Sunday, November 30, 2008

100 Things Meme

I've been tagged... tag yourselves... the things I have done are in bold...

1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance-- very recently
47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten Caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee
100. Ridden an elephant

Yearning for Presence, Sermon on Isaiah 64, 1-9

“Yearning for Presence”
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 30, 2008
First Sunday in Advent

Listen. Listen to the voice of the prophet. Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong. Listen to the moan, the cry of distress that calls out from the pages of scripture in this morning’s reading.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence…! ~Isaiah 64:1-2

This is a desperate voice, a voice of one at the end of his rope. This is the voice of someone who is yearning for a change, a rescue, a complete reversal of fortunes. This is the voice of someone in need of a savior.

We are reading this morning from the second to last chapter in the book of Isaiah, a passage that dates to the time after the exile, when the people of Israel had returned home to Jerusalem. The whole time they had been in Babylon, all the people had thought and dreamed about was coming home. They imagined returning to their houses and their fields. They prayed about returning to their Temple. They dreamed about returning to life as they remembered it. But when they did come home, their dreams collided with stark reality, and the dissonance between them was heartbreaking. They found their city in a shambles; they found their Temple, the place where the very presence of the Lord God was supposed to dwell, a ruin. They were devastated. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

Looking at the world around us, I think it might be reasonable to come to the same conclusion. Something is very wrong. There is the wrath of nature: there are hurricanes and tsunamis. There are wildfires and earthquakes and floods. There is famine and disease. Hardly a Sunday goes by when one of these isn’t lifted up for our prayer. And then there is the suffering brought on by human behavior: We Americans watched in horror on Thanksgiving day as a terrorist siege unfolded in Mumbai, India. There are wars and rumors of wars. There is corruption and greed, about which the candidates spoke at length during the presidential campaign. There is tremendous fear and anxiety as our nation and the world seem to slip inexorably into recession. There is a grossly unfair allocation of resources that results in a tiny portion of the population hoarding the vast majority of the earth’s resources and wealth, while the vast majority of the population has to stretch and share our leftovers. And the term Black Friday, which normally indicates the hopes of retailers ending the year in black ink and not in red, took on a new, terrible meaning this week, as Christmas shopping turned deadly for at least three people. Something is wrong, very wrong.

And what about our own lives? We struggle every day with difficulties we know and difficulties we don’t know. We struggle with illness, with depression, with grief and loss. We struggle with job insecurity, and the constant battle to make ends meet. We struggle with the loss of friendships and relationships and lovers and spouses. We struggle with addiction. And these are things we know about. We struggle with the unknown too: with that 3 AM fear and anxiety that can’t even define itself. “We all fade like a leaf,” says the prophet, “and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6b). A poet put it like this:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Something is wrong, very wrong. The prophet weeps and wails and wallows in the uncomfortable truth of Israel’s responsibility for the mess it is in. He acknowledges, not only the gap between where the people want to be and where they are, but the chasm between who they are as creatures and who God is as Creator. Given that chasm, the prophet gives voice to our yearning for the presence of a savior, the time when Someone will come in great majesty and splendor, with unmistakable power and force, tearing open the very heavens to set things right.

But listen. Listen, as something turns, something shifts for the prophet. And instead of big, scary, apocalyptic imagery, suddenly the scale is intimate and personal.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter.
We are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

Suddenly, instead of asking God to put on a big fireworks display, the prophet makes an appeal to closeness and intimacy. This voice in distress is talking about presence. He is talking about relationship. The image of God as potter and God’s people as the clay breaks this passage open. It takes us into new territory. No longer are we talking about God bursting in from outside the established order of things. Instead, God is invited in.

What does it mean if God is the potter and we are the clay?

If God is the potter then God touches us. We are not alone, we are not left on our own. It is not the case that God is “up there” and we are “down here.” God is in contact with us. God has God’s hands on us. We are made warm just resting in God’s hands.

If God is the potter, then God wants to shape us. God wants to use the events of our lives—our homes, our upbringing, our work, our relationships, our choices—to shape us, to mold and fashion us.

If God is the potter, then God wants to make something useful and beautiful from us, and it is not entirely up to us to determine just what that is. The potter works with care and precision to make us into exactly who he wants us to be.

If God is the potter then God might need to place us in the fire in order to make us strong and durable. No one wants to be in the fire. It hurts. It burns. There’s a lot of smoke in there, and it’s hard to see. But when we come out of the fire we can be stronger, even more useful, even more beautiful than when we went in.

If God is the potter, then, from time to time, God has to deal with the issue of broken pieces of pottery. This is not a problem for the potter. No vessel is beyond rescue. Once the pottery is broken it can be mixed in with clay that is still soft, it can be molded once again. If God is the potter, then we are never beyond God’s skill to create with us.

What really strikes me about the prophet’s turn from wanting God to tear open the heavens to calling upon God as potter is that it seems to get to the true root of the problem. The problems of the world are the problems of people—individual people. People called upon to join in community, yes. People called into covenant with God, yes. People joined to one another by virtue of their shared humanity as well as by virtue of the One who created them, yes. But individuals nonetheless. And the cataclysmic changes we are yearning for God to make all start with changes of heart, and changes of mind.

There is a song played at the end of a movie I love, a movie in which a sort of hapless guy looks for help from without—big, cosmic help—only to understand at the end that the help he needs is to be found deep within. The song asks,

Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better
Just feel better about today

Ultimately the song concludes,

If you want to be somebody else
If you're tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind...

This is the wisdom of the ages, from the prophets of ancient Israel to Jesus to Alcoholics Anonymous. We are all looking for the fix from outside—the pill, the job, the diet, the lottery ticket, the person who will make us just feel better about it all, especially about ourselves. But the wisdom of the ages tells us that the God who comes—the savior who is perfectly capable of tearing open heavens, clouds, car doors and all the rest of it—prefers instead to work on us quietly, diligently, hands-on, like the potter at the wheel.

