Sunday, May 13, 2018

Joyful Celebration

Scripture Luke 24:44-53 NRSV  

 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  24:46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

24:48 You are witnesses of these things.  24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 24:50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.

24:51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  24:52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;   24:53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

I have mentioned before how difficult preaching can be when my calendar tells me we are supposed to be celebrating more than one important event.  Today, for example.  It is the day we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord into heaven and it is Mother’s Day.  Unless you’re Mexican.  Mexican Mother’s Day was on Thursday, May 10th.  Same day every year.  So much easier to remember than the 2nd Sunday in May.  Just sayin’ … Wait.  Do Mexican American mothers get two Mother’s Days?   

This year we hear the Story of the Ascension from the Gospel according to Luke instead of the version recorded in Acts.  In Acts, if you remember, while the disciples are staring up into the sky where Jesus has just ascended beyond the clouds wondering what just happened, two men appear and tell them to get back to Jerusalem and wait, as Jesus told them to.  In this version, they worship him and go back to Jerusalem with great joy (not confusion), and spend all their time in the Temple praising God.  I don’t know about you, but I think I might like this version of the story better.   

Mother’s Day, though.  Every online clergy group I belong to there is filled with warnings about the difficulties of preaching on Mother’s Day.  Because . . consider.  There are mothers and grandmothers here today surrounded by loving families, looking just like all the advertisements on TV and online.  The restaurants will be filled with happy families taking Mom out for dinner, the flower shops are working overtime, and the chocolate industry is ecstatic - not to mention the manufacturers of large household appliances.   And we all want to celebrate their happiness with them.  But for others here, Mother’s Day is a reminder of loss, mothers and grandmothers who have passed or simply live far away, or are in a hospital or nursing home, and are missed on this special day.  Some have or had mothers who were not very loving, or were abusive, or emotionally absent, or physically absent.   Today might be a painful reminder to some that they are not themselves mothers.  Or that they lost their children.  And somehow we, preachers, have to walk that invisible line that helps those who need to grieve, or get past their anger, and yet doesn’t make the happy families feel guilty about their very happiness.   And it doesn’t help when we, as the preachers, fall into that motherless and childless category.  

For me, it feels a bit like living in Psalm 137.  The Hebrews in exile cried out,  “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”   How can we celebrate a day that brings us pain and stresses us out?   In Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality, an example given of God’s love was the mother who takes her child’s drawing and loves it, no matter what it looks like, and hangs it on the refrigerator for all to see for decades to come. (pg 80) For me, that was a bad example - because my mother took those childish drawings and pointed out what was wrong with them.  This was typical of our relationship.  She has been gone 26 years now, and I am finally beginning to heal from my anger and resentments.  Likewise, I am childless, not by choice, and because I was raised to believe that as a woman my primary job in life is to have and raise children, questions about children can be painful.  It’s better today, but  still painful.  Until I began serving a church I was able to stay at home on Mother’s Day and avoid the pain entirely, but that’s no longer an option for me.  So I have begun to heal, and I am grateful for that - I am grateful that God put me in a situation where I had no choice but to seek healing.  This Mother’s Day, I wear my mother’s pearls, in remembrance.  This Mother’s Day, I celebrate with the families who are engaged in joyful celebration, while also grieving with those for whom today is filled with pain.  

A Public Service Announcement:  Regardless of what I was taught growing up, being a mother is not necessarily the most important thing a woman can do.  Many women are mothers and are really good at it and should be celebrated today and every day.  Others are not - their gifts lie elsewhere.  So please, if you are tempted to try to make childless women “feel better” by telling them all the ways in which they are mother-like, know that this is not necessarily helpful or welcome. For some women I know, it just makes the pain worse.  So, please don’t do that.   (Unless you are telling them what a great Pet Mom they are.  You can always do that.)

I think the disciples must also have been living in a “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”  moment.  After all, they had just said goodbye to Jesus, their Lord, who had been dead and then returned and now is gone again, gone for good this time, but still alive . . . I mean, they watched him go up into the sky to be with the Father.  He left them behind.  I’m sorry, but that just had to be totally stressful and crazy-making.  Yet they are celebrating.  They worshipped him and went home in joy and celebration, and they spent all their time in the Temple blessing God.    

