Rev. Donna Pritchard
Date: June 9, 2013
Title: “Worthy of Our Calling”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-8
When my children were young we often would go camping during our summer vacations. We were always tent campers, and tried to find parks with large tent areas, apart from the big motorhomes, which inspired no small amount of envy in us. One time, we were camping at the Santiam River, when late at night a couple in a huge RV arrived, and began trying to set up camp in the site right next to our tent. The woman got out of the motorhome to direct her husband into the spot. I did not see this drama as it played out, but I heard it distinctly.
First, there were a few muffled instructions – “Come on back, keep coming, turn to the right just a little” – and then, I heard the woman tell her husband, “You’re perfect! You’re perfect!” To which he replied, “Well, which left? Mine or yours?”
Which left – mine or yours? And how does that writer of Ephesians know where we are going? After all, it has been many centuries since this letter was written. Our times, our culture, even our church is so much different than that of the Ephesians in the first century. So why should we listen to that exhortation when the writer says “I beg you – I beg you to live a life worthy of your calling?!” And what it the world would that mean for us, anyway? Is it my left or is it yours?
Dawna Markova provides a hint or two of an answer for us in this poem, when she writes:
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me,
To make me less afraid, more accessible.
To loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
To live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom
And that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.
A life worthy of our calling is a life which makes a difference, which changes the world even a little, and which answers at the end of life the question “So what?” A life worthy of our calling is a life which embodies our deepest identity as children of God, and keeps faith with the possibilities we each possess. David Whyte suggests that “One of the qualities of great people is that they are unutterably themselves.” Unutterably, themselves – I like that image of living a life that is completely authentic based on one’s true identity. Whyte goes on to write:
Rosa Parks was tired, not heroic, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. It was her own tiredness and she stood by it, as if she was reclaiming an edge of exhaustion she hadn’t allowed herself to feel until then. It was the tiredness of work, but also the utter exhaustion of being invisible, of not being seen.
It was as if the true inner reality of her tiredness suddenly became the only thing visible to her, and having touched it, she was not going to let anyone take even that away from her. She inhabited that exhaustion so fully she turned what we might normally consider as lead, into a moment of gold.
We may be going the wrong way, or misunderstanding one another in the dark of the night when we try to ignore our own inner reality. We might be missing the mark when we try to conform to someone else’s notion of who we are and how we are called into being. Again, from David Whyte and his poem, “What to Remember When Waking”:
What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
For the vitality hidden in your sleep.
To be human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden
As a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world is to live in your true inheritance…
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
You are not an accident amidst other accidents.
You were invited from another and greater night
Than the one from which you have just emerged.
You are not a troubled guest nor merely an accident amidst other accidents, and neither am I. Steve Garnaas-Holmes puts it this way:
It’s too bad there aren’t more gold medals handed out – some way of saying “That was splendid!” I know a woman who was abused as a child, but she turned out okay. It took a lot of therapy, bad turns, good friends, and self-discipline, but here she is with no bitterness, no fear or self-loathing, and a lot of tenderness and wisdom. She ought to get a gold medal.
A friend of mine is exceedingly good at paying attention, listening with a deep, compassionate heart. There’s no medal for that. A kid in my church asks the best questions int eh world. She should at least be in the running for a bronze. Someone can stop in perfect wonder at the shape and glory of a cloud. Another is always honestly encouraging. I know someone who can cry at the drop of a hat. There’s an old man I know who’s almost always grumpy and cynical, but he’s 94 and he keeps going. Give the guy a medal. A newborn baby just lies there – doesn’t even smile yet, but you can see the gold medal shining in her parents’ eyes.
Ephesians 4 says God gives each of us different gifts for building up the body of Christ. We all have something to contribute to the community. There are an infinite number of ways to participate in making the world a better place and there are an infinite number of gold medals. “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift”, Ephesians says. God’s grace is like a gold medal for everyone – not for outstanding achievement, not for being better than others, but just for being our own best selves.
