Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are you ready?

Isaiah 40:1-5, 11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

Are you ready for Christmas?  Don’t you just hate when people ask you that?   NO, I’m not ready.  Do you have any idea what all it’s going to take for me to be ready?   The silliness of some people!   Don’t they know that December is the busiest month of the year in the church?

Take yesterday, for example.  Here, in this building, we had four different events going on.  Early in the morning, Pastor Josue’s congregation met to pack food boxes to take out to the barrio.  Meanwhile, downstairs Jane Ono and friends were setting up for a Holiday Bazaar to benefit the Relay for Life, while Vonnie and I were up here getting ready for the Community Church Open House.  After those events ended, there was time for a breather before the final rehearsal for the Community Choir Christmas Cantata - and then the performance, which was awesome, by the way!   Meanwhile, our CWF Esther Circle met and collected soap and shampoo for the Selma Convalescent Hospital, there was a performance of the Nutty Nutcracker at the Arts Center, and families could get free Santa pictures in the park.  Those are just the things I know about - I’m pretty sure there was more going on here and there around town that I don’t know about or forgot.   

Usually when people want to know whether you are ready for Christmas they are asking about things like, are your decorations up?  How far along are you on gift shopping?  Are you baking?  How’s that coming along?  Family dinner plans going well?   Did you get your cards out yet?   (My answers are Yes, I have purchased 1 gift, I made cookies for yesterday and I think people liked them, I don’t have a family, and Cards?  I set them out on my desk and that’s where they sit.  Again.  As usual. *sigh*)

But I don’t really think of Advent and Christmas in quite those terms.  Oh, I know that is what most people are thinking of, but I’m one of those odd people who live by the Church calendar.  I select outfits for church based on the color stole I will be wearing in any particular season.  I often have to be reminded about National Holidays.  In December, when everyone else is looking at end of year stuff, and Christmas of course, I am living in a New Church Year, and preparing for the new thing God has already done for us and still has in mind for us.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.

When I was reading this passage during the week I happened to remember  something I saw once. I visited some people in West Virginia one time, who lived on top of a mountain.  As I drove up a very curvy, steep, scary mountain road, off to my right I could see HUGE earth movers building a new highway to ease the journey through the Appalachian mountains. . . They were absolutely the biggest machines I have ever seen before or since.   And it looked like they were driving straight up the side of the mountain, as they leveled and smoothed it.   

It had to be a really difficult road to build, because it went up the side of a mountain.  And the mountain was made of rock - not the easiest substance to dig through.  And yet, those huge machines were running up and down the side of the mountain as if they were on a plain.

At this time of year we think mostly about preparing our homes and workplaces and churches for the celebrations to come.  For the parties and dinners, for Cantatas and Concerts and Christmas Eve services.  We think about finding ways to give to our community, making donations to Selma Cares and the Salvation Army and the Selma Convalescent Hospital, serving food at the Christian Cafe, and all the other ways we try to help others at this time of year.   This is all good and important.  And all of this keeps us so busy . . . John said to me last night that he has no idea how he did all of these things before he retired.  But there is more to do.   The whole making straight the way of the Lord - that’s an inside job.  

Yes,  the penalty is paid in Christ.  Yes, our sins are forgiven.   But just because we are forgiven, we don’t get to just sit back and coast.  We can’t just pray to be made new and have our life change.  We have to do the work of changing ourselves.   Because making straight the way of the Lord happens first.   Then we see the Lord’s glory.  Making straight the way of the Lord is not about following certain rules or adhering to particular sets of beliefs.  It’s about becoming new people, different people, preparing the way of the Lord in us, in our hearts, in our minds.  We become new people by digging out our own sins and defects of character, - judgmentalism, jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, fear - all of those things that keep us from having peaceful hearts, just as the earth-movers in West Virginia dug out the rocks and debris that were in the way of a straight highway.  And replacing those things with virtues like acceptance, love, generosity, willingness.  As we do this, we begin to change, and those changes show on the outside.  When the changes are made, we can know peace in our hearts.  We can experience serenity.   We become the kind of Christians hymns are written about, who are known by their love.   Once we have changed ourselves, we are better prepared to change the world.  And make no mistake, It is our job as Christians to change the world, to heal it, to make it into the Beloved Community that God so desires for us.  

