Sunday, August 26, 2007

Random Thoughts About This Morning

~ The Chair of the PNC was more nervous than I was.

~ On the advice of the woman who first suggested I give preaching a try 18 years ago, I decided to try a Godly Play "I wonder" approach to the children's message. Perfect.

~ They were very quiet during the sermon, chuckled gently when I compared myself unfavorably to Martha Stewart, but were very, very attentive.

~ The congregation had untold treasures in it, such as... a family I know from the first church where I was a Director of Christian Education, another family from the first church I served as an interim associate. And... see the sermon... a woman with what appears to be the very condition described in the gospel story.

~ I forgot there would be a paper ballot, so that when the Pastor Nominating Committee raced by the office (where my children and I were cooling our heels) without stopping, I looked at Larry-O and Petra and said, "Uh-oh."

~ Turns out they were counting the ballots.

~ It was unanimous. I have a church, and a church has me. God bless us, every one!

Freedom and the Sabbath: A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

“Freedom and the Sabbath”
Luke 13:10-17
August 26, 2007

I grew up at the Jersey shore, in a little town where my parents owned and operated a small business. We lived in an apartment upstairs from the store, and only later in life did I realize how fortunate we were, to have both parents working and yet available and at home at the same time. Throughout my childhood blue laws were in force in our town. That meant that one day a week, Sunday, my parents were set free from the store. They didn’t have to rise early, to work the hour it took to put all things in readiness, the twelve hours the store was open for business, and then the hour or so needed to restock at the end of the day. On Sunday morning my mom might cook a big breakfast while dad read the paper and we kids watched TV. Sometimes we would take a day trip to Philadelphia to see our cousins. Sunday night, almost without fail, we dressed up, got in the car, and had dinner at a restaurant, always someplace special.

At some point in my childhood—maybe when I was nearing high school—the laws changed. It was no longer illegal to do business on Sunday. Because larger chain stores were on the rise, my parents did the only thing they felt they could do. They started opening up on Sunday. They hated it. They resented it. But they felt they had to do it. They believed they might lose customers to the chain stores, if they didn’t provide the convenience of being open seven days a week. And our lives changed. No more leisurely Sunday mornings. No more daytrips. My dad did close earlier on Sunday, so sometimes we went out to dinner. But when we did, my parents were more tired, less talkative. The freedom of Sunday was lost to my family. So that was my first understanding of Sabbath, though I didn’t yet know the word: Sabbath was freedom.

Many years later, I read a book of essays by women about how they practiced their faith and spirituality. One was by a Jewish woman who spoke of her extensive preparations for the Sabbath. As I am no Martha Stewart, there were things she wrote about that left me cold… an awful lot of cooking, an awful lot of cleaning! But the theme that echoed through her essay was the beauty of the Sabbath: the sheer loveliness, after all the travails, of stopping, and eating a wonderful meal by candlelight, surrounded by friends and family, and hallowing that meal with ancient prayers of thanksgiving to the Author of all our blessings. All the busyness was prelude to the experience of welcoming that beauty: as Isaiah says, welcoming the Sabbath as a delight, and the holy day of the Lord as honorable. And that was my second understanding of Sabbath: Sabbath was beauty, delight.

At some point during my life as a churchgoer, I came to attach a religious significance to taking one day in seven to rest and to worship God. And simultaneously with learning it, I learned how very hard it was to practice it. The pace of modern life certainly doesn’t encourage us to turn off our computers and stop doing work, or to think of one day in seven as a day in which we are not “permitted” to do certain things. So my third understanding of Sabbath was actually in tune with what the word means in Hebrew: Sabbath was ceasing, resting, completion.

So, what is the Sabbath, really? What does the Sabbath mean to Jesus? And what can it mean for us?

These questions are implicit in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke. In our reading, Jesus is in a synagogue for the very last time in the gospel; it is the Sabbath, and he is teaching. So the first thing we notice is that he is honoring the Sabbath by worshipping, as any good Jew would. But a woman appears on the scene, and then the action commences… she enters the synagogue with “a spirit that ha[s] crippled her,” according to our translation, but a better one would be “a spirit of weakness.” Luke adds some details: this spirit has crippled her for eighteen years; she is completely bent over, and unable to stand up straight. And Luke omits other details… the woman’s name, and the source of her illness. A “spirit of weakness” doesn’t necessarily indicate possession by evil spirits. So the woman’s complaint is vague in origin, but it has visible, painful, debilitating consequences.

Jesus does what we know he will do. He heals her. He does not hesitate. He recognizes her ailment as a kind of captivity, a kind of bondage. And so he calls her over to him, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And the minute he lays his hands on her, it is completely obvious to anyone watching that she is completely healed. She stands erect, for the first time in eighteen years, and does what I imagine any of us would do in her place: she praises God out loud. If Jesus’ path were simple and easy, our story would end here. Everyone present would stand up and praise God right alongside the miraculously healed woman. But of course that is not what happens, because the gospel message is often misunderstood by those whom Jesus encounters. We learn very quickly that Jesus’ view of what is permitted on the Sabbath has just crashed head-on into the view of the leader of the synagogue. The leader makes a strategic decision to address his complaints to the congregation. He tells them why Jesus has done wrong, why he thinks Jesus has violated the Sabbath. Like an anxious store manager suddenly afraid of crowds, he warns them against the notion that such cures will be available on future Sabbaths. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he says, “come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day.”