To live a life worthy of your calling is to live out the gifts God gives to you. Nobody in the world can do it like you – nobody. There is an old Hasidic story that has Nahum of Bratslav saying:
When I appear before the Heavenly tribunal I am asked, “Why did you not lead your people like Moses?” I shall not be afraid. When I am asked, “Why were you not a David who worshiped me and shepherded your people?” I will be calm. When they query, “Why were you not Elijah who spoke the truth and brought forth justice?” Even then, I will not shake.
But when they ask, “Nahum, why were you not Nahum?” It is then I will tremble from head to toe!
Life a life worthy of your calling – your calling. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Ephesians by saying:
While I’m locked up here, I want you to get out there and walk – better yet, run! – on the road God called to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline – not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
And John O’Donohue echoes these marching orders in his poetic way, telling us to “Awaken to the mystery of being here…and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.”
Awaken to the mystery, and enter the quiet immensity…because you are a gift – God’s gift – to the world. And you are the only one of its kind. Life a life worthy of that calling. And thanks we be given to God! Amen.
(from John O’Donohue)
Awaken to the mystery of being here
And enter the quiet immensity
Of your own presence…
Respond to the call of your gift
And the courage to follow its path…
In the secret symmetry of your soul
And may you experience each day
As a sacred gift
Woven around the heart of wonder.
Date: June 2, 2013
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9
It is “Graduation Sunday” here at First Church, as we celebrate the accomplishments of our high school graduates. So, what could be better than to begin the sermon today with a little quiz? Now, everyone should feel free to participate in this quiz, whether you are a recent graduate, or are not quite there yet… or even if you are well past your own “graduation Sunday”. In any event, just shout out the answer as it comes to you. Ready?
Okay, question number one – it’s a “fill in the blank” kind of question. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ! That’s right – Superman!
That one may have been a little too easy. So question number two – who teaches us that with great power comes great responsibility? Yes – Spiderman!
Finally, number three. Tell me who this sounds like – Stop a bullet cold, make the axis fold, change their minds and change the world? This one is a little trickier, but the answer is of course, Wonder Woman!
Ah, superheroes – we are all familiar with them, in part because we’ve grown up with them. We might even think we know all about them. For instance, we know that they all have some sort of amazing, and often superhuman, abilities. Perhaps it is X-ray vision, or the power of flight. Maybe they are super strong or super fast, or have the ability to become invisible at will (that’s the power I’ve always thought I’d choose if it came right down to it). They have some amazing abilities, which are combined with an agenda that has something to do with justice and fairness. Our superheroes even seem to maintain a moral code which goes beyond the ordinary level of commitment.
But there is something else these superheroes all have in common, something which I like to call the ability to live out “the art of possibility”. The superheroes of fantasy, fiction, and even of real life all somehow manage to see possibilities where others see only the impossible. Paul’s words to us and to the Philippians this morning are great examples of living out the art of possibility. Remember that Paul is writing from prison – not a place much given to the inspiration of possibilities. And he certainly could have chosen to be bitter and depressed and frightened. Paul could have decided to close in on himself in hopes of protecting what little hope he had left, succumbing to a mindset of scarcity.
Instead, Paul chooses to focus on abundance. He chooses to see possibilities where others see only the impossible. Paul chooses to see possibilities like rejoicing. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s words in this way:
Celebrate God every day. I mean, revel in God! Don’t fret or worry.
Instead of worrying, pray… and before you know it, a sense of God’s
wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.
And then, you might begin to see the possibilities in the midst of the impossible. Douglas Oldenburg reminds us that:
We are not always free to determine WHAT happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose HOW we will respond to whatever happens. We cannot revoke what has happened at the level of event, but we can rework it at the level of significance. And that choice – our response – makes all the difference in the world.