We begin changing the world by learning to accept others where they are.  Not coming up with the right arguments to persuade them to our way of thinking, but working on really understanding where they are coming from.  Finding out why they feel or believe what they do.   Finding out what our real differences are.  And then trying to find a point where we can have conversation and begin to understand each other.  In today’s climate of division, fear, and hatred, that seems like an almost impossible task.  But it is our job to try, to do our best to be reconciled with each other so that all of us together can be reconciled with God.  We have to be willing to try to understand the other, to listen to each other, really listen.  This is difficult.  Most of us listen just long enough to figure out how we are going to respond.   Even after listening and coming to a place where we have some understanding of each other, we still may not be able to agree.  But we don’t have to agree.  We simply need to be able to live together peacefully.  

Because, you see, if we can live together peacefully, if we can all learn to accept one another as beloved children of God, then much of the anger and animosity that is present in our world will go away.  I know.  Wishful thinking on my part.  But I believe in miracles. I believe that we are capable of creating the Beloved Community.  I believe that a day will come when no one need fear walking alone or driving while Black or being transgender. I believe that a day will come when slavery is ended everywhere forever, and all people truly have equal rights.  I believe that one day we will live in a world where the hungry can be fed, the sick can be healed, the lonely and bereaved can know they are loved.   I believe that one day, when the way of the Lord has been made straight, the Glory of the Lord will be revealed and we will live in the Peaceful Kingdom, here on the earth.

Today’s Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that the time is near.  It is the beginning of another new year in Christ.  It is time to once again read the prophets and hear their words, follow their directions, be the people Jesus, our Lord, calls upon us to be.   It is time to change, to prepare the way for the Lord, for the day of the Lord is upon us.   Let us go from this place, willing to change ourselves, and our world. Let us go forth, to proclaim the Good News, speaking words of comfort to all the people of God.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Waiting - hopefully

 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 NRSV

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Happy Advent!  It is the beginning of a new season.  Turkey comas are a thing of the past, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are, thankfully, behind us.  The air is filled with Christmas music and my neighbors seem to be competing in the annual “Highest PG&E bill at the end of December” contest.   Bushes, trees and the eaves of houses are weighted down with miles and miles of lights, while projected light displays play on the fronts of homes.  It is not at all uncommon to see Nativity scenes sharing yard space with Sponge Bob Santa, Rudolph, and the Grinch.   Likewise, in some municipalities religious symbols share space with more secular decorations.  For example, for many years the center of the traffic circle in Old Town Orange displayed a Nativity Scene, a giant lighted Menorah, and a Santa house.  I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know for sure whether they still do that.  But it’s pretty common to see both Santa Christmas and Jesus Christmas in decorations in homes and public spaces.   And no  - there are not two different Christmases, just two different ways of focusing on and thinking about the holiday.)  In other countries and cultures, the birth of the Christ and the gift giving day are completely different - often gifts are exchanged on St Nicholas Day, December 6, and Christmas Day is strictly a religious holiday.  But in the U.S. we do it all at once.  So it’s really no wonder that we get Jesus and Santa confused sometimes.

Not at church, though.  At church we only do Jesus Christmas. 

I must admit, when I first saw the decorations in our church this year I was a bit taken aback.   To me, it looked like a mixture of Jesus Christmas and Santa Christmas in the sanctuary.   We have trees and ribbons and toy soldiers and reindeer and family pictures and a fireplace . . . and Advent candles and greenery and wreaths . . . all in one place.  It was disconcerting, at best.   It is not churchy.  And everyone knows that we can only have churchy stuff in church.  I know that I can be a bit rigid about churchy stuff - like the colors we decorate in for the different seasons, and using Advent music during Advent, and so on.  

But  there are a couple of things that I know. I know that rigidity is not a good thing.  I know that when we say “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We’ve never done it this way.” that we are saying we are unwilling to consider different ways of doing things, that we are stuck in the what used to be, and not ready to head into what is coming.   Those two phrases have been the death knell for entirely too many congregations.  So I started to think a bit more about the decorations that we can see all around us today. 

I don’t know about you all, but I learned about Mary and Joseph and the birth of the Christ Child and the Magi and shepherds and angels and all of that at home, from my parents, probably in front of the fireplace in our living room, with its mantle covered in family photos.  One of our favorite Christmas activities was setting up the Nativity scene in the living room, and telling the story to each other again.  Even playing the parts as we set each character in its place. (Not Baby Jesus, though.  He didn’t get set out until Christmas morning.)  I learned about Santa from them, too, and later I learned how to “help” Santa.  You know, like the way we all help Santa - and Jesus -  by bringing in canned tomatoes and toys to be distributed to families in need by Selma Cares.    We, the people of this congregation, think of ourselves as a family.  Our gathering here together is a family gathering, and maybe we can think of this space as kind of God’s living room. We call it God’s House, after all.   So maybe, maybe this living room up here isn’t such a stretch after all.   Maybe it’s good to be reminded that Jesus Christmas is in our homes as well as in our church. 