The thing is, the leader of the synagogue is right in a sense: there are six days in which to work; every person there knows that the Sabbath day is supposed to be a day of rest. But there is some meaning of Sabbath that has been lost to the leader. There is something vital that he is missing, something of which Jesus reminds him.

If we were to flip back through our bibles, if we were to look at the history of the Sabbath in the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that it has layers of meaning attached to it. We can barely get past the first page of the bible before being confronted with it: a defense of the Sabbath is tucked right into the creation story: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). The Sabbath is a day of rest because even God recognizes a need for it. This explanation is given in the version of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus. However, when they are related in Deuteronomy, there is a different explanation that is given. This is the fourth commandment:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
~ Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Here, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is not about God needing a nap after a few hard days of creating. Instead, it’s about the difference between being a slave and being free. And the commandment is so sweeping—not only “you” but also “your son or daughter, your male or female slave,” your ox, donkey and all the rest of the livestock, and the resident alien in your towns: all these are prohibited from working on the Sabbath. Rest is not seen as an entitlement of the wealthy. Suddenly Sabbath-keeping is not merely about obeying a commandment or mimicking God’s own actions on that first Sabbath day. It is a matter of freedom. It is a matter of justice.

In fact, it is entirely possible to observe the Sabbath in practice and utterly violate it in spirit, as the prophets are continually pointing out. Amos is particularly scathing in his indictment of the unjust practices of the people: ‘Hear this,’ he excoriates them, ‘you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’” (Amos 8:4-5a). These are the words of those who see the Sabbath as just another inconvenient barrier to commerce. The heart of Sabbath-keeping is that we are made in God’s image, and that every single one of us has the right, by God’s measure of justice, to enjoy the dignity of one full day of rest in every seven.

In fact, Sabbath commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures go way beyond the commandment for people and animals to rest. God commands that the land be given a Sabbath—a year of rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:1-7). Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven, because people who are enslaved by debt cannot possibly be truly free (Deut. 15:1-11). God puts a limit on the amount of time a slave can be held. A human being can be held as a slave for six years; in the seventh year, he or she is to be freed. Not only that, the master is to provide for that person “liberally” from the flocks and herds, so that the freed slave may being a life of freedom with some resources (Deut. 15:12-18). All these startling provisions have roots in the Sabbath: every human being, every creature, every piece of God’s green earth has dignity and worth. No one is to be exploited or indebted or worked into oblivion.

When the nameless woman enters the synagogue, bent over by an infirmity that has tied her up in knots for eighteen years, Jesus sees someone who is not free. And we might ask ourselves whether her external maladies had to do with a deeper sense of imprisonment. After all, the situation of women in first century Palestine was one in which they were not equals to men, in which they were regarded largely as property, the property of their fathers or husbands or brothers. In fact, I suspect that women were the only folks whose work on the Sabbath was tolerated. Did you notice who is not on the list of those who are required to rest in the 4th commandment? “Your wife.” And since a “wife” is specified in another commandment, it appears pretty clear that this is a deliberate omission. Perhaps Jesus looks at the woman bent over with her infirmity and sees a kind of slavery that goes far deeper than her physical symptoms.

The synagogue leader has forgotten the liberating roots of the Sabbath, and sees it now only as something to do with stopping, with prohibition, with religious rules and regulations. Jesus reminds him—in strong words, even harsh ones—of what he has forgotten. He reminds the crowd that they unfailingly unbind their animals so that they may drink and eat on the Sabbath. Shouldn’t a daughter of Abraham—hear the dignity Jesus accords this nameless woman in that title!—shouldn’t a daughter of Abraham be similarly unbound? With this simple analogy, Jesus gets to the heart of what the Sabbath is really all about: freedom and justice. If our God is a God of justice, then Sabbath is about allowing a nameless woman the same dignity one allows a beast of burden. If our God is a God of freedom, then Sabbath is about not letting our wrongheaded ideas about religion get in the way of our relationship with God; and that is just what we do anytime we deny freedom to the oppressed in the name of religion.

Someone has said that Sabbath is a gift, but we are so reluctant to accept it, God had to make it a commandment. So I would ask you this: what if we dared to accept this gift of the Sabbath, whether we honor it on Sunday or some other day, just one day a week? What if we took to heart the good news that we are free children of God, just one day a week? What if we took that time to revel in our human dignity, to truly open ourselves to experiences of beauty, just one day a week? And what if, in the days when we do labor, we were to commit ourselves to making others just a little bit more free as well? So that they too could experience that one day a week of dignity and beauty and rest? Amen.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Random Thoughts About Tomorrow...

natalie dee
You know, The Day. Candidating at the church I fervently hope will call me to be their pastor.

~ Sermon's almost done. It's carrying a heavy burden of "The Most Important Sermon Of My Life." Of course, theologically, I believe that every sermon is the most important of my life. But, you know.

~ Aren't children's sermons with kids you don't know the very, very hardest things we (ministers) do?

~ This is a shout out to my two amazing, wonderful kids, who are going to be with me tonight and tomorrow (Larry-O is putting off going back to school by a day). They are my rocks.

~ A big thank you!! to the lectionary gods and goddesses for the AWESOME passage from Luke. Really. That was totally my response.

~ And finally, What does one wear to the Ice Cream Social this evening? Is it OK that I have electric blue toenail polish?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dad and the Garbage

My dad rearranges garbage.

He's been doing this for several years now. I noticed, way back when, that whenever anyone threw anything away, dad would quickly go to the trash can to reorganize it. This is partially due to the fact that he uses plastic grocery bags as his garbage bags, so he is striving for maximum efficiency of space. It is also due to the fact that he hates the idea of flies (fruit or otherwise), and so he quickly wraps banana peels, peach pits, etc, in plastic so as to lessen the likelihood of flies being drawn to them.

