Monday, September 29, 2008

Is God in This Place or Not? A Sermon on Exodus 17:1-7

Yesterday I preached this with the help of a fabulous liturgist, who not only preached the "Moses" monologue... he ad-libbed great portions of it, making it so. much. better. than what you see here.

God is good.

“Is God In This Place or Not?”
Exodus 17:1-7
September 28, 2008

Have you ever noticed how different people’s memories can be of the same exact event? I first realized this when I was in my 20’s. I was talking to my mother about my childhood… maybe it was after my son was born, and we were sharing our experiences as mothers of small children. My mom mentioned to me her warm memories of those times when I became frightened in the middle of the night, and crawled into bed with her and my dad. She remembered how she would sing me to sleep.

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.

As she told me the story I could see that, for my mom, this was a memory as sweet as any she could conjure about my childhood. Well, I remembered what she was talking about, but I remembered it very differently. I remembered the second verse of the song.

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.

When my mom sang that to me, I had visions of a faceless man in a trench coat carrying me down the back stairs in a brown paper bag, and stealing me. That song terrified me. Two different people. One incident. Two very different memories.

I thought of that when I read this week’s passage from the book of Exodus. We are in those days, weeks and months after the people of Israel have been led out of slavery, and they are wandering in the wilderness. And things happen there that are interpreted very differently, I believe, by the different people experiencing them.

So I am going to try something a little different today. We are going to offer you two brief monologues. One will be from the perspective of Moses, who is, of course, a major character in the story—he’s the one whom God commissioned to lead the people to freedom. The other monologue will be from the perspective of Adah… a completely fictional character, a creation of my own mind, a young woman who is one of the Israelites. I want us to think together about this incident, as related from these two different points of view.


Sometimes I think I’m too susceptible to flattery. I try to remember that day in the wilderness at Midian, the day when I looked and saw the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. I try to remember what it was that the Lord said to me that was so compelling, so enticing, that I agreed to do this crazy job. I cannot for the life of me remember. I was happy in Midian with my wife and children, tending the sheep of my father-in-law. Now I am miserable in the wilderness tending the Israelites. All I can think is that I was so flattered that the Lord would even speak to me, I must have agreed out of sheer conceit.

So here I am. Following what amounts to weather patterns through the wilderness… clouds in the day time, and fire at night, if you can imagine such a thing … I suppose that’s impressive, the fire. Following these… natural phenomena… and being followed by countless tired, hungry, thirsty, and angry former slaves who expected that freedom would mean that things got better for them, not worse.

What, in heaven or on earth, was I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I was thinking: I was thinking that the Lord would be with me, would be with us. And… I suppose he is, in his own way. But it is not what I expected. Can you understand me? This is not what I expected, this journey from slavery to a better land.

Today they blame me because there is no water. In the desert there is no water! Imagine that! One does not have to be a sage, or an astronomer, to know this… there is no water in the desert! And somehow, today, it is the fault of Moses, the Israelite foolish enough to take on this absurd task of being shepherd and nursemaid to a million souls.

Well. If the Lord is with me, I say, they blame the Lord when they blame me. Today they blamed me because there was no water. They said, “Where is your God?” (Suddenly, it is “my” God). They demanded, “Is God in this place? Or has God abandoned us?” I told them they should tell God their problems directly. And then… their anger grew, and suddenly I was afraid. I looked into the eyes of the people nearest me, and then at the faces of the crowd, as far back as I could see. Their hostility and distress were terrible to see.

Thirst does terrible things to a man. It places visions in his head, and he believes the visions and not the reality around him. It makes him angry enough to kill the one he believes to be responsible for his thirst. It makes his tongue swell up and his body ache with a pain no one should ever know. And this kind of thirst … it kills children, kills them even before we know they are ailing. I looked into the eyes of the Israelites, and I saw all this. And I threw myself on the mercy of the Lord. I feared for my life. I cried out to God for help.

And then, as he so often does… as he does each and every time… the Lord spoke to me. He told me something it’s easy for me to forget… he reminded me to take the elders with me, so that the people would see not just one leader, but many leaders. I needed to be reminded of that. Then, he told me what to do: Strike the rock, he said. And water will flow. And the people will drink and be satisfied. I did, and it did, and they did. It was as the Lord said it would be. Blessed be the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who told me to strike the rock to make water flow, and it was done.

Now it is quiet in the camp. I sit alone, and I can see the pillar of flame settled before us for the night. And I look around at this place… this place of testing and quarreling. That’s what they should call this place… Testing Town, Quarrel City. I am tired. But I have to believe… I have to believe… that the Lord is with me.


