse.” The poet was Robert Frost.
In 1905, the University of Bern turned down a doctoral dissertation, judging it be “Irrelevant and fanciful.” The doctoral candidate was Albert Einstein.
In 1894, an English teacher noted on a teenager’s report card, “A conspicuous lack of success.” The teenager was Winston Churchill.
And the stories could go on and on, because sometimes it is difficult to tell a lost cause from a temporary setback. It is not always easy to know when it is time to cut our losses and when we still have a chance to redeem our failures.
It is said that Thomas Edison performed 60,000 experiments before he succeeded in producing a storage battery. When asked if he ever became discouraged, working so long without results, Edison replied, “Results? Why, I know 50,000 things that won’t work!” And I have to wonder what kept him going? How did he know that he was redeeming failures, and that it wasn’t time for him to simply cut his losses and walk away?
That seems to be the question Jesus poses for us in the parable of the unfruitful fig tree this morning. This is not a tale to help us make sense out of calamity. It is not a story to be translated into moral advice. It is not even a full-scale allegory about God. Instead, it is another example of Jesus’ propensity for the poetic imagination – his ability to get out attention and shake things up by spinning the truth sideways. Once again we find Jesus upending our reason with the unreasonableness of God, and inviting us into a certain vulnerability. Peter Woods reminds us that:
According to this parable, our lives have a deadline… which should move us to fruitfulness. According to the story, the fruits of our lives are not complicated. If you are a fig tree, produce figs. If you are a vine, grapes.
And if we are simply people – men and women and children attempting to follow Jesus’ Way – we too should produce fruit consistent with our humanity and our identity as children of God. Again, in Woods’ words:
Too often we fall into the trap of assuming that spirituality involves becoming who we inherently are not. That is not true. God does not expect anything, except for us to fruitfully be who we were created to be.
To be who we were created to be is to produce fruit as children of God. Which does not mean that we will always be successful. It does not mean that the results we see will always be the ones we seek. And that does not let us off the hook! We are still going to have to figure out when it is time to cut our losses and when we are called to redeem our failures. Nancy Rockwell puts it this way:
The temptation to give up pulls at my heart time after time. What is the point of the church, if the church insists only on serving itself? What is the value of the nation, if the flag is wrapped around corruption and violence? What is the point of our worship, if we do not change?
In Jerusalem then – and among us everywhere now – the temptation is to disbelieve in the powers of truth, in justice or wisdom, or the hand of God at work or the love of God in the world. Jesus knows this temptation is at work in us, and he presses for turning – turning away from the bleakness of despair. Turn, he urges, toward the warm altar of hope.
No, life is not fair – but you can be fair. No, life is not always beautiful – but you can be beautiful in your living. No, life is not faithful – but you can be faithful. The world may be powerful in hate, but you can be powerful in love, which willstep your feet into the kin-dom of heaven, here and now.
“Turning toward that warm altar of hope” may be what allows us the patience and the persistence to hear the gardener pleading for the tree, and to recognize that God is always arguing for a little more time for us. Just a little more time for us to produce the fruit God knows we are potentially holding within our fearful little hearts. Here we are, my friends. We have not been cut down, and so fruitfulness is still a choice we can make. Fruitfulness is still an option for us, especially if we can see it as an act of faith, or an act of beauty, or a work of justice.
Have you ever heard of a fellow by the name of Dag Kittlaus? Probably not; his is not a household name, but one of his creations is certainly well known. You see, Kittlaus is the creator of Siri, the voice-interaction software on the iPhone. Some time ago Apple bought out Kittlaus’ Silicon Valley company in order to have full rights to Siri. So Kittlaus moved back to Chicago, where he gave an interview with Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune, in which he said, among other things:
Most people don’t start new companies that hit a home run right out of the gate. Most people first go through several iterations, different companies and different products, and there’s a whole vernacular in Silicon Valley on not finding the right thing and changing course. They call it pivoting. Companies pivot all the time, because the original idea just didn’t work, or people didn’t like it, and they have tochange directions. It happens all the time in highly innovative environments.
I’m thinking we might also say it happens all the time in highly fruitful environments, this pivoting – changing direction and trying something new.
So we can see our failures as a source of shame, as something to be hidden or glossed over. We can see them as endings. Or, we can pivot just a little, remembering that God is powerful enough to work in failure just as easily as in success. We can pivot just a little and admit to ourselves that there are going to be no-buds-on-the-fig-tree kinds of days or weeks, months, or even years in anyone’s life. And that we do not have to succumb to the temptation to move on as quickly as possible. We do not have to run after any snake-oil salesman who promises prosperity, or run down any path that seems to be a shortcut around failure. We can remind ourselves that those paths may also shortcut some of God’s best work, and take away our best opportunities to bear fruit.
When I first read the Scripture today, I have to admit that I jumped to a conclusion that isn’t really found in the parable. I read about that good-as-dead fig tree and I thought, Cut it down! I thought the teaching ought to be for us to cut our losses – to stop beating the dead horse, or hanging onto the dead tree. Because, let’s be honest – don’t we do that all too often? Don’t we hang on past the point of purpose, so fearful of letting go of what we are that we are never able to grasp what we could become?
Perhaps. But the trouble is, that is not the point of the parable. This story is really more about redemption than it is about resignation. It is about finding the courage and the imagination not just to “hang on”, but to pivot a little and try something new. Pivot – dig around the roots, put in some fertilizer – and give us a chance.
Give us a chance to choose fruitfulness, knowing that with God, my failure and your failure do not have to be fatal. We can always pivot even a little – and choose to bear fruit. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: February 24, 2013
Title: “When to Burn the Boats”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: John 12:1-8
One of my friends wanted to learn how to swim. Well, that’s not quite true, his father wanted to teach him how to swim. My friend James tried swimming across the pool but he would keep his hand on the wall the whole time. And he did the inflatable arm things that was always strange to me that his elbows were more important than his face. So what did his dad do? The same thing dads have done since the beginning of time. His dad took him to the deep end of the pool, and pushed him in. There was no wall. There was no arm thingys to keep his elbows above water. It was sink or swim. There was no plan B. There was no way out other than to swim. I’m not saying it is the right way, traumatic and feeling abandoned by your father as it must have felt. But the motivation was there: It was sink or swim. There was no backup plan.