Not just praising God, but blessing God . . . not asking to be blessed by God, but blessing God.   It seems a bit odd, perhaps, because when we ask God for blessing we are seeking to be strengthened and helped and made better in some way.  Obviously, humans cannot make God stronger or better.  But humans can say things to God that indicate that God is blessed - we can magnify God’s name.  We can exalt God, and speak God’s name with gratitude and admiration.  So this is what the disciples did.  For all the days from the time when Jesus ascended into heaven, they went to the Temple and raised their voices in acclamation of God’s greatness and grace.
Remember that these were people who were fearful when Jesus died. These were people who, until Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection, hid away for fear that they, too, would be taken and killed.  The day has not yet come when the Holy Spirit would fall upon them - that’s next week.  But here they are, fearless, in the most public place in Jerusalem, the Temple, every day, lifting up their voices in joyful celebration of what and who God is.   Not worrying about whether someone might recognize them as having been with Jesus. They went to the Temple daily, telling God - and everyone else present - how awesome and wonderful God is.   They obeyed Jesus’ final instructions, to call for humanity’s repentance and to proclaim God’s forgiveness, beginning in Jerusalem - and they began that work by blessing God, daily, out loud, in the Temple in Jerusalem.   We cannot be in the Temple - or the church - all day every day to praise God.  But we can lift up God’s name in praise where ever we might be.  We can bless God and glorify him with our hearts and our lips, all the days of our lives.  For our God is an awesome God, and worthy of all praise.  

Let us join with the disciples in worshipping our Lord, Jesus the Christ.   Please stand and sing with me, “Come, Christians, Join to Sing.”

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Even those people?

Scripture Acts 10:44-48   NRSV

10:44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  10:45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,  10:46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. 

Then Peter said,  10:47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  10:48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 Peter was staying with friends when he had a vision of all the things an observant Jew like himself wasn’t supposed to eat, and a voice telling him to eat those things - pork, shellfish, snake, frogs legs, cheeseburgers - whatever was against the Law.  He, of course, objected, and the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happened three times, and Peter awoke, very confused.  Meanwhile, a man named Cornelius had a vision saying he must get Peter to come to his home, so he sent a message asking him to come.  Now Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who was a believer but hadn’t yet been circumcised, so when he went to Temple he wasn’t allowed to go all the way inside.  He was welcome, but only up to a point.  Peter, as an observant Jew, was not allowed to go into his home.  But Peter had realized what his vision had meant, so he went into Cornelius’s house to teach his household, and while he was speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon them all in the household, and all were amazed.  So Peter saw to it that Cornelius, his relatives and his close friends, all who were present that day, were baptized.  Even those people.

Even those people.   We are a congregation that proudly proclaims All are welcome here, and we are adamant that All means ALL - everyone.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here.  Well, Cornelius was welcome to the Temple, but only up to a point. Only as far as the Court of the Gentiles.  Today I want to tell you some stories about welcoming.    Just a note - the slides are photos from Google Images - none of them are of the actual persons whose stories I will tell.  

(Slide 1:  Wheelchair person, Transwoman, LGBT youth Pride, homeless man.)
Wheelchair people:  Jo was older - in her 70s - when she started to come to worship with us.  We already had several wheelchair bound folks, young men and women with various disabilities, including 2 with spina bifida, who all lived in the same  group home.  They showed up every Sunday morning and lined up behind the last pew, which had extra room left behind it on purpose so there would be space for our wheel chair people.  When Jo Cooper started to attend she said right up front that she wasn’t going to sit in the back of the bus, and parked herself about halfway down the center aisle.   You see, she didn’t feel like we really welcomed people like her if we relegated her to the back row, away from her friends and family.     Many churches today are re-configuring their worship space to use chairs instead of pews, so that even those people in wheelchairs can sit where ever they want.

Transgender:  I met Eva and her pastor Renee, both of whom are transgender, in 2008 at a rally against Prop 8.  Pastor Renee had started a church for transgender and other folks who felt outcast because of gender identity and/or sexual orientation.  Sometimes they came to visit my congregation, because they lived nearby and our worship was at a different time.  Now you need to understand that my congregation was Open and Affirming, but people still stared at Eva when she came, and asked me (not very subtly or quietly) whether she was a man or a woman.   I want to tell you all that I was delighted at how welcoming you all were when she came to visit me here last year.   You accepted her as she was, and you treated her like any other visitor to this church, and she felt safe here.  That doesn’t always happen for transgender folk - even in church.   