It is terrible to hold a baby who is crying for milk… and there is no milk to give. I did not worry when there was no bread, for I thought… the little one can live on milk, bread will come soon enough. But without water… I was not able to feed my baby, for more than a day. She struggled, she screamed terrible, high-pitched screams. That was horrible enough. But what was worse was when she became too weak to scream. That was when I became frightened. That was when my husband, Yakov, stormed out of the tent to take our complaint to the leader, Moses.

All the people know that Moses talks to the Lord, and the Lord talks to Moses… so, we reasoned, why shouldn’t Moses tell the Lord our problem? Why shouldn’t God hear our complaints? I held the little one in my arms, and followed my husband out of the tent. I could see that all the tents were emptying out… we were not the only ones in distress. We could feel the fiery anger that was racing through the crowd… men surged forward, and as they did, many of them stooped to gather rocks from the ground. Some carried their walking staffs as weapons. We women gathered together with the children, murmuring, wondering what would happen. Would there be violence? Would there be bloodshed? Would someone else take over as leader?

Even as we wondered all these things, I think we all knew the futility of such actions. How would another leader find us water, if Moses couldn’t? Moses, who had the very ear of God? Then some of the men began to shout, and their voices were terrible and fierce. I could see Moses at the front, standing on an outcropping of rock in front of the mountain, just slightly elevated so that he could be seen. The mountain itself was shrouded in the familiar covering of cloud that had accompanied us the entire length of our journey. The people said, God was in that cloud.

Moses said nothing… he was like stone, like the mountain, still, listening to the shouting, which was now incoherent. I could see Yakov at the crowd’s edge, turning uncertainly to look at me. Finally the angry voices subsided and there was a sound of sheer silence. Moses surveyed the crowd, still carrying that look of stone on his face. After a long moment he turned his back to us, and lifted his head as if to gaze into the cloud, towards the mountain’s summit. He lifted his arms and cried out in a loud, anguished voice: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

What a shock to us. What an awful moment, to hear the despair of the man who had led us out of slavery. I looked down into the face of my daughter, who was awake but too weak to cry. If I hadn’t been so thirsty myself, I would have wept. The same shudder of sorrow rippled through the people. The men dropped their rocks and lowered their staffs.

Then something happened that sent a chill through me. Moses cocked his head, as if to listen. And quickly, a dozen or so men hurried forward to crowd around him. It was clear they were standing with him… that anyone who wished to stone him would have to get through them first. And then, his shoulders raised in a shrug, and he pulled back his arm, and brought his staff down, with a crack, against the rock of the mountain.

A moment later, there was a great shudder, and bits of stone and debris began to break free. Then we could see it and hear it… a great spring of water, gushing forth… it was life. Life. God truly had brought us to the wilderness for life and not death, for hope and not despair, for joy and not sorrow. All around me people were falling to their knees, and prayers of joy and thanksgiving were issuing from their mouths:

The Lord split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
~Psalm 78: 15-16

We have seen, and we can testify. We have seen the goodness of the Lord; the desert is the land ef the living.

Now my baby sleeps the deep, contented sleep of a baby whose tummy is full. The camp is peaceful. The Lord is with us. God is in this place. We should have known all along.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lipstick on My Collar-- Updated

My own--- I don't kiss anyone who wears lipstick.

I read somewhere this week that a clergy collar has one very specific meaning: it is meant to represent the chains of slavery, because clergy serve their master, Jesus Christ.

I have to admit: I did not know that.

I wear clergy shirts on Sunday mornings, and for funerals and (most) weddings, too. I wear them because they are a uniform... not a required one, to be sure. Many Presbyterian ministers opt not to wear clericals, thought I do think it is the norm to wear a robe (with or without stole) for preaching (I wear these as well). I wear a collar because it signifies a particular role I play in worship leadership. I preach, I preside at sacraments. A collar lends a kind of gravitas to my appearance, and I think that is appropriate to these functions.

But I also wear lipstick on Sunday mornings (and for funerals and weddings). Nothing about gravitas where lipstick is concerned. In fact, recently I put on my clergy shirt (and other clothing), applied my lipstick, neatened up my lipstick by running my finger along the vermilion border, and then, apparently, touched my collar again... because the next time I looked in the mirror, there was a pink smudge on the white. Not cool.

Now I am wondering about the theology of the collar, and whether I have given it due honor. Should one wear lipstick with a collar? I wonder... now that I know what it represents. Anyone? Collar wearers? Non-collar wearers? What do you think?

And also... those of you who are not clergy... what do you think when you see a collar? What associations do you have with it? Good, bad, indifferent? I'm curious...

Part of the question for me has to do with authority. I grew up in a tradition that said I was not allowed to wear the collar, and I wonder whether my embracing it is all tied up in my defiance of that tradition.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Say Hey!

With a tip of the hat to DCup.... what a FABULOUS song for a hard week....

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quote of the Day: Extraordinary

From Bono (described in my Sojourner's email as a "rock star and anti-poverty activist"):

It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases.