One thing that this lovely display surely reminds us of is waiting.  That’s what we do during Advent. We wait, and prepare, and hope.  Some of us are waiting to see what will appear under the tree on Christmas Day.  Some are preparing for the cantata and for welcoming visitors to the Community Church Open house and for all the many events going on in town over the next few weeks - not to mention family dinners and parties at work.  And all of us, hopefully, are waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ.  Not the child. We will celebrate his birthday, of course, but we know he has come. We know the story of his birth and his ministry, his death and his resurrection.  What we are waiting for now is for his return, for that day when all will be set right. What we are working toward now, is the setting right of the world, as we are directed to do by God.

As I thought about how we wait and hope for the return of the Christ into the world, I happened to think of this little dog.  Generations of music lovers will recognize this picture as the logo for RCA Music since 1899.  “His Master’s Voice” was painted by English artist Francis Barraud, who noticed that the little dog he inherited from his brother Mark loved listening to recordings of Mark’s voice.   I have seen cats and dogs respond the same way to answering machines when they hear their human’s voice coming out of that little box.  Nipper the dog is fascinated, listening to the voice of his master even though he cannot see him, even though he has gone and not returned - yet.  He is hopeful, always, because that’s just how dogs are.

We have heard our Master’s Voice, and no, we can’t see him anymore than Nipper can see Mark Barraud.  We know that our Master, Jesus the Christ, has left this earth.  But we also know he will return, because he promised that he would.   We wait and we hope, but we cannot just wait passively.  While we wait, we must be about the work of setting the world right.   According to N.T. Wright, in his study guide for the book of Acts, “The gospel is all about God putting the world right — his doing so in Jesus, his doing so at the end, and his doing so for individuals in between, as both a sign and a means of what is to come. . .we are the people in and through whom God is putting into effect the setting right that happened in Jesus, and anticipating the setting right that will happen at the end.” (pg. 110) 

The putting right of the world, our part in it, is simply following the directions Jesus gave us.  It is done by simply obeying the two greatest commandment, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37b-39)  The putting right of the world means ending oppression and injustice, caring for the sick and wounded, especially those wounded by church or by people in positions of power.  One of the ways we can engage in putting the world right, just this minute, is in listening to and believing the victims of rape and assault and harassment who are coming out in public for the first time - female and male - who are gaining the courage to stand up to their abusers.  Or sharing our own stories with others.  It means telling those in power that some things simply are not acceptable, and that they can no longer get away with behaving however they want just because they are authority figures or celebrities.  

We must do these things because Jesus told us to do them.  In Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus said that blessings will fall upon those who treat everyone as if they are he.    ‘Come,” he said, “you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him,‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.  Doing these things puts the world right.  Doing these things prepares the way for the return of the Christ.   These are the things we, Christians, are called upon to do - all the time.  

And so we wait - hopefully.  We have heard our Master’s voice, and like Nipper, we wait hopefully for his return.  It could be today, or tomorrow, or in another one thousand years.  As Paul said to the church in Corinth, “ the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—  so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not know when that time will be, but we wait hopefully, working to set the world right, strengthened by our knowledge of Jesus, and by our obedience to his teachings, and we pray for him to return, saying “Come, O Long Expected Jesus.” 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Gratitude - for your love

Ephesians 1:15-23        (NRSV)  

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


Today is the last Sunday before Advent and the beginning of the New Church Year.   One of my daily meditations called it “New Church Year’s Eve,” although the author did note that we seldom celebrate with parties and fireworks.    It is also the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when you never know for whether or not folks are going to show up, especially if they travelled over the holiday.   But most importantly, it is Christ the King Sunday.  Paul said to the church is Ephesus, “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And Matthew said “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.”  (Matthew 25:31)

You know, it’s funny.  Americans don’t really do kings.  We fought two long, bloody wars in order to get and maintain our independence from kings.  When folks began talking about declaring our independence from England, others said that was against Biblical teaching, because Paul said to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)    Indeed, this passage is one which royal houses used to justify their reign over kingdoms and empires.   Because surely they would not be the rulers if God had not approved of their rule.  Oftentimes those rulers were also the head of the Church in their kingdom, particularly after the Reformation.  (Does everyone know that we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this year?)  Queen Elizabeth still is the head of the Church of England.