I think we are yearning for the presence of God, not just to tear open the heavens, but to reach into our hearts. Yes, something is wrong. We are homesick in our homes, and strangers under the sun. And no one knows how or when the sun will be darkened, when the stars begin to fall in our eyes and our souls. We might not witness a savior tearing open the heavens. But we will meet God in the still and quiet places within. We, the clay, will meet the potter, to the extent we are willing to entrust ourselves to be held, and to be handled. We will meet God, as we allow ourselves to be molded and to be shaped. We will meet God, who will knead our broken and fragmented selves together again, who will hold and mold us tenderly, who will welcome us home at last. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “The House of Christmas.”
[2] “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel, used in the film Bedazzled.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


As previously mentioned, my children and I traveled to be with my dad (aka the Paratrooper) for Thanksgiving. It was lovely and fun, and I actually took the days off, as in... I did (almost) no work while I was there. (OK, a couple of phone calls and emails... but that's it!).

Petra and I went down on Tuesday night, staying the Place that got me Spammed (see comment from neal here). Larry O had class until 4:30 on Wednesday and came down by bus that night. While waiting for him Petra and I obsessively watched this show, which we seem to watch only in my dad's house... weird. And I knitted. And knitted and knitted... a lovely green sweater that will be Petra's Big Present from me this Christmas.

Thanksgiving Day itself was quiet; the kids ate breakfast at the hotel but I ate with my dad. Then... more knitting, a marathon of this show. (Does a theme seem to be emerging?) Dinner at the Place was lovely, but the Paratrooper was taken aback that it was buffet style (and, honestly, the price was... shocking. Given that it was buffet style). But the food was delicious, everyone ate their fill, and we had a lovely time.

Petra and Larry made friends with folks at an adjoining table as a result of a rather raucous conversation they were having about movies... the couple had a son who was an actor, cards were exchanged, etc etc.

Then Petra, Larry and I did something that is a longstanding Thanksgiving tradition for us: we went to the movies. First we saw "Twilight." (For me it was the second time. I loved it. LOVED it. I am a Twihard. I know. It's disturbing to me too.) And then, "Quantum of Solace," which I like, but not as much as "Casino Royale."

A late bedtime, sleeping in the next morning, followed by a drive home, followed by... two people in the hospital (one of whom is our music director), a third probably dying, and Advent tomorrow.

There is more to unpack that I don't seem to be able to do now (Petra and I are running to a rehearsal). But... house, home. It's all... complicated. You know?

Thanksgiving Cell Pix Blogging

Larry and Petra, Ready for Twilight AND Quantum Solace (the requisite after-dinner double-feature)

Yes, Larry has mutton-chops. For a part in a play. "I play a day-laborer, who is also an actor." (In other words, Snug the Joiner, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

Thanksgiving Cell Pix Blogging

The Beach I Grew Up On

Thanksgiving Cell Pix Blogging

Petra, the Paratrooper and Larry

Thanksgiving Cell Pix Blogging

A Little Walk on the Boards, Petra and Paratrooper

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Country Club

Remember this dream? Hmmm. I thought not. Anyway----

Petra has just climbed into what she called a "ridiculously comfortable bed" in a guest room at what USED to be the Country Club in aforementioned dream, but what is now-- a Marriott. (I know. In the wake of Prop 8... good people all over this nation are boycotting Marriotts. And here I sit, with my wireless access, in the biggest hotel room I've ever been in.).

We are home in the state of my childhood for Thanksgiving. When these plans were originally drawn up, my brother and his family were planning to join us, and because that would mean too many people for the beds and rooms in my dad's house, I offered to stay here with Larry and Petra. (I think all this happened within a couple of weeks of the dream.) Alas, big bro and his family decided to come at Christmas instead (we'll be here then too). But my dad insisted we stay here anyway. Fair 'nuff.

As I walked into the reception area (which is very changed from my childhood) there was still an air of the old moneyed place I remember. Petra and I pressed our noses up against the glass doors to the dining room, and there is still the largest chandelier on earth presiding over the tables (though the room is smaller than I remember-- no doubt because I am larger). The exquisite bathrooms? No more. But much of the original feel of the place is still intact.

It's all very weird. It feels... a teeny bit decadent (though these rooms are cheaper than the last hotel rooms I stayed in, in Big City). But it feels like a real vacation. I'm actually kind of excited to be here.

I wonder who got the porcelain sinks with the handpainted flowers?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Unimaginable Treasure: Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

“Unimaginable Treasure”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 22, 2008

You are a nursery school teacher, and the chairperson of your board of directors has just given you $275,700.00. Or you are a construction worker, and your foreman has just given you $430,200.00. Or you are a Presbyterian minister! And your Session has just given you $536,400.00! Or, you are an engineer, and your CEO has just given you $1,045,800.00. Holy mackerel. What do you do with all those riches?

We are sitting at Jesus’ feet again this morning, listening to a parable, and this time it’s about something called “talents.” Just to be clear from the get-go: the word “talent” in Greek did not mean “special gift or ability.” That meaning was attached to the word in the middle ages. So when Jesus spoke of “talents” he was not talking about the ability to speak in public without your knees shaking, or the ability to play an instrument, or the ability add to long columns of figures in your head. When Jesus spoke about talents he was talking about an enormous amount of money. He was talking about something so huge, so valuable, as to be a treasure almost unimaginable for the folks he was addressing. A talent was approximately 15 years’ wages for a day laborer: in other words, more money than the fisherfolk and stonecutters and carpenters even in a thriving city such as Jerusalem could ever hope to see in a lifetime.[1]

Jesus lays this improbable scenario before his audience. And then he blows them away with the outcome. The basic story is this: in preparation for going on a long journey, a master entrusts each of three servants or slaves with enormous amounts of treasure—5 talents, 2 talents, and one talent. The slave with 5 talents receives the equivalent of 75 years’ wages—that’s more than $2 million for our construction worker. And each slave responds in his own way. The slave who received 5 talents essentially plays the stock market, trading the talents for profit. He risks losing it all! He does something incredibly dangerous with this wealth that is not his own, and, fortunately for him, it pays off. Likewise the second slave, with his 30 years’ worth of wages. But the slave who receives one talent—again, more riches than he could expect to see in a lifetime—nervously buries it in the backyard. Just to be clear, the talent is a weight as well as a value, and it is not a small weight. It was roughly the size of a person, which, in those pre-supersizing days, was about 112 pounds. So burying a talent was, well, kind of like burying a body. It took a lot of work and it took up a lot of space.