Thanks Sojourners. That is extraordinary.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Day in the Life

Let's see, what can I tell you about that I did yesterday?

Well, first of all, I had a long meeting about something. And it mostly went very well, until a sensitive matter arose and then it still went well. And then I learned something that, to my shock and horror, made me cry. In a meeting. With other grownups. And, really, it's not about me... (good ministry mantra: It's not about me. It's not about me. It's not about me.) And, if you want to know, I was crying for the godawful brokenness of the situation.

Then, some folks came to the church looking for cash. So we went shopping together, and they got what they needed (for a couple of days, maybe). And... so often, I don't feel particularly gracious in those situations. I fret that I am not reading people right, that I am too judgmental, that I am too prone to give because I feel middle-class-survivor guilt. But this whole interaction was kind of... fun. One of the folks has come before, and sometimes I've helped (correction: the church has helped; I've just been the means), and sometimes I've had to say no. But on this day, the banter was easy between us, I felt that, as paltry as the help we can give is, it is nevertheless genuine help. And I thought, what a privilege. To get to be there, in this situation. To get to be the one to whom all the gratitude is directed (totally undeserved as it is).

Then, I wrote a couple of letters. One: easy. One: hard. Hard one got mailed to a colleague for suggestions.

Then I started my bulletin for Sunday. Didn't get far, because...

Then we had Bible Study. We started, June 1 or thereabouts, at Genesis 1:1. Now we're at Genesis 29. Yesterday we read the heartbreaking, pathos-filled scenes wherein Jacob fools his aged, dim-eyed father Isaac into giving him the blessing. There is Jacob, covered with hot, stinking animal pelts, and Isaac saying over and over, "My son... is that you my son? Come here my son... let me smell you my son..." It's awful, because, of course, Jacob is the wrong son... Isaac think's he's tenderly blessing his first-born-hunter-outdoorsman-field-dressing-a-moose boy, Esau. But it's really the pantywaist kitchen boy Jacob. But he is his son too! It's awful. It's dreadful. It's primally painful, in the way parents and children and aim and shoot and miss completely the right way to love each other.

I get to do this for a living. I get to do this. Have I said recently how very, very grateful I am that this is what I get to do for a living?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Complete and Total Lack of Fairness: A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

“A Complete and Total Lack of Fairness”
Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2008

You are taking turns to ride the swing on the elementary school playground. Just when it’s your turn, a big kid comes along, pushes you out of the way, and jumps on the swing. That’s not fair.

You are standing in line at the Big Box store, with your arms full of items after a lengthy shopping trip. When you look down to pull out your wallet, someone slips right in front of you, smiling that they’re sure you won’t mind, since they only have one item. That’s not fair.

A 56 year old man lives the healthiest life imaginable. Every day he strives for five servings of fruits and vegetables, he runs six miles, he drinks plenty of water, he avoids sugar and junk food like the plague. He has no previous history of cardiac disease, yet one day, after a run, he collapses and dies. That’s not fair.

High rolling Wall Street gamblers play it fast and loose with the lending industry, and private financial institutions are on the brink of collapse. When the dust settles, the bill for all this profligacy is presented to those people who are paying off their mortgages and their credit cards and medical bills… The taxpayers will foot the $700 billion tab. That doesn’t seem fair! Maybe someone can explain it to me after church.

You were up at dawn. You have been working all day long in a hot vineyard until your hands and arms and feet and legs and back are sore. You’ve been pruning vines, or harvesting grapes, or carrying bushel baskets to and fro under the sun, beating down on you. At the end of the day, you find that someone else, someone who began work just an hour before quitting time, received the same amount of pay as you. That’s not fair.

There is one rule that is so fundamental to human interactions that virtually every culture has produced it in one form or another. We call it the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s what’s fair.

It seems that our gospel lesson today is about a complete and total lack of fairness on the part of that landowner. At least, that appears to be the case. How do we understand this story in which Jesus appears to side with the one being so unfair?

We start with context. Where does this story occur in Matthew’s gospel? What else has been going on in the life and teachings of Jesus that might illuminate this difficult parable? Because—that’s what we have here, a parable, by which I mean: A story about everyday matters that transcends its everyday meaning, and takes the listener to another level of meaning and even questioning. It’s not unusual for the parables of Jesus to leave us with as many questions as we have answers. Where does this parable fall again? Well, it occurs at the end of a passage in which Jesus has been talking about those amazing reversals that make up life in the kingdom of heaven.

The “kingdom of heaven” is a slippery kind of idea for us to grasp. Sometimes we call it the “reign of God.” Our knee-jerk reaction is to assume it’s a reference to the afterlife… heaven, what happens to “good” people or “saved” people after they die. Well, that’s a part of it. But I would say, only a tiny part. The kingdom of heaven is God’s reign of peace and justice that is dawning right now. With the coming of Jesus… it’s here. But… as we look around us at a world where so many people are still oppressed, not to mention being tortured and killed in all sorts of conflict…the kingdom of heaven is clearly not completely accomplished. There’s always a sense of… “Here, and yet not here,” about the kingdom of heaven. Almost, but not quite.