But we are a people who like Plan B, don’t we? We like to have backups, we like to have escape routes. We like to not be stuck in one frame. If we don’t succeed in this, well at least we have that. If we can’t fix the plumbing ourselves for cheap, then we’ll hire a plumber. If we don’t get that job we applied for, well, at least we have this one that we hate. If we can’t get our spouse to see our point of view, well, we’ll move the furniture when s/he is out of the house. The backup plan is in place, so there’s less motivation to succeed in the main plan, isn’t there?
In the scripture today, Mary broke into the upper room with a pricey possession: an alabaster jar of ointment. It was ridiculously expensive, sealed to be opened only by the rich who would likely have eventually bought it from Mary, at great benefit to her family. But Mary takes it, breaks it, and shares it with Jesus, pouring it on his feet, drying it off with her hair. She takes her most prized possession, worth a fortune intact and worthless broken open, and poured it all out, risking her livelihood and future for a moment of blessing.
Mary showed not only by her actions but by the response of the other disciples that she understood that Jesus didn’t have a backup plan. The disciples sitting around that table were just like us in that were surely living with two plans in mind. For the disciples, there was plan A and plan B.
- Plan A was to follow Jesus to establish the kingdom, to accomplish everything Jesus wanted them to accomplish. It would be hard work, involve a lifetime of pain, they would have to leave their families, most of them would likely die terrible deaths, but it would be tremendous joy to live out their faith in Jesus Christ.
- But Plan B, which was more accessible, was to help Jesus become the militant messiah, the king of Israel, defeat the Roman Empire, move into the palace, each of them become regional governors in a kingdom under Christ that would never end and the Jewish people would be afraid no longer. There had been many other militant leaders who tried this path before but Jesus seemed to have the best chance.
But what they discovered, what Christ knew, what Mary knew, was our human condition of that when we have a plan B, we usually end up falling back on it.
I have a friend who is engaged to a well-to-do spouse, and every 1-2 months he gets a job and when everything is going great, he quits or gets fired spectacularly. He finds reasons to quit or he sabotages himself. He does this every time. He has his safety net of a partner who can cover for his financial difficulties. I wonder what will happen when that safety net won’t cover for him any longer, won’t be co-dependent with him. And I wonder when we are supposed to make that choice to not rely on the safety net any longer.
The Good News for us today is that Jesus knew when to burn the boats.
It is said that the ancient Greek warriors possessed an unwavering commitment to success. When their armies landed on their enemy’s shore, the first order the commanders gave was “Burn the boats.” These commanders knew the power of motivation and necessity of focusing on Plan A. With no boats to retreat to, the army had to be successful in order to survive. As the soldiers watch the boats burn, they knew there was no turning back – there would be no surrendering – there was only Plan A.
In the Scripture today, there’s a contrast between Mary who had embraced Plan A and Judas who was living under the lifestyle of Plan B. The false and the real disciple. Mary recognizes the cost to Jesus of raising Lazarus: he has literally traded Lazarus’s life for his. The Judean rulers would not allow him to live now. Indeed, during this scene, they are looking around town for Jesus. So she embraces Plan A and, as Jesus says, she prepares him for death by pouring out a gift of extravagent love. The sweet smell of the perfume is the perfect counterpart to the stench of Lazarus’s tomb just the previous chapter. Mary symbolizes that in Christ the smell of life triumphs over the stench of death.
In this scene, we see Jesus burning the boats. There is no going back to the militant messiah. The militant messiah will be dead in the tomb, but Jesus would live. The worldly leader who would be a perfect ruler of the imperfect world would be dead, but Jesus would live. The one who would establish an earthly kingdom with borders and boundaries subject to human sin would be dead, but Jesus would live. Plan A would succeed, but out of deference to our human condition to want a fallback plan, Plan B had to be totally removed from the equation.
In the most recent Batman movie The Dark Knight Returns, Batman has been injured and captured by the antagonist and placed in a prison unlike you’ve ever seen. The prison has no guards, no jailors, and the sun shines into it from open-air. You see, the prison is dug a few stories underground in a long tube like a missle launching silo, the prison is at the bottom with rock outcroppings to climb up so escape was feasible but for most futile. The prisoners would take turns tying a rope around their waist and trying to jump from rock to rock, only to inevitably fall and be caught by the rope to be able to try again. Batman recuperates from his injuries and keeps on attempting until he realizes that it isn’t his ability that is keeping him from making the longest jump between rocks, it isn’t the impossibleness of the jump…it’s that he has the rope tied around his waist and he has a fallback plan. Batman removes the rope, climbs to the jumping part, and with soaring dramatic music…jumps…and makes the jump.
Backup plans, safety nets are good because they can protect you from pain and injury, but they can also keep you from really putting it on the line. So What does burning the boats look like in your life? Cutting up your credit cards is a boat to burn. It will force you to live on cash alone without having that good old Visa to fall back on. Maybe write a letter to your boss saying you’re quitting, and have a friend mail it if you don’t start working on your ideal career in ninety days. Or put up signs all over town informing the public you’ll pay $10 to anyone who catches you smoking. Those are some extreme examples but when are we called to be extreme? When do we burn the boats?
Let me be clear. The suggestion here is not to cease doing your due diligence or act in a rash manner, but rather once you have completed your discernment process and when that still-small voice says, “Go!” You go!