Do you imagine that Noah, on the 39th day of the flood, went up on the deck of the ark to thank God for the fresh rain falling on his face? Probably not – because being thankful in everything is not so much about being relentlessly cheery. It is not a casting call for Pollyanna, so much as it is about trusting the grace of God to be present when we can see it and even when we cannot. So Noah may not have given thanks for the fresh rain, but he surely did rejoice in God’s presence in every drop which fell on his face!
Trusting that presence is what frees us up to see and do the possible in the midst of the impossible. Take, for instance, the story of Dr. Wangari Maathai, affectionately known as Africa’s “Tree Lady”. Maathai was the first African woman, and the first environmentalist to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her in 2004. She was a superhero if ever there was one.
The first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Maathai was appalled at the condition of her native Kenya when she returned home after her studies. What had been rich, verdant forest land when she left her home as a young woman had been systematically logged by private companies, leaving no firewood or food for poor villagers – and causing catastrophic environmental damage from erosion, turning a once-fertile area into a dust-bowl.
In 1977 Maathai planted seven trees in her own backyard. And then, she began to pay neighbor women a few schillings to plant trees themselves, eventually founding the Green Belt Movement, which works at grassroots, national, and international levels promoting environmental conservation, building climate resilience and empowering communities of women and girls to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods. The Green Belt Movement has, to date, planted more than 51 million trees in Africa!
Imagine that – 51 million trees which all started out as just 7 trees and one woman living out the Art of Possibility. I am reminded of an old story about Werner von Braun, who for a time headed up NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. He used to receive letters from all over the world, and had a number of assistants who composed standard replies for him. Sometimes, though, von Braun would scribble a few words in the margin of a letter.
One time, a college student wrote to him, asking about the future of space flight, whether it was really possible or simply a pipe dream. One of von Braun’s assistants had written a cautious and formal reply, pointing out all the risks, the boredom, and the uncertainties of space exploration. And had then gone on to suggest this student find some other, more reasonable career path to pursue.
Von Braun scratched through this cautious reply and scribbled instead, Come with us! We’re going to the moon! Someone else put it this way:
Every single one of us has the power to do great things – to do what is just, good and meaningful, and not just what feels, tastes, or looks good. Superman fought for integrity, Batman for justice, Spiderman for responsibility and redemption…[Wonder Woman for freedom and wholeness - and apparently, for some really good Spandex!]…We are all capable of fighting for the same values and we all have a mandate to make the world a better place. We may not be able to fly, or bend iron bars, or instantaneously change the flow of a river, but we can become people of peace, love, compassion and action.
We can – each of us – live the Art of Possibility in our own way, seeing what is possible instead of focusing on what we find impossible. We can trust in God’s presence when we can see it and even when we cannot. WE can focus on abundance rather than scarcity, on hope instead of fear, and on rejoicing rather than despairing.
My friends, God does not expect us to be super-human. But I believe God is inviting us to become super-heroic. Again, in Paul’s words:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you.
The God of peace will be with us all to help us become the best possibilities for the world, and even for ourselves – super-heroes, living the Art of Possibility. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Date: May 19, 2013
Title: “A Wild Dove”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: John 14:8-17
When I was a child, I was convinced that one day, I would be famous. I imagined myself playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, or winning Olympic Gold for my swimming prowess, or perhaps being sworn in as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I knew I would be famous some day.
I also knew that the day I turned 21 years old I would magically be all grown up. I expected that day to dawn on a totally mature, self-confident, grounded and wise Donna Marie – someone able to make all sorts of plans and to see them through. I imagined that I would be completely secure and able to make my own way in the world as an independent adult, once I turned 21.
Funny, isn’t it – how life doesn’t always conform to our expectations? It turns out that there is no magic to that 21st birthday. Most of us find that when the big day finally arrives, we are no more mature, confident, grounded or wise than we were the night before, when we were still just 20! And what is true for us in life, is even more true for us in faith.