Let me give you a flavor for the kinds of things Jesus has been saying about life in God’s reign. Jesus has upheld the dignity of women by putting forth new, stricter rules for divorce… men no longer have carte blanche, able to divorce a wife because simply because they don’t like her cooking or her wrinkles. Jesus holds everyone to a higher standard than that. Women have more value than that. Jesus has upheld the value of children… by making it clear that, unlike the temple or synagogue worship of the day, children are actually welcome to be a part of this faith community. And Jesus has upheld the dignity of work that does not have a clear monetary value, telling his followers to give their possessions away, and to follow him free of encumbrances. To top it all off, Jesus has said that those whom that society would consider most blessed—the wealthy, who appear to have lived good lives by evidence of how good God has been to them—that these folks are going to have a harder time than anyone entering the kingdom of heaven. Remember the camel fitting through the eye of the needle? That’s the image Jesus uses for a rich person trying to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is that upside down reign of God again. Much as we like to say—much as I like to preach—that the kingdom of heaven is a place of peace and joy, where all are welcome, the truth is also that the kingdom of heaven is not like anything we have encountered in our families, our government, our institutions. It is demanding. It is hard. It challenges our notions of what is right and fair.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard, as it is often called, comes right on the heels of these hard teachings. And in it Jesus seems to be trying to be provocative… It’s so “in your face”, as my kids would say. What can possibly be the rationale behind such an outrageous, unreasonable parable?

Paying close attention to the details is always a good place to start. First, notice that the landowner is the one taking initiative, all the way through the story. The landowner gets up early, the landowner goes out to seek workers, at all hours of the day. Second, notice that the landowner and the first workers to be hired agree on the usual daily wage: a denarius was the usual amount. The first workers go into the field confident they will be fairly paid, because they have agreed on the amount with the landowner. Third, those workers only feel they have been treated unfairly when they develop a sense of entitlement to more than they agreed on. This happens when they see that others… others whom they considering undeserving… are being paid the very same wage they originally agreed upon.

The landowner says something interesting to the grumblers. In our bibles it’s translated, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In Greek the sentence reads, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” What is really going on here? Those who have been working all day believe they have been treated unfairly. In fact, what is “unfair” is the generosity of the landowner. No worker has been cheated out of their full day’s wage. Everyone will go home able to feed their family. But the generosity of the landowner to the latecomers irks those who have been working all day.

This makes sense. I think there is no doctrine of Christianity so difficult for us to bear as the truth of the overwhelming, prodigal love of God for those we feel don’t deserve it. It just doesn’t seem fair. And it’s not! It’s not fair. It’s grace.

Grace is the free gift of love and forgiveness for everyone… for those who don’t deserve it as well as for those who appear completely deserving. Notice I said, “appear” completely deserving. If you’re a Calvinist, as we Presbyterians are, you know the truth: nobody deserves it. As Paul says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” Amen! We’re sinners! Every Sunday our worship service very quickly goes to a prayer of confession and an assurance of pardon, because as Presbyterians we are convinced that we are all in need of forgiveness, of grace. We don’t wallow in it. It doesn’t send us into despair. In fact, it is our great hope and joy. So we try not to be too quick to point fingers at others. But sometimes we can feel that, well, we’re not nearly as bad as those other people… whoever they are!

My daughter and I have been racing through two seasons of a TV show we have only recently discovered, “Saving Grace.” Please note: it’s a show for adults… imagine David Mamet or Stanley Kubrick or Joel and Ethan Coen producing “Touched By An Angel.” It’s about a foul-mouthed, promiscuous, hard-drinking, Oklahoma City police detective, Grace Hanadarko; she is portrayed by Holly Hunter. Grace is regularly visited by Earl, a long-haired, tobacco-chewing angel with an Oklahoma drawl—Grace’s “Last Chance Angel,” in fact. Because it’s clear: Grace needs help. The way she is going can only lead to disaster and hurt, for others as well as for herself.

In one episode, Grace has a criminal in her custody… a man who has, over many years, irreparably harmed many, many people. To her shock, she learns that this man also has Earl as his “Last Chance Angel.” She witnesses, with absolute horror, Earl assuring the man that God still loves him. Grace howls. NO. NO!!! What kind of God loves him? Not fair.

