Monday, April 28, 2008

Birthday Surprise

I can't believe it. I was given a limited edition artist's proof giclee of this piece of art for my birthday.

Oh my oh my oh my!!! I am so ecstatic....

Ruth and Naomi by He-Qi.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Present Continuous: A Sermon on John 14:15-21

This morning at the announcements the congregation presented me with a balloon and sang "Happy Birthday" to me. Church was followed by a special coffee hour in my honor; yes, gentle reader, it's true. Papa Time is nudging me ever that much closer to the big five-oh. Today I turned 47. It was a great birthday!

“Present Continuous”
John 14:15-21
April 27, 2008
6th Sunday in Easter

Sometimes, someone says something so well, it’s just silly to try to say it differently or better. I read a sermon by a good friend last week. And I loved this gifted pastor’s opening paragraphs so much, I just have to share them with you.

Famous last words. Ceasar said, “Et tu, Brute?” Churchill said, “I’m bored with it all.” Elizabeth I, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Louis B. Mayer, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.” Saint Oscar Wilde, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” Charles Foster Kane said “Rosebud.” Jesus said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” or “It is finished.” Pancho Villa said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

Last words were a big deal in the ancient world and I would argue now. This is the last chance to sum everything up, to capture the meaning of life and death in a few, brief syllables. There simply isn’t time for epic speeches, unless you’re Shakespeare.

Or John.

Here we are with Jesus, and once again our lectionary cycle does this seemingly strange thing, which actually makes a lot of sense once you understand what’s going on. In today’s reading from John’s gospel, we are hearing what scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” the words, John tells us, that Jesus shared with his disciples at their last gathering, the night before he died. Now that seems strange, to put these words before us during this resurrection season. But this is John’s attempt to have Jesus summarize in a few chapters the resurrection reality that followers of Jesus were already living and experiencing by the time this was penned. And so we have these haunting words.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” ~ John 14:15-18

I am going, Jesus has said. He has said it every way he knows how by this point. “Soon I will be gone, and I have some things I want to say to you. I have these ideas about how you need to live in my absence.” I think it’s helpful to remember that we’re in the same boat as John’s audience. This gospel was written in the very last years of the 1st century CE (“common era”). Those who first heard and read this gospel are followers of Jesus’ way who never saw the earthly Jesus, never walked the roads of Galilee with him, never sat at table with him. They never watched in awe as he healed children and elderly people and people possessed by demons, never listened in rapt attention as he told them his vision of God’s kingdom. They never shielded their eyes from the horrors of his crucifixion, and they never rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves in wonder at the sight and presence of him, risen. The people John was writing this gospel for, that early Christian community from the late 90’s… in this respect, they are a lot like us. And they want to know how to live, now that Jesus is gone.

This is a question that is relevant for those of us who strive to follow Jesus in 2008. How do we follow someone, let us be frank, who lived 2000 years ago, in a culture utterly unlike our own? How do we live, in view of the fact that Jesus is no longer visibly and tangibly among us? What famous last words does he have for us, to help us figure this out?

If you love me, says Jesus—and I need to stop right there, without allowing that clause to flower into a complete sentence. The answer as to how to follow Jesus is connected to this question of “loving” Jesus, and that’s not an automatic, easy concept for us. I belong to a kind of online bible study of people writing sermons on the lectionary texts, and we write to one another, discussing the readings, all week long, leading right up to Sunday morning. Someone wrote this week about hearing a speaker proclaim that he was “crazy in love with Jesus.” Now, this list I belong to has pastors mostly from the mainline churches… Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ/ Congregational, Lutherans, Episcopalians, a smattering of Catholics. And this one quote—someone proclaiming that he was “crazy in love with Jesus”—generated more discussion and debate than any other topic this week.

For those of us in the mainline churches, this kind of comment tends to be a little outside our experience. Our worship services tend to be more on the thinking side of the spectrum, and less on the feeling side. To hear someone say that they’re crazy in love with Jesus… I’m guessing that not a lot of us can relate to that statement. We might even be just a bit uncomfortable with it. Is this the necessary definition of being a Christian? One pastor sent in this little anecdote, musing on our collective discomfort:

I went to the great cathedral of basketball in Chicago when Michael Jordan was the high priest of basketball worship. The roaring enthusiasm of that crowd even drowned out one of the best sound systems in existence when Jordan was introduced. Such idolatry! Jordan was great, and Jordan is past tense. Jesus was great, and Jesus is present tense…

A good friend who happens to be an observant Jew asked me to tell him what is a Christian anyway. The best I can answer is to say that a Christian is someone who takes Jesus very seriously.