There’s one other thing you should know about burying the talent. The people who were listening to the parable when Jesus first told it would have thought burying the talent the completely reasonable, responsible thing to do. As far as they could tell, it was the right thing to do. Just put your self in the slave’s place. The amount of treasure was enormous, and the slave had no experience handling that kind of wealth. The only responsible thing to do was to try very hard not to lose it. The slave very understandably says to himself, “Don’t go out on a limb. Don’t take risks. Don’t do anything that might get you into trouble.” The third slave obeys conventional wisdom. But Jesus had another idea. Jesus had unconventional wisdom in mind.

Let me ask you this: have you ever been entrusted with something that was far beyond your experience and abilities? Something—a responsibility of some kind—that filled you with a kind of fear and dread, even as it filled you with excitement? Some jobs come to mind. I imagine flying a plane full of hundreds of passengers would feel like that to me. Or being a surgeon, having the inner workings of the human body laid bare. Or… being a parent. Life does call upon us, from time to time, to step up to take on something far beyond our previous experience. What do we do when that happens?

Home comes the master—and a long, long time has passed. The master is thrilled with the work of slave 1 and slave 2. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” It’s worth our pausing to think about the master at this point in the story. He has really behaved in an extraordinary way. He has entrusted slaves with vast amounts of capital, not for a week or two, but for extended periods of time. At a time when slaves were expected to do their jobs for little or no pay and could expect to receive little or no recognition, the master’s response to their investment strategies is striking. He compliments the first two slaves extravagantly. He increases their responsibilities as a reward. He even, perhaps, welcomes them into his home—“enter into the joy of your master.” The listeners of Jesus would have been very pleasantly surprised. They would have taken note. This master is kind, generous, trusting, responsive, welcoming.

Then we have slave #3, the slave who did what anyone in Jesus’ audience would have done. And, surprisingly, the slave’s first words are a defense based on the character of the master. “I knew you were a harsh man…so I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground.” This slave is not describing the master as we know him. How strange. This slave has some idea of the master as cruel, harsh, almost—evil.[2] This slave is paralyzed with fear to the point that he can’t even think rationally. He buries the treasure. And the shock for Jesus’ audience becomes complete, as the kind and benevolent master berates the slave as wicked and lazy, gives his talent to the one with ten, and orders him thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

How did this happen? How did the slave who did what anyone listening to the story would have done find himself on the wrong end of his master’s boot? Matthew’s Jesus tells this parable, and on the surface it is completely unacceptable. That is probably why in other tellings that have survived, the editors have toned it down so much. Mark shortens it, turning it into a quick saying on “being ready” for the master’s return (Mark 13:33-35). Luke makes the third servant hide the talent in a napkin, which is just plain silly (Luke 19:11-27). The writer of the “Gospel of the Nazarenes,” which didn’t make it into the New Testament at all, presents it this way. One servant multiplies the talents; one servant buries them; and one squanders them on harlots and flute girls.[3] Each teller of the story is trying to tame what is essentially a difficult parable told by Jesus, to make it more palatable for the listener. But there is an important principle of biblical interpretation, one that is well accepted by New Testament scholars. The most difficult or confusing version is usually the earliest, and therefore the most authentic—the closest to the actual words of Jesus. That is because, if we know anything at all about the historical Jesus, we know that he said things that disturbed and upset people, and that he turned conventional wisdom and morality on their heads.

So what do we make of this strange story? The first thing we can do about the parable is to pay close attention to its first words: “For it is as if…” What “is as if?” If we search back just a little farther, we can see that Jesus has just told another parable, which begins, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (Matt. 25:1). Ah. “It is as if…” “The kingdom of heaven is as if…” These first words tip us off that, although we’ve been investigating this parable as if it were about money, or natural resources, or even special abilities, the parable is about none of these. If the “kingdom of heaven is as if…” a master gave his servants all these talents, then we are talking about something altogether different. The talent, the many years’ wages, more treasure than the ordinary person would ever normally have access to, is the gospel. The gospel: something so huge, so valuable, as to be almost unimaginable.[4]

How does understanding that the talent is the gospel change the way we hear this parable? For one thing, it completely changes how we look at that third servant. If the treasure is the gospel—and, of course, that is what it always is—then burying it is an act of supreme folly. As we’ve mentioned before, in the parables at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking of his imminent departure and the time before his return. The master will be gone for a long, long time. And he entrusts to his followers a treasure beyond their experience or imagining. His instruction to them, through this parable, is “Do it. Risk it. Risk everything for the gospel, for the kingdom.”

As someone who is, myself, somewhat risk-aversive, I find this to be an extremely uncomfortable message. This is the big enchilada. This is the pearl of great price. There is nothing of greater value. This is the kingdom, the promised reign of God. And we have been entrusted with it by our kind, generous, trusting, responsive, and welcoming master, who says: Go out on that limb. Risk getting in trouble. Risk everything for the gospel. The gospel is not something to be buried in the backyard or left on a shelf in the library. It is something to be shared, traded, given away. If we don’t—we might as well be burying our own bodies in the backyard.

There is a little poem, almost a nursery rhyme, called “Opportunities Missed:”

There was a very cautious gal
Who never laughed or played;
She never risked, she never tried,
She never sang or prayed.
And when she one day passed away
Her insurance was denied;
For since she never really lived,
They claimed she never died!

[Source Unknown]

The sharing and sending out of the gospel—the spreading abroad of the treasure we have been given—is a risky and unsettling business. Do it and you might find yourself inconvenienced. Do it and you might find your friends rolling their eyes. Do it and you might find yourself doing all sorts of uncomfortable things like welcoming to your table those you never thought you’d rub elbows with, or getting on a bus and going to Mississippi to help remove mold from flooded homes. You might find yourself changing the way you live, or the people you live with. You might find yourself making the biggest change imaginable: changing your mind. Begin the risky business of sharing the enormous riches of the gospel, and you don’t know where it will lead you.