Where does this leave us? Well, it might leave us like Grace Hanadarko, the angry detective. It might leave us the early-birds, the workers who worked all day. We might be grumbling. We tried an interesting experiment with the Youth Group/ Drama Group on Friday night. We went through this story a couple of times, with the players taking different roles. Their feelings about the story were strongly influenced by which parts they were playing. When they played the workers who were hired first, they were full of indignation… angry, envious, ticked off. They felt completely wronged because the landowner had not paid them more than the latecomers. But when those same players took the part of the landowner, they felt different. They felt… generous. And they felt a little angry that their judgment had been called into question.

Maybe our reaction to this story can teach us something abut our need to be forgivers, to be extenders of grace in our own lives. We love the God whom Jesus has told us about. And this is the truth about our God. Our God does not embody fairness. Our God embodies grace. Grace is completely and totally unfair. Grace is forgiveness where it is not deserved. Grace is love despite the quality of life exhibited. Grace is not fair, it is grace. Thank God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Unbloggable Lightness of Being

Church stuff, first and foremost in my mind. Fancy that!

Just had a meeting with a Pillar of the Church, who is struggling with nearly crushing disappointment about Something going on here. Thinking about how I am changing and growing, from... someone whose instincts were all about pleasing people and making sure they were not disappointed/ mad/ going away; to... someone who holds these things lightly enough, recognizes that it really and truly is not about me, whose job, first and foremost, is to listen and love.

I left a meeting recently shaking my head at the change in me. I don't know why it's happening, exactly. But I am so, so grateful.

That's all.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Unconditional Welcome: A Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

“Unconditional Welcome”
Romans 14:1-12
September 14, 2008

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a young man who lived, for the most part, alone. He lived near his family, but he did everything he could to keep himself isolated from them. He refused their dinner invitations, he hid from them when they came to knock on his door. He did much the same thing with his colleagues at work and the people at his church. He went about his life as quietly and anonymously as he possibly could. People’s reactions to him ran the gamut from concern, to worry, to amusement, to shaking their heads in puzzlement. They didn’t know what to make of him. They didn’t know how to make him feel welcome in their everyday world.

One day, the young man showed up at the home of his brother and sister-in-law, smiling with excitement. He told them that he had met a young woman through the Internet, and that she was coming for a visit. Her name was Bianca, and she was a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary. He explained that he was anxious to make her feel welcome, particularly because she was confined to a wheelchair, and he asked his family to be sensitive to her feelings. The young man, whose name was Lars, was clearly thrilled, and his family caught the excitement from him. They readied a room for her. They set an extra place at the table. They waited with big smiles on their faces. A few hours later Lars showed up for dinner, with a life-size doll in tow. This, he proudly told his family, was Bianca.

Of course, I’m telling you the plot of the recent film, Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of those small movies you may have missed when it was in theaters. The story of Lars is a compelling one, told as much by landscape and scenery as by character and plot. The town where Lars lives is snowy and dreary; every day is a cold, grey day. You can feel his isolation, and you can feel the anxiety of those who love him. And when Bianca comes to town, you enter into everyone’s shock. What shall we do now? Shall we welcome this person Bianca—whom we’re fairly sure isn’t even really a person? Shall we have Lars committed to a mental hospital? Shall we have a knock-down, drag-out fight with Lars, to convince him of his delusion about the big silicone mail order doll? How does a community deal with something that seems almost certain to divide it?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul deals with a situation that is not quite as whimsical, and which is far more loaded. Paul is engaged in the rather tricky business of helping two very different communities figure out how to live together as one church. And he is doing so with two communities that are each certain they have God on their side. One group is focused on following rules found in traditional readings of scripture—dietary rules, rules about the Sabbath, and rules about circumcision. These people are convinced that followers of Jesus need to also adhere to all these things from Jesus’ religious tradition, which is, of course, Judaism. The other group believes that God is saying and doing a new thing. They believe that God has revealed the saving news to those outside Judaism, and so, those rules no longer apply. This group refuses to follow dietary rules or to circumcise, and has started advocating that worship be held on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection.

How do people live together when their beliefs are different? Is it possible to be one church with two—or more—ways of believing in God? And if it is possible, how do we do it?

The key word in this portion of Paul’s letter is “welcome.” “Welcome those who are weak in faith” (Romans 14:1), Paul says, and it’s not immediately apparent to the reader from this first sentence which of the arguing groups he is calling weak. Is it those who abstain from meat, for fear it may have been ritually offered to Pagan gods? Or is it those who eat the meat, and don’t worry about it? Which group would be weak in faith? It turns out, the ones following the most stringent rules… Paul calls them weak in faith, the abstainers. And he reminds the Romans that no one in either category should judge the others, because it is God who has done the welcoming. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul continues. “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:5). Because God has welcomed, we must welcome. For Paul, it’s simple. For us, it’s not always that simple.

It seems like there are always times in the life of the church when this question burns in our hearts. Who is welcome? Are all really welcome, as it says on the sign out front? Or do we put conditions on our welcome? I knew a church once where the people who favored the choir and the music program were in a constant state of conflict with those who favored the Christian Education program. Everyone had an idea of what was most important in God’s church. Everyone jealously guarded their own turf when it came to which programs were supported. These people eventually had to ask themselves, who is really welcome here?