I think this is a good place to start. Being a Christian means taking Jesus seriously. And if we take Jesus seriously, that has all kinds of implications for our lives. One way we take people seriously is by learning all we can about them, trying to understand them. I assume those of us of voting age in this congregation take the candidates for president seriously enough to try to really understand where they stand on all the issues that matter to us. We who consider ourselves Christians ought to have at least that level of engagement with who Jesus is, what his positions are. Sometimes, to know someone is to love someone.

I guess I’m ready to make this “True Confession”: I do love Jesus. I love everything he did: proclaiming the reign of God, preaching the good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, calling all to repent and believe the gospel, living faithfully through death and back into life again. I love that he took women seriously in a culture that marginalized and disempowered them. I love that his favorite activity seems to have been gathering around a table with friends old and new. I could go on and on… obviously!... but I will stop there, and say, simply, I love Jesus. But I don’t think people have to feel exactly the same way I do about Jesus in order to be faithful or godly people. I think taking Jesus seriously is faithful. I think wanting to know more is faithful. I think being willing to have a conversation about who he is and what that means is faithful, whatever your thoughts at the end of it.

So, to paraphrase, Jesus tells his friends: If you take me seriously, you will keep my commandments. Ah. Here’s the rub. I may have all those good feelings about Jesus I just described. But for Jesus, the definition of “love” has nothing to do with feelings. The definition of love—just as in marriage, in family relationships, in friendships, in loving our neighbor—has to do with actions. And the verb used for love here is a present subjunctive, meaning it’s a continuous action. If you are still loving me, Jesus says, this is what you will continue to do. Jesus issues two central commandments in the gospel of John as far as I can tell: The first is, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Again, love as a present, continuous verb, rather than love as a feeling. The second commandment is, “Go, and make God known.”

Jesus issues a directive to his followers: love me by loving one another. Love me by sharing the love of God with those we meet. But famous last words are more than “directives.” Jesus offers assurance, as well. He says, I will send Someone to be with you. I promise not to leave you alone.

The Greek word for the one whom Jesus sends is “Paracletos”; it is essentially an untranslatable word. Our bible translates it “Advocate,” which is a kind of legal term… counsel for the defense, that sort of thing. Other versions of the bible translate it as Helper, or Counselor, or Comforter. Comforter, in the original understanding, might be the best choice. We tend to think of “comfort” as having to do either with overcoming sadness, or with physical ease. But the word’s original sense from the Latin is “being strong or brave together.” The Comforter is someone who helps a dispirited person to be brave. Jesus will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. We will have the very Spirit of God with us, so that we can be brave together. And Jesus promises, we will recognize him when we see him. We will have no doubt.

I will not leave you orphaned, says Jesus. You think I’ll be gone for good, but guess what? You will see me. You will see me. I will have a continuous presence with you. If you love me, if you take me seriously; if you do the work of love wherever you can; I will be with you. You will see me because you will burst into a new kind of life, just as I will. You won’t be desperately clutching for your own memorable words at the end of things. You will already know my continuous presence. You’ll know endings for what they are: beginnings. Amen.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hey! Hey You! Do you know what day it is?

My Facebook account informs me, it's National Hug a Presbyterian Day.

You know where to find them (there are bunches in my sidebar). Go to it!
Seen on a poorly abbreviated library card:
John Calvin: a Stud.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wisdom from A Saint in Glory

My mentor and beloved friend and colleague in ministry for more than twenty years sent me this recently. It is a quote by Krister Stendhal, Swedish theologian and scholar, Emeritus Lutheran bishop (of Stockholm), and faculty member of Harvard Divinity School until his death last week at the age of 87.

"One of the best rules for reading scriptures is the very same as for preaching: It should be light, it should be quick, and it should be tender. It should not be ponderous, it should not be labored, and it should not be heavy."

In looking up his particulars at Wikipedia, I came across the following quotes, which I wish could be cross-stitched and hung on the walls everywhere religious people gather. He was speaking about opposition to the proposed building of a temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Stockholm.

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.

(3) Leave room for "holy envy."
(By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to find elements in the other religious tradition and faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

Cool guy. Rest in Peace, Bishop Stendahl.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Studying Stones, a Sermon on 1 Peter 2:2-10

“Studying Stones”
1 Peter 2:2-10
April 20, 2008
5th Sunday of Easter

In the spring of the year when I was 11 years old the only grandparent I ever knew had a fall, and broke her hip, and spent time in a hospital followed by what was supposed to be rehab in a nursing home. My grandmother lived in Philadelphia, and we were about an hour away in south Jersey. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, my mom would drive to Philadelphia to see her. I would usually go along, passing the time by listening to pop songs on AM radio. My memory of my mom at that time was that she was tense and worried. But music often had the ability to shake away her blues, and if the right song came on, she would sing right along with me. The one song that never failed to make her smile and laugh played pretty regularly in those days; it was a song by Paul Simon. The chorus went,

Oh, my mama loves me. She loves me.
She get down on her knees and hugs me.
She loves me like a rock.
She rocks me like the rock of ages, and love me.
She loves me loves me loves me loves me.