But we rejected kings 241 years ago, and have managed to live without them ever since.  We elect our leaders, and when it seems like too many of those leaders are related to each other, we tend to rebel against those situations.   As a society, we are kind of individualistic.   Even as Christians, we might be more focused on Jesus as personal savior than Jesus king  and ruler of the world.  We might look at religion as more personal than corporate.   That’s probably why it is so easy for us, Americans, to stay home and watch church on TV, worshipping in comfort and solitude, or go to huge congregations where we don’t have to be involved in the life of the church, where we don’t have to do anything much beyond show up and maybe sing a little, and listen, and put something in the basket.  

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus saying, “ I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  Now when Paul speaks of the love the church in Ephesus showed toward all the saints, he wasn’t talking about hugs and happy feelings.  He was talking about the actual work the church folk there were doing - feeding the hungry, welcoming newcomers, reaching out into their community to do good for others, even taking up special collections to help the people of Jerusalem and other places where there was great need.  And he gave thanks for them, because they were living the Good News.  They were returning God’s love by their faith and their actions, by their attitude of gratitude.  They were expressing their gratitude to God for Jesus in the best way they knew how, by obeying the commandments Jesus had spoken.  

There is so much more to gratitude than merely saying we are grateful for something.   When I first started writing gratitude lists I was told to only put down the things that would not happen automatically.  So, I couldn’t write down sunrise, because sunrise happens every day whether I am paying attention or not.  But I could be grateful for the beauty of the sunrise, because in the past I could not appreciate that beauty.  And then I pray, giving thanks to God for the gift of appreciation.  Paul was grateful for the church in Ephesus, for the love they expressed so beautifully through their works and faith, so he lifted them up in prayer, thanking God for them and asking God’s blessing upon them and their works.  We, too, are grateful for what we have received, so this past Thursday we sat down to meals with friends and families and gave thanks to God for all those gifts.  And on Facebook on Thursday, I saw folks posting, “If you have no where to go today, come eat with me and my family.”  These folks were truly showing their gratitude by sharing what they had with whomever showed up.

Many times we express our gratitude for others by saying “Thank you.”  Sometimes that is enough.  However, there is more to giving thanks than simply saying “Thank You.”  When I was growing up we wrote thank you notes when we received gifts.  And because my mother didn’t think simply saying, “Thank you for the gift,” was sufficient, the worst part of the day after Christmas was always the sitting down to write thank you notes that said something meaningful.  When our gratitude is great, we look for even more meaningful ways to say Thank You.  

There may be people in our lives whose love for us is shown so openly and consistently that we may not be quite sure how to express our gratitude.  So we might make a presentation to those special people.  We might even do that in the middle of a sermon.  I’d like to invite Hector and the Youth to come forward now.   

(Here the Youth make a surprise presentation of gifts to Leah Torosian and Kathleen Schales, for their great dedication and love.) 

In gratitude for their love, Paul’s prayers for the people of Ephesus are that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.  This prayer is not just for the people of the church in Ephesus, but for all of us, all members of the Church universal, all members of the body of Christ, who accept Christ as King and Lord of all, as the one who, fully human and fully divine, sits beside God showering us with blessings.

In gratitude for God’s love, for God’s gift of Jesus Christ, may we go from this place today to show our love for God, for Jesus our King, and for all of humanity.  May we go out to give thanks in the best way we know how, by sharing the love and blessings we have received with all people we meet along our way.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Gratitude - for goodness' sake

Psalm 100 NRSV 

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.


Have you ever had one of those mornings?  You know, the ones where you wake up to the reality of cats fighting for their favorite spot in your bed - on top of you? And the outfit you were going to wear has a somehow acquired a stain right on the front that you didn’t notice before?  And the tech you depend upon for pretty much everything decided it didn’t like the new operating system that was installed  automatically while you slept?  So you had to go to work extra early so your computer could talk to your iPad and make it all better?  You hope.

Oh wait, that was me.  Today.  *sigh*

On days like that, it’s a bit harder to do that gratitude list I talk about all the time.   It’s a little harder to make a joyful noise, and celebrate God - celebrate anything at all really.  As we enter the holiday season, for many people, gratitude becomes more and more difficult.   We have to work hard to focus on anything positive.   Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful in the way of Psalm 100. Sometimes we have to turn to Psalm 30, the 2nd verse, which says  “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”  Sometimes we have to be reminded of the words of American poet, Andrea Gibson, “You are not weak just because your heart feels heavy.“  

