Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Good Company: Sermon for Halloween/ All Saints

Just over two weeks ago, on a blustery October night, six youth and three adults from St. Sociable found themselves wandering through wooded paths encountering ghosts, chainsaw-wielding madmen, extraordinarily creepy clowns, and other things that went “bump” in that rainy night. We were at “Scary Zoo Night,” and I can assure you, there was much, much screaming as well as much laughter. At one bend in the road we found ourselves face to face with a fortune-teller, and it didn’t take long before the youngest among us noticed that the woman in the turban said virtually the same thing to each person whose palm she read: we all had undergone, or were about to undergo, “change.” Beside her, on the floor, sat an enormous stuffed bull’s head, which, we were informed, was all that remains of her husband “Bruce.” I can only assume Bruce underwent a change as well.

Halloween is all around us—it has been for many weeks—and I have to confess, it’s a holiday I’ve loved ever since I was a little child and my mother dressed me as a drum majorette and told me I could have lots of candy, all at once. There is something about giving ourselves over, both to fantasy and to the opportunity to become just a little scared, that can make for a truly exciting experience. All in a completely safe environment, of course. Halloween is celebrated primarily in the US, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and there’s a very good reason for that. The roots of Halloween are found of the Celtic celebration of Samhain.

Samhain is a festival marking the end of the harvest—it has been described as one of the two great “doorways” of the Celtic year. The Celts have traditionally recognized two seasons: the season of light and the season of darkness. Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, is a transition between those two seasons. In Celtic spirituality, it is believed that these turning points—from light to dark and back again in the spring—mark a time when the barriers between this world and the next become thin. All around us we see that things are dying—food crops and flowers and the leaves on the trees and even animals. From ancient times, the Celts have believed that this thin time is a time when those in the next world could reach back and reappear in this one.

The ancient Celts marked this time in a number of ways that will be familiar to us. They burnt bonfires, a custom that is still strong in the Irish and Scots countryside. They wore masks and costumes to imitate or sometimes placate the dead who might decide to reappear. And they hollowed out large turnips, and carved faces in them, and used them as lanterns.

Samhain marked another turning point as well. It marked the turning from the outdoors to the indoors, when the vast expanse of green fields was replaced by the dim and smoky room, and the song of birds and insects was replaced by the conversation of friends and family around the hearth. [1] It wasn’t all fear and mischief; it was a time when communities gathered closer together.

As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic world, many of the customs of Samhain were adapted into the new Christian context. 16th century Scotland introduced the name “All-Hallows-Even” to the festival, connecting it to the Christian feast of All Saints, which took place the next day, November 1.

Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon ostensibly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? First, I should probably say a bit about the difference between the Protestant understanding of “All Saints” and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic understanding. The Roman and Orthodox Catholic understanding saints in this way: saints are those who have lived (and died) in exemplary ways, and one is only named a saint after lengthy consultation, trials, and miraculous confirmation. The Protestant understanding is different. We understand “saints” to be the community of all believers—past, present and future.

And so I ask again: Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon allegedly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? For me the common root, oddly enough, is in fear.

When I was a child and it grew dark on Halloween night, I was filled with a sweet excitement that had just a little to do with fear. Would I see a ghost? Would it be a friendly one? Or would it make my hair stand on end with fright? On Halloween I think we deliberately evoke a sense of fear in ourselves. Why is that? Is it an entirely sensory, visceral experience we’re after? Is it the same thing that drives us to get on roller coasters that spin us upside down and make us dizzy? Or is there something more to it?

The thing we “fear” on Halloween, if anything, is that otherworldly connection, the thinness between this world and the next that we are warned of from ancient times. What if we do see a ghost? What would that mean?

Writer Kathleen Norris talks about her experience of joining a Presbyterian church in her little North Dakota town. She recalls the morning she walked into church to become a member of that particular outpost of the church universal:

It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church, and I found that the sub-zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake… I still felt like an outsider in the church, and wondered if I always would…

Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. He’d always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small-mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.” The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine—neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.