Friends, especially those of you whom we will receive into membership in just a few minutes—Jesus has just given us the pearl of great price, the treasure beyond our imagining, greater wealth than we’ve ever hoped to see in our lifetimes. Holy mackerel. What are we going to do with all these riches? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 453.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Westminster Bible Commentary: Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 282-283.
[3] Boring, op. cit.
[4] Long, op. cit., 281.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Petra on Opening Night!

Last Friday night the lights came up on a stage at Parlor City High School. On it were two young women, one sitting in a beautician's chair and one standing behind it. The one sitting (and peering at the audience as if in a mirror) was my Petra, playing Truvy in the fall production of "Steel Magnolias." For you fans of the film, it's the Dolly Parton role.

The six young women who moved on that stage moved me more than I can say. It's a play about women's relationships; unlike the movie, there are no men in the play at all. We see them only through the eyes of the women.

Truvy spends much of the play-- which unfolds over roughly two years-- trying to keep an atmosphere of can-do optimism going at her shop ("The last romantic thing my husband did for me was in 1972, when he enclosed this carport so that I could support him."). This is no easy feat, given the rivalries and conflicts that unfold as the story blossoms. Petra executed a very creditable southern accent, and portrayed this sassy and sentimental middle-aged woman with a depth that even caught me by surprise. But, hey, I'm the mom-- you can count on me thinking it was amazing, right?

Now... on to finish a semester that has been academically challenging, to get enough sleep, to get into some kind of reasonable routine. But boy, that was fun!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Strong Together: A Sermon on Judges 4:1-10

“Strong Together”
Judges 4:1-10
November 16, 2008

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

The lectionary leads us this morning into the book of Judges, the chronicle of the first several hundred years the Israelites spent in Canaan. I need to make a confession to you, in the vein of “the levels to which a mother will stoop.” When my son was about 12 years old, and I was trying to encourage his interest in reading the bible, I recommended the book of Judges to him. Why? Because it is the most godawful, bloody book in all of scripture, bar none. It’s horrific. For a kid who had already managed to get his hands on Metal Gear Solid and Medal of Honor, and a host of other video games with high body counts, I thought this would be right up his alley. Mea maxima culpa.

The book of Judges is one long liturgy of war and depravity. Each story in it begins like ours today… “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.” This is the way it goes, story after story. There is no clear leader for a time, and everyone goes his own way. Then the situation begins to deteriorate, as the people do evil… by which the writer means, they worship the local gods instead of Yahweh. They wind up under the thumb of their enemies. Then, they cry out to God for rescue. God takes pity on them, and raises up a charismatic leader—a judge—to bring them out of oppression. Until that judge dies. And then the cycle begins again.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

Here is the background for the story. The people of Israel are now in the Promised Land. Slavery and their forty-year wilderness sojourn are behind them. This is where it’s supposed to get fun! This is when God’s promises of land and children are supposed to fill everyone with an overwhelming sense of well-being and joy, an age of peace and prosperity. But the people, lacking the guidance of Ehud, the most recent judge, are forgetful of God’s role in their story. They turn their backs on God, and they do evil. Imagine their shock at discovering that there is still more suffering in store for them, more hardship. The Israelites are on the wrong end of technological innovation. They’re stuck in the Bronze Age, while their enemies—native Canaanites, it should be said, who have no patience with the Israelite claims that “God gave us this land!”—their enemies have advanced to the next age, the iron age, as evidenced by nine hundred iron chariots, the ancient world’s equivalent of the Humvee. The Canaanites have oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. The people are suffering. They are crying out to God for help.

It’s tempting to overlook a crucial detail in the story, one that is so unsavory I really would rather gloss right over it, except that it is repeated again and again. Throughout the book of Judges, it is God who is the cause of the suffering of this disobedient, evil people. God is the one who sold the Israelites into the hand of the oppressive Canaanite king and his cruel general, Sisera. I wish this detail would go away, because it doesn’t match my ideas of how God works. But there it is, so we have to decide what we believe about it. Do we believe this idea that God is the cause of suffering, that God deliberately inflicts it upon those who are evil? Is that the truth of this historical situation? Or is that something the Israelites concluded in hindsight, as they assessed their own history and wrote it down?

In any event, this is a very human story. We follow a leader, unless there is no leader to follow. We do well, until we don’t do well. Life goes our way, until it doesn’t. Somewhere along the way, we lose our connection with God, with the community God has provided for us… and whether we believe it is God’s doing or our own or a random universe’s, we suffer. We suffer, until our suffering is so severe that it wakes us up, brings us back, and we cry out to God for deliverance. And sometimes, we realize that God does notice. God hears our cries. God acts. God rescues. But our rescue doesn’t always look the way we expect it to look. Our rescue doesn’t always look like a man emerging from a phone booth in a cape, with a check for a million dollars in his hand. Sometimes, it looks like a woman quietly sitting under a tree.

Deborah, whom scripture calls isshah lappidot, which means either “wife of Lappidoth” or “woman of torches”—both are good translations—Deborah is a judge in Israel during the twenty-year oppression. She can be found, to mediate disputes, to give military advice, or to prophesy, sitting beneath a palm tree in the hill country. In a time of chaos and hardship, we tend to want “doers” to take charge. The person who takes charge in this moment in scripture is, first of all, a thinker, a contemplative. She is still.

Deborah’s meditation, her time of sitting under the palm, leads her to the conclusion that military action is necessary, and she commissions Barak to take command of an army made up of several tribes. Barak shows some hesitation… he desires Deborah’s presence. He wants her to come out from under her tree and be with him in battle. She agrees, but she also reminds Barak that he will not get the glory of the victory. Sisera will be delivered into the hand of a woman. We are given to understand that this is all God’s doing—the pre-ordained victory, the work of Deborah and Barak in bringing it about. God has achieved God’s objective: the people have come back. They have called out, cried out to God for help. And so, God responds, God helps.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do, and what does God do? Does God notice? Does God even care?