There is something else he does. His municipality recycles everything-- plastic, paper, aluminum, glass. He knows that plastic does not decompose. So he puts organic waste in plastic bottles-- milk bottles, for example-- on the theory that the decomposing organic matter will help the plastic to decompose just a bit. (Mind you, the plastic is all going to be recycled). I stopped trying to point out to my dad the error of his ways about two visits ago. Now I just watch placidly as he fusses, and then proudly explains his efforts to me.

Of course, none of this is about garbage, really. What I think this is really all about is the betrayal of the aging body, the feeling of being unsteady on his feet, the knowledge that he shouldn't be driving, really, the hell of needing to wear adult diapers because his bladder and bowels are so unpredictable. Dad rearranges the garbage because, really, there is precious little in his life over which he has control these days. He certainly doesn't have control over his body, or his children, or his taxes, or the fact that his wife of 58 years predeceased him. Despite a several year campaign and countless visits to his doctor he still can't control the fact that his blood pressure bottoms out unexpectedly, leading him to fall or faint, sometimes in public places. He can't control much of anything, really.

So dad rearranges the garbage, and I watch him rearrange it, and try not to be annoyed. It is such a little thing. It is such a big thing.

So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me...
~Psalm 71:18

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Vacation Moments

We have shopped... our annual back-to-school shopping now takes place regularly here, at the Jersey Shore, at a fabulous outdoor outlet mall known as "The Walk."

We have been swimming... the bay is fresh and cold, the ocean rough (the Caribbean storms affect us almost immediately), my children I-Love-Lucy-hilarious in kayaks.

We have dined out, at one mom-and-pop Italian restaurant and one spiffy city steakhouse.

We have played... a full evening on the Ocean City boardwalk where, evidently, we are still happy to ride roller coasters, eat Mac and Manco's Pizza and salt water taffy, and end the evening with our traditional ride on the biggest ferris wheel in the world (feels like, anyway).

And now we are fighting... little sibling scuffles, Mom giving the X-ray-eyes of death across the table in the restaurant, grandpop throwing out even extra barbs (for him).

This morning I lay in bed for nearly an hour, thinking through my sermon for next Sunday, when I preach for the call to a new church.

Time to go home.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday Five: Word Association Redux

This one is patterned off an old Friday Five written by Songbird, our Friday Five Creator Emerita:

Below you will find five words. Tell us the first thing you think of on reading each one. Your response might be simply another word, or it might be a sentence, a poem or a story.

1. vineyard

Martha's. I visited there several times early in my marriage, including one trip with a 7-month-old Larry-O, who got to travel everywhere on the back of my bicycle. It is a place that evokes a curious mixture of longing and nostalgia... a place where I envisioned a life that never quite took shape the way I intended. And, always, there is the ocean... my true spiritual home, wherever and whenever I am.

2. root

"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love." Truly.

3. rescue

Oh, Aretha, baby, and "Rescue Me"!

Rescue me
Oh take me in your arms
Rescue me
I want your tender charms
'Cause I'm lonely and I'm blue
I need you and your love too
Come on and rescue me....

4. perseverance

When I was growing up my mom had a little poster on the wall of the kitchen. It asked the question, "What will ensure success?" It went on to list all the things we think will ensure success... for instance, talent. It then dispelled the myth that those things are the key. ("The world is filled with unrealized prodigies...") The last line was "Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

Not grace, so much. But that was my mom.

5. divided

Abraham Lincoln, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

(Each of these appears in one of the readings from this Sunday's lectionary.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007


... is lashing the bay outside the windows. I rose early to walk on the boardwalk, to do grocery shopping, to have my breakfast and to generally be ready to greet the day more productively than I did yesterday. (Yesterday: a day of sloth. Permissible on the first full day at the shore, especially, when you've had to get up at 4:30 to drive folks to the airport). I was able to accomplish everything I needed before the rain... before even the hint of rain in the air.

My dad slept till nearly noon. When he arrived in the kitchen (cleaned up from my and the children's breakfast, and filled somewhat with the groceries I'd purchased) he uttered an expletive.

It is hard to watch my dad. He teeters from task to task, seeming to suffer from attention deficit disorder, he who was so very focused all his life. I have been watching him (because he will not let me do it for him) prepare himself a bagel and orange juice and tea. He has been doing it for about 25 minutes. He stops and goes to the freezer, wondering if he's defrosted the meat for dinner. Everything takes a very long time.

I wonder if he really doesn't enjoy our being here?

That was a bratty thing to say. I think it is hard for him. I think it is hard for me, but only in a stunted emotional way. I really have no generosity of heart sometimes. I take it all personally.

Who said the art of family life is learning not to take it personally?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

At the Shore

We arrived (Petra, Larry-O and I) at my dad's house at the shore yesterday afternoon. We came from New York City, where we had gone to see an amazing play, "Spring Awakening." (Another post will come on that).

When we arrived my sister-in-law "Lily" and her children "Smythe" and "'Rhett" where here as well. Smythe is three years younger than Petra, and together they travel in an indeterminate place, between their ages (Petra is nearly 15, Smythe 12). It was not long before the girls were having a diving contest off the dock. Rhett is a full 10 years younger than Larry-O, and adores and idolizes him... hangs on his every word, literally hangs on his body at times. Larry can take this for about a day-- which was all we had. I drove them to the airport at 4:45 this morning.