I don’t think it’s any accident that on the day before we celebrate All Saints—that day on which we recognize that we are one in the body of Christ—popular culture engages in an exercise of fear. Just for fun, mind you—because none of us really expects to be confronted with the ghost of Great Aunt Lucy looking for that naughty child she remembers. We engage in a playful re-creation of fear, but not because we’re afraid of the ghosts and goblins that might be hiding under our beds. We engage with fear because other people are scary. Their emotions, and their needs, and their differences from us, and their ways of being in the world. If people are unfamiliar to us, if they are new, and different, and just a tiny bit outside our own personal mold—we leave our comfort zones and step into a new world at the moment when we are commanded, not to like, but certainly, to love all those whom Christ puts in our path.

And Christ puts everyone into our path, and commands us to love them. All those poor, hungry, weeping, hated people from our reading in Luke—all those who are most assuredly a part of this great communion of saints, because didn’t Jesus just say so? And we, by virtue of our membership that same communion, are under orders to love. Maybe you don’t find that scary. I do. I doubt my ability to do it. I question my moral courage to really love people who are unlike me. I stand with my knees shaking at the very thought of it. Maybe you do, too.

If so, we’re in good company. Some of the people we think of as showing the greatest, most astonishing levels of love in their service of humanity were clear-eyed realists regarding how very difficult that mandate can be. Mother Teresa of Calcutta revealed just how trying she sometimes found it when she spoke of “loving until it hurts.” But she found the way through that difficulty too. “I have found the paradox,” she said, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”

In our celebration of the feast of All Saints we are called to recognize the unsettling, even scary reality of our connection to one another, our utter interdependence. As I heard a wise man say recently, we can’t get away from one another. And we can look at that and tremble, even as we recognize that now, the world seems larger, opened in a new way. The command to love our enemies takes on a different light when we begin to understand that our enemy is part of the same body that we are, that we depend on one another, that we are swimming in the same pool.

Tonight many of us will welcome little zombies and werewolves and vampires—as well as princesses and Lady Gaga’s and even (God help us) Snooki’s as they wander the streets in search of treats. If we look closely, they will all be there—the characters we admire as well as the ones we revile and, indeed, the ones who leave us completely and utterly stumped (which is my position on Snooki). They will all be there—the vast array of humanity, perhaps in cartoonish exaggeration. But a nice reminder, if we will be reminded, that people as well as trick-or-treaters come in more varieties than we can imagine, and we, by virtue of our status as saints of God, are commanded to love them all. Scary, perhaps. But thrilling, in a way that opens the world up, makes it larger. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mara Freeman, “The Celtic Year: Samhain,” at, 1999.
[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 141-142.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Testimony of Truth: Stewardship Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:6-18

We’ve had some fun doing this before, so why not do it again? Famous last words. Silent screen actor Douglas Fairbanks said, “I’ve never felt better.” Lady Astor, when she opened her eyes to see her entire family gathered around her bed said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Thomas Edison, speaking to his wife, assured her he was not in pain, and then said, “It is very beautiful over there.” And Union General John Sedgwick scoffed at Confederate sharpshooters, saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

There’s something compelling about the last words we utter. Ideally, I think each of us would like to say something that wraps things up in a neat package—our life, the short version. The things that matter to us. The way we would like to be remembered. Vital information for everyday living for those we love.

All of these are present in the Second letter to Timothy, a letter written as Paul’s farewell valediction to one of his closest companions and co-workers. Often, reading a New Testament epistle feels like what it is: a visit to some middle section of a theological treatise. But the passage we read today really feels like a letter, like a last letter, like the last words written (as they may well be) by this man who is at least as responsible for Christianity as Jesus.

Just a quick recap. Paul has been traveling around Asia Minor and Europe on his self-imposed mission to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Christianity began, of course, as the offspring of Judaism—Jesus was an observant, faithful Jew every day of his life—and the early church debated whether those outside that covenant community could be brought in. But eventually Jesus’ own words and actions guided the early church into opening up the table and offering the good news to all people, regardless of their religion or country of origin. This is the background for the situation in which Paul finds himself when writing this letter to Timothy.