What do we think? Does God inflict punishment on evil people? For much of the Old Testament period, this seems to be the assumption. But then there is the book of Job, which stands as an unflinching witness to the contrary: Job is just, and he does not deserve all the terrible things that happen to him. The witness of scripture shows that those who are suffering are not necessarily guilty, and those who are guilty do not necessarily suffer (in the here and now). God’s ways, with regard to evil in the world, are pretty inscrutable. We can see instances—look at Darfur, look at the reign of Stalin—where evil continues unabated and unchecked by either divine or human intervention.

Nevertheless, when we are suffering, it is almost impossible not to ask God, “Why? Why are these things happening to me? What have I done to deserve them?” I know that I have done some of the best praying of my life when things were their bleakest. Does that mean that God afflicted me with various sorrows, so that I would turn to God in prayer? I don’t believe that for one second. I cannot reconcile that notion with my conviction that ours is a loving God. But I do believe that prayer is one of the unexpected consolations to be found in suffering. Talk to any addict in a 12-step program, and you will hear stories of people who are grateful for their addictions. Grateful! Why? Because hitting bottom, suffering horribly, knowing they were utterly powerless over their addictions, made them turn to God.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? There are no easy answers to these questions. There never have been, even though stories like this one try to persuade us otherwise. But let’s see what we can glean from this reading. Deborah sits under a palm tree. When we are suffering, we might consider stillness. We might sit under a tree, or in a chair, in order to pray, meditate, contemplate. Prayer is one of the unanticipated, unexpected consolations of suffering. When we are suffering, we might consider prayer. That’s one idea to be found here. And here’s another: Barak asks Deborah to accompany him into battle. We might decide that our best strength can be found not alone, but in community—joining forces with someone whose gifts complement our own. We might find that we can be strong together, stronger than we are on our own. Be still. Reach out to someone. These are things we can do when we are suffering.

But does God notice? Does God even care? In every instance, in the Old Testament and the New, in stories of Judges and in stories of Jesus, the answer to these questions is a loud, unequivocal, Yes. God notices. God cares. And God provides glimmers of hope for us in our suffering, torches of hope, even. In the stories of Judges, the torches of hope always look like other people, whether they are the judges themselves or the strength found in assembling into a larger community—a tribe, an army.

Maybe your torch of hope looks like a woman sitting under a tree. Maybe it looks like someone showing up on your front porch holding a pot of soup in their hands. Maybe it sounds like a ringing telephone, the voice of a friend on the other end of the line saying, “Let’s have lunch.” Maybe it has the cadence of a song or a psalm, the timbre of many voices raised together. Maybe your torch of hope looks like a whole throng of people, milling around the dessert table at coffee hour, or surging forward to come to the communion table.

What do we do? What do we do when we are suffering deeply, and there is no end in sight? What do we do? This is the way it goes, story after story. We pray. We reach out to other people. And what does God do? God gives us opportunities for stillness. God invites us into prayer. God gives us other people, in response to our suffering and to theirs. Does God notice? Yes. Does God even care? Yes, yes, Oh yes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

"Deborah the Judge" by Powell Brothers Stained Glass, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Key West, FL

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prayers for Our Moderator

The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Bruce Reyes-Chow, posted this on his blog yesterday:

With a heavy heart, I ask for prayers this evening for a family who's very being has forever been changed.

As some of you may have heard, earlier this evening there was a shooting in the South Bay. One of the people killed was my brother-in-law, Brian Pugh. Needless to say, we are all in shock and in deep deep sadness for his wife and two young children. You can read more here but details are still being discovered and the accused, as of this moment, has not been apprehended.

Please feel free to leave comments and prayers for his wife, two small children and the families of the other victims if you wish. There is a time and place to discuss the complexities of such situations, but that time is now not. I will be extra-vigilant about deleting comments that might at all be unhelpful for the family at this time. If you want to debate issues around any of this, there is plenty of chatter on news sites.

I will update later once we know more.

God's peace and understanding be with us all.

I have written about Bruce here.... He is a powerful and visionary leader for the PC(USA) at this time. Prayers are asked for him and his family.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Larry-O!

My very own, very intense, very talented son is 21 today. Twenty-one. Years. Old.


And Wonderful FranIAm is something-one. Happy birthday Fran!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

People, Get Ready! A Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

“People, Get Ready!”
Matthew 25:1-13
November 9, 2008

I have a Facebook account. For those of you who are not familiar with it, Facebook is what is known as a social-networking website, and I was assigned the account during my time as an interim chaplain at Big Ivy U. Many college and high school students love Facebook. It gives them a quick and easy way to stay connected, at least in one limited way, with their friends. When you log on to the site, you automatically see a page filled with updates from your friends, telling you all sorts of things. “John has donated to this cause.” “Mary had a bad day in class.” “Jenny wants you to vote for…” (you can fill in the blank!).

Naturally, this week many of the status updates referred to the presidential election… first, a massive “Get out the vote” effort (in which I confess to have participated!), and then lots of variations on the theme of “Yippee!” for some and “Boo!” for others. People often use Facebook to fly their political flags. But there were some “Boo!” status updates my daughter showed me that I found just a little startling. I’ll share one with you. This is an eighteen year-old girl speaking. “I am so upset about the election,” she writes, “I think it’s like something out of the Book of Revelation.” The other two were in a similar vein. In other words, these young people, all devout Christians, believe on some level that the election of Senator Barack Obama is likely to lead to war, Armageddon, the end times.

To be fair, I have no doubt there are supporters of Senator Obama who might have had a similar reaction to the election of Senator McCain. Politics can tend to make people passionate, and this was a hard-fought campaign, as we all know. But this tendency to draw apocalyptic conclusions intrigues me. If there’s anything the gospels tell us about these matters, it’s that we just don’t know.