A hundred and fifty years ago the church in the United States was influenced by the temperance movement, so much so that most mainline Protestant churches no longer serve wine, the drink preferred by Jesus according to the scriptures, but rather serve unfermented grape juice (which just happens to have been manufactured by a good Northeastern Methodist named Thomas Welch). Even after all these years, this is a hot button issue for most Protestant congregations, and yes, has even split congregations right down the middle. Churches still are asking themselves, when it comes to their ritual practices. who is welcome here?

Today our church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is struggling with issues of sexuality. Who may serve God as ordained deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament? May gay and lesbian people serve? On both sides of this issue you will find people who love their church passionately. On both sides of this issue you will find people who are convinced that God is with them, and both sides claim the authority of scripture as they understand it. Today, this very moment, the church is asking itself: Who is welcome to serve God in the church? Who is welcome here?

And just so that we realize that these issues are not limited to church… our society is constantly struggling with this question, too. One of the burning political issues of the last 8 years has been the matter of undocumented visitors to this country. And just to make things more complicated, this intersects with issues of the economy, of global terrorism, and of human rights and dignity. On both sides of the issue are people who believe they have the best interests of the country at heart. On both sides of the issue people are grappling with that question, who is welcome here?

Paul suggests what has to have been a challenging program of unconditional welcome. All who are called by Christ are welcome. All whom God has welcomed, are welcome. And to each group, Paul gives the instructions: whatever you do, do it in honor of God. “Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). Whatever we do, we should honor God in that doing.

What, you may wonder, happens with Lars? Does that community make Bianca welcome or do they haul Lars off to the nearest asylum? Lars’ family does take him to see the good town doctor, under the guise of having Bianca examined. The doctor diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure, and asks Lars to bring her in for weekly treatments. In this way, Lars and the doctor can talk, and maybe she can gain some insights into the workings of his mind. As for Bianca? The doctor urges Lars’ family to respond to Bianca as if she were a real woman.

It is one thing for a family to go along with what clearly smacks of mental illness. It is quite another for an entire community to join in, and that is exactly what happens in this film. This little snowy town welcomes Bianca with open arms. They have her to dinner, they invite her and Lars to parties. She goes to church with Lars, and someone holds a hymnal up for her. The hairstylist gives her a makeover, and the owner of the boutique asks her to model clothing. Bianca attends school board meetings and “volunteers” at the hospital. And in the meantime, Lars, by taking Bianca to these places, suddenly has more interaction with his family and neighbors than he has in a long, long time. The welcome mat looks as if it’s been put out for Bianca. In reality, it’s Lars who is being embraced by his hometown. When this town asks itself, “Who is welcome here?” they decide that life sized silicone dolls and young men who might be seriously mentally ill are included, not excluded.

What about us? What are our boundaries for welcome? Is the welcome we extend truly unconditional? Should it be? These are questions every community has to grapple with, questions of who’s in and who’s out. The thing I think we have to remember is this: not once, anywhere in the gospels, does Jesus ever side with those who are trying to exclude someone. Not once. When the question, “Who is in and who is out?” is asked, Jesus’ answer is always, I’ll stand with the outsiders, thanks.

Paul is working as hard as he can to see that a community of unconditional welcome comes to birth in the church of the Romans. His message is clear: it is God who extends the welcome, and we who either confirm it or stand in its way. Here at our beautiful church, I believe the welcoming community is already here: it’s on the sign outside. All are welcome. So let’s catch the excitement and be ready for all the new faces that might come our way. Let’s ready rooms for them. Let’s set an extra place at the table. Let’s wait with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts, ready to share God's unconditional welcome with them. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

We Are the Same

I seem unable to let this day pass without saying something about it.

Except, today, I don't know that I have much to say. Seven years have gone by. We have been embroiled in armed conflicts in the Middle East for most of that time, though that's no longer, evidently, the thing weighing most heavily on voters' minds as we head into the last 6 weeks before the election.

I listened to women being interviewed on Democracy Now today as I picked up my lunch. BOth New Yorkers. One woman lost a brother in the Twin Towers. The other lost nineteen relatives in Afghanistan. The woman who lost a brother kept saying, "We are the same. We are the same."

I wonder, could we believe that?

I love my daughter, just as an Iraqi woman loves her daughter.

I love my father, just as an Iraqi girl loves her father.

I live in a home in which I hope to be safe, just as a Pakistani woman hopes to be safe in her home.

I hope to go on worshiping God in freedom, just as an Israeli Rabbi hopes to worship God in freedom.

In all the important ways, are we not the same?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What Were We All Thinking? Of Course... Here's Our Candidate!