The opening words of our passage say it plainly—“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” This sentence is a mixture of so many emotions—wistful and proud, matter-of-fact and defiant. Now, Paul is in jail. Now, Paul has been tried and found guilty. Now, Paul faces the death penalty for his crime. Though there are no existing New Testament writings that detail Paul’s trial and its outcome, it’s safe to assume he was convicted of roughly the same crime as Jesus—most likely, sedition. In a country where the emperor is regarded as a god, no other loyalties are permitted, even the worship of an unseen, transcendent deity. Paul, by his unwavering witness, has sealed his own death warrant.

And yet, his words show not only acceptance, but even a kind of satisfaction. “I am being poured out as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually wine, poured out in honor of a divine being. Paul’s life is being poured out for Christ, for the gospel message that has formed the cornerstone of his life. To be a libation is to be a part of a celebration, to be part of a worship service. Paul’s death will be his final act of worship in this life. And Paul betrays no anxiety about facing death here. Paul shows absolute trust that God is pleased with his offering, the gift of his life for the spread the gospel.

The next section of our passage takes on a slightly different tone. Here, perhaps, the bravado of the first paragraph falters a bit. Yes, Paul is confident of God’s approval of him. Yes, he is joyful to be poured out as a libation. But here the painful reality of his situation breaks through. It’s not that he is going to die that bothers him. It’s that he’s going to die alone. His friends are, for the most part, nowhere to be found. He ticks off a list of where his co-workers have gone, and it sounds a little like the stereotypical mother joke—insert your preferred ethnicity here, in my family it would be the Polish or Irish mother—moaning “They never call, they never write.” He is particularly bitter about those he feels have deserted him. Paul makes requests, and they sound urgent—bring this, bring that, but mostly, bring yourself. Don’t leave me alone.

And in a moment, he is himself again—his friends may have fallen away, but God never deserted him. “…The Lord stood by me,” Paul writes, “and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” This is a remarkable statement. Of course, we know that for many Christians their punishment was to be thrown into the ring with hungry animals who would tear them apart. Paul is spared this because he is a Roman citizen, so will undergo the more dignified punishment of being beheaded. Still, I don’t think he is speaking literally when he boasts of avoiding the lions. I think he is giving thanks for having been able to be faithful to the gospel message—for not succumbing to the temptation to recant, to back off, but rather, staying true, even in the face of death. This is Paul’s testimony of truth. He has remained true, and God has remained true to him. In these last words Paul shares his gratitude for the privilege of sharing the gospel, no matter where it has brought him.

Paul’s life in a nutshell: Jesus showed himself to Paul, and Paul spent the rest of his life showing Jesus to the whole world. Even in his last words to his friend Timothy, Paul takes pains to show God’s faithfulness to him throughout his trials. God has saved me, Paul declares. God is faithful. God will remain so. This is the great reality of Paul’s life.

So how to capture the great reality of our lives here at our church? Well, one way is by virtue of a mission statement. And ours has something in common with Paul’s:

“As members of St. Sociable, we live to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world. We unite our spirits in faithful, loving commitment to this calling in Jesus Christ and, as a church family, we celebrate the Kingdom of God.”

Like Paul, we celebrate God’s love and faithfulness. Like Paul, we seek to bring this love to others—to go beyond ourselves, and our little neck of the woods. In fact, we seek to bring it to the whole world. And—like Paul, this necessitates footwork on our part, and taking risks, and pouring ourselves out, in many different ways. One way we pour ourselves out is by our financial support of the church. Whether we tithe—and there are those among us who do—or whether we determine what we offer by other means, the financial gifts we make are tremendously important to the work we are able to do here.

Many of you are aware that St. Sociable has been most generously blessed with the gifts of benefactors who came before us. Our endowment funds bear names like Name1 and Name2 and Name3, and each fund reminds us of some individual or family who believed the work of our church was good work, and the task of sharing the gospel with the whole world merited a generous gift on their part to make it possible. Sometimes I imagine church members might wonder—if we have endowments, then why is my gift needed? It’s a fair question. I suppose we could depend even more heavily on our endowments than we do. When I arrived at St. S. just 35% of our annual budget came from what I think of as “living gifts”—annual pledges of our members and friends, while 55% of our annual budget came from income from our endowments—the gifts of our ancestors. It was and is my strong opinion that we need to flip those numbers—that a vital, thriving ministry is only possible if the members and friends of St. Sociable are giving more than those who came before. And we are making progress.