LGBTQ:  There are so many stories, even in this very room, of rejection by families and congregations, of unsuccessful attempts to change their orientation, of having to hide who they are because of the very real threat of rejection by those they love.   Or being told they are welcome but then finding out they are only welcome up to a point.   A family came to me one day to say they were leaving, because of the two young couples who had recently joined the church.  I pointed out that they had been friends with the previous pastor - who was gay - and asked what the difference was between Pastor Dick and the new people.  They said, “Pastor Dick was single and we prayed daily that Jesus would change him.  But we know those men do things that are against the Bible, and we cannot stay in a church where that is accepted.”  When some friends of mine heard that story (from other friends) they said, “And this is why we don’t go to church.  Even when you say we are welcome, we aren’t really.”   It is not like that here.

Homeless:  Charlie was a young man who slept somewhere near the church.  He came to worship every Sunday, and always sat in the back corner, as far away from everyone as he could get, because he was ashamed of his clothes, and of his odor, and that he didn’t have any money to put in the basket.  When we asked him to join us for the fellowship time (and food, cause we had some sort of food every Sunday after worship) he declined for all those same reasons.   No matter how hard we tried, he couldn’t believe he really was welcome.   No one ever really welcomed him anywhere, and he could not believe that we would be any different.  We did everything we could think of to let Charlie and the other homeless men and women who stayed near the church know that they were welcome.  But on those occasions when they did stay and have food, no one ever went to sit with them or tried to start a conversation with them.  Maybe they really weren’t welcome, after all.    

Slide 2:  (Ku Klux Klan, Anti-Fa, Westboro Baptist Church)
There was a Disciples congregation in Indiana - (there are a LOT of DOC congregations in Indiana) that had always had a reputation as a giving church - dating way back to the 1920s! - helping to feed the hungry and care for the sick and poor in their community.  They were sad, though, that they didn’t have the numbers they used to have back in the day.  So they decided to look over their records and see who the folks were who founded the church and paid for the building and bought all the lovely bibles and began their long time mission of caring for their community.  Much to their shock and chagrin, they discovered that the vast majority of their founding members, those good Christian men who built the building and bought the Bibles and started all those great ministries, were also members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.   

My hope would be that the Good News of Jesus Christ would change the hearts of people who live in hate.  Especially those who live in hate in Jesus’ name.  

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

From the poem " Outwitted” 
 Edwin Markham
(Slide 3: Unity is our Polar Star, We are not the only Christians)

These quotes are foundational for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We believe that all Christians should be united in our belief in Christ, but that we are free to practice our faith and understand Scripture and theology differently from each other, as we are led by God's Holy Spirit.  Thus we have no creed, no list of beliefs we must each swear to, and we can say things like, All means ALL, and be serious about it.

Have you ever said to yourself, or to someone else, “So and so is a Christian person,” and expected that whomever you were talking to then assumed the same thing about that person that you meant when you use that word?  

See, to me, a person who says “i will not bake a cake for a same sex wedding because I am a Christian” is not the kind of person I would describe as a Christian.  Even if they do go to church every Sunday, and give generously of their time and money, and lead the Wednesday Bible Study at their church, I have a hard time believing that that person understands what Jesus was trying to teach.  

But you know, that’s pretty judge-y of me.  That person, even though I totally disagree with their understanding of what will please or displease God, is still a Christian, a person who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God.  That person, even though I totally disagree with them, is welcome here. Is welcome at our Table.   And there are those who are pretty sure we aren’t really Christian, because the pastor is a woman, and because we say All means ALL.  But even those people must be welcome here, if we truly mean All means ALL.   

Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  And with those words he ignited a firestorm.  With that one sentence he changed the mission of Christ’s disciples, opening the mission field to even those people - the ones who weren’t accepted in the Temple, the ones who didn’t know anything about Moses and the Law, the ones who were outsiders, unclean, unacceptable and unloveable to the humans in charge.  