With thanks to those crazy so-and-so's at Of Course I Could Be On Vacation...

Texting, Chez Magdalene

6:31 AM Best Friend J: Happy Birthday Petra!

6:32 AM Petra: Thanks J!

6:32 AM Best Friend J: Wow! Sixteen! That's ancient! Do you feel different?

6:33 AM Petra: Yeah, I nearly broke a hip coming down the stairs this morning.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Little Ones: A Sermon on Matthew 18:1-5, 10-14

“The Little Ones”
Matthew 18:1-5, 10-14
September 7, 2008

I spent a part of my vacation on an island in Maine, just a couple of days, in which I had an opportunity to be with some little children up close for the first time in a long time. Of course, as you know, there are little children here at St. Sociable, and I do have the great fun and privilege of getting to know them as they come and go, speaking with them during children’s messages (or any time, really), occasionally playing guitar to accompany their singing during Vacation Bible School or Rally Day. But it has been quite a few years since I spent time with little ones on a daily basis, playing with them, watching them go.

There were two little ones in the house where I was staying, M. and S. M. is five and S. is three. One day their dad G. and I went to the beach with M. and S. and teenagers Petra and E. Once there, my dim memories of my own children came flooding back. There is no containing children on a beach. It’s not a playpen or even a rec room. M. and S. began by running back and forth and in circles. Then they explored the rocky coastline, until their toes hit the water. Then, enthralled, they looked back at their dad for permission, and began a long ballet of going in and out of the water… going in up to their ankles… and then running out again… then going in up to their calves… and running out again… then going in up to their knees… and running out again… then to their thighs… and running out again… then to their waists… and running out again… and finally throwing themselves in and coming up sputtering, clapping, squealing with glee. I need to add at this point that, I consider myself a polar bear, and pride myself on swimming in any temperature the Atlantic Ocean can throw at me. I couldn’t get past my knees. It was freezing.

Being with M. and S. was a trip back in time, not just to memories of my own children, but also to my own memories, of times when I was willing to immerse myself in play without wondering how many calories I was burning or whether my stroke looked good, of times when the ocean was a brand new mystery, thrilling, exciting, something my parents had to drag me out of at the point my lips were blue and my fingers were prunes, of times when time stood still because I was lost in the wonder of it all. There is nothing like childhood, nothing in the world.

And so we have Jesus this morning, who is asked a question about greatness, about social rank, to borrow a term from the current presidential campaign, about who were the “elites.” If we were to look back at how the story of Jesus and his teaching has been unfolding throughout of Matthew’s gospel, we would notice that Jesus has already done quite a lot, trying to change the way his followers look at the world. He’s been turning things upside down. His sermon on the mount is about as topsy-turvy as things get: Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor (in spirit), the mourning, the meek, the persecuted… all those people whom society completely disregards: the least, the lost. Jesus says, no. These are the leading citizens in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:1-12). Jesus has spent long hours, days and nights, weeks and months, healing people whom the rest of the world has abandoned, and feeding the hungry.(Matthew 8, 12, 14). Jesus has sent his disciples out, not as conquerors, but as humble teachers, taking almost nothing with them except the gospel—which, as it turns out, is everything they need (Matthew 10). Jesus has already told the disciples what has to sound like very bad news, that anyone who wants to follow him has to be ready to take up a cross, and be prepared to lose a life (Matthew 16). In every possible way Jesus has spent the first 17 chapters of this gospel explaining to his followers that things, according to the wisdom of God, are different than their expectations. God’s kingdom doesn’t look one iota like earthly power structures, and God doesn’t look one iota like earthly rulers.

And now the disciples want to know about greatness. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Is it the most faithful disciple? Is it the one who wins the most converts, or the one who suffers the most? Is it the one with the best track record for healing, or who does the best job at feeding the crowds? Once again, Jesus turns things on their heads. Instead of producing the strongest or the smartest or the most spiritual or the most stunningly mature person, Jesus calls a child, and puts her right in their midst. Here is the greatest, he says. Be like this. Be like this child.

Our modern notions of children need to be put aside so that we can fully understand what Jesus is saying here. Our society pays wonderful lip service to the idea that our children are the most important things in the world, our precious priorities. Children and childhood have been sentimentalized, and elevated in the popular imagination as perfect and innocent. Judging by the advertising aimed at parents, it is clear that children’s wants and needs have become the basis of an economy, from toys and dolls to soda and snacks, to skateboards and bikes, to iPods and video games. We have a law called “No Child Left Behind,” whose purpose is to make sure our children are educated. But as you and I both know, our actual behavior and policies do not bear that lip service out. One in ten children in the US are uninsured, and have no adequate health care, and 17% of our children… almost one in five… live below the poverty line. Of the children who live in poverty, they are statistically far less likely to have a regular bedtime and a regular mealtime than children whose families are more economically sound.