I recognize that this is an ambitious goal. I recognize that this means our church members and friends giving at a greater level. But I also recognize that this is a church with a tremendously generous heart. And I believe that the giving I have witnessed here—the giving of people’s time to visit one another, to bring communion to the homebound, or to throw a wonderful coffee hour; the giving of people’s talent to make our worship service beautiful or to ensure that our physical plant is running well—all that giving sets a tone. All that giving sings a message loud and clear: we believe in St. Sociable. We believe in our mission to serve God and one another and the entire hurting world. We believe that this work is worthwhile.

On his deathbed, another great silent film star Charlie Chaplin was speaking with a priest who had come to administer last rites. The priest concluded, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Chaplin replied, “Why not? It’s His, after all.” This is the very heart of the message Paul shared, whether it was with his friend Timothy or the thousands who heard him preach or worked with him to found faith communities. We belong to God, heart and soul, mind and body. Paul knew that in his last moments on earth. Let us know that, too, every day. We belong to God, completely. That is the greatest good news we can hear. And it doesn’t depend on our goodness or our intelligence or our talent or our imagination or our prayer life or our financial contributions to this church or to public radio. It depends only on the endless, bottomless, grace-filled love of God. God, who is faithful and true, will remain with us, and stand by us. We belong to God. Thanks be. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling With the Truth: Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

Some relationships seem to be doomed from the get-go. Take these fraternal twin brothers, Jacob and Esau—sons of Isaac, grandsons of Abraham. As we stumble upon this scene from their drama, Jacob and his entire household—wives, servants, children, livestock—are on the run from the brother who is bearing down upon him with an army of four hundred men. Jacob has already divided his retinue, figuring, well, if Esau catches up with us, he can wipe out half, and the other half will be left alive—a strategic move made only by one who is certain disaster is approaching. He has sent a portion of his wealth ahead as a gift —hundreds of goats and rams and camels and cattle. Well, really, it’s a bribe. A bribe whose message to his brother reads, “Please don’t kill me.” Finally, Jacob has decided the only way he can protect his family is to send them to the other side of the river, and face whatever is coming—whatever he has coming to him—alone. This is where our reading begins.

How did things get this bad between these two who share much of the same DNA? How did a bond so often used as a metaphor to indicate connection manage to sink to this dreadful nadir for Jacob and Esau? This moment in which one of them is essentially waiting to be killed by the other? One answer is, it seems to have been their destiny. They are already wrestling with one another in the womb, to such an extent that their mother Rebekah utters a prayer that could be summed up, “Kill me now.” She asks God for illumination about these prenatal warriors, and is told, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided…” (Genesis 25:23). And thus they are born, fighting even as they first see the light of day—first Esau, hairy and red, and then Jacob, holding on tight to his brother’s heel, unwilling to give up the fight, just one minute old.

Things don’t improve. Next comes a scene from their adolescence, when the characters of the young men are being established. Enter Esau, the hunter, the outdoorsman, the eldest with all the rights and privileges associated with that. Those privileges include the right to inherit double the amount of any other siblings. But Jacob, evidently a decent cook and more of a homebody, has his own talents, which include an unerring sense of when the time is right to make a bargain. Esau comes in after a day in the field, and he is famished. Jacob has made some lentil stew. Esau asks for a bowl. Jacob agrees, but the price is this: he wants Esau’s birthright. Esau, not the pointiest arrow in the quiver, agrees without hesitation. What a steal!

Fast-forward to young adulthood. Isaac, recognizing that his life is drawing to a close, asks for a gift of a special meal, hunted by the eldest, Esau, Isaac’s favorite. But Rebekah has her own favorite, Jacob, and she recognizes the significance of the moment: Isaac is preparing to bestow his fatherly blessing on his firstborn, a once-in-a-lifetime gift, which can be given only to one person. With Rebekah’s help, Jacob disguises himself as his brother and steals the blessing. Esau’s cries of despair and rage when he learns what his brother has done make for chilling reading. Immediately, Jacob hightails it out of town.