We are talking about end times this morning. This happens every year at this time in our lectionary cycle. The readings take on a decidedly apocalyptic tone as one church year draws to a close and another one begins on the first Sunday in Advent. Jesus is talking about end times, and not just the end of the age or the end of the world. He is talking about his own end times. This story from Matthew’s gospel takes place on Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week… just a day or two before Jesus will celebrate his last meal with his disciples, on the very night when he will be handed over to those who will kill him.

And he knows it. Danger is in the air. He can smell it. He is going away, to face torture and death. There’s something I think we need to understand about Matthew’s gospel—in fact, about all the gospels. The story is always taking place on at least two different levels. On one level, we have the story itself: this is the last week of Jesus’ life, before he will die on the cross. But there is another level, too: the level on which the writer of the story already knows the ending. The writers of the gospels know that, by the power of God, Jesus will beat death—that he will be raised up again, and live—but then he will be taken up into heaven, out of their sight. So on both levels, people are grappling with living in a time when they believe they don’t have Jesus in their midst. The question on their minds is, “What shall we do while Jesus is gone?” Because, there is an assumption that he will return.

We Presbyterians share that assumption. We proclaim it every time we say the Apostle’s Creed. After witnessing to the good news of the resurrection and Jesus’ presence in heaven with his Father, we say,

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

According to our Reformed theology, we Presbyterians expect the return of Jesus as Lord and Judge. But we don’t talk a lot about this, maybe because Christians in other churches talk about it so much, and in such a way, that it makes us uncomfortable. Some Christians seem to expect that Jesus’ return will look a lot like the “Terminator” movies, which would assume that he has undergone a personality transplant at the right hand of the Father.[i] The Jesus of the gospels, who welcomes all, cures all, casts out all demons, feeds all, loves all… that Jesus comes back with guns blazing, according to the theology found in such books as Left Behind. Just for the record, that’s not how we Presbyterians see things.

I’ll be very honest with you. I don’t know exactly what the return of Jesus will look like, and I have no earthly idea when it will happen. The good news is, we’re not expected to know those details… the end of this parable makes that clear. But I am getting ahead of myself.

What shall we do while Jesus is gone? How shall we await his return? That is the question before us. And Jesus presents this enigmatic parable by way of an answer.

There are ten bridesmaids… ladies, literally, in waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. And five of them are wise and five are foolish (in the Greek, five are prudent and five are morons!). The five prudent bridesmaids have all procured oil for their lamps… lamps used to welcome the guest of honor, much as we might put lanterns outside our homes at holiday time. The five morons, the foolish bridesmaids, have no oil. They are unready when the bridegroom arrives, and instead of welcoming him joyously, they have to scramble and find a merchant and buy theirs at the last minute.

What shall we do while Jesus is gone? How do we await his return? The answer, according to the parable, is “People, get ready!” But how do we do that, exactly? Well, we make sure we have our oil. But what is the oil?

Oil is used in scripture in myriad ways. Our parable shows us one common use for it: as a fuel for lamps. This little light of the bridesmaids, they can only let it shine it if they have enough oil. Oil makes possible light in the darkness.

Another very common use for oil has to do with cooking… scripture is filled with simple recipes for bread, for stew, for roasted lamb, and oil is often an important ingredient. Oil makes things delicious.

The psalms are filled with images of oil. We pray, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5); we rejoice in “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine” (104:15); kindred living together in unity are “like precious oil upon the head” (133:1-2). These are all images of well-being, of joyful company, of hospitality. Oil is a sign of welcome.

Oil is also used throughout scripture as a means of setting someone (or something) aside for a special office or purpose: David is plucked from whatever pasture he is tending the sheep in, and a horn of oil is poured over his head, making him Israel’s rightful king (1 Samuel 16:11-13). Oil is used not only to anoint Aaron and the other priests, but also as a way of consecrating certain offerings (Leviticus 2:16; 8:12; and others). Oil is a sign of holiness, which is another way of saying, whole-heartedness for God. Oil is a sign being set apart for God’s designs.

All these uses for oil begin to suggest something to us—someone to us—and as we consider the name by which we call Jesus—Christ—it finally comes together. Christ—which means Messiah—which means, anointed one. Jesus, the anointed one. Could the oil possibly be… Christ?[ii]

Jesus is going away. What do we need as we await his return? We need Christ. Welcome to scripture as Zen koan… bottomless paradox, full of mind-bending twists. In the absence of Jesus, we need Jesus to be ready to welcome him back. Of course.

It’s all beautiful paradox, if you think about it. We need Christ, whom we call the light of the world, and who assures us that we are the light of the world. We need Christ, who feeds us and nourishes us, and who requires that we feed and nourish one another. We need Christ, who makes all people welcome, and so we welcome all in his name…thereby welcoming him. We need Christ, the whole-hearted one, who urges us to be whole-heartedly for God. We need Christ if we’re going to keep our lamps shining, if we people are going to be ready.

I don’t think we acknowledge this most of the time, but it bears saying: I think this is why we have a church. The church exists because we need Christ. Didn’t Paul call the church, the body of Christ? We need a place where we can practice feeding one another and welcoming one another… not just the folks we know, but those whose faces and lives are strange to us. We need a place where we can practice the challenging work of reconciliation. After the bruising election we’ve all just been through, I think Christians are particularly called to this work. The news this week was full of stories of the aftermath of the election within the political parties… McCain aides blaming Sarah Palin for the ticket’s defeat on the Republican side, Joe Lieberman getting called on the carpet by Harry Reid, and maybe being stripped of a committee chairmanship, on the Democratic side. That’s politics, and that stuff happens, but you know what? We are called to something better than that, something higher. We are called to make peace beyond our personal comfort zones, not just when our guy won and we’re feeling generous. We’re called to be agents of reconciliation, beyond winning and losing and what will benefit us and which team we were cheering for. We are called to have Christ, and to let him dictate how we relate to one another.

People, get ready. Whether we live in Jesus’ end times or our own, there is work to be done in this world and in this church, and we need Christ to help us to accomplish it. We are called to be light for the darkness, to be nourishment and welcome for the stranger, to be whole-heartedly for God’s purposes. With Jesus in our midst we can keep our lamps burning and be ready for the great celebration. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog,” Thanks to Ms. Breuer also for the sermon title!
[ii] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. 3,

Friday, November 07, 2008

What If Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?