Today we are celebrating a rite of passage, an important step in the lives of Claire, Nathan, Ben, Hannah and Amaya. Today these young people are being confirmed in their faith. They are making a decision to say “Yes” to the grace God has already given to them, “Yes” to a relationship God has already begun with them. And while this is an important moment, and a big step on their journey – it is by no means the final destination for their faith.
Because today, for these young people – and for the rest of us – God’s Holy Spirit is alive and well and on the loose in our midst! The Holy Spirit is here, active in our lives, not as some sort of tame pigeon, but as a wild dove. It is unpredictable, unexpected, and always unlimited by our imaginations.
On this Pentecost Sunday, when we are reminded again of the power God gives us for the work of life and love, let me offer these next moments to our Confirmands. The rest of you can choose to take a nap if you life – or listen in as you choose.
Amaya, Ben, Claire, Nathan, Hannah…there are some who will tell you that you’re now an adult in the eyes of the Church. There’s also an underlying expectation that you’re now “done” , since you have been confirmed. There is a kernel of truth in both of these statements, but it is only a kernel. You are a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ. What God started in your Baptism is now continued in your Confirmation with the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift available to all of us every day.
Your formal Confirmation classes might be finished, but that does not mean your learning is done. Just as I did not become magically adult on my 21st birthday, you will not achieve the full measure of the stature of Christ on this one Sunday. Confirmation is an important step, but it is not the final destination of anyone’s faith journey.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who tried to stop the Nazis during World War II, once told the youth he had confirmed, “You do not have your faith once and for all. The faith you confess today with all your hearts needs to be regained tomorrow and the day after tomorrow – indeed, every day anew. Because faith is a decision.”
Faith is a decision which sometimes comes easily, and at other times is fraught with struggle. So, my friends – be generous with yourselves when you feel close to God, and equally generous when you feel far away. Remember that God is big enough to handle the greatest distance and the most intimate connection. If you need to shake your fist at God from time to time, that is okay – especially if you remember that you can also throw yourself into God’s arms.
Don’t expect to ever fully understand all the ways that God is at work in your life. You will have many opportunities for God’s grace to work in you and through you for the sake of the world. Be open to this grace, the freely given love and power of God within you. Celebrate it and share it as freely as you receive it.
And remember that you are not alone in your faith. This whole community is here for you today, and will be with you in the many days to come. We are your partners as we all seek to follow Jesus, to share Jesus’ love and to change the world into a place of justice and peace for all the creation. There is so much good work for us to do together. And it is great to be partners in this work.
As hard as we work, don’t ever forget that we are also called to play – to rejoice in God’s presence and the revel in the beauty of this life. It is a good thing to be joyful and light-hearted. Don’t take yourself or your faith so seriously that you miss out on wonder or ever let go of awe.
And never underestimate yourself. You are a child of God, filled with the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world. As Marianne Williamson once wrote:
We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
And one day we will all be grown up. Maybe we’ll even be famous as well! In God’s eyes, I suspect, we already are. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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 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: 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 13, 2013
Title: “Beyond Religion”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 13:18-21; 17:20-21
In the October, 2012 edition of Portland Monthly, the cover article was all about who we are – what Portlanders really think about topics as diverse as
Money – Sex – Race – Family – Love – Death – and even, God.
Here are just a few samples of the information they gleaned through an online survey of 400 tri-county residents, conducted by DHM Research:
- 52% of the responders said that the outdoors is the best thing about living in Portland – [and yet]
- 61% are just fine w/expanding the urban growth boundary
- 56% of Portlanders think economic issues are the biggest threat to our way of life [and yet]
- 62% believe the future looks bright [even though]
- 53% believe Portland will suffer a major earthquake in the next 6-25 years
- 90% of us would not swim in the Willamette near Waterfront Park
And when it comes to religion, the apparent inconsistencies continue:
- 25% of us call ourselves “religious”
- 39% claim to be “spiritual”
- 60% of us believe in some sort of life after death
- 51% say that religion has no affect on their day-to-day decision making at all!