Before she left Lily filled me in on some of the more worrying things that have been going on with my dad, both physically and mentally. Mentally, he seems to be as he ever was or, perhaps moreso. He is irascible, paranoid and grumpy. Well, he lives alone, far from his closest family, and we are not close emotionally, either. It's hard to admit that, but Dad is a difficult one to love. Last night at dinner he took a few potshots at Larry-- for no earthly reason except to be mean... he seems to relate better to his granddaughters than his grandsons.

A disjointed post. I have just been reading the daily lectionary text from 2 Samuel, about the estrangement between David and Absalom. The following passage was painful to read:

25Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. 26When he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king's weight. 27There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar; she was a beautiful woman.

28So Absalom lived two full years in Jerusalem, without coming into the king's presence.

Here is what strikes me. First, the descriptions of Absalom's physical beauty. It is hard to know exactly what function it serves in the text. His father's physical beauty is described in 1 Samuel, but it seems to be more about what draws people to him. Here the beauty feels as if it is an impediment... it has a life of its own.

And the last painful line: throughout this entire passage (which is about three times longer than I have quoted) David is never referred to by name. He is called only "the king." Of course, that is the great impediment... the royal struggles for position, the ancient irreparable wounds. The daughter named for the shamed sister.

How nice to be Roman Catholic today, and to celebrate the Assumption of Mary! Since it never says she died... let's think this! I mean this most affectionately... some very sweet memories of my childhood have to do with attending mass in the summer with my dear auntie, my fairy-godmother, in a convent chapel by the sea. It was always the feast of the Assumption.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Fear and the Little Flock: A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

“Fear and the Little Flock”
Luke 12:32-40
August 12, 2007

“Do not be afraid.” When I was a little girl, I heard these words most often at bedtime, because the thing I feared most was the darkness. I was a constant presence in my parents’ room long after I was supposed to be asleep, because I found the darkness unfriendly, unsettling. I feared monsters and nightmares. I feared things I couldn’t even put into words. I remember my mother singing me the song “You Are My Sunshine,” in an effort to calm my fears.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey

You’ll never know dear how much I love you

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

But you know, that last line was kind of scary. It almost sounded as if my mom was afraid that someone was going to take me away from her! If that weren’t bad enough, she would go on to the second stanza:

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms

When I awoke dear, I was mistaken

So I hung my head and cried.

That song, which was supposed to comforting, absolutely terrified me. When my mom would sing me that second verse, a vivid picture developed in my mind: a picture of a man in a raincoat and a hat, carrying me down the back stairs of our house in a brown paper bag. Of course, I didn’t tell my mother this until many years later. She was distraught to think her attempts to reassure me were so frightening.

“Do not be afraid.” Of course, the things we fear change somewhat from childhood to adulthood. As for me, I have found the dark to be a friendly and inviting place after all. In fact, now I have a hard time sleeping if there is too much light in my room. But there are other things I fear now… I fear for my children’s safety, in so many ways… I fear the things that can reach them right in the security of my own home, never mind when they’re out of my sight, out in the world. I fear loneliness, not having those I love around me. I have had brief periods of fearing economic insecurity, though it would be terribly dishonest of me to say that I really know what it is to be cowering in terror from “the wolf at the door,” as so many of our neighbors are in these harsh economic times.

“Do not be afraid, little flock.” What we fear as a group can be very different from what we fear individually. In our reading from Luke, Jesus is speaking to a group. The “little flock” that has gathered around him is made up of his disciples as well as a crowd that is listening to Jesus as he preaches his way to Jerusalem. Remember that, at the end of chapter 9 in Luke’s gospel, we were told that, “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face for Jerusalem” [Luke 9:51]. Jesus has realized that his ministry is leading him inexorably towards Jerusalem, towards a confrontation with the powers and principalities of this world, towards the cross. He has “set his face” for that inevitability. He is determined. He is on his way. And as he goes to face judgment before the religious and civil authorities, Jesus teaches the people how they should prepare to face the judgment of God. So, the first extraordinary thing about Jesus’ teaching, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” is its context. Jesus is steadfastly on his way to face something that would cause any reasonable person to shake in their shoes, to lose the power of speech, to tremble and cry and run away and hide. And his teaching all the while is for his followers not to be afraid.

Even more extraordinary than the context is the content of that teaching. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. As he walks the road to his torture and death, Jesus proclaims his confidence that, not only should his followers not fear, they should realize that the kingdom of God is theirs for the taking, that it is God’s good pleasure to give it to them. While we are still scratching our heads, he goes on to explain:

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… ~ Luke 12:33-35

The way to prepare for the kingdom is, first of all, to sell your possessions and to give alms. Someone has wisely observed that we have a much easier time with the second part of that sentence—give alms—than we do with the first—sell your possessions. Last summer I went on a tear to rid my house of junk. I urged my children for weeks to prepare for a yard sale, in which we would sell all the old, junky toys, the knick-knacks that cause so much clutter, the books… I’m drowning in books! So for weeks we took things off shelves and priced them and when the big day came we dragged them all outside and opened up shop on our lawn. And for a while, our house was slightly less cluttered than it had been. The shelves were not groaning so loudly under all the books. But the truth hit me hard a few months later, as I opened a box from Amazon and tried to find a place on a shelf for a couple of new books I had purchased: I’d been thinking of books as clutter when all the evidence would seem to indicate that I really believe them to be treasure. Some of those old, junky toys? Treasure, if you were to ask my children. Knick-knacks, the ones I was secretly delighted to bring back into the house at the end of the day? They are my treasure, my precious…

Here’s the puzzling thing about Jesus’ admonition to not be afraid. He follows it up with advice that is almost guaranteed to frighten us. Don’t be afraid… and make yourselves even more vulnerable by giving up those things that give you security! Don’t be afraid… and make yourselves as poor as those you will be helping with your alms! We find ourselves feeling like that little girl, straining to hear words of comfort in a song that scares the daylights out of us. It just doesn’t compute.