Enjoy. Then, tell me what you're going to do about it. I personally haven't a clue.


I try not to throw that word around too much. It's pretty loaded. But every once in a while it seems warranted. Take this, for instance: a Focus on the Family fundraising email that went out after Tuesday's election.

Dear Friend,

The spirit of Winston Churchill was alive and well on Tuesday night at Focus on the Family Action headquarters.

You may recall that in the most desperate days of World War II – when Great Britain was being pounded daily by Hitler’s Luftwaffe – that Winston Churchill called on his countrymen not to despair from danger but to rise to the challenge.

Excuse me. Did James Dobson just compare President-elect Barack Obama to... Hitler?

I am writing a sermon to be preached on Sunday. In it I make the point that, after such a contentious presidential election, Christians can make a difference by trying to be vehicles of reconciliation. Maybe, from the easy chair of those who were rooting for the victor that's easy to do. Maybe, if Senator McCain were president-elect, I'd be preaching fire and brimstone about him bringing about Armageddon. God help me... I hope I wouldn't be, but maybe I would, in my sadness and frustration.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say: this is evil. This is evil. To equate this newly elected president to Hitler-- it's evil. It would be evil if I did it to McCain. It's evil when Dobson does it to Obama.

Which brings me to the question: How can organizations like Focus on the Family spread their money all over the political process and still benefit from tax-exempt status? For those interested in the process for filing complaints about that with the government, and in order to read the entire article from whence this tidbit came at Crooks and Liars, go here.

And people? Let's try not to be evil out there, ok?

Not Funny

I've been struggling with what to say in this space about the harsh irony of the simultaneous breaking of a racial barrier at the highest levels of our government and the denial of a whole host of rights to about ten percent of our citizens. I've decided Tom Toles' cartoon says what many of us are feeling quite nicely.

But I don't believe this is the end. I believe marriage equality will come. Just not today.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Wisdom from the Daily Quote

When the pulpit becomes an echo of the pew, it loses, I think, almost all of its reasons for existence.

-Gardner Taylor

I don't know who Gardner Taylor is. But this PC(USA) Daily Quote got my attention this morning.

We at St. Sociable are in the midst of soliciting feedback from our members and friends. How are things going, we're asking them? What do you love about St. Sociable? What keeps you coming back? And despite what things do you keep coming back? And what are your dreams for our church? How can we best serve Jesus Christ together?

I knew when we embarked on this campaign that I would have to develop some of that armadillo skin my friend Jan mentions here. I believe the proper word is "armor". I was aware that not every response would be the equivalent of my most enthusiastic references when I applied for the job. But still... it hurts just the tiniest little smidge to hear that someone really liked the sermons of the previous pastor, whereas mine are "OK."

You know, I'm a little touchy about my sermons. Probably because I know what it feels like to pick up the hymnal in the full flush of having "nailed it." (Awful expression. But you know what I mean.) That feeling of having been in the zone, of having really felt the power and presence of the Spirit... that happens to me sometimes. (Not all the time. I believe Tom Long projected for his preaching students that it might happen one in four times, at best. And two in four sermons would be acceptable. And one in four would be a stinker. This is what he told the young pastors he was molding to expect.)

So OK. I don't feel that Spirit-thing one in four times. Maybe one in six or eight. But I feel it. I am particularly prone to feeling it when I have walked into the pulpit unsure of the sermon, and something in the air has made it better than it is on the page... probably some unanticipated need that it answers, by God's grace, not by my design.

The quote this morning suggests to me that if I am not challenging folks sometimes, if I am not giving them something that requires effort on their part, but am only concerned with giving them exactly what they want (such as: no politics; no allusions to conflict; nothing about homosexuality; nothing about the election; nothing about money), then I have failed in my role as their pastor. I am supposed to lead, and leading implies a change of location.

Years ago I had lunch with a colleague who told me that, if I wanted to work for social change, I'd best not be ordained, because I would be less free as an ordained person to be an activist. The role of a pastor is a constant game of balance between the pastoral and the prophetic... the pastoral being care-giving, and the prophetic being making the hair stand up on their heads for the horror of what I have just said. Otherwise, if I'm just going to reflect back their wishes and desires, why have a pastor? Why not just a mirror, and a recording device?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Where I Was

I think in years to come, we will all talk about where we were at 11:00 PM on November 4, 2008.

Here's where I was: Democratic Headquarters, Local Fancy Hotel, Parlor City. I sat clustered around one of several TV's with Petra and BFF, three out of about 300 people in the loud ballroom. I wore a grey suit and a red, white and blue stars and stripes scarf, because Democrats are patriots too.

Just before 11, CNN called Virginia for Senator Barack Obama. It was at that moment that I started to believe it. I turned to the woman next to me and said, "How many electoral votes does California have again?" At that moment the TV was counting down seconds to 11:00 when the polls would close on the West coast. And then, a Breaking News Banner. And then... CNN projects Senator Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States.

We jumped to our feet. We screamed and screamed and screamed. We wept. We hugged each other, and a bunch of strangers. The DJ cranked "Celebration," and then "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours," and then "Shout." We danced and danced and hugged more strangers and one another.

Then home... to Senator John McCain's incredibly gracious concession speech. And President-Elect Obama's inspiring words, and the sight of... how many people in Grant Park? And outside the White House?

We probably overestimate the power one person has to steer this country. Though, after the past 8 years of executive power grabbing, that is understandable. The challenges ahead of this remarkable man are formidable. Someone said to me tonight, "Probably everyone will be mad at him within two months of his being sworn in, he's going to have to make so many hard decisions." Maybe.

But tonight. Tonight. An historic night I shared with two of the most important people in my life as well as millions of other Americans who are seeking a new path together.