Which brings us to today’s scene. Jacob is on the run. He has recently been on the run from his father-in-law—another totally dysfunctional family relationship, which has come to an uneasy truce. But now Jacob must come face to face with the brother from who he stole, well, just about everything. He is alone, his family removed to a somewhat safer position across the river, and night is falling.

Genesis tells us the eerie, otherworldly tale in just a few short verses. “A man,” it says, “wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” The story continues,

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” ~ Genesis 32:25-26

Jacob is not willing to let go. Whoever this is, this mysterious opponent, Jacob and the man are a pretty even match, an all-night-long-no-one-cries “uncle” match. They are well-matched for physical strength, but there’s more—they are well-matched for tenacity, for stubbornness, for unwillingness to let go, for single-minded determination to see this thing through, whatever it is. The man even manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip, with Jacob still hanging on for dear life.

I love to think of this tale being told around the campfire thousands of years ago, before anybody wrote anything down on papyrus. I imagine the storyteller painting the mysterious scene, and each person around the fire summoning up their own explanation for the otherworldly event, recognizing that, of course, there is no dearth of wrestling partners for Jacob. God, an angel, Esau himself, Jacob’s father-in-law—any one of these could have decided Jacob needed a good throw-down in view of the course his life was taking. And, in truth, I think Jacob is wrestling with all of these. I think Jacob is finally wrestling with the truth.

What is truth? Pilate famously asked the question, and then didn’t bother to wait around for Jesus to answer. It’s not hard to notice that this question is sort of obsessing us as a society right now—and, of course, as you might predict, there are always multiple versions of it floating around. There’s the Republican truth, and the Democrat truth, and now, the Tea Partier truth. There’s the pro-natural gas drilling truth and the “no hydrofracking” truth. There’s the person of faith’s truth and the atheist truth and the agnostic truth. Now, in many of these instances, each one of us may privately be pretty sure which one is the real deal, the real truth, but… it’s not always easy.

Take Jacob and Esau, these men whose conflict seems to have been predestined. Here’s Esau’s truth: his younger brother violated both social norms and his (Esau’s) property rights, leaving him both economically and spiritually impoverished. Here’s Jacob’s truth: God chose him to be the father of a great nation, and everything he did served that end. I can’t help feeling this: throughout that long night, as Jacob wrestled with the elusive, mysterious man, and the sweat poured off both of them, and time was suspended as the stars wheeled slowly across the heavens, I can’t help feeling that Jacob wrestled with the knowledge that he had caused his brother pain, and that he had taken something from his brother that could not be restored, not even with a nifty cattle bribe.

Jacob leaves the wrestling match with his hip out of joint—an injury that will remind him of this night for the rest of his days. He also walks away with a new name, Israel, which is sometimes translated as “he wrestles with God,” but which may also mean, “God wrestles.” And as important as that name is, and historic, and central to the faith that you and I profess, my favorite part of the story was left out of our passage this morning. My favorite part of the story is the moment when the two men are, at last, face to face, and Jacob is waiting for either the arrow to pierce his heart or the sword to lop off his head. And instead, his big brother runs to him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and the two men weep.

What is truth? The truth, here, turns out to be grace: pure, unexpected, undeserved forgiveness. It’s not about who’s right. It’s not about who wins. It’s not about bribes or superior forces or anything other than the turning of a heart from anger to love, from a desire for vengeance to a desire for union. Or, in this case, reunion.

As Presbyterian Christians, this goes right to the heart of our faith. Forgiveness, as Jesus so annoyingly said, seven times a day for that person who has harmed us seven times in that day. Forgiveness, as in God looking at each one of us and seeing only a beloved child, rather than the wavering, wandering, recalcitrant beings we so often know ourselves to be. Forgiveness, as in a brother looking at another brother and saying “All that is behind us now. Let’s not talk about it any more.” Grace. None of us earns it. Someone gives it. And the whole world is changed in an instant. Instead of a bloody battle, we have a family reunion, and Jacob’s next project when they finally pitch camp again: building an altar to the God Who Wrestles.