Not terribly surprising, these results. Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, says that when asked “Do you think of yourself as:
- “spiritual” but not “religious” (or)
- “religious” but not “spiritual” (or)
- “spiritual” and “religious” (or)
- not “spiritual” and not “religious”…
When given these options to choose from, 30% of adults in the United States today will choose “spiritual but not religious.”
So what does that mean? Is it even possible to be “spiritual but not religious” – and why should anybody care? Dr. Bass tells us that
For much of western history, the words “religious” and “spiritual” meant roughly the same thing – how human beings related to or connected with God in rites, rituals, practices, and communal worship. However, the popular definitions of these two words diverged throughout the 20th century…
The word “spiritual” gradually came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the world “religious” came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal ritual ,and adherence to official denominational doctrines.
To test this theory, Bass asked groups she worked with over the course of 18 months to play a word association game with her. She would draw two columns, one headed “spirituality”, the other “religion”, and ask people to list in each column their free associations w/these words. Working with a variety of groups in every geographic region of this nation, Bass said she was surprised to find virtually the same words listed under each column each time.
Under “Spirituality” she would inevitably hear:
Experience – connection – transcendence – searching – intuition – prayer
Meditation – nature – energy – wisdom – open – inclusive – doubt
While under “Religion” the list would always include these words:
institution – organization – rules – order – dogma – authority – beliefs – buildings – structure – hierarchy – boundaries – certainty
That, my friends, is proof enough for me. That tells me it is time for us all to go beyond religion! Indeed, if that second list is all that it means to be “religious”, then count me – probably you – and certainly Jesus, OUT. If that is all we mean when we talk about “religion”, count Jesus out. Because time and again Jesus seems to suggest that there is more to life than what at first meets the eye, and there is more to faith than any set of rites, rituals or rules. Time and again Jesus seems to favor poetry over prose, imagination over reason, relationship over dogma, experience over tradition.
Like when he tells us that the kingdom of heaven – that thin place where the visible and invisible touch each other, where humanity and divinity kiss and God’s realm is fully revealed – Jesus says that place, that reality is like a mustard seed.
Imagine for a moment he reaction that metaphor would have gotten Him, among a crowd who knew only too well the trouble with mustard seeds. Viewed by most as common weeds, the mustard plant was kind of like dandelions are to us – let one grow and it takes over the whole garden. People must have thought Jesus was nuts – what kind of fool farmer would actually plant mustard on purpose?
And then Jesus doesn’t help matters any when he goes on to suggest if they don’t like the mustard seed analogy, how about this – the kingdom of heaven is like leaven…mixed into three measure (50 pounds!) of flour… enough to make about 100 loaves of bread!
And this leaven was hardly like our powdered yeast. No, it was the old, fermented bits of bread which were used to make the new loaves rise. At the time, leaven was considered a symbol of corruption, an impurity, a contaminant.
They must have thought Jesus had lost his mind!
Joanne Harader helps us to make sense of the metaphor when she writes:
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us – is not what you expect. It is not about productivity and purity and common sense. Rather, it is about growth and messiness and joy.
The Kingdom is here and there and there… but we don’t see it, because we think it is just a weed, just an impurity, just a bunch of trash.
Unless, we have the courage and the imagination to go beyond religion – and to imagine the kind of divinity and the kind of humanity which Jesus models and offers to us all. Ted Loder puts it this way:
God – the kingdom of the invisible world rubbing against this one – has enough room for all of us… for angry people, for people who grieve and cry, frightened people, people who doubt and betray, are guilty of all sorts of sin, who struggle, get sick and die, yet do wonderful, beautiful, incredible things.
People like us. God holds us, like the earth holds a seed, breaks us open, raises us like life from a seed, like yeast raises the mess of flour and makes bread of it, of us. That is what God’s grace, mercy, power and purposes are about.