I think most of you know that my husband of 25 years died two weeks ago today.   The first week just happened to be one of those insanely busy weeks that happen to everyone, so I really didn’t get any time to think about it.  I did the things I needed to do with the insurance company and the funeral home in Florida, and then continued just doing what I do.  I was emotional and a bit over-reactive, and doing my best to hold everything together.  But Monday . . . Monday there was nothing on my calendar.   Monday I started crying, off and on, for no apparent reason.  Monday the reality hit, that the man I had spent 25 years with was gone.  We’d been apart for 3 years or so, and divorced for a year, so I was really surprised to find myself grieving so hard.  And because I am who I am, I wrote a blog post about my feelings.  And I posted it on Facebook.  And miracles started to happen.   People responded on Facebook - hundreds of them.  My phone started to ring.  Messages and texts started piling up my phone.  And all of the people who contacted me had stories to share, stories of me and Ton’Ee and how we had touched their lives together and separately.  And how, if it was so hard for them to see him go, it must be so much harder for me after all those years together.  Those calls and messages filled me with gratitude, and reminded me that, even in the worst of times, there are always things to be grateful for.  The people who called and wrote reminded me of all that was good about him, and about us, and I am so grateful for them.   

I’ve found myself being grateful for very stange things over the years that I’ve been practicing gratitude.  Things like being grateful for the flu, because it made me slow down and take care of myself.   But it’s hard, sometimes, to see past the hard stuff, the pain, the grief, and the day to day stuff we all have to deal with.  
It’s at times like this that people who do gratitude lists end up with something like this one I found on Facebook (picture attributed to a radio station KKLA 99.5 FM).  

Early wake-ups = children to love
House to clean = safe place to live
Laundry = clothes to wear
Dishes to wash = food to eat
Crumbs under the table = family meals
Grocery shopping = $ to provide for us
Toilets to clean = indoor plumbing
Lots of noise = people in my life
Endless questions about homework = kids brains growing
Sore and tired in bed = I’m still alive!

There is so much to be grateful for - so many reasons to praise our God as the psalmist did.  So many reasons, really, to make a joyful noise, to come into God’s presence singing.  This morning, when Virgie came in to my office to tell me all her good news, we shared tears of joy over the wonders and miracles of life.  There is nothing quite so wonderful as sharing our gratitude with each other.  So, although I know I already did this once this month, I’m going to ask you to share the things you are grateful for today out loud.    

I’ll start - I’ve been here as your pastor two years!  And every single day, I feel more and more strongly that I have come home, to the place I am meant to be.    I am so grateful that we found each other and that you called me to come be with you here.   (Time for people to share gratitude.)

I imagine we could go on for half the day sharing our gratitude, and I know that we will share some stories with each other during our Pot Luck. Many of us will be doing that again on Thursday as part of a Thanksgiving family tradition - in between the turkey and football or whatever your own family’s traditions are.    

As we give thanks to our God for everything we have received, may we remember those who have no where to go, no feast to eat, no family to care for them.   As we lift our voices in thanks and praise to the Lord our God, who placed us here to care for the earth and for each other, let us recall that Jesus taught us to share what we have with those who are in need; to pour out our love on those who are unloved; to reach out to the sick, the tired, the depressed with healing hands; to comfort the prisoner and the lonely.   On this Thanksgiving Sunday, let us go forth from this place to show our gratitude in very tangible ways, to those outside these doors who need our touch, our help, our love.  

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we are God’s people, God’s own beloved children, upon whom God’s blessings flow like water.  Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God, whose faithfulness is eternal, and whose grace-filled forgiveness and steadfast love endures forever.   


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Gratitude - For all that we have received

Joshua 24:1-3a, 13-25  NRSV 

24  2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.   

13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.

14 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”


It’s November.   Gratitude month.   We decorate our homes and classrooms, and the sanctuary, with the sorts of things that remind us of our history and heritage.  Of Fall and Harvest, and the super humongous meal we will be sharing in a few weeks.  I will actually be sharing several of those meals, because just about every organization I belong to is having some kind of Thanksgiving dinner event.     We complain because the stores are all Christmas-y already, and we haven’t even had our first turkey of the season yet.  We try to think of things we are grateful for, but sometimes life gets in the way, and we forget about gratitude.

Normally, when this scripture reading comes around, the focus is on that last half sentence.  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And usually the preacher talks about what it means to serve the Lord, and what false gods or idols might be taking our attention away from God.  But this time as I read it, that statement in the middle stuck out as if it had been writ large, on a billboard, with bright lights shining on it.  Verse 13. 

Thus says the Lord … 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.”

So be grateful, you silly people.  Because . . . seriously.  Did they really need to be reminded of what God had done for them?   Well, frankly, yes.  These people did nothing but complain, even with God personally guiding them into their new home.  Even though God provided manna and quail to feed them every day.  Even though God provided sweet fresh water, enough for all the people and all their livestock.   When we run into someone like this, we might say something like, “He’d complain if they hung him with a new rope.”   Now, I have no idea why someone would complain about being hanged with a new rope.  Maybe it’s scratchier around their neck than old rope?   Anyway . . .