Burning the Boats is the biblical and psychological way for us to funnel our desires towards powerful ends. Mystics often talk of desire as a burning experience. John Wesley talked about knowing God’s love as a “heart strangely warmed.” So being motivated and empowered is like playing with fire. So when we burn the boats, when we motivate ourselves to follow Christ to the extreme, to seek justice in a bold way in our world, we run the risk of burning ourselves up and burning up those around us.
So how do we keep from burning the boats while we are in them? There was another commander who knew of the Greek’s practice. Conquistador Cortez historically in 1519, with 508 men and 16 horses, he burned his ships on Mexico’s southeastern coast, thus committing himself to conquest. He told his men there was no escape and they must conquer, and they did. But In reality, Conquistador Cortes did sink all of his boats… except one. The one he needed to keep a connection with Spain for supplies. So burning the boats was not folly, but a calculated risk. Cortez did not cut himself off from help, but did cut out his escape route.
So in our life choices, in the ways in which we wade through this world, we are to discern what is a boat full of baggage that is holding us back, and which is our support and our help in times of turmoil and trouble. What is it that you are struggling with? Whatever it is, be it your job, your fears about your abilities as you age, your contentment with your family’s way of being, put those fears, worries, and Plan Bs in the boat and burn it. Only then will we see that the burned boat was nothing but dead weight holding your down. Only then is it obvious how confining and restrictive those fears were to your personal growth. But be wise and don’t burn the boats with you still in them.
Today our discipleship needs to be set ablaze. Like a soldier watching his ride home burn in the ocean, we knew everything we needed to begin the Jesus Movement. We just needed to do it. And that meant Jesus cutting off the escape route, so that we would live without a safety net, live without plan B.
Well, that’s not exactly right, is it Church? We do have the ultimate in plan B, right? We know that no matter what happens, we who place our faith in Christ, we have eternal life. That’s a pretty good plan B. The Christian faith wouldn’t have millenia of martyrs who died to live the Gospel if there wasn’t a plan B.
But in our series of “one more chance” my hope is that you forget. Our human inclination is to rest our laurels on plan B. Many Christian traditions focus on personal salvation, on Plan B, on our backup plan. Hear the Good News: We have assurance that there will always be a backup plan. We will always have eternal life in Jesus Christ. But we can’t stop there. Christ becomes more than a backup plan. When transforming the world becomes Plan A, Christ becomes fully present everywhere we are. He is no longer a particular human being who occupies a particular place and time, he is not some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, Christ is now present in us, present in this body of Christian believers.
So no matter what catastrophe or chaos comes into our lives we will not be abandoned, we will not be left to face it alone, we are not without Christ’s presence with us, we are not without Eternal Life as a Plan B. But each and every day we choose Plan A, we choose to build the kingdom of God, we choose to treat one another as beloved, we choose to do no harm, do good works, and stay in love with God, we choose to engage every person as if they needed to know God loves them. We choose Plan A to build the kingdom, not because that’s all there is, and we have to earn our way into heaven, but because we have already been given eternal life.
I invite you today to choose which plan you will follow. We can either live a life radically in the Spirit. Leave your apathy and regret and paralyzing fear at the bottom of the ocean with the burned out boat, and begin moving towards a life-giving discipleship that lives beyond each of us here. Or we can sit in the boat, unaware it is burdening us down. May the God who loves us and offers us choices give us the wisdom to discern help from hindrance, and guide us to always choose the kingdom of God over our fears. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: February 17, 2013
Title: “Tempting Chances”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Welcome to Lent! Welcome to “One More Chance”… and one more after that, and one more yet again. Because with God, there are countless chances for us to be loved. And there is always “one more chance” for us to love.
Now, don’t bother looking for Lent in the Bible – it isn’t there. In fact, there was no such thing as “Lent” in Biblical times. This custom of taking 40 days to prepare for Easter with prayer and self denial, with reflection and repentance… well, that did not spring up with the first Christian communities. In fact, it didn’t come until much later. About 400 years later, in fact, when the first rush of Christian adrenaline was over, and believers had become rather nonchalant about their faith.
When Christians had stopped the radical kind of sharing we read about in the New Testament letters, when they had given up advocating for the poor, or ordering their lives around the priorities of holiness. It was then that the fourth century church announced the season of Lent – from the old English word Lenten, which means spring.
So here we are, once more being invited into a sort of “spring cleaning” for our souls. Once more we are being offered these 40 days to focus more on faith than on fortune, and to remember what it is to live by the grace of God, and not only by what we can supply for ourselves. Barbara Brown Taylor says this about Lent:
I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul. No one has to sign up for it, but if you do, then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life.
Indeed, Lent suggests that we give up that illusion, that myth that we are in total control of our lives. And the season invites us to walk right out into the wilderness with Jesus, right out where we will run smack-dab into those “tempting chances” – the opportunity temptation offers us to turn around and reconnect with the divine source of life.
Today’s Gospel lesson picks up right after Jesus’ baptism. You remember that story, how Jesus goes to the river Jordan where he asks his cousin John to baptize him. And coming up out of the water, the heavens open and God’s Spirit descends on Jesus and he hears the divine voice of love saying, “This is my beloved son…” It’s like Jesus has just won the Superbowl of authority and identity! And what does he do next? Does he head off to Disneyland to celebrate? Hardly! No, Jesus heads out into the wilderness all alone, to choose for himself his own identity, his own authority, his own life path.
And the problem there is not the temptations themselves. The problem is not the temptation to gratify his physical appetites. The problem is not the temptation to beef up his reputation with flashy, ego-driven authority. The problem is not even the temptation to gain royalty and riches with an idolatrous misuse of power. The problem is not the temptations themselves, but the possibility that they will distract Jesus from his calling and make him forget his real identity.
Which is the same problem we have, today. David Lose puts it this way:
There is a crucial link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity as children of God… the temptations of the world may have little appeal.
But, to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the illusion that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide, so we had better take matters into our own hands.