To understand that is to consider yourself both spiritual and religious.
Knowing that there is value in religious tradition. There is value in worship, in liturgy and music and preaching which reaches beyond our everyday existence. There is value in traditional teachings about justice and compassion, and in the ways we live into those teachings with our actions in real time, present day moments.
There is value in this building – a meeting place for so much of Portland.
There is value in our structure, which invites and empowers all sorts of people to share in leadership. There is value in our Wesleyan theology, which demands a combination of personal piety and social justice, so that we understand to grow personally means we are also growing a transformed and loving world.
There is value in all of that. But that is not the whole picture. And that is not the end of the story. The end of God’s story just may go something like this story, which Tony Campolo tells, about being in Hawaii, unable to sleep at 3:00 in the morning.
So he goes out of his hotel and winds up in the only place he can find that is open – a greasy diner – where he munches on a donut and sips a cup of coffee.
About 3:30 a loud, scantily clad group of women come in – prostitutes who have just finished their work for the night. Tony is anxious to leave, but before he can pay and slip out the door, he overhears a conversation: One of the women says, “You know, tomorrow’s my birthday.” To which another replies, “So? Who cares? What, you want a party or something?” The first says, “Of course not. I never had a birthday party before. Why should I want one now? I’m just saying it’s my birthday.”
So Tony doesn’t slip out. He sticks around, and once the women have left he talks to Harry, the guy at the counter. “They come in here every night, same time?” “Yeah” “That one, that one who has a birthday? She’s here every night?”
“Yeah”, says Harry. “That’s Agnes. She’s always here. Been coming here for years.”
So the two men, along with Harry’s wife, make plans to throw Agnes a birthday party the next night.
Tony shows up about 2:30 with decorations and a sign, “Happy Birthday Agnes” Harry and his wife have the cake ready. Word has gotten out, and by about 3:15, half of the hookers in Honolulu are in the diner. When Agnes comes in, they yell “Happy Birthday, Agnes!”
And Agnes is stunned. Then Harry comes out with the cake, candles blazing, and Agnes loses it. She just stands there crying. She’s crying and the candles are burning and Harry tells her to stop crying and just blow out the candles, so she finally does. She blows out the candles, but she can’t bring herself to cut the cake, the only birthday cake she’s ever had. “Do you think I could take it home?” she asks. “I just live down the street. It would only take a few minutes. I’ll come right back.”
So off Agnes goes with her birthday cake, leaving Tony Campolo in a diner full of prostitutes. So he does what any good Baptist preacher would do – he offers to pray with them.
After the prayer, Harry turns to Tony and says, “You never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony, in a moment of inspiration, replies, “The kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry looks Tony up and down and finally says, “No. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
Maybe that’s what people said when Jesus started talking about the Kingdom of God being within us…”I’d join a kingdom like that…I’d join a kingdom where weeds are allowed to invade a field just to provide shelter for the birds. I’d join a kingdom where 50 pounds of flour are turned into enough bread for the biggest block party ever. I’d join a kingdom where we can all go beyond religion, all the way to God!” I’d join that… how about you?
Date: January 6, 2013
Title: “Resolutions and Epiphanies”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Jesus has been born again, into our very midst! Divine love has put on flesh and blood and come to live with us! But – Christmas is over, you say – it is so last year. And now, we’re all about the New Year and all our resolutions.
This morning we might follow the lead of the Magi, the wise ones who come looking for the Christ child. Like them, we’ve heard some talk, we’ve seen some signs, and we suspect that there is something for us to see. Maybe there is even someone for us to meet. Like the Magi, we find a little mystery, we sense a little magic by starlight. But then what?
It seems to me that Christmas may be nothing more than a pleasant distraction unless we are willing to leave the manger and take a new way home. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman puts it this way:
We can choose a “return to normal” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or, we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence, a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability.