They had so much just handed to them, but still they complained.  Still they neglected to be grateful.   Still they turned to other gods, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia and even the gods of the people whose land they had just occupied.  

There’s an old story about two friends who were shoemakers.  One was doing pretty well, while the other was less successful.  He asked his old friend for a loan so he could get a shop in a better location, and his friend, wishing all the best for him, gave him the loan.  That new location was a success, and over the years his business flourished, eventually becoming a large and very popular shoe manufacturing firm.  Meanwhile, the old friend, who still had his little shop back in the old neighborhood, was facing financial difficulties.  He went to his successful friend to ask for a small loan, and was turned down.  He did not understand.  He said, “But back in the day, I lent you that money to put down on a better location and now you are one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the country.  If I hadn’t helped, today you would have nothing.”   “I know,” said his friend.  “And I appreciate that.  But what have you done for me lately?”  

I think the people of Israel were a bit like that.  I think maybe sometimes we are a little bit like that.  I was so very grateful to qualify for student loans so that I could attend college and seminary.  I celebrated each semester when the money came to pay for tuition and books and housing and all of the other expenses involved.   Years later I am somewhat less grateful when I make that payment every month.   Truthfully, I’m not at all grateful.  I can always think of “better” things I could do with that money than pay my student loans.   But you know, I have enough.   Even after I pay the loans, I have enough to live on, and feed the cats, and keep the lights on in the Parsonage, and get a pedicure now and then.  I have all I need.  And were it not for those student loans and the education they paid for, I wouldn’t be here now.    So I really should be grateful.  

Everything we have today comes from God.  Everything that we have received throughout our lives, comes from God.    Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we think that the things we have come from our own efforts, and that we have no one to thank except ourselves.  Yes, we have worked hard to achieve all the things we have achieved.  But without God given talent, we wouldn’t be great musicians or singers or dancers.  Without God given intellect, we wouldn’t be teachers and preachers and attorneys.  Without God given compassion and care, we wouldn’t be willing to work with people less fortunate than ourselves.  Without God’s love, we wouldn’t have any love to share with others.  

“Gratitude turns what we have into all we need.”  You all know, I think, that I have a practice of writing down ten things I am grateful for every morning.  It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that coffee is almost always at the top of that list.   And we all know that coffee is a gift from God.  Sometimes I write down things, like a car that runs and my Roomba, but most of what is on my list every day can only come from God.  Bird song in the morning.  Sunrise.  Rain.  Cooler weather.  Cats.  Friends.  People who understand me.  I often note on my list that my needs are met.  Maybe I don’t have everything I want, but certainly, I have all I need, and more.    

Gratitude is more than a good feeling.  Acknowledgement of gratitude has to be more than just a list.  Gratitude is an action word.  It is something we do.  When we are grateful, we share that for which we are grateful.  We are grateful that we have enough, so we buy tomatoes to put in food boxes for those who don’t have enough.  Or toys for children who might not get a gift this Christmas otherwise.   Or we help out at Christian Cafe.  Or with food distribution at the SMART Center.  We are grateful we have furry children, so we help Second Chance Animal Shelter with donations or by volunteering.  We are grateful for our education, so we make donations to the schools we attended, or to the Disciples Mission Fund to support all of our institutions of higher education (especially Chapman University).   We are grateful for our police, and firefighters, and city workers, so we say good things about them on Facebook and support them however we can.  We are grateful God gave us voices, so we share our talent in the choir, or during congregational singing.  We are grateful we have a church home, so we show up, and we help out where ever we can.   As greeters and presiders, or decorating the sanctuary or baking cookies, or where ever our gifts and talents are needed.   

And we are grateful that someone told us about Jesus, so we share the Good News with other people.  April tells a story about telling one college classmate about Jesus while her roommate sat nearby.  And then, how her roommate turned to her and asked, “Why did you never tell me that?”  Our gratitude for God’s gifts - all of God’s gifts - should be shared, loud and proud, so that others can know how much God loves all us, and them, and all the people of the world.  

It’s Gratitude month.  Go out and be grateful.  


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Gratitude - For all the saints

 Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37  

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.[a]
Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.

He turns rivers into a desert,
    springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
    because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
    a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry live,
    and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
    and get a fruitful yield.