This morning we have embarked on a particular season in the life of the church, the season of Stewardship. Our theme this year is “The Giving Spirit,” and it’s evocative of so many aspects of our lives together. I believe a giving spirit is usually also a forgiving spirit, because forgiveness requires a certain generosity of heart, whether we are forgiving a debt or forgiving a hurt. For today, I’ll just say this: with a giving and forgiving spirit, all kinds of things are possible and all kinds of transformations really happen.

All kinds of things are possible—even for relationships that seem doomed from the get-go. All kinds of transformations really happen—even in places where the anger runs deep, and the hurt is old. All kinds of possibilities open up—even, or especially, in places we never expected. We live in grace. That’s our truth. And it’s at the heart of the faith we profess. Thanks be to our wholly gracious God. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Be Where You Are: Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1-7

I grew up with a mother who always gave the impression she was in our beautiful seaside town under protest. While I was grateful and thrilled to be on the beach every day all summer long, and in the ocean most of that day, my mom never got over the loss of the home she truly loved: a city block in South Philadelphia. Mom complained bitterly about the trees at the shore (and we didn’t have that many, to be honest). She claimed that if you placed her between two trees she promptly got lost. I loved sand between my toes and the smell of salt in the air. Mom loved the sound of the trolley bell and the hard pavement beneath her feet. It was an odd situation for a child: My mom was not at home in our home.

Years later I had a tiny taste of what my mother experienced. I had lived in BeanTown 12 years when we decided to move to this place so that my then-husband could go to graduate school. I was a stay-at-home mom with an almost-three-year-old, and I was leaving almost everyone and everything I loved… friends, colleagues, our faith community. I told myself it would be fine, it would just be for a few years. And when I arrived here, I’ll be honest, there were a few months of real loneliness, true displacement. I remember driving my red Volvo 240 to the park with Larry in his car seat, listening to music I associated with BeanTown friends, and wondering, would I ever feel at home in this new place? Twenty years later, not only is this my home, it is my beloved home. I’ve lived her longer than I lived anywhere, including the house I grew up in. My mom was never able to feel at home in the town where I grew up. I found my true home here in this community.

What makes a place “home”? And what does it mean to lose a home, a sense of being in the “place just right”? We read stories about people losing their homes fairly regularly—whether we are thinking about the those displaced by the mudslide in Oaxaca, Mexico, or people whose homes were taken by foreclosure, the Native Americans forced onto the Trail of Tears, or the thousands of people who are still not able to return to the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. My mother and I were both able to participate in the decisions that led to our leaving one home to try to find another. The most devastating stories of exile are the stories of those who had no choice. They are the stories like the one found in this morning’s scripture passage.

Our passage is from a section of Jeremiah called the “Book of Consolation.” It contains words of encouragement from God to the exiles—those described in verse 1: “the remaining elders among the exiles… the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” One professor of Hebrew Scriptures describes the exile this way:

It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world.

Imagine if their story was our story:

Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh have been separated from their families and exiled as well.
There is one piece of the ancient Hebrews’ experience that is not translatable to our diverse and multicultural 21st century experience: the loss of the Temple. At the same moment the Babylonian armies killed or carried off the learned and artisan classes, they also destroyed Solomon’s magnificent Temple, including, presumably, the contents of the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. The Babylonians trashed the place that was believed to hold, to house God’s very presence on earth. The tangible expression of God’s care and protection was obliterated. * (After delivering the sermon, I was informed that there is indeed a modern day equivalent of the Temple, the Holy of Holies: Yankee Stadium.)

Jeremiah, responding to this devastating situation, sends this message by royal emissary:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. ~Jeremiah 29:4-7

To people who are still mourning the homes from which they have been torn, God says: build new ones. To people who remember with tears the backbreaking labor they put into cultivating the land, God says: plant more crops, and then eat them. To people who look at their neighbors with suspicion and dread, God says: get to know them. More than that, marry them, and have children, and let your children marry. More than that: pray for them, pray for your captors, the Babylonians.

I believe there is a fairly profound and simple truth at the heart of God’s instructions to the exiles—simple, though not necessarily easy. You have to be where you are. For some reason, this truth dawned on me fairly quickly when I was a young mom riding around the Southern Tier with a toddler in the back of my car. I realized I needed to be at home, wherever I was—I am not, by nature, a transient creature. And so, before I’d given it much thought, I was trying out for the Madrigal Choir, and running for a seat on the pre-school board. I knew if I wanted to be happy, I needed to start acting as if this was home. Before long, I wasn’t acting any more.