And here we have it: an encounter with Jesus’ “kingdom thinking.” We are accustomed, as was Jesus’ little flock, to kingdoms that look, well, kingly. Kingdoms are marked by their wealth, their opulence, the jewels in the crown or in the chalice; the fine tapestries adorning the walls or the altar. But Jesus’ idea of “kingdom,” and our idea of “kingdom,” are not the same. In Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom,” the possessions that we believe give us security actually take away our true security. Our true security lies in our willingness to trust in God entirely.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I can’t help feeling, as I say goodbye to you today, that there are powerful words from God directly to you and me in this passage from Luke’s gospel. I believe, in the deepest core of my being, that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, that God’s hands are open and ready to pour these blessings upon us. And I believe that, if we are attentive to Jesus’ words this morning, the key to receiving the kingdom is twofold. First, we have to realize that the kingdom might not look the way we expect it to look. And second, we have to be ready to trust God entirely.

First, the kingdom might not look the way we expect it to look. I know that the leadership of this church has been and will continue to be involved in a soul-searching and sometimes difficult process, seeking to find where God is leading you as a congregation. In a few weeks, God willing, I will begin working with another congregation where we will be asking the same questions. And it might be, as the process unfolds, that we will all be asked to commit to taking steps that feel scary… like Jesus saying, “Don’t be afraid,” and then telling his little flock to sell off their possessions. When and if that moment comes, I pray that we will all remember how very, very blessed we are by one another, that the true treasure of any congregation is its people, that we will pray like crazy, and that we will ask God, “Is this how you want us to participate in the kingdom?”

And second: readiness is key. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” [Luke 12:35]. Jesus talks here in parables about slaves being ready for their master to return home from a wedding banquet. That doesn’t sound too appealing to us, until we get to the punch line: the master will be so pleased by our readiness, that he will become the servant. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. I believe God asks us to be ready to do something daring… something, perhaps, completely unexpected and unlike anything we have ever done before. I believe God is asking all of us to be ready, and God, in turn, is promising readiness to pour out those blessings.

There is a church in a nearby presbytery that has attracted a lot of attention in my denomination. It was small… quite small. They had eight people in worship, and a large older sanctuary that they could no longer support. They made a radical decision. They sold the church building, and rented the basement so that they could continue to worship together. With the proceeds of the sale they wanted to do something for the community in which they were located. They surveyed their neighbors, and found that they were clamoring for youth ministry, a viable option to life on the streets. So that’s what they did. They poured the proceeds from the sale of the building into a new youth ministry. Eventually, the families whose lives were affected by this new ministry began to wonder… who were these people who had given so much to their community? They sought out the little church, started worshiping with them. And this congregation that was so tiny they had to sell their building began to grow. Eventually, they outgrew that basement, and decided to build themselves a smaller, energy efficient facility. Are they a mega-church now, with thousands in attendance? No. They are still a relatively small congregation. But they are a congregation that is able to devote itself to a ministry instead of exclusively fretting about building maintenance.

Please understand. This is not a prescription for you or any church to sell your building or to start a youth ministry. Only you can determine where God is calling you. But I think two things happened to that congregation, things every church should consider. First, they accepted that, in order to continue as a church together, they needed to embrace the fact that they might not look like the same church they had been in the past. They gleaned that in order to keep participating faithfully in the kingdom, they had to do something that, at the outset, was pretty darned scary. Second, this little church had to be ready. They had to keep their lamps burning, to be vigilant, to be dressed for action, so that when the time came to commit their resources to a new venture, they were able to joyfully, perhaps with fear and trembling, say, Yes. They had to be ready to trust God entirely with their unpredictable future. They had to be like a little child who learns to trust in her parents’ love and to be willing to enter into the darkness for a time.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Be ready, be alert. Be dressed for action, and keep your lamps burning. God’s hand is open, waiting for all of us to be ready to receive blessing upon blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Photo: Banditto by pattilamesh courtesy of flickr.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mary Magdalene, Back in the News

London - A renegade former British spy who was jailed after blowing the whistle on alleged wrongdoing in the intelligence services has claimed to have new-found powers as a mystic.

David Shayler told British cable channel More4 News that he had visited a psychic who he believes channelled the spirit of Mary Magdalene and anointed him as the Messiah.

"Suddenly my whole life made sense," the 41-year-old former officer with Britain's domestic intelligence service MI5 said in an interview broadcast Thursday evening.

"I felt a sense of peace, I suddenly realised why it had been how it had, why I seem to get such a strange deal from the universe, when I seem to be trying to tell the truth about everything."

Shayler told the programme his new powers included the ability to change the weather and that he had helped prevent the attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow in June through meditation.

He also claimed that his favourite football team, English Premiership side Middlesbrough, won a place in the 2006 Uefa cup final against Spanish side Seville because he had "channelled the light". Boro lost.

Shayler was released from prison in in 2002 after serving seven weeks for breaching Britain's Official Secrets Act.