At age 11, the political content of the verses eluded me. But I knew just what that chorus meant. And as I rode along with my mom, driving to be with her mom, I knew she knew what it meant, too. She loves me loves me loves me loves me.

Obtain even a passing acquaintance with scripture and you will notice that stones and rocks are a foundational metaphor in the ancient and ongoing conversation around things divine. The psalmist, traditionally understood to be King David, says,

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold. ~ Psalm 18:1-2

The writer of Ecclesiastes is traditionally understood to be Solomon, David’s son. Writing in his old age, he tells us,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together… ~Ecclesiastes 3:1-5a

Stones figure in the story of the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God had parted the waters of the Jordan River, much like the parting of the sea at the Exodus, in order for the ark of the Covenant to pass by. So God instructs Joshua to have twelve stones from the Jordan set up as a monument. Joshua tells the people,

“When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” ~Joshua 4:6b-7

Stones and rocks are seen, in just these three passages, as imaging the sure and solid love of God, as representing significant moments in the lives of people of faith, and as being memorials of God’s miraculous and saving acts. Stones and rocks are a powerful way of imaging the fact that God loves us, loves us, loves us, loves us.

That theme continues in today’s reading from the first letter of Peter. This letter was not written to one particular church, but was intended for many churches, or, for the whole Church. The context of the letter is the persecution of a recently converted group of Christians, perhaps some incident like the stoning of Stephen from our first reading. It is a letter of encouragement to those who are suffering through difficult times, speaking of rejection and being chosen. It is also a letter to Christians who come from Gentile backgrounds, who are not Jewish. Despite this fact, it is clear from all the scripture quoted in the letter that these churches are already steeped in the Hebrew bible.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” ~1 Peter 2:4-6

Most of the non-literal references to “stones” in scripture have to do with that rock-solid, sure love of God. There are just two exceptions to that. First, there is Jesus’ assigning the nickname “Rocky” (or, as we know it, “Peter”) to his follower Simon. And the second instance is this letter, possibly written by Simon the Rock, in which he, in turn, uses that image—not for himself, but for all the followers of Jesus, those of us who make up the church. He calls us “living stones.”

Living stones: there’s an oxymoron for you. Literal stones, by the time they become stones, would seem to be anything but “living.” The end result of cooling magma, or deposits of sediment, or pressure or heat applied to already existing rocks, their overwhelming characteristic is solidity. I don’t know about you, but I learned by watching Sesame Street with my son what is the requirement for something to be called “living”: it eats, it breathes, it grows. Stones do none of these things.

But, Peter tells us, we are to become living stones, and the overwhelming characteristic of these stones is that they can be built into something, not just useful, but glorious: a spiritual house, says Peter, a royal priesthood. This is lofty language. It is just on the verge of losing us, I think, because it contains some words and concepts that are a little alien, and a little uncomfortable. Probably the one that makes us the most uncomfortable is this “priesthood” business; the “priesthood of all believers,” as it is supposed to apply to us.

I was born and raised Roman Catholic, as many of you know. When I was in high school I dated a boy who happened to be a Presbyterian. His name was M., and he regularly engaged me in a friendly and challenging debate about my beliefs. He was concerned, particularly, about my belief that ours was the one true church, and that all other churches were somehow lacking. I was not exactly theologically sophisticated as a teenager, but I knew that, for us Catholics, a lot depended on the presence of priests. Following the model of priesthood set up in the Hebrew Scriptures we believed that we needed priests to bridge that enormous gap between human beings and God. We needed a priest to consecrate the elements for Holy Communion, we needed a priest to absolve us from our sins… almost every sacrament required a priest to administer it. But, M. pointed out, if Jesus Christ is understood to be that bridge between human beings and God, where do we human beings fit into what Jesus has already done?