A couple of months ago,  Michael and Jordan talked to me about how cool it would be (for them and the choir, anyway) if every month had a theme, and how even cooler it would be if they could get the theme, the scripture readings and the sermon titles at least 2 months in advance.  And I agreed that it would be very cool indeed if that could happen.   And while normally I’d have given that very cool thing approximately the chance of a snowball in Selma in August, I decided that it would be a good discipline for me to do that.  So I did.  

Themes haven’t been that hard to come up with so far.  October was Stewardship month, of course.  December is Advent, so that’s kind of built in.  And November - well, it does have Thanksgiving right at the end, so obviously it is Gratitude month.

Now, you all know, I think, that I work hard at finding things to be grateful for.  Every morning, no matter which side of the bed I wake up on, I find 10 things to be grateful for before breakfast.  Two of them are usually coffee and cats, but hey.  They are two of my favorite things.   But this - today - is All Saints Sunday. Today is the day in our church calendar dedicated to remembering all those who have come before, who have served as guides and mentors and inspirations.  I’d like to read you an excerpt from the UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotional which I get in my email every morning.  

On November 1st, Emily C. Heath, Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, wrote:   Martin Luther famously said that while we live we are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We are imperfect and messy, prone to doing all the wrong things, and completely hapless. And yet, we are also the beloved children of God, trying every day to get it just a little more right. In other words, we are human beings who are alive.

Protestants believe something else, too. We believe that when we die we join the Communion of Saints. Far from a club for people who lived perfect lives, or believed without doubt, sainthood is a state achieved not by works but by dying in the hope of Christ's grace and love. 

So when I talk about someone who has passed, and refer to them as one of the saints of the church, we are not to consider all the things they may have done wrong, but celebrate the one thing they did right for sure - died in the hope of Christ’s grace and love.   

Today I would like to do something a little different.  We have already lifted up the names of our loved ones for prayer and remembrance.  What I would ask of you now is to tell us about some of the saints of the Church - maybe this congregation, maybe another one.  I would like us to share our gratitude for the people who have gone before us, who have inspired and encouraged us.  I would like to begin.

My brother Nick - who is probably rolling on the floor of heaven laughing at being called a saint of any kind - but who throughout his lifetime helped me whenever I needed a shoulder to lean on or advice.   He was always there for me.  When the day came that I confessed to him that I had become a Protestant, and was even going to become a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), his response was to return to the church of our youth, attending faithfully and participating in many parish activities,  and encouraging me on my faith journey, until his death on Christmas Day, 2010.  

What saint would you share memories of today?   ………………………

The Psalmist reminds us today of God’s steadfast love.  The saints we have lifted up in gratitude are our example of God’s love and God’s grace.  For they have been given to us for a season, to inspire, to encourage, to strengthen, in God’s name.  Some traveled in the desert wastes, thirsting and in danger, until God came in answer to their cries and led them by the straight way to shelter in God’s arms, to the living water that is Christ.  Some abided in God all of their lives faithfully.  But no matter where they began, all ended their lives in faith, with hope in Christ.  

Pastor Heath went on to say in her devotional that we are all saints in training.  And as such, we will often get it wrong.  But each day we have new opportunities to practice doing the right things, to practice loving one another as God would have us do, to work toward a world in which God’s peace and justice prevails, where none must hunger and thirst, or live in fear. In the week to come let us express our gratitude each day for all that we have received, and for the knowledge that one day we too, will join all those saints who have gone before, and who wait for us joyfully in the company of our Lord, Jesus Christ.    

Sunday, October 22, 2017

I'll be with you.

Exodus 33:12-17 The Message (MSG)    

12-13 Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
14 God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.”
15-16 Moses said, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you’re with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we’re special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?”
17 God said to Moses: “All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”

Sometimes Eugene Peterson’s version of Scripture sounds a lot like the Maria version.  This is one of those times.   God is a bit peeved with the people, what with their golden calf and their complaining and all.  He’s ready to wash his hands of them, and send them off on their own with Moses to lead them, and an angel to guide Moses.   God is staying home on this trip.  And Moses objects.  I don’t blame him.  Wait a minute! What happened to us being your special people?  I was perfectly happy tending sheep but no, you want me to fight the Pharaoh for these people, then lead this stiff necked bunch to the land you gave Abraham, and now you tell me I’m on my own with them?  Oh no no no no no.  You need to come along too.    I can almost see God rolling his eyes before he says, “All right.  Just as you say, this also I will do. for I know you well and you are special to me.  I know your name.”   

Before I came here, I used to say that my congregation had people in it whose beliefs ranged from "God personally wrote the King James Version of the Bible” to “God is Love” and everything in between.  That happened to be totally true - and I was equally concerned about both ends.  