For all these troubling statistics, children today are still better off than children in Jesus’ day. Infant mortality rates were astronomical, with close to one in three children dying before weaning age. Of course, that’s close to the current infant mortality rate of one child in five in Afghanistan, which is so radically different from the current US infant mortality rate of 8 children per 1000. Parents needed children to help with the production of food, with farming or fishing processing grain. Children were looked upon as part of the labor force, and families knew better than to get too attached to them until they were five or so. In a society that was stratified with tremendous wealth and power at the top and crushing poverty, illness and hopelessness at the bottom, nearly all children lived at that bottom.

But there is something that was as true of children 2000 years ago as it is today. Little ones do not come into the world with an innate desire for status and power. The idea of a two year old wondering how to achieve greatness is absurd. Children come into the world with one job and one job only: they are wonderfully made to absorb, to take in, to learn, to acquire understanding. This, of course, is why we have to watch them so closely… they live in a state of dangerous wonder. Everything they see and touch and experience is enthralling to them… think of M. and S. running in and out of the ocean. Everything about God’s world and the thrilling experience of discovering new sensations bowls them over, delights them, sends them through the moon.

How do we achieve greatness? Not the kind of greatness that gets you elected to office, or earns you millions of dollars, but the kind of greatness that finds you a place in God’s reign. We become like children… completely oblivious to position and rank, and completely open to a “volatile mix of astonishment and terror, awe and risk, amazement and fear, adventure and exhilaration, tears and laughter, passion and anticipation, daring and enchantment.”[1]

This is not something that comes naturally to most of us. Most of us, no matter what our life’s work, are caught up in a world that evaluates us, tells us brutally when we’re successful or failing. We feel we barely have time to go through the motions of faithfulness, and then Jesus suggests this overwhelming and somewhat puzzling project of remaking ourselves in the image of four-year-olds.

As with anything else, we start where we are. Today, why not start with communion. We start with a table that has been set for us, and bread that is so much more than bread, and the fruit of the vine that becomes for us so much more than grape juice. Why not try to come to this table with childlike hearts… hearts full of wonder and anticipation. Hearts stirred to excitement, because of Who it is we are likely to meet there. Hearts, perhaps, tinged with fear, because this might just change our lives. Let’s start where we are: coming to the table with a hymn of childhood on our lips and the dangerous wonder of childlike faith in our hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), 29.

Image courtesy of Emadivine at Flickr.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

OK... Snarkiness Aside...

... if I can.

Two things are bugging me. First, the partisan complaint:

There is a part of me that feels so... ripped off at this moment. I really thought this was going to be the year the women really broke the glass ceiling, with its proverbial 18 million cracks. And, of course, I thought the Senator from New York would the the one causing all those shards of glass to rain down like a February snow in Buffalo. And... her limitations understood (which, for me, include a disconcerting tack to the right I've witnessed during the campaign, and the irrational hatred felt towards her by a significant minority of US citizens), she was just the right woman to do it. Smart, exquisitely educated, oodles and oodles of experience. An attorney with who fought for the rights of children and women. Someone who knows the ins and the outs of the health care system like I know the back of my hand. (Actually, once I confused the back of my hand with the back of my boyfriend's hand... perhaps a story for another day...) My friend G. said to me, as we walked along Peaks Island a couple of weeks ago, "Oh, clearly, she was head and shoulders above everyone else in the field. There was no question." There was no question.

So... now there's a woman on a major party ticket and it's not her. Not only is it the Republican nominee, but it's an anti-choice, anti-GLBT, anti-evolution, pro-gun, pro-big oil, pro-book censorship (for God's sake!!!) woman. Oh my heart. It just hurts. It rankles.

That's the partisan complaint. Now for the feminist one.

The way people are talking about this woman is making my blood boil. I have heard:

  • She can't do the job of vice-president and be a good mother to five kids.
  • She can't do the job of vice-president with a four month old baby with Down Syndrome.
  • If she were really a Christian woman she'd be staying home with her family.
  • She wears go-go boots (my honest reaction to this one? jealousy... I want some).
  • She's too beautiful... how distracting.
  • Do you think McCain picked her because he kind of wants to date her???
And on and on and on. This was the source of my previous brief post. And.... back to the partisan complaint for just a moment!... the same people who couldn't stop talking about the Senator from New York's voice, her pantsuits, her breasts, her sex life, her husband's peccadilloes ... DARE to cry "Foul! Sexism!!!" The people who would not cover this HC's positions on actual issues during the primaries, the people who made it about personality and family and looks, are calling out the "liberal media" for pointing out things such as ethics investigations?

I sincerely hope this is my last post on the subject. I need to write a sermon.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Heard on NPR This Morning

"The McCain camp didn't realize how hard it still was to convince voters to vote for a woman."

Oh. Really?