The words of my boyfriend stayed in the back of my mind for years and years, until the day I wandered into a Presbyterian Church and was introduced to this idea of the priesthood of all believers—an idea the Roman Catholic church also embraces, by the way. One writer has put it this way. “A priest is normally understood as being a human being who has a 'mediating' role between God and humanity. The term ‘priesthood of all believers; indicates that it is through ‘the Church’ [or, the community of the faithful] that this mediation takes place.”[i]

In other words, by understanding that we are a part of the priesthood of all believers, we are reminded of that it is our job as a community of faith to show the world what that means, to help to bridge that gap between this hurting world and God. To quote Saint Teresa of Avila, a great Catholic mystic and reformer,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now

We are to become living stones. We are to allow ourselves to be built into a community of faith through which we can carry out that tall order: being the compassionate eyes of Christ looking out upon the earth; being the energetic feet of Christ by which we go about doing good; being the hands of Christ by which the world is blessed. We are chosen and precious, Peter tells us, and we are to share with the whole world, in words and in action, our knowledge, rock-solid and sure, of the way God loves us, loves us, loves us, loves us. Amen.

[i] PamBG, a Probationer Methodist Minister in the Kidderminster and Stourport Circuit of The Methodist Church of Great Britain, at her blog,
[ii] Saint Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I Feel Good!

I knew that I would...

These are the words of a pastor who:

1. Has started swimming again after a three-year hiatus, three times/ week, at the local Y.

2. Has her sermon finished (and it's not 11 PM!).

3. Actually took a day off yesterday, in which she and Petra:

A. Went to aforementioned Y.
B. Went out to breakfast with my BFF.
C. Had the car washed and went to the bank.
D. Had our first pedicures of sandal season.
E. Spent time in the afternoon practicing songs on our guitars for our next gig (May 2).

I feel good!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Late Night Thoughts After a Session Meeting

OK, it's only 9:00... but it feels like midnight. It was not a bad meeting, though the spring break absolutely decimated our numbers. The mood was good; exchange was frank; people were persuaded to change their minds; we laughed. That's my idea of a good meeting!

Still. I'm feeling a restlesness in myself regarding life at New Church (will I ever come up with an appropriate nom-de-blogue for it???). I feel that we need to do what I nervously call "visioning." We need to know why we're here, and what we're going to do about it. We need to take this gift we've been given (trusting that the church is God's gift to us), and figure out how to give it back to the world.

While waiting in a cafe for a member of the session to show up for lunch last week, I perused a newsletter from a local conservation organization. This quote arrested me. I jotted it down on the back of a dry cleaning receipt:

If you want to build a ship

don't herd people together to collect wood

and don't assign them tasks and work,

but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It's as if that aviator knew exactly what the work of a preacher was. I have never heard it put so beautifully: our job, in a nutshell.

Avast, ye hearties. To the mains! Or, something to that effect.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Claims of Community: A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47

“The Claims of Community”
Acts 2:42-47
April 13, 2008
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Here’s a tiny multiple choice quiz for you: John Calvin, one of the great theological minds of the Reformation and a spiritual father of Presbyterians…what do you think he did on Sundays, after church? Here are your choices. After church on the Lord’s Day, Calvin…

A. Visited the sick and shut-in members of his local congregation.
B. Spent time studying the Bible.
C. Served meals to children in an orphanage.
D. Went bowling.

The answer is D. John Calvin took the Sabbath—the day of worship and rest and recreation—seriously. After church on Sunday, Calvin went bowling. My question is, did he bowl in a league, or did he bowl alone?

Almost eight years ago a Harvard professor of Public Policy published a book which began with a curious little fact. In the previous ten years, he reported, the number of people who bowled had risen by 10 percent, raising the number bowlers in the United States to record levels. However, over the same period, the number of people who bowled in leagues declined by 40 percent. What this means is that people are bowling, but they are, for the most part, bowling alone… not in groups or on teams as in years past.

The same book cited example after example of other ways in which Americans pulled back from community activities: the Roanoke, Virginia chapter of the NAACP used to boast a membership of more than 2500. But during the 1990’s only a couple of hundred members remained. The Little Rock, Arkansas Sertoma Club had a weekly luncheon for years drawing more than 50 people to plan activities to support the cause of aiding those with visual and hearing impairments. By the mid-90’s, however, only seven members continued to show up for that planning meeting. Just one more. In 1999 the brand-new building for Tewksbury Memorial High School was dedicated in that small city north of Boston. The new building boasted 40 brand new royal blue uniforms for the marching band, which sat in a closet the first year the school was open because only four students had signed up.