The problem is not the temptations themselves but the possibility that we will be distracted from our calling as disciples, or our identity as followers of the Jesus Way. Jesus said “yes” to God in his baptism, just like you and I may have done. But in order to move on from there and live out his identity, Jesus also had to be able to say “no” – again, just like us. We cannot truly fulfill our identity if we only say “yes”. It is in the refusal to become what we are not, and it is in the denial of work which is not ours, that we discover who we really are, and what work is legitimately ours to do.
Saying “No” so that we can say “Yes” requires practice. Ann Howard suggests a practice Zen Buddhists call mirror-wiping. She writes:
We must wipe the mirror clean to see ourselves without distortion. Mirror-wiping is the discipline of observing my own patterns – looking to see what I pay attention to and what I do not, what matters to me and what does not… Mirror-wiping allows us to see deep within, without the usual distortion, and it is there, of course, in our deepest selves, that we discover God’s love for us.
Howard goes on to say that:
The practice of mirror-wiping is not limited to Zen Buddhism. It is at the heart of contemplative Christian prayer as well. In the 16th century Teresa of Avila called it the “Prayer of Recollection”, the practice of listening to what’s going on inside. Teresa wrote that ‘For the most part, all our trials and disturbances come from our not understanding ourselves.’
Perhaps they come in part from only saying “yes” without also saying “no”. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:
[In Lent] God says return to me with your whole heart, and the implication is that we give our hearts to a whole lot of things that are not God… We sort of piece our hearts out to things that cannot love us back. We piece our hearts out to the unrequited love of so many false promises and self-indulgences, and our starving little hearts are doled out trying to get their own needs met…
But the Lenten call to repentance is a call to return again to God. It is taking God up on “one more chance” to say “no” so that we can say “yes” with integrity and authority. James Wall tells about a woman who had such difficulty with contemplative prayer because her thoughts would always seem to wander a thousand times in just a 20 minute prayer session. She was afraid to tell her teacher this, thinking that he would scold or reject her for her failure to focus. But the woman was surprised when instead of offering her a rebuke, the teacher simply said that her wandering thoughts were just a thousand opportunities for her to return to God!
That is what “tempting chances” are all about. They are just a thousand opportunities for us to return to God with all of who we are – with God’s Word on our lips and in our hearts, as Romans would say. To return to God with all of who we are, even knowing that we are all of us complex, complicated beings, as Pablo Neruda points out in his poem “We Are Many”:
Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing; they have departed for another city.
When everything seems to be set to show me off as a man of intelligence,
The fool I keep concealed on my person takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.
On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst of people of some distinction,
And when I summon my courageous self,
A coward completely unknown to me swaddles my poor skeleton in a thousand tiny reservations.
When a stately home bursts into flames,
Instead of the fireman I summon,
An arsonist bursts on the scene, and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself? How can I put myself together?
All the books I read lionize dazzling hero figures, brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
And in films, where bullets fly on the wind, I am left in envy of the cowboys,
Left admiring even the horses!
But when I call upon my DASHING BEING, our comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
And so I never know just WHO I AM, nor how many I am,
Nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell and call up my real self,
The truly me,
Because if I really need my proper self, I must not allow myself to disappear.
Indeed… we do truly need our proper selves, and we must not allow ourselves to disappear. We will not allow ourselves to disappear when we return to God with our whole hearts for one more chance and one more after that and one more… always one more chance. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: February 10, 2013
Title: “Beyond Loneliness”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 139:1-18
Today we wrap up our Epiphany sermon series, “Beyond Belief”, as we consider what it might mean for us to go Beyond Loneliness. Loneliness — we all know what that feels like, don’t we? We all have experienced loneliness at one time or another. Loneliness is that ache in your heart which feels like it encompasses your entire being. It is that disorienting distraction which robs you of the present moment as you desperately seek someone — or something — to fill what feels like an unfillable void.
You know what it is like to be lonely when you are all alone, or when you are lost in a difficult relationship. You can be lonely in an unhealthy marriage. You can be lonely in a family, or in a friendship, in a community, or even in the midst of a crowd. Geoff Watkinson suggests that
“Loneliness never dissipates entirely — it lurks in the background like a ceiling fan left on medium speed during the night, sometimes soothing, sometimes distracting. Loneliness is there in the single stained coffee cup next to a stack of books. It’s there in the white garbage bag full of bottles which hasn’t moved in two days, sitting next to the front door.
Loneliness is there in the middle of the night, in the quiet darkness when I awake. Sometimes when I wake — sweating, confused — loneliness is there, appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, a phantom. I rub my eyes and tell myself it’s only an apparition. It is not real. But over the course of the last year, I’ve learned there is nothing more real than loneliness…”
Watkinson goes on to describe in painful detail how loneliness appears moment by moment. And then he ends his essay with these words, “It is impossible not to experience loneliness. But to run from loneliness — to reject it — is to run from life itself.”
To run from loneliness is to run from life itself. Think about that for a moment. Perhaps the Psalmist understood the truth of this statement when he wrote:
O my Beloved, You have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my innermost thoughts — you know my strengths and weaknesses.
You encompass me with love wherever I go.
Where could I go from your Spirit? How could I flee from your Presence?
To run from loneliness is to run from life itself. The Psalm proclaims a relationship with God which is profoundly personal. This God knows me, cares for me, seeks me out. This God forms me in my mother’s womb, knows me heart and soul. The relationship is profoundly personal, but it is not private. Because this is not “my” God as in the God of my choice. Rather, this is the God who chooses creation and even chooses me. This is the God who sent Jesus, the God who calls me to look within and to look without to find evidence of the Divine throughout all creation. To run from this God is surely to run from life itself.
Parker Palmer asks us to: “consider our paradoxical need for both community and solitude. Human beings were made for relationships — without a rich and nourishing network of connections, we will wither and die. I am not speaking metaphorically. It is a clinical fact that people who lack relationships get sick more often and recover more slowly than people surrounded by family and friends. [Hence, the Church}
At the same time, we were made for solitude. Our lives may be rich in relationships, but the human self remains a mystery of enfolded inwardness that no other person can possibly enter or know. If we fail to embrace our ultimate aloneness and seek meaning only in communion with others, we wither and die.”