For way too many people, including some of the “God is love” folks I have known, God is a huge, impersonal, uncaring entity who set all of creation in motion and then sat back to see what would happen.  God is love, yes, but it’s not personal.  Its sort of an ephemeral everywhereness.  God is completely removed from their day to day lives.  Prayer is only beneficial in that it makes the one praying feel like they are doing something.  Jesus was a great teacher, but as for being someone they can relate to on a personal level, or speak to like a brother . . . not so much. They often feel alone,  with no one really to turn to, because God - and even Jesus -  is just too big and too far away to really be with them or care about them.  That is so sad.   

Then there are the people who believe God plans every step and component of their lives.  They believe that whatever happens is meant to happen, and that everything that occurs on the earth is God’s will.   They don’t believe in free will, they don’t believe that we have any real choices.  They believe that everything we do or think or say was pre-determined even before we were born.  It sort of leaves people in the position of not having to be responsible for their own actions, because everything is God’s will.  And when something bad happens in their lives, sometimes they blame God, and walk away.   This is also sad. 

God said, “I know your name.  Do you know how important that is?  To know someone’s name?  I admit that I am not great at remembering people’s names.   I am always quite impressed by people who meet someone once and remember their name from then until eternity.  It takes me a while to get to know someone well enough for their name to stick in my mind.  Even if I see you frequently, if I don’t have much interaction with you, I might not be able to remember your name.  Not one of my gifts, but I keep trying.   Because knowing someone by name is really important.

If you are on Facebook, and belong to the News Around Selma group, you will have seen posts called “Portraits of Hope” by Lance Pearce of the Selma PD.  He photographs individual homeless people he meets around town and tells their story.  I can tell people until I am blue in the face that all homeless people are not alike, that not all of them are addicts and alcoholics and thieves and troublemakers - and nothing I say will be really convincing.  But Lance’s  black and white photos along with his compelling and compassionate telling of each story help us to see these folks not as “Those People,” not as identical, faceless, dangerous members of the lowest rung in society’s ladder, but as individuals whose story is special and whose name we know.    (Portraits of Hope, by the way, has its own Facebook page.)

God said to Moses, “You are special to me. I know your name.  Knowing a person’s name gives you a special relationship with that person. In my prayers, after lifting up specific concerns I often say something like, “There are many people in these same situations who we do not know, but whose names you know, Lord, and we ask that your healing power fall upon all of them.”   Because here’s where I fall in the middle - I believe that God knows every one of us by name. I believe, because Jesus said it, that not a hair can fall from our heads without God being aware of it.  I believe that each one of us is special, and that each one of us is loved, and that God walks along each one of us, just as God walked with Moses through the wilderness.

Moses was worried, because he didn’t know where he was supposed to be going.  He didn’t know what he was going to find there.  He had no idea what sort of support he would be given.  Kind of like life.  Kind of like our own journeys.  Oh, we might have an idea of what comes next.  We might have a plan and goals and tools to use on our way.  But, like Moses, we’re really not entirely sure where we are going to end up, or if we have the right stuff - the resources we need to get to the end of our journey.

Next Sunday we will be invited to put our pledge cards in the offering plate, if you haven’t already mailed it or dropped it off at the church office.  You may still be trying to figure out what you can give - how much time, how much money, what talents you have to share.  And how on earth can you pledge to do something specific for the church or give a certain amount for a whole year!  when you don’t know for sure what the future will hold?  What if you can’t do or give as much as you put on your card?   I know.  I have the same thoughts going through my mind.  Last year was the first time ever that I pledged a full 10% - and I confess wasn’t able to give my entire pledge every month.  I feel a bit guilty about that.   And I thought about maybe pledging a bit less, just to be certain I could fulfill it this year.  But you know, nothing is certain in life.   Unexpected expenses happen. Illness happens.  Cars break down.  Calendar conflicts come up.  But I know that I only have to do the best that I can do and that no matter what, God will walk with me on my journey to generosity.  So I will pledge to give 10% again this year, and do my best to fulfill that pledge.    

The one thing we can always be certain of on our journey is that God will be with us.   God will be walking alongside of us, holding our hand, sort of like Christopher Robin and Pooh.  Pooh, of course, was a bit more - shall we say - clueless?  than we are most of the time. His needs were considerably simpler than ours are.  But he knew he could always count on Christopher Robin to be there with the hugs and encouragement he needed.  

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that just as God knew Moses by name, God knows each of us by name. Just as Moses was special in God’s sight, each of us is also special.  No matter what is going on in our lives, or where we are on our journey, God is always with us.  Every step of the way.