He left MI5 in 1996 and subsequently made a number of allegations, including that Britain's overseas intelligence service, MI6, plotted to assassinate the Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

He has since tried his hand as a novelist and a conspiracy theorist about the September 11, 2001, attacks and planned to run against then prime minister Tony Blair in the 2005 general election on an anti-Iraq war ticket.

More4 News said his latest claims would provide ammunition for his critics within the security service that he was a loose cannon, comparing his comments to those of former BBC sports presenter David Icke in 1991.

Wearing a lilac-coloured tracksuit, Icke was publicly derided after proclaiming himself the "son of God" during a television chat show. He believes the world is run by giant shapeshifting reptiles.

But Shayler denied the reporter's suggestion that he had "lost it".

"Do I look mentally ill? Do I sound mentally ill?... I'm absolutely convinced, as convinced as I can be, that the universe is changing shape, that humanity has to change, that I'm here to help teach people," he said. -

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Suicide and Plastic Surgery

From William Saletan's Human Nature column in Slate magazine:

Over a 19-year period, women who got cosmetic breast implants were three times as likely to commit suicide as women who didn't, according to a Swedish study. They were also three times as likely to die from alcohol or drug addiction. This echoes other studies. Caveats: 1) Some studies suggest "women felt better about themselves after implants." 2) In this study, "There was no higher risk in the first 10 years afterward … but the risk was 4.5 times higher after 10 to 19 years and six times higher after 20 years." Theories: 1) Women who got breast implants 19 years ago were disproportionately prone to distress over their bodily flaws; that's why they got the implants. 2) The implants made them happier for a while, but then the underlying disorder took over, driving some to suicide. The good news: Women who get implants today will be less suicidal. The bad news: … because now everybody's getting them, disordered or not.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Because I know you've been praying...

Wayward turtle urn finds its way home

Woman regains container with ashes of husband's first wife

ELMIRA -- To her great relief, Anita Lewis has brought home the ceramic turtle that contains the ashes of her husband's former wife.

"That's the turtle!" she cried as she walked through the swinging doors into the back room of the Salvation Army Thrift Shop in Horseheads on Tuesday. The turtle was waiting for her on a work table, saved from a trip to Binghamton -- where it might have been lost forever -- by a curious thrift shop manager.

Lewis, of Elmira, sold the turtle-shaped urn Saturday at her rummage sale. Later, her husband, Terrence Lewis, told her the turtle contained the ashes of his first wife, Marcia Lewis. Distraught, Anita Lewis called the Elmira Star-Gazette on Monday seeking help in locating the woman who bought the turtle. The purchaser told Lewis she planned to use the turtle as a cookie jar.

Tuesday morning, the newspaper received an anonymous voicemail from a woman who said she donated the turtle to the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Horseheads. The caller did not give her name and said she did not want to be interviewed. She did not say whether she was the same person who purchased the turtle Saturday, and she didn't explain why it had been donated to the Salvation Army so soon after it was purchased.

A worker at the Salvation Army said she feared the turtle had been put on the truck of donations sent every day to Binghamton to be sorted. From there, the turtle could have been distributed to any of about a dozen Salvation Army stores in the region.

Fortunately for Lewis, the turtle caught the eye of Barbara Phillips, the Horseheads thrift store manager, and she pulled it off the truck.

She planned to sell it at the Horseheads store with a ticket price of at least $7.99, she said.

After the Star-Gazette called the store Tuesday morning, staffers found the turtle and set it aside. Lewis picked it up Tuesday afternoon.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said to the Phillips and her staff.

Lewis also expressed her thanks to the woman who provided the tip on the turtle's location.

"I hopes she sees (the story)," she said. "I hope I get to see her again to thank her in person."

Monday, August 06, 2007

I have a hard time keeping my turtles straight, too

This just in, in our local newspaper...

Elmira woman sold the wrong turtle at rummage sale

Anita Lewis of Elmira is desperately seeking the woman who bought a ceramic turtle from her on Saturday. Lewis was unaware that the large, brown turtle contained the ashes of her husband’s previous wife.

Lewis said the object was inadvertently included in items at her rummage sale Saturday at 811 Grove St. She’s hoping the woman still has the turtle and can return it to her.

If you know the woman who bought the turtle or have any information to share, call John Cleary at (607) 271-8293 or e-mail him at

-- Gannett News Service

Fear and the Little Flock

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
~ Luke 12:32

I say goodbye this Sunday to the little church for whom I've been doing pulpit supply this summer.

I am aware that to anyone in this community, this is not a "little" church. They are considered one of the "big three" downtown churches. They inhabit an enormous, architecturally significant building in a prominent and historic location. They have a sizeable endowment. (I just heard echoes of a character from the film "Return to Me," a well-intentioned blowhard talking to someone about "my sizeable donation" to his pet charitable cause.)

There were 22 people in church on Sunday. The sanctuary was built to accomodate 1000.

The last pastorate of any length ended five years ago (it was a five year pastorate). Before that they had the Minister of Beloved Memory who served them for nearly 20 years. Since then they've had two intentional and one unintentional interim. (They fired one individual while she was on vacation.)

They have fought one another and their pastors for at least the last 10 years, but it is hard to believe it all started then. The five year pastor was what some describe as a "fresh breeze" blowing through the church, staring programs such as Jazz Vespers and Habitat building committees. Though he is gone (to a wonderful job at the denominational level) these programs, interestingly, remain in place.

They are looking for a pastor. (I withdrew my name from consideration when I was offered the position I have accepted; I preach for the call at the end of this month). They believe that this is their last chance, that if they don't have a successful pastorate now, they probably will be closing their doors before too long. They are scared.