So what are we to do? I believe we must move beyond loneliness without leaving behind alone-ness. Again, as Palmer puts it, “In a culture that rips paradoxes apart, many people know nothing of the rich dialectic of solitude and community; they know only a daily whiplash between loneliness and the crowd.”
I confess that there have been times in my life when that was my experience — that whiplash between loneliness and the crowd. When I was engulfed by the constant demands of single parenting, that was an experience of the crowd. Then, when I found myself rattling around in a newly emptied nest, I was confronted by loneliness. When days and nights have been filled with meetings, tasks, and busy-ness of one kind or another I am distracted by the crowd. Then, when a day off or a sick day or a snow day leaves me with nothing scheduled and no place to be, I might embrace loneliness once again. I have known that whiplash between loneliness and the crowd, for sure.
Palmer goes on:
“Our equal and opposite needs for solitude and community constitute a great paradox. When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states of being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation.
Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of too many people and too much noise.”
When we do not attend to both these needs — for community and for solitude — we are destined to whiplash between loneliness and the crowd. And we can all too easily end up running from life itself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, wrote this: “Let the person who cannot be alone beware of community. And the let the person who is not in community beware of being alone.”
We need both of these experiences and we need to spend time in both states. It may help us to remember that Jesus himself did not avoid loneliness. Rather, he seems to have embraced it. While I might feel a little twinge of loneliness and cast about quickly for a “fix” — phoning a friend, logging onto Facebook, even going to the grocery store — Jesus leaned into his loneliness, going so far as to accept the invitation to spend 40 days alone in the desert!
Leaning into loneliness, Jesus learns that he belongs to God, who somehow sustains him in his powerlessness to sustain himself. Someone else put it this way:
“We must embrace loneliness. We must let ourselves be overcome with loneliness and vulnerability. We must make ourselves totally available to loneliness, until our ego is swallowed up in the vastness of it and we know — beyond any shadow of doubt — that we are not alone, that we have never been alone, and that we never will be alone…
Solitude comes when we touch our loneliness, and reach through our loneliness into a bigger world. It is then that we fully connect and know that we are one with creation and with God.”
In the end, that may be the only way to go beyond loneliness. The only way to go beyond it is to go within it, where we find that we, too, belong to God who sustains us in our powerlessness to sustain ourselves. O my Beloved, you have searched me and known me! — the Psalm begins that way, but ends with: Help me to face the darkness within me; enlighten me, that I might radiate your love and light!
As if to say — let me go within my loneliness so that I might go beyond my loneliness — all the way to life. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: February 3, 2013
Title: “Beyond Control”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: John 14:1; 25-17
My grandfather went 20 years without buying a new car. He had an old Lincoln that he thought served him well.
Then, one day, out of the blue, he decided it was time, and he bought himself a new car. It had all the bells and whistles. In fact, compared to his last car, it had 15 new buttons on his new car. That’s just on his steering wheel! Buttons for all kinds of things. Cruise control, headlights, floodlights, foghorn, leghorn, 4-wheel-drive, CD-player controls, all sorts of buttons to control every aspect of the car.
When he first bought the car, it was a cold wintery day. After fiddling with some of the buttons, he drove it home. Halfway there, he started to feel his backside getting warm. At first, he thought that it was just him, but the seat kept getting hotter and hotter. He started to get afraid something was wrong, that the car was going to explode. He pulled over, jumped out of the car, ran a few paces away, called the car dealership, and found out he had hit the heated-seats button.
He wasn’t even aware that was something he could control. After that experience, he said he should have bought a new car every three years. That way, he would have had to learn only one new button each time, one new thing to control.
I tell that story to emphasize a common truth. We have too much control today of desires that want to be filled immediately. Blockbuster Movie Stores are failing because we have On-Demand movies that are always in-stock, music stores are failing because we have music online that deliver any music within minutes. We have Kindles and iPads that deliver new books in 60 seconds or less, much to Border’s horror.
We have Drive-thrus, instant coffee, reheatable dinners, Digital Platinum Five-Star XFinity On Demand Cable, and six remotes in your living room putting whatever you want under your control and meaning that only one family member can properly run the movie.
We have cameras that can be set up in your house so that you can control its temperature and environment from your smartphone. I’m waiting for someone to approach me about putting a GPS microchip in Anjali so I will always know where my daughter is. I haven’t ruled it out.
We talked in the Gathering the parents Sunday School class about college applications almost requiring that helicopter parents keep circling over their 17 year olds because they are in control of all the financial data. It has gotten so bad that I hear that new recruits to major companies have “parents’ meetings” so that young employees’ parents can get all the information they need to feel in control of their 24 year old child’s life.
Our sermon today is a continuation of our Beyond Belief series: A Real Faith for a Real World. This week is entitled “Beyond Control.” In what ways are we seeking too much control in our lives? In what ways can we live more fully into a diverse world instead of seeking to rule it?
The Tower of Babel is the perfect scripture for us today. At first glance, it makes sense. The people decided to build a tower to achieve the same level of existence as God. And God punishes them by giving them diverse languages so that they couldn’t communicate easily anymore. And like that, they disband and leave their tower to crumble as they sought their different paths to different continents and cultures to settle.
So the first glance tells us that the Tower of Babel was a gift not a curse that God gave us. Because unlike other parts of Genesis, God didn’t just wipe out most of humanity and start over.
Before and after Babel, rather violent action is pretty characteristic of God in Genesis: casting out sinners and cursing murderers, flooding 99% of the earth’s population, forcing circumcision and bartering over the destruction of Sodom. These sort of actiona are not sustainable. If God wanted to transform God’s creation, God couldn’t keep periodically pressing “reset.” Instead, God sought to control humanity by not controlling us; by changing our makeup from a homogenous body to a diversity that could one day seek unity if we overcame our biases and our language chasms. In short, a curse was really a way for God to give control back to us but only after we had done the hard work of reconciliation with one another.