As we members of mainline churches look back with concern at our declining numbers over the last 25 to 40 years, it is important that we understand that we are a part of a trend that can be observed throughout American society. There has been a precipitous decline in participation in all kinds of community activities during this time period. Sociologists have some thoughts as to why this has been occurring, and you probably know a lot of them intuitively. With more people in the work force there are by necessity fewer volunteer hours available each week. With an economy that is as uncertain as the one we face right now, combined with spiraling energy costs, people often need to have more than one job to make ends meet. But there are other factors as well. That Harvard professor points out that even our leisure time has gone from community-centered activities—such as bowling in leagues—to individually-centered activities—such as bowling alone, or spending time on computers and the internet. The forces that drive us out of community, out of relationship to one another, and into our own private worlds, are powerful and pervasive. The vision we start to have of life in these United States is a vision of 300 million solitary units; men, women and even children eating alone, their faces illuminated by the flickering light of television or computer screens.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles offers us a startlingly different vision: a vision of community. Because the Lectionary doesn’t necessarily present our readings in strict chronological order, this is a description of life after Pentecost, written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. After the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the inspired preaching of Peter that follows it, a call is issued to the crowds to come forward to be baptized: the scripture tells us, about three thousand people were added to number of believers that day. Then comes our passage:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. ~ Acts 2:42-47

This little passage is repeated one way or another several times throughout Acts, all to show how the church is growing and thriving. In a way, it gives us a blueprint for how a faith community grows. There are five main activities or values around which the community is formed: Teaching, Fellowship, Eating together, Prayer, and Sharing of financial burdens.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” The first hallmark of the fledgling Christian community is that the members gather together to learn. At the time these events occurred, there was no “New Testament” for the believers to study. Rather, they took in the teachings of the apostles, those who had been gathered around Jesus during his ministry. Community is formed around a common vision, in this case, around the vision that Jesus gave us in his teachings: love of God and one another, mutuality, forgiveness. A shared vision, usually a result of intentional study together, is the first core value of Christian community.

They devoted themselves, also, to Fellowship. This is something we do very, very well here at Our Church. We love a good excuse to get together and enjoy one another’s company, or talents, or even to laugh together and be silly. Last Sunday about thirty of us ran around on the streets of Our Town all afternoon, clapping our hands and attracting the stares of passing motorists. We were having fun together, as we strived to achieve a single purpose: to help our youth group to create an award-winning video showing what doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God (or dancing enthusiastically with God) might look like. But here is the truth: it was fun simply because we were together. Fellowship is the second core value of Christian community.

Another thing we do wonderfully here is to break bread together. We do that in a whole bunch of different ways. We break bread together at our marvelous coffee hours, where the coffee flows and the goodies are delectable. We break bread at our dinners…the weekly soup suppers during Lent, the Birthday dinner in January, our Harvest Supper in the fall. And we break bread around that table that is not ours, but God’s: the communion table. I think Luke is deliberately vague about the nature of the meals the early Christians shared. Is he referring to the kind of table fellowship we experience at a coffee hour, or the kind we experience when we share the Lord’s Supper? I think the answer is: both. Table fellowship, sharing meals together, binds us together. When we bring a dish to pass, we can find that Jesus is made known in our midst just as dramatically as when we gather around the communion table for a sip of juice and a tiny piece of bread. Jesus is made known in this central act, the third core value of Christian community.

The early Christians also prayed together. We pray together on Sunday mornings. We begin and end our session meetings and our committee meetings with prayer. We pray together over our meals, and at the bedsides of those who are ill. I think we can pray together still more than we do. It’s not something that comes as naturally to us Presbyterians as it does to some folks in other Christian traditions. But I think the more comfortable we get praying together, the stronger and healthier our community becomes. What if we were to gather to pray, period? Not prayer as brackets around some other activity, but prayer for its own sake, because communion with God is so desirable? Prayer is fourth core value of Christian community.

Finally, we come to the part of this passage that makes most people squirm in their seats. In fact, a preacher doing research on this passage will often find scholars doing whatever they can to wiggle out of it. “Of course, this is an idealized vision of the early church,” they will say. “We doubt it was ever really like this.” Here is what Luke says: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” [Acts 2:44-45]. If this sounds familiar, it certainly brings echoes of a slogan popularized in the 19th century, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Those are the words of Karl Marx, which is why this passage tends to freak people out. Communism! Say it isn’t so! But this passage is nothing more than the promise fulfilled of Jesus’ words in the gospels, when he entreats anyone who will listen with the hard message that discipleship has to do with surrendering possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Jesus, with complete abandon and complete freedom.

Ouch. This girl likes her possessions. I’m guessing you do, too. But this is one of the hard sayings of the gospel, one which invites us out of our worlds of individual isolation and into real community. Real community exists when the welfare of all is the concern of all. Real community exists when everyone gives everything they can so that no one will go hungry, or go without health care, or go into retirement a pauper. One of the hardest things for people to understand, in a society where community is less and less valued, is the fact that it is not possible to be a Christian alone. It can’t be done. As one great saint of the church asked, “Whose feet will you wash?” I would add, “Who will you bowl with?”