And yet... and yet. "Do not be afraid, little flock." That is what I want to say to them. I want to encourage them to take an imaginative leap, beyond this place of seeming staleness and stalemate. I want them to believe that it is indeed God's good pleasure to open the divine hands and let shower the kingdom upon them.

Is that just cruel?

Besomami posted a link to this story last week, about a Presbyterian congregation that sold its building and physical assets, and moved into a retirement community. They invested a part of the proceeds of the sale into mission projects for racial/ ethnic congregations. Stories like this... and this is not the first I've heard of its kind... make it clear to me that there are churches who "get it," that mission and ministry are not all about heating enormous buildings and keeping the doors open at all costs. So... how does one walk with a congregation that isn't there yet... that hasn't "gotten it"?

I think the clue might lie in the rest of the text, Jesus' parables on preparedness. God doesn't ask us to give up on ministry. God does ask us to be ready to do ministry in ways we might not expect. In all cases, God remains open-handed, with the kingdom there for the taking.

I want to say good bye to this church in a way that honors the good that is there: the faithfulness, the desire to start fresh and move forward. I want to tell them, do not fear, little flock. It is God's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Truly.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Compassion of God: A Sermon on Hosea 11:1-11

“The Compassion of God”
Hosea 11:1-11
August 5, 2007

Being a parent is hard. No matter what the child’s age, the delicate dance we do in order to nurture, to teach, to instill discipline and to love is one of the greatest challenges any human being can face.

One couple I know found life with their newborn being particularly challenging. They tell about one night that stands out in their memory, when the newborn baby would not, could not settle down, and his father and mother took turns rocking him, feeding him, comforting him, and then sneaking quietly away from his crib… only to be pulled, sleepily from bed a moment later by his cries of distress.

This went on all night long. Around 7 AM, watery light streaming through the windows, it was the father’s shift, and as he came creeping silently out of the nursery, a miracle happened: the baby did not cry. The weary mother mumbled, “How did you do it?” Dad replied, “I put him in a cab, and told the guy to drive him around for a few hours.” “Okay,” mom yawned, and rolled over to go to sleep, without giving the matter another thought. (True story… all except for the cab.)

Being a parent is hard. As we watch our children grow, we hold our breath, and we are constantly asking ourselves: Is he ok? Is she happy? Did I mess up horribly? Shall I start the therapy trust fund now? And as children grow older the stakes are higher still. The questions now include, Are they safe? Will they make the right decisions? Can I protect them? And sometimes, Did I teach them well enough?

It is too hard for us to talk about God in the abstract, to really give this vast, unknowable presence and power language that will make sense. So we, being human, use metaphors, human metaphors, to talk about God and our relationship with God. One of the primary metaphors we use to talk about God is that God is our parent, and we are God’s children.

This metaphor makes sense. We believe that God created us, we believe that God loves us, and that God wishes to nurture us and teach us and instill in us a sense of what it is to be just and righteous people. But if we carry this metaphor to its logical conclusions, it also stands to reason that, at times, we probably drive God completely mad, we infuriate God, we sadden God, we test God’s patience.

Israel in the 8th century BCE was at a crossroads… to continue with our metaphor, it was something like a recalcitrant, rebellious teenager. The northern and southern kingdoms had split—Israel was the northern, Judah was the southern. It was a time of political unrest and intrigue: most monarchs who took the throne in this period were assassinated or died violently. The great powers of Egypt and Assyria threatened to destabilize the tiny country. And the people were not turning to God, or to God’s prophets for solutions to all these problems… in fact, the people were experimenting: looking to other gods and rituals, in all their anxiety over the tumultuous state of world affairs. A storm-god like Baal seemed promising… at the very least they could hope to persuade a deity to give them enough rain so that the crops would come in. Sometimes, anything but the gods of our mothers and fathers will do.

The prophet Hosea spends much time in his many oracles trying to persuade the people of Israel to reform their ways, to return to God. For much of his writing, he uses another metaphor—the metaphor of marriage—to talk about the relationship between God and God’s people. But here, in chapter 11, Hosea uses the language of the love of a parent for her children.

Hear again the words of the prophet:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. [11:1]

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. [11:3-4]

This oracle is presented as a memory… like someone flipping the pages of a photo album… a parent recalling the ways in which they cared for the child from earliest times. The name Ephraim is used, a tribal name representing the remnant of Israel, but also sounding in our ears like the name of that beloved child. The parent loves the child, calls the child (both ‘calls him out of slavery in Egypt’ and ‘names him, and calls him by name’). The parent teaches him to walk. The parent picks the child up in his arms, and leads the child gently—not with shackles or chains, like a prisoner or a slave, but with bands consisting solely of love and human kindness. The parent lifts the child tenderly, holds her to his cheek. The parent bends down to the child… gets down on her level… and feeds the child.

Everything here is a hallmark of what we would call good, consistent parenting. And, despite the fact that all the activities above can be and often are engaged in by both mothers and fathers in the 21st century, in the time of Hosea, these were primarily the responsibilities of the mother. This is a motherly image of God, offered by a prophet of nearly three thousand years ago.

Abruptly, the content of the passage changes. This next part of the oracle speaks to the current situation. The sword rages, violence is devouring the cities, and despite all this, they will not return to God, and so the people, the children, will go back to Egypt, back into slavery, or fall into the hands of Assyria. The parent here is not speaking of punishment, but of natural consequences. Because the people will not return to God, this will be the outcome.