But there’s a second glance that we need to look at. Our Scripture Introduction today came with a question: what were the residents of Babel afraid of? Common stories says that they wanted to be like God, that they were arrogant, that they were prideful. Read it again. Where are those words? I don’t see those words, those motivations. The only motivation the people express is this: “let us make this tower or else we shall be scattered upon the face of the whole earth.”
Humans often fear what the future might bring. And for Babel, their fear was that their community would not be kept intact if they did not do something. They built a tower to secure their own future as their own community, isolated from the rest of the world. They were fearful. Fearful of being scattered, left to our own devices, fear of losing control and afraid. The builders of Babel were afraid. They did not trust in God. They trusted in their own works and believed if they built something that they would be able to be in control of their own destiny.
Rather than keep pushing the boundaries, the people of Babel stopped and decided to build an empire where one was not appropriate.
In our history of the Church, we often followed this same pattern of building empires that would not sustain. One example is that we felt that if we controlled the media environments we were in, then we would still control people’s desires. We created parallel worlds for the churchy people, Christian radio stations, Christian bookstores, Christian parallel universe to the culture to which we are called. Especially with children and youth, if we controlled what they heard and saw, then we could control their beliefs. The thing is that we are only a drop in an ocean of media messages. Ten years ago, studies showed that the average teenager was shown 3,000 media messages.
Not per month or week, but per day.
Think of all the billboards, the labels on the food we eat, the video games, the t-shirts we wear. 10 years ago, 3,000 messages per day. Today the estimates are 30,000 media messages per day. Look around this town and you will see billboards and advertisements in the windows. Drive by athletic fields and school sponsored by companies. Media messages aren’t bad, they are a part of life, and we have to decide what we do with them.
For our elder generations, it used to be that we had the control. Preachers would stand on bully pulpits. Parents would censor their child’s TV shows. We could stand at the gates and judge messages too unfit to be in God’s holy temple and our bodies as temples. We can no longer keep our children and youth clean from unhealthy messages. Our parallel universe won’t sustain itself. We no longer have the power to censor forever. We no longer can stand at the gates and allow in only the messages that are pure and life-giving. Because we are now just one voice among 30,000 each day…no matter how loud we may be.
It’s for the best really. Those of you that have children, you know the worst thing one can do for a child is to put them in a hypoallergenic room for their entire lives. Children get sick and need to get sick to build up their immunity.
Maybe control today is figuring out how to wade through the messages and teach our children and youth how to filter the messages rather than avoid them completely. Having them confront these messages in life-giving environments may inoculate them to dangerous messages further down the road. It’s like getting a vaccine, a weak form of a dangerous message. If we confront these messages head to head in sunday school in youth group in worship in education, then our students can decide how to respond.
The church’s relationship with media is one example of how we can move beyond control. What is beyond control is either more control or an acceptance of how much control we ought to have. In seeking to empower students one by one, we accept our role as guides rather than dictators. In seeking to allow for diversity of experiences, we allow for a stronger church universal. In embracing our differences rather than forcing everyone to be alike, we open up a whole buffet of experiences beyond the cookie cutter ones.
In closing, in becoming the church in the world instead of a parallel universe of control, then we are fulfilling the biblical edict that Babel violated. At the Garden, we were commanded to fill the earth. After the flood, Noah was commanded to fill the earth. The proper development of creation, of our natural world, depends on human ingenuity and diversity. We are stewards of our natural world. An isolationist view of our place in this world, centered on self-preservation, puts the rest of creation at risk. God instead calls us to give up control, move into the neighborhood, and transform the world from the inside out, not from alongside.
Jesus said “Those who seek to save their life will lose it. But those who lose their lives will find it.” My hope for each of us is that we overcome the fear of a loss of control, accept what community we are in, and build outwards (not inwards) in ways that truly seek to transform the world instead of replace it with a Christian version of itself.
In the first pages of the Bible, a fearful people built a tower. In the last pages of the Bible, in Revelation, a hopeful people built a bridge. Let us build this bridge together.
In the bible that each one of us writes with our lives and our witness, which will you choose? A Tower, or a bridge?
Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: January 27, 2013
Title: “Beyond Stress”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 23; Matthew 11:28-30
This morning we continue our series on “Beyond Belief: Real Faith for the Real World.” When I was putting this series together, I thought about what kinds of issues, what kind of real-life concerns might be on people’s minds as they consider the life of faith. I didn’t have to think very long to come up with STRESS as a topic. We know all about stress, don’t we? We all have it; we all experience it. At one time or another we all feel a little bit like the picture on the front of this morning’s bulletin, that rope which has frayed and is hanging on but one last string.
Because sometimes, life is what you want; but sometimes, life is what you get. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, there is great truth in these words. Sometimes, life is what you want. Sometimes, it is just what you get. We do not always choose the circumstances or the situations of our lives. We cannot always foretell where life will take us or how it will surprise us. It seems capricious at best, this “certain uncertainty” of life.
And yet, as someone else once put it, The lions never get out of the road of the person who waits to see the way clear before starting to walk! Life is uncertain. At times, it is tenuous, and often it is stressful. And yet life is still to be lived. We still have to walk down the road, whether there are lions or tigers or cute little puppies in the way.
I am reminded of a story which may be descriptive of our days. In the first century much of the world was still unexplored, unknown and largely unmapped. Mapmakers in those times would portray the unexplored areas by using dragons, monsters, or large fish. The message was abundantly clear – uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places, best to be avoided.
It seems one commander of a battalion of Roman soldiers was caught up in a battle that took him into the territory with dragons on his map. Not knowing whether to forge ahead into the unknown, or admit defeat and turn back to the familiar, he dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent message, “Please send new orders. We have marched off the map.”