God has entrusted us into one another’s care. As we strive for this “Christian style of living that prizes intellectual vibrancy, economic generosity, and communal caring,” community will be formed and reformed. I don’t think we can expect our church to look exactly like this nascent Christian community, any more than we can expect it to look like that of the 1950’s and 60’s. But God is always doing a new thing. This new community will “not happen casually or automatically. It requires intentionality, effort, and choice.”[i] These choices might include turning off our computers, stepping out the front doors of our homes, and saying hello to the people we meet. We might choose to participate in a Bible Study or to serve on a committee or board. We might choose to show up for one of the many social events offered here at Our Church. We might even choose to dig a little deeper into our pockets, knowing that the ministry of the church depends upon everybody’s generous support. Whatever the choices we make in favor of community, we can be assured that we will be participating in God’s new plan for us: life for and with one another, ever more abundant life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Daniel Clendinin, “Apostolic Devotion: The Actual Historical Tradition,” in Journey With Jesus: Notes to Myself (

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I am starting to notice a pattern in my work. Or, perhaps, I should say, lack of work. One day per week, often early in the week, I have a day in which I can do virtually nothing at the office. I am distracted, restless, I look at my arm-length "To-Do" list and shrug (or shudder), and click over to Facebook to check on my Scrabulous games.

Yesterday was such a day. I started the day with a brisk walk (always a good thing). I arrived at the office feeling energized. But as the day unfolded, I got precisely nothing done. (Well, nothing tangible. Well, only a few things tangible. I did reading for my sermon and I submitted some financial reports.) A very positive meeting in the evening rescued me from feeling a total sloth.

I am beginning to wonder whether I ought to restructure my week. Normally I take Friday as my day off. But when I have an unproductive day, I often end up working on Friday anyway... and then by Monday I'm pretty tired and burned out. I muscled through Monday, only to find that Tuesday became my near-zero productivity day.

Bleh. Not sure what the answer is. I'm hoping for a better day today. Off to swim.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Heard Around These Parts (the Web)

A church in the throes of anxiety about change forms "The Back-to-Egypt Committee."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Open Eyes, Burning Hearts: A Sermon on Luke 24:13-35

“Open Eyes, Burning Hearts”
Luke 24:13-35
April 6, 2008
Third Sunday of Easter

I wonder if you have ever had the experience of talking to a stranger on a train, or a plane, or a bus. There’s something about having a length of time when you are thrown together with someone… there you are, individuals, each with your own separate lives. But for this moment you are traveling together, in the same direction. What will you do? You may find yourself plugging into an iPod or digging into a book in order to give yourself some privacy in close quarters. But sometimes, if the stranger says something interesting or funny, or if you catch one another’s eyes and smile, or even if you share an eye roll… a conversation may just spring up. You might find yourself talking to this stranger about all sorts of things… things you would never share on line at the bank, or at the grocery store, or any place where you had to be there only for a minute or two. Here, with the highway disappearing under you, the landscape unfolding around you, the clouds cocooning you: here you may choose to share something a little deeper. Something intimate about your life, your experiences. Are you traveling on business? Are you returning to your hometown for a funeral? Are you going to be reunited with your beloved? Who knows? In circumstances like these, you might find that the words simply spill out of you. You might just tell your life’s story. You might find that you open your heart.

Usually the journey ends. Then you have a decision to make. Do you invite the conversation to continue? Do you say, “Hey, why don’t you meet me at the wedding?” or, “My family would love to meet you,” or, “Do want to grab some coffee?” Do you offer hospitality? Do you invite the stranger home? In this day and age, in which we teach our children all about “stranger danger,” that particular option almost always seems to be out of the question. But what if it weren’t? What if the conversation could continue? What wonderful story might unfold then?

Once again, it is evening on the day of the resurrection. Only today we hear Luke’s version of that evening. Two followers of Jesus are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a journey taken most likely on foot. Along they walk, these two disciples, and as they go, they are talking with one another about “all these things that had happened,” as Luke tells us. And a stranger joins them, a stranger who asks to join in on their conversation, a stranger who says, “Tell me what happened.” They open their hearts, and tell their story. They tell the “Life Story of Jesus of Nazareth.” The story, to hear them tell it, appears to be finished. All their reflections and reminiscing is in the past tense. “Jesus was a mighty prophet,” they say. “They crucified him,” they continue. “And we had hoped,” they shake their heads sadly, “that he was the one.”[i]

Even the stories of that remarkable resurrection morning are circumscribed by language that signals finality, doneness. “The angels said he was alive,” they sigh. The stranger laughs, shakes his head, and says, “Now, let me tell you a story.” To hear the disciples recount it later, it must have been quite a story, because it makes their hearts burn with excitement even in the recollection. But I am getting ahead of the story. First, the disciples, one named Cleopas, and one named, probably, Mrs. Cleopas, invite the stranger in. They don’t just invite him… they press him, they urge him to stay. They insist. “Abide with us. Fast falls the eventide.”