It is easy enough to put away the tinsel, recycle the tree, and leave Jesus in the manger for someone else to notice. Because we may not be sure we want that kind of vulnerability, or need that kind of dependence – God coming to us as a child, and an infant at that! No wonder Christmas comes and goes and we are left feeling empty, when we insist on going home the same old way!
But this morning I find myself wondering – what might happen if you begin to listen to your dreams? What might happen if you begin to pay attention to God’s love in your life, and God’s intentions for the world? What might happen if all of us hold out open hands and open hearts, stripped of our usual fears and false pretensions? What might happen if we let go of those layers and levels of self promotion and self protection, and begin instead to take a new way home?
Maybe me and you could be wise guys too. Maybe we could go home a new way, today. It is the beginning of a new year, and a good time for us to pull over, take a look at the map, and figure out where God may want us to go.
Now I don’t know about you, but I think I could use a new route or two myself. I could, for instance, let go of some of those things I cannot control…and instead take a new road of peace. I could let go of some of the things I can control…and take a new road of acceptance. I could hang onto my experiences of God’s love…and take a new road of trust. I could make good on all those promises to myself…and take a new road of self-care and even self-discipline. I could even remember that wrong turns and detours sometimes wind around the best scenery and the grandest adventures…and take a new road of forgiveness.
Because Epiphany tells us that it is okay to be lost from time to time. We are in good company when we go looking for God. We are in good company – even “wise guys” have been here before! And of course the wisest ones figure out how to stop from time to time, pull out a map, maybe even ask for help.
And here’s the thing, as JD Shankles reminds us:
The magicians and sorcerers point to the star, the star points to Jesus, and then Jesus points…to you. You remember how he puts it, “You are the light of the world.” So the question for us becomes, “What are you going to do with that light shining upon you and within you? Will you let the light stop at you, or will you refract it onto others?
Jesus says you are the light of the world. Not because of your religious affiliation. Not because of your nationality. Not because of your social class. But because of your humanity.
As a child of God, as a part of creation, you were created in God’s image and declared good. You are the light of the world. You are God’s deepest desire, God’s hope for the future of creation. What will you do with the light?
Will you love each other, even when you do not agree? What will you do with the light? Will you care for strangers you may never even meet? Will you keep welcoming the homeless, feeding the hungry, and working to free the oppressed? And will you whisper to every one you encounter along your way…You are the light of the world?
Arise! Shine! And let there be room in our resolutions for God’s epiphanies, those identifying moments when we know – really know – who we are and who God is. As Bruce Epperly writes:
Eventually, all of us take routes that we had never expected to travel, whether these involve changes in employment, health, relational, or economic status. When life forces us from the familiar highway onto an uncharted path, we are challenged to experience holiness as we travel on another road.
And we are certainly challenged to decide what we will do with God’s light when we are going home a new way. I am reminded of a story which Robert Fulghum tells, about a man by the name of Alexander Papaderos, who grew up in Greece, in a small, impoverished, remote village. One day, it seems that Papaderos found the broken pieces of a mirror. At first, he tried to put it back together, but soon realized it was in too many pieces. So, the young Papaderos kept the largest piece of the mirror and little by little, by scratching it against a stone, managed to make the fragment round, about the size of a quarter.
This young boy carried that mirror with him wherever he went, and found that with it, he could reflect the sunlight into dark places where the sun would never shine – into places like deep holes, crevices and dark closets. In time, it became a game for him to see where he could get the light to shine.
Years passed and Papaderos grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game, but was an answer to the question of what he would do with his life. He said:
“I am not the light, not the source of the light. But Light – truth, understanding, and knowledge – will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am only a fragment of a mirror whose design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world, and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise.”
Perhaps you and I might do likewise today, hearing the words of Isaiah, trusting the presence of Christ enough to truly “Arise! And shine!” For our Light has come, and all we have to do is reflect it. Thanks be to God! Amen.