Do you ever feel that way? Does it feel as if you are in uncharted lands, that you are marching off relational, familial, economic, political, or even religious maps you have always known? All it takes is a cursory glance at any newspaper to scare us if what we long for is a journey through familiar territory. Nobody really knows what is going to happen in the Middle East – in Syria or Israel, Palestine or Egypt – to say nothing of Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan! Nobody knows what the stock market will do today, much less tomorrow. Nobody really knows… we are marching off the map all over the place!
A few years ago Bobby McFerrin tried to help us, to send us new orders, when he sang:
Here’s a little song I wrote / you might want to sing it note for note /
Don’t worry! Be happy!
In every life we have some trouble / when you worry, you make it double /
Don’t worry! Be happy!
As if it were that easy. Just don’t worry – be happy – and you will go beyond stress. If only… Newsweek magazine recently wrote about stress, and our bodies’ response to it in this way:
It was vital to survival once – an innate response to danger, inherited directly from the primeval veld down to our own lifetimes, where it causes nothing but trouble. Some people make a virtue of stress, under the mantra, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
But science shows this to be a lie. A whole new body of research shows the damage stress wreaks on the body: not just heart disease and ulcers, but loss of memory, diminished immune function, and even a particular type of obesity. That which doesn’t kill you, it turns out, really does kill you in the end… but first it makes you fat!
How, then, are we to go beyond stress? How are we to get to that green pasture beside the still waters, or to take on the yoke which Jesus says is easy? How are we to carry the burden which Jesus promises will be light… especially when we are so busy marching off the map!
Psychologist Rollo May once commented that “Human beings are the strangest of all God’s creatures, because we run the fastest when we have lost our way.” Isn’t that what happens when we are stressed beyond our capacity for reason? We run the fastest, thinking if we just do a little more…if only we work a little harder, play a little faster, live a little shallower, we will be okay. I don’t know about you, but there never seems to be time for those bucolic fields of wildflowers and serenely babbling brooks in most of my days. David Hensons suggests, “Perhaps that is why the Psalmist says he is made to lie down in green pastures.”
When we are lost and so busy running, we must be made to stop and be still, even if forced by circumstances to go beyond stress. I remember well when my husband decided to leave the marriage. It was, as you can imagine, a terribly painful time in my life. But I never took a day off to grieve, or cry, or throw things around the room – or even to figure out how I was going to raise a three year old and a seven year old all on my own. Instead, I kept working, I kept smiling, I kept pretending that I was just fine. Until one night at Camp Magruder, when I was leading the church’s retreat, and I tripped, fell, and broke my arm – my right arm. Coincidence? Perhaps…
It seems to me the first step in going beyond stress is simply acknowledging it. No longer pretending – that is the first step. And the next step? It is choosing to stop running, choosing to lie down and be still – at least long enough to hear Jesus suggesting that we can let go of those heavy, wearisome yokes we have put onto ourselves. We can instead put on the yoke of God’s love for us – God’s love for us! – and for all the other weary, heavy-laden ones still striving all around us.
“Come to me”, Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” It’s not “come to me and I will test you or judge you or force you to grow”. No, it’s “come to me and I will give you the kind of rest which takes you beyond stress.” Jesus says “come to me”, and I will help you learn how to say no to those things which drain your life energy or limit your capacity to love, the things which are really not yours to do. Jesus says “come to me”, and I will teach you how to say yes to that which will bring you joy and refresh your energy and expand your capacity to love, the things which really are yours to do.
Marty Haugen writes a beautiful setting of the 23rd Psalm in which there is this refrain, sung over and over again:
Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
From death into life.
Maybe that is what it means to be led in right paths for God’s sake. Maybe that is what it feels like to put on Jesus’ yoke. It is to be led beyond what we think we need, what we think we want, or what we imagine we have to fear. It is to go beyond death into life – even life beyond stress. So shepherd us, O God. Shepherd us, indeed! Amen.
Date: January 20, 2013
Title: “Beyond Tolerance”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Amos 5:18-24
Last week Rev. Donna talked about going beyond religion and the reasons why people don’t know what Church is all about, much less Methodists. I thought I would help today. Maybe some of you have been asked: “if I saw a Methodist out in the wild, how could I identify them” as if there was a birding book on identifying Methodists. But maybe there is something by Jeff Foxworthy called “you might be a Methodist” for example:
- If you have been in the same church all your life but have gone through 27 new pastors, you might be a Methodist.
- If it takes you ten minutes to say goodbye after church, you might be a Methodist.
- If you think that tithing means pledging to wear a tie to church at least six times a year, you might be a Methodist.
- If you you sit while singing “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”…you might be a Methodist.
- If you think someone who says “amen” while the pastor is preaching might be just a wild charismatic…you might be a Methodist.
- If you accidentally brought your coffee into the sanctuary last Sunday and felt guilty about it all week…you might be a Methodist.
- If You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can., you might be a Methodist.
- If you think it is in the Bible that you can’t cross the center aisle during passing of the peace, you might be a Methodist.
- Finally, when you watch a Star Wars movie and they say “May the Force be with you,” you respond with “and also with you”…say it with me: “you might be a Methodist.”
Like a family with idiosyncrasies and features, Methodists have some unique ways of viewing the world. In our history, Methodism was not born out of some theological debate or schism or terrible event or a king wanting a divorce, it emerged as a revival within the Anglican Church that eventually became its own denomination.
The word “Methodist” goes all the way back to our beginnings in the 1700′s in England.
Methodism began on a college campus of Oxford with a college professor by the name of John Wesley. Wesley gathered around him a group of students who sought to be more earnest in their Christian life. Other students began to make fun of them by calling them “Methodists” because they were so methodical in their practice of faith. Methodist stuck to this crowd, and for that I am very thankful. because the other name they gave them was–get this–”Bible moths” How would you like to worship in the First Bible Moth Church of Portland?