This truth holds at a deeper level, as well. “Be where you are” is a kind of catch phrase expressing what Buddhists call mindfulness, the practice of being truly aware. Buddhism is organized around the basic principle that life is hard—people find themselves “exiled” in all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of reasons, and there are ways to cope that help us to wear our difficulties more lightly. Perhaps ironically, mindfulness, paying attention, is one such strategy. And it’s surprisingly easy to do. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh gives these instructions:

Every time you feel lost, alienated, or cut off from life, or from the world, every time you feel despair, anger, or instability, practice going home. Mindful breathing is the vehicle that you use to go back to your true home.

You don’t have to do anything very special. You just become aware of the fact that you are breathing in. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out… and suddenly I find I am totally alive, totally present. And this everyone can do, and it makes a big difference. Our true home is life, and life is in the present moment, in the here and the now. That is the address of true life.

Something like this can happen when we turn our attention to our own spiritual disciplines, when we pray, when we practice experiencing the presence of God, simply enjoying God’s company. We recognize that we are home, our true home. And here is the other level at which this truth operates: if we are going to “be where we are,” we also have to be willing to “start where we are.” I’ve been talking with a small group about the challenge of incorporating things like prayer into our daily lives. It’s not easy. One of the reasons it’s not easy is that we have this preconceived notion of where we “should be” what we “should be doing,” and it feels so far removed from what we are actually doing, it paralyzes us. I see my ideal round of spiritual disciplines as including daily prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and walking—but if I’m not yet doing all of these, I can feel so overwhelmed it stops me in my tracks from trying to do any of these.

The answer to this conundrum is to start where we are. If we want to pray, then we pray today—without reference to or criticism of whether or not we prayed yesterday. If we want to read scripture, we open the book today—we don’t give up because today’s Friday and we didn’t do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. We start where we are, because today is our true home. We start where we are, because it’s too easy to let ourselves feel exiled from the people we want to be instead of embracing the people we actually are already. We start where we are, because this day—the planting of these bulbs, the listening to this child, the holding the hand of this parent—is all we truly have. We start where we are, because it is not God’s true desire for us to live in exile, but for us to be home—in our true home, in God, in this day, in this life—whenever and wherever and however we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor, Hebrew and Old Testament, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, at
[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions, as found at

Sunday, October 03, 2010

All That We Let In: A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

This week I came across a remarkable set of photographs, which I am now sending around the sanctuary for you to see. They are from a book called Hungry Planet. About 7 years ago, Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio set out to travel the globe to investigate what it is that people eat. They sat down with thirty families from twenty-four different countries, and they talked with one another about their lives and their work, their favorite recipes, and how they shopped for or otherwise acquired their food. Then they photographed each family with one week’s worth of the food they consume. One family from North Carolina spends $341 each week on food, and one from California spends $159. A family from Germany spends the equivalent of $500 each week, while a family from Darfur living in a refugee camp in Chad spends $1.23. There is something remarkable about the photos, seeing all those bottles of Coca Cola lined up behind the family from Mexico, and the fact that only those in Chad, and Ecuador, and Bhutan have absolutely nothing packaged or processed in their diets.

How we eat, what we eat is a common thread that binds us together as well as something that sets us apart from one another. Just listen to some of the favorite foods that were shared with the authors of the book: A family from Great Britain loves chocolate fudge cake, and a family from Mongolia treasures their recipe for mutton dumplings. The Ecuadorian family shared a recipe for potato soup with cabbage, while the family from Poland treated their guests to pig’s knuckles with carrots. The familiar and the exotic overlap in unexpected ways: a family from Beijing loves shredded friend pork with sweet and sour sauce, and the family from Mexico loves pizza, pasta and chicken. A family from Manila loves both traditional “adidas”—that is, chicken feet—and also Cheez Whiz. They eat it for breakfast.