Thank God.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

All of Us

Thanks, Tony Auth. We needed that.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Love, Pray, Eat: A Sermon on Psalm 107:1-9, 33-37

“Love, Pray, Eat”
Psalm 107:1-9, 33-37
November 2, 2008

There’s nothing like your body ceasing to function the way it normally does to make you to focus all your attention on bodies. As you all know, I’ve had some adventures involving gall bladder surgery recently… a scary awakening at 3:30 in the morning… a trip to the emergency room in an ambulance, with my daughter and dearest friend following anxiously in a car… a diagnosis with reassurance that nothing need be done right away… only to do it all again three days later, minus the ambulance, plus surgery. Now I’m fine. Modern medicine is a wonder. My surgeon is a genius. My daughter, and my dear friend, and my ex-husband, and the good people of our church, and the good ministers, friends and colleagues of our presbytery… you are all more beloved to me than I can say, and I am truly grateful for your outpouring of love to me these last few weeks.

As I go about the business of getting back to normal, as I learn again to laugh without clutching my stomach, and turn over in bed without wincing in pain, and to drive my car after a ten-day hiatus, and to eat very carefully… as I go about all these normal, sundry activities of my life, my focus is still, intently, on my body. On how it feels, and how it felt. On how tired I am, or how energetic. On whether I am in pain or feel well enough to forget about my little incision. On whether I am hungry, or feeling comfortable and full.

One of the beautiful things about sick time is reading! During my recuperation I read several books, and everywhere I looked the focus was still on bodies! I read a murder mystery starring a female Episcopal priest… naturally, there were bodies in a murder mystery! I read, at the recommendation of one of our congregation, the lovely and moving “Eat, Pray, Love,” and whether the author was scarfing down farfalle pasta with clouds of ricotta cheese in Tuscany or pushing through her meditation with a difficult chant in India, the focus was still on bodies. And then I read the extraordinary “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles.

For Miles, bodies were the source of her conversion to Christianity. In her case, the bodies were those of the poor and disenfranchised… the peasants of Nicaragua, the impoverished people of the Philippines and El Salvador, all the people she interviewed during her career as a journalist and activist. In every case, without fail, she was astounded at the generosity of the poorest of the poor, the way in which they welcomed her to the humblest of tables. She writes,

It wasn’t, of course, what I ate that mattered, though the details of what I was fed have stayed with me, vivid as dreams. The mineral taste of poor people’s tortillas, the thick dough prepared with lime and scorched on an iron griddle. The slippery sweetness of mangoes. The chemical bite of bright red sodas; the funkiness of goat. Handfuls of gluey rice, spoonfuls of milky sherbet, cupfuls of spicy broth. I remember the food of peasants, which always tasted of dirt. I remember the food of the urban poor, which always tasted of cheap grease. People gave food to me, and I ate it all: roots, leaves, animal hearts; raw, canned, cooked or spoiled. [1]

Miles’ experience of eating at the tables of the poor took a radical turn when, on an impulse, this atheist writer walked into a church on a Sunday morning, took communion, and had a bodily experience of Jesus. She began to put together her experience of bodies… of her own hungry body, which was now hungry for Jesus as well as for food, and the bodies of the poor who had fed her. She began to understand the church as a place where people feed and people are fed, and God is in all of it.

Our psalm this morning tells stories of bodies… bodies that have been saved from disaster, bodies that have been rescued from wandering in desert wastelands, and, yes, bodies that were hungry and thirsty but have now been filled with good things. Sometimes it seems like our faith is about anything but bodies. For us Presbyterians, there is a great temptation to make religion about the mind—our Reformed theology, or the thoughts of the preacher, or sound explanations supporting for this program or that event. For many Christians, perhaps beginning with Paul, faith has seemed to have to do more with the spirit, the soul. There’s a loud message out there that Christianity is about denying the body, assuming it to be bad or prone to lead us into sin. And we should take sin seriously—of course—and we shouldn’t neglect our souls, or our spirits, or our intellect, for that matter. All these are good and important components of who we are. But the truth is that humankind first had an inkling of God in the context of being very, very afraid: fearing for our lives. And we prayed and reached out to the one with all power, who might just be able to save these fragile bodies of ours.

The result is a psalm of thanksgiving. “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good,” our psalm invites us this morning, “for God’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). This is a prayer of gratitude of those who have been found, those who have been saved, those who have been rescued from the unimaginable. This is a prayer of thanksgiving from those whose bodies knew hunger and thirst, and who knew the giddy joy of being filled with good things. This is a prayer of those who have experienced vividly, viscerally, the love of God in their very own bodies.

For the people of the psalm, their fear for their bodies opened them to an experience of the steadfast love of God. My fear about my body opened me to an experience of love: the love of God expressed through the love of so many people, including this congregation, poured out to me in cards, letters, phone calls, meals. When we love someone, we want to feed them; it’s instinctive. If we have had an experience of the love of God, we can respond directly with prayers of gratitude, but the feeding has to take another form. We can’t feed God, who already owns the whole earth. But we can feed God’s people.

I read a poem this week by Edwina Gately:

Often we anxiously seek the will of God,
as if God had gleefully hidden dreams for us
deep in unfathomable places.
As if it were God's intention
that our whole lives be spent
in endless searching for signs and directions
buried in obscurity.
The will of God is that which brings us
peace and fullness of life.
The will of God is the seed of our dreams
ever gestating with possibility
and longing to leap forward
scattering new and surprising blessings
in our gray reality. ~ Edwina Gately

The will of God is that which brings us peace and fullness of life. The will of God is the seed of our dreams. We are in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign, at the heart of which is a plan to meet with and interview all our members to find out what your dreams are for our congregation. How do you see us responding to the love of God? What seeds has God planted in your hearts for our lives together? We gather around the table this morning, a reminder that our faith is about bodies, yours and mine and those of the strangers we have not yet met. Our God has shown steadfast love to us. How will we love, pray and eat together? How will we, who have experienced the saving love of God in our very bodies, tend the bodies of the rest of God’s children? How will we, who have been fed, seek to feed God’s people? The will of God is that which brings us peace and fullness of life. The will of God is the seed of our dreams. Let’s dream together, God’s dream for our church. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 49.

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