But behind the name Methodist is the idea that there is some method to the Christian life.
John Wesley came up with three simple rules to do so.
Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in Love with God. That first one is where we’ll start today. “Do No Harm.” Wesley’s first rule of the Christian life is the first rule of medicine. It is not complicated. It almost goes without saying, right? Do no harm, yes, you are right. Done, we believe it! This should be the shortest sermon ever.
Today we continue our sermon series “Real faith for the real world” where we seek to go beyond the traditional terms that you hear in church services with “Beyond Tolerance” today.
To some people, “do no harm” is what Tolerance is all about. If we do not harm others, then we are tolerating them. If we don’t affirm or reject them, then we are tolerating them. If I don’t like mushrooms but I eat them so I can have dessert, then I am tolerating mushrooms.
Tolerance seems to contain a muted objection: “I’d prefer the front row seats but I’ll tolerate the back row if that’s all you have.” Or “I tolerate the bass thumps of the neighbor next door because he likely tolerates the crying child” means you’ve reached an understanding of an tolerable level of annoyance until the pictures start getting thumped off the walls.
In our world of difference and intersections of those differences, tolerance seems to be the best step towards peace. It doesn’t mean we all have to agree. It doesn’t mean that we all have to be the same. It doesn’t mean that one person’s perspective triumphs over anothers (although that can be the case). And to a people that pride themselves on rational thought and building coalitions, tolerance can seem to be the ideal state in which a society and church operates. We can do some hard work but we don’t have to do the really difficult work of life together.
I believe that Tolerance is not a static state of being. It is an active state, one where you move out of it, beyond tolerance, towards one of at least two different directions.
One direction beyond tolerance is towards acceptance without approval. Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church was asked about how he can be a strong supporter of AIDS ministries while simultaneously publicly supporting Proposition 8 in California, and he replied with this definition of tolerance:
“The problem is that tolerant has changed its meaning. It used to mean ‘I may disagree with you completely, but I will treat you with respect. Today, tolerant means ‘you must approve of everything I do.’ There’s a difference between tolerance and approval. Jesus accepted everyone no matter who they were. He doesn’t approve of everything I do, or you do, or anybody else does either. You can be accepting without being approving.”
For Rick Warren and for many of us, we can tolerate people or movements or social inequality because while we accept the person or situation we do not approve of what they are up to. Tolerance means coexistence without action, compassion without empathy, a static existence without growth one way or another.
To some, what is beyond tolerance is an agreement to coexist in this world together like oil and water. Maybe in parts of our lives, in our relationships at home, at work, at church, we live like this, beyond tolerance towards acceptance without approval.
But I believe there’s another thing beyond tolerance. The second direction beyond tolerance is towards seeking freedom and justice for everyone around us. To seek justice and freedom for others so that they can have their wholly best lives. Nelson Mandela who led his country against Apartheid wrote:
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
This sort of tolerance seeks out the best kind of life for others that gives them the greatest level of freedom and justice that we would want in their situation.
This is a much harder state of tolerance. It is no longer oil and water but a mixture where we are all in this together. An advocate for living wages for custodial workers said to me once “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If we all sought freedom and justice for one another, then all would benefit. This is that uncomfortable place beyond tolerance where we actively engage our neighbors, get to know their personal, professional, and spiritual lives, and seek to find ways to make their lives better and to enjoy the same level of justice that any one of us might enjoy.
It is uncomfortable. It leads to difficult decisions. If seeking to make the lives better for the Westboro Baptist Church who would likely hate and protest their own selves if it would get them more press coverage, if that’s what we are called to do, I suspect many of us would draw the line. But the point is to enter those conversations and not let silence dictate the need of a communal life together.
That is the society that God calls us to today through Amos. It is not enough that we’ve started to figure out how to worship and how to study the Bible (as if we have!). It is only when what we say in the sanctuary matches what each individual does in their lives that there will be no Amoses set our way.
In scripture God calls us beyond where we are. In all the prophets God resists religious expressions that separate orthodoxy (right beliefs) from orthopraxy (right actions). Isaiah complains about Sabbath observances disconnected from care for the needy (Isaiah 58). Joel calls for God’s people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). Micah reminds us of what God’s final requirements are: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). These prophetic calls in no way diminish creed and liturgy in the life of the church: those actions give us the very grammar we need to worship God. But it does demand that world, liturgy and practice all be brought together in ways that mix.
In many ways today’s sermon is an extension of last week’s sermon on “beyond religion.” We see in the scripture passage that God is already beyond religion. God is beyond religion’s worship services, offerings, choirs, harps, and sermons. God is beyond them…unless what we do in this space is connected to justice, is not just connected but when you look at the trickle of one hour of worship that we participate in weekly that you cannot even see it because it is an undercurrent of an ever-flowing stream of people seeking justice.
The prophet Amos still speaks today, telling us what we are doing wrong, but the most frustrating thing is that Amos is short on details of how to solve the problems. In Amos’s day, he didn’t have to say how to correct things, what systems to put into place, what kind of justice needed to be reformed, how to deal with debt, how to lift up teachers, how to care for the poor…because God was going to set everything right and take out the perpetrators. God was going to put it all back together. All the people needed to do was repent and refocus their practices and God would give them the way to put it all back together in the next chapter or book.
As people of faith, we also believe that God is going to put it all back together. But 2000 years later, we are still waiting on a society that functions holistically in the good. We are still waiting for a society that values children’s lives over gun freedoms. We are still waiting for peace with justice to reign over the land. And in that waiting, in that interim space, we cannot afford to stop at tolerating one another.
My prayer for us all today is to go beyond tolerance in an active pursuit of freedom and justice for those around us. To seek out a method and a way to go beyond “do no harm” and start “doing good” to grow those relationships. If a rising tide lifts all boats, my hope is that by plugging the holes in our boats and in others boats, we might all rise together. Glory be to God. Amen.