Hospitality in the biblical world was not a casual matter. In a climate that had both rocky, mountainous terrain and vast stretches of desert, hospitality was not a suggestion. It was a code of honor. It was a moral law, encoded in the religious laws. People welcomed strangers into their homes because not to welcome a stranger might well condemn him to death in the harsh climate, or at the hands of robbers. People welcomed strangers into their homes because they knew that one day, they would certainly need to depend on the kindness of strangers to save their own lives.

And hospitality is the fulcrum on which this story turns. It is only by extending hospitality that the disciples are able to be in a position to break bread with Jesus… because, of course, that’s who the stranger is, we knew that all along. Jesus, who has decided to abide with his followers, takes the bread. He blesses it, he breaks it, and he shares it with them. And something in all that is terribly familiar. Is it the fact that he did those same things on the night before he died? Or is it something even larger, more global about who Jesus is and what Jesus does? Didn’t Jesus take his own life, and bless it by his utter faithfulness to God and to humanity, and wasn’t that life, in the end, broken and shared? Whatever it is that stirs their memories, their eyes are opened, and they see, with sudden, stunning clarity, that the stranger in their midst is Jesus. It has been all along. Past tense changes to present tense. Christ is risen. Here. Now.

A couple of years ago “Presbyterians Today” had a story in it called “Meeting God at the Waffle House.” It was written by a woman who, after 20 years as an ordained minister, realized she lived in what she referred to as a “Christian ghetto.” Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, she only talked to and interacted with “churched” people. So she took a sabbatical and got a job as a hostess in a Waffle House for three months. She says of her time there, “The risen Christ showed up every day.” The risen Christ showed up in a mechanic who fixed a broke traveler’s broken car for the price of a cup of coffee. The risen Christ showed up in a landlord who drove an hour and fifteen minutes to pick up a stranded tenant he didn’t know particularly well. The risen Christ showed up in a lawyer who came to the Waffle House to meet clients who couldn’t afford the fees charged by his firm; he turned no one away. There were more—at least three months’ worth of one a day, evidently. The risen Christ, Now. In the present tense.

If there is one story in the gospels that gives us a pattern for life after Easter, I believe this is it. We are all travelers. For this moment we are traveling together, in the same direction, journeying between the sometimes mundane, sometimes horrifying, sometimes glorious experiences of this life. The highway disappears under us, the landscape unfolds around us, the clouds cocoon us. We journey together, in community, and while we do, we try to welcome the stranger into our midst. The unknown person with whom we are willing to break bread offers us the opportunity to meet Christ anew, in the present tense, here and now. The stranger in our midst… the young person, the old person, the person of different skin color or nationality, the Jew or Muslim or Buddhist, the gay or lesbian person, the many times divorced or never married, the person who thinks differently from us when it comes to the war, or the candidates… the person who is completely other to us, to our experience. That stranger offers us our very best hope of meeting the risen Christ. We most likely will not recognize him when first we meet. But if we take the risk, if we welcome him or her in, if we open our door and our table to that stranger, we might just find ourselves with open eyes and burning hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Thanks to Anna Murdock, Worship Team Leader, Broad Street UMC, Statesville, NC, for this insight.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Well, in the end you did a very good job. But for those who are still wondering, here are the remaining answers to the Movie Meme.

4. "What kind of people sit in a restaurant and don't say one word to each other?"
"Married people?"

Two for the Road. Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. It's sixtiestastic... do go rent it.

8. "What does the lily mean?"
"The lily means... the lily means, 'I dare you to love me.'"

Imagine Me and You. A sweet love story about a woman who falls in love with another woman on her way down the aisle to marry a man. Oops! A tear-jerker at moments, but lovely. And YES. They play the song. Awesome.

9. "If you don't fall in with us, nothing holds together."
"I'm not going back. I'm fighting this thing."

Stop-Loss. A devastating portrait of soldiers coming home from Iraq, and one who gets "stop-lossed": sent back, even though his tour was supposed to be over. Painful, beautiful.

10. "Would you shut up? I'm atoning!"

Kissing Jessica Stein
. Too cute.

14. "When was the last time you were decently kissed? I mean, really, honestly good and kissed?"

That Thing You Do. I just loved this movie. Adorable, feel-good story of a little-band-that-could, playing a Beatles-esque pop tune on a long summer tour in the optimistic sixties. And the funniest man in the world would be Steve Zahn.