This is the part of parenting that is surely the most difficult, the part that makes all-nighters with fussy babies look like a cakewalk… allowing natural consequences to take their course. I have known parents who were counseled to take what we might call “tough love” stances with children who were on a serious path to destruction… If they will persist in selling drugs, they cannot live in the home. If they will run with the wrong crowd, they forfeit mom and dad’s protection when the police come to the door. It sounds to me, in this part of the passage, that God is signed on for the tough love position as well. They have done X, therefore Y follows.

But then, perhaps, the unpredictable occurs: something that sounds very much like a cry of agony from the Most High.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. [11:8-9]

God can’t do it. God can’t bear the thought of God’s children being destroyed like Admah and Zeboiim, cities that met their downfall along with Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, My heart won’t let me do it. My compassion won’t let me do it. A word about those words, “heart” and “compassion.” In English we have turned the word heart into a sort of a Valentine—by which I mean, we have made it somewhat sentimental, somewhat soft, something that indicates the part of us that is a pushover. In Hebrew the word translated ‘heart’ contains layer and layers of meaning, including the “inner person,” the “mind,” the “will.” This word indicates something fundamental about personality… the truth of who one is, the heart of the matter. The truth of who God is does not will this punishment on the people. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath,” says the Lord.

The word “compassion,” on the other hand, has a very different root meaning than our English word. In English “compassion” stems from the idea of “suffering with”—that one is able to imaginatively suffer with the one who is suffering. In Hebrew, though, compassion stems from a word that means “womb.” In fact, it is the plural of that word… the Hebrew idea of compassion means something like “womb-love.” The compassion of God is an emotion springing from God’s very life-giving center.

These two words, “heart” and “compassion,” tell us something important and true about God the parent in Hosea’s oracle. The very core of who God is, the true personality, the will, even the creative, life-giving center, rebels against the idea of punishing people, even people whose sins are great, whose murderous and idolatrous ways cause God anger and grief. God rebels. God rebels against God’s own law. God’s compassion wins.

As we move towards the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina, as we look on this week at the shocking bridge collapse in Minneapolis, as we turn the pages of the newspaper to read about the ongoing carnage in Iraq and the struggles of the increasingly squeezed working and lower classes in our country, not to mention refugees and victims of war around the world…as we see real human suffering, and wonder about it, I hope we can remember the words of Mother/ Father God in Hosea. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God does not will human suffering. God does not cause human suffering. Everything in God—who God is at heart, at the core—rebels against causing suffering to God’s children. Of course, there is suffering. God does not intervene in the laws of nature to prevent it. God allows the results of our actions to play out, actions that are loving or careless or violent or healing. But God does not wish for our suffering. God does not seek to cause it. God wants us to live, to thrive, to be healthy, just, kind and good. God wants us to show one another the kind of love God has shown us… tenderness, caring, nurturing, teaching. Showing mercy instead of vengeance. Giving bread instead of bombs. And when we do suffer, it is God who, like a good parent, lifts us up, heals us, comforts us, never leaves our side.

Being a parent is hard. Imagine what it is to be the divine parent, our Father or Mother who is in heaven and all around us. Really, all God wants from us and for us is the same thing any good and loving parent wants. God wants us to thrive and learn and grow. God wants us to grow into that which we were created to be, children made in God’s own image, the image of compassion and love. What greater joy can a parent have than to hear, “Isn’t he just the image of his father?” “Doesn’t she remind you of her mother?” God our parent longs to look upon our faces, and see his own reflected there. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

So what else is new?

Actually, I'm a little shocked. I thought I was moving towards the center on some of these things... you know, the classic midlife correction. But I'm more polarized than ever. Hmmm.... just becoming more myself every day, I guess.

Click to view my Personality Profile page

Urgent Prayer Request

... from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We grieve today at the news of the tragic slaying of a second Korean hostage in Afghanistan, Mr. Shim Sung-Min. This news came only a few days after the Rev. Bae Hyung-Kyu was killed, also by the Taliban. The late pastor, the Rev. Bae Hyung Kyu and 22 people are members of Sam-mool (Spring Water) Presbyterian Church in Bundang, Korea, who went to Afghanistan to exercise witness and service and were kidnapped by the Taliban.

Insik Kim, coordinator for Asia and the Pacific within the World Mission program area, is in contact with leaders of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, voicing our solidarity, and has relayed an urgent prayer appeal. Please join us in praying for the families of Mr. Shim and the Rev. Bae, and for the release of the remaining hostages.

More, including a statement from the Presbyterian Church in Korea, may be found here.

Body-Loving God

1Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
2O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
3When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
4Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
5By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
6By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
7You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
8Those who live at earth's farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
11You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy. ~Psalm 65:1-13

This is a body-loving God... a God to whom all flesh will come. This is a God who will satisfy us with the goodness of God's house. This God gives oceans and seas to remind us of the vastness of the divine. This God flexes muscles in forming mountains, makes the seas roar and silences the roaring. This God gives rivers brimming with water to nourish the earth, so that the grain with which we feed our bodies will grow.

The utter embrace by God of all that is earthy and earthly shivers in this psalm. Morning and evening shout, hill and valleys sing together for joy, meadows decorate themselves festively with sheep and goats. There is joy everywhere, joy in creation, joy in abundance, joy in plenty.

This is a God who arranged it all so that we should have all we need.

That we don't... that some don't... that countless millions don't... is a reproach upon the head of everyone who dares to claim they worship this God. On me, on my head.

Part of my praise must be to open my hands with grain. Part of my praise must be to love this bodily life as passionately as the flowers love blooming.