The authors of Hungry Planet wanted to show us how, not only are new and exotic foods showing up in great abundance on our own supermarket shelves, but KFC and Coca Cola and Kraft Cheese singles are also showing up on grocery shelves from Bosnia to Bahrain. It is a hungry planet, certainly, and it is a small planet, and getting smaller as our cultures reach out and embrace one another. It is challenging to think about what we eat, and to put it in the perspective of globalization and starvation and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes in our own country. But I tend to think we’re better off, as the song says, for all that we let in. It’s good to think about these things. It’s good to think about our neighbors, those who are far off and those who are close at hand, and to see and recognize those ties that bind us closer to one another than we realize.

Each year on the first Sunday in October we observe World Communion Sunday, a day that is organized around the idea of sharing a meal together. It was first celebrated at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, in 1933—a year that’s been called the darkest year of the Great Depression, and a time when Nazism was on the rise in Europe. (Extremist responses to economic crises are nothing new.) The people of Shadyside felt a celebration emphasizing Christian unity would provide encouragement, and solace, and a sense that the church of Jesus Christ is relevant, that it still has a word of hope to speak to a world that is feeling increasingly hopeless. And so their plan was to emphasize that unity through the sharing of a common meal, the communion meal, that meal that breaks down the walls between churches and individuals. It’s good to think about all God’s children, those who are far off and those who are close at hand, and to see and recognize those ties that bind us closer to one another than we realize. We are better off for all that we let in.

In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples cry out to Jesus with a plea: “Increase our faith!” It might interest you to know what comes immediately before this plea: Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness. “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day,” Jesus says, “and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” [Luke 17:4]. To which the disciples respond something along the lines of “Auuugggghhhh! How can we possibly do that? Increase our faith!” Forgiveness, unity, recognizing those ties that bind us close to one another, so close we that will wound one another and forgive one another—these things are central elements of the shared meal.

My family and I recently watched a film, an adult comedy (with strong language) called “City Island.” “City Island” is about a family, a family in which every single person is lying to every other person about something. Someone’s pretending they’ve quit smoking. Someone’s been kicked out of college. Someone goes off to a weekly “poker game,” but, really, he’s taking an acting class. At the beginning of the film, there is a dinner scene in which all the tension created by all the lying makes it impossible for anyone to communicate in any meaningful way. Before even a few minutes have gone by, people are yelling and storming off, leaving their dinners uneaten. (Another of the secrets is that one male family member has developed a rather strange obsession around feeding women.) Without revealing too many of the plot twists, there is a dinner scene at the end in which the relationships have been transformed, by the simple fact that everyone is telling the truth, for the first time in a long time. Forgiveness, unity, recognizing those ties that bind us close to one another, so close that we will wound one another and forgive one another—these things are central elements of the shared meal.

Finally, Jesus speaks of the table. He speaks of our need to do service around the table. He speaks of our need to be willing servants of one another, our need to pour out our lives in service with no expectation of reward. He says, “Who among you would say to your slave… ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” [Luke 17:7]. And it’s a rhetorical question, because, of course, the job of slaves—and let’s be clear, in this passage, we’re the slaves—the job of slaves is to do service. But Jesus is winking at us too. Because, in fact, that is precisely what Jesus does, what God does. The master invites the slaves to dinner. Sits us down and prepares a meal for us and serves us. But it’s not because we have faith the size of a mountain or even of a mustard seed. It’s not because of the service we do. It’s not because of anything we do at all. It’s because of who God is. It’s because of grace.

It’s no accident that thirty years ago the Presbyterian Church added the Peacemaking offering to World Communion Sunday. It is a kind of happy accident that the youth group decided to pick apples for CHOW this World Communion weekend. On the day we celebrate the gift of God’s invitation to the table, and the miracle that it binds us together with God’s children all over the world, we add the component of service by giving to those whose tables are bare. Those in refugee camps. Those with no potable water, let alone abundant stores of food. It’s not that God won’t love us unless we give or serve. God will love us, no matter what. That’s what grace is. It’s not that God won’t continue to bless us with the miracles of unity and communion through our common table. God will. But the hope is that our blessings will make us want to bless others. The gifts we receive will make us want to give. We will want to show grace. We will want to forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and to give and give and give. We will want all these things, because we have experienced all these gifts at the hand of the one who truly does say, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table.’ Thanks be to God! Amen.