Go ye forth and rent, good readers!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Movie Hints

OK, folks, I detect that my taste in movies is perhaps a little more obscure than I had previously realized. So... here are some hints:

4. Think road trips, starring a movie icon and an angry young man.

8. A sweet, recent, not much seen love story with a twist, starring one of the stars of "300." Further hint: picture shown.

9. Brand-new, Iraq, devastating.

10. Lesbian? Not a lesbian?

14. A phenomenal actor's sweet period directing debut. Catchy tunes, and the funniest man alive (no, not Jim Carrey).

Now come on, lovies! You can do it!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On the way the neediness of the pastor can creep in and screw up a moment.

It is a peculiar characteristic of my little part of the world that people come, and they never leave. This happened to me. The ex-Mr. Magdalene and I moved here in 1990, with every intention of leaving after three to five years (he was a graduate student here). But... lo and belower, he decided to switch his career track, we realized that you can NOT beat the cost of living here, it was a place with lots of cultural stuff going on (symphonies, plays, opera, etc.), it was just three hours from the Best City in the World, it was a wonderful place to raise kids, etc. etc. etc. I think this happens to lots of people. I know it happens to lots of clergy, in particular. And that, gentle reader, is where my problem begins.

Clergy don't leave. We come, and we like it here for any number of reasons, and we stay. Our presbytery powers that be have taken somewhat of a laissez-faire attitude about all this... and that has been to my advantage, I hasten to add. I started my ordained career as an interim associate pastor at a church about 2 miles from New Church. I then commuted an hour east of here to be an interim pastor for about 20 months. I then commuted an hour north of here to be interim chaplain at Big Ivy. Now I am settled at New Church, hopefully, until Jesus comes. But what's good for this goose... is giving her a little headache as well. The Former Pastor of New Church arrived at New Church after serving a church about 8 miles East; he now serves a church about 7 miles East (yes, one mile from the first church in the trio). So, not to try to justify myself at his expense, but he keeps serving churches to which members of his former churches can commute. He is very much in the neighborhood. Which means, sometimes, people call him for stuff that I ought to be doing.

In the fall, within a month of my arrival, he presided at two weddings. They had been booked more than a year in advance, the couples involved were nervous about waiting for a pastor they would have just met; I said, OK, I officially invite you to preside at these weddings. And I participated as well, naturally. Also, I invited FP to preside at a funeral that the family needed to schedule while I was at Disney in late December. Fair enough.

About a month ago, a lovely woman of the congregation called me to simply let me know. A member who has been living out of town died; her daughter called Lovely Woman to ask for the phone number of Former Pastor, to do the interment later in the spring. (It's usually not possible to bury folks here in the winter.) This interment will occur in a cemetery which our church owns, just down the street from us.

I immediately dashed off an email to FP, saying, "Please notify me when the family contacts you, and refer them to me, so that I may do the interment." This is Ministerial Ethics 101, in case any of the readers of this blog is mystified. A new pastor cannot be the "REAL" pastor until the former pastor is truly out of the system. He knows that. I know that. This morning, thinking about this situation for reasons which will become apparent in the next paragraph, I dashed off an email to the cemetery business manager, asking for the heads up when he is contacted by the family about the interment. Unless people lie to me, in other words, I should have an opportunity, appropriately, to do this burial.

Yesterday I received a call from an elderly member of the congregation; his wife had gone into the emergency room in the middle of the night, with a number of complicated symptoms, and he was about to go into the ER himself, with acute back pain due to a fall. I decided to run over to his house to await his transportation with him. In the course of the conversation... a difficult one, having to do with aging, failing, deciding to go into a nursing facility or not, dying.... he mentioned that he has already notified Charismatic Son of the Church that he should be available to do the funerals of his wife and himself. Charismatic Son of the Church is just retired from ministry, now lives about a half hour from New Church, and has never served the church as pastor. The elderly gentleman was his youth group leader, about 40 years ago (a youth group that gave rise to 3 ministers over the space of ten years, in fact). I literally felt the hackles on the back of my neck rise.

"Well, J., I would hope to do your funeral, since I'm your pastor." At which point this gentle, courtly man said, "Of course, you could do it together." And I proceeded to kick myself in my mental butt.

I was right, and I was wrong. Right in the Big Picture: I'm the pastor; it is right and meet that I should perform all pastoral functions with and for this congregation. But Wrong Wrong Wrong on timing and circumstance. This man was fearful, in pain, terrified, really, and mentioned one tiny detail of his arrangements that gives him peace. And my ego would not have it.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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