But can any human decide who God will love?  Can any human decide who shall be welcome in the church and at the Table?  And the answer is no, because it’s not OUR church.  It’s not OUR Table.  It’s God’s house.  It’s God’s Table.  And there is a place at the Table for that baker, and for the Klansman, and for the anti-fa guy, and for the Westboro Baptist Church and for those who agree with them.  And for the folks who live with disabilities of any kind, and people of any and every sexual orientation and gender identity, and the homeless folks.  And for those of every race and ethnicity and country of origin, and those who speak English and those who don’t.    For everyone born, there is a place at the table.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Raisin Capital of the World!

John 15:1-8  (NRSV)  
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I go to a lot of events where I am expected to introduce myself by name and the church and/or city I come from.  I always say I am from Selma, California, the Raisin Capital of the World.   When I was interviewing with the search committee from First Christian, I was delighted to hear that my potential new home was the source of one of my favorite treats.   Although I grew up in a farming community and understood the rhythm of plowing, sowing, growing and harvesting, I had never lived anywhere with vineyards, so the rhythm of that particular fruit’s life was new to me.  Having now lived here for a couple of growing seasons, and having witnessed all the things that John describes in this passage, it came alive for me in a way that it never had before.   That was one of Jesus’ gifts, of course.  His stories and parables were based in the kind of reality his listeners understood - fishing and agriculture, household chores, and family life - so that his meaning could become clear in a way that was new and powerful to those hearing him.  

There’s something else about Selma, besides raisins, that is different from anyplace else I have lived, and even from most places I have heard about.  Here, all of the churches come together and work together for the healing of our city, regardless of differences in theology or practice.   Here, it is as if we are all bound together, the way vines twine around each other, to do God’s work in the world.  It is a blessing beyond expectation to live and work and serve God here. 

There are those who read this passage and believe it means that those who don’t believe or behave the way they think is right will be condemned to Hell. Those individuals, they believe, are the branches that are pruned and cut away and tossed onto the fire, because they do not bear fruit.   I used to think that - and that I was one of those fruitless branches.   I don’t believe that anymore, because my understanding of who God is has changed over time. Also, I have learned to read the Bible in context, reading what comes before and after, so that I can better understand what points Jesus was busy making at the time.   We need to remember when we read this passage that when Jesus said these words he was addressing his disciples - not a huge crowd, but only those who were gathered with him in the Upper Room, at that last meal they shared together.  He was speaking to the hearts of those who knew him best, who had shared his daily struggles, who had heard all of his preaching.  He was preparing them for his death, which would come in less than 24 hours, and he was preparing them for going out into the world to carry the Good News.  So he was speaking to specific individuals, and about their own lives.  He was inviting them to let God remove those parts of them that were not fruitful, not healthy, so that they could produce healthy fruit in his name.   He has already promised them that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit would come to them, and teach them all that they would need to go forward.    And his next words would be these, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  If you keep my commandments - to love one another - you will live in my love.  And if we live in Jesus’ love, we will become fruitful.  

Another thing we must remember when we read this passage is that the fruitfulness Jesus speaks of is not gaining a whole bunch of new church members, although that it what some folks preach.  Rather, it is each of us growing the fruit of the Spirits our lives change through living in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   As Paul told the church in Galatia, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”   Living in Christ’s love, doing our best to love one another, will bring these things into our hearts, and our lives will change entirely.

Let me share with you just how drastically lives can change when God is allowed to reach into our hearts and prune away the lifeless, the diseased, branches from our lives.  I went on my first ride along with a Selma Police Officer on Wednesday afternoon.   Parts of that ride along were calm and informative, just kind of riding around seeing parts of the city I hadn’t seen before, learning things about how our Police Department works.  Parts of it were a little scary - like when I realized that people really don’t pay attention to lights and sirens.  I did my best to be silent and non-reactive so that my Officer could concentrate on avoiding all the cars who didn’t see her.   And parts of it filled me with gratitude.  Ok, it’s pretty well known that I write a gratitude list every morning - 10 things that bring me joy or that I really appreciate having in my life on any given morning.  But Thursday morning’s gratitude list was much deeper, much more intense than my usual gratitude for cats and coffee and faith. On Thursday morning I wrote (among other things):
I am grateful that no one is beating me today
No one is brandishing weapons around my house
No one is worried I will kill myself
I am helping people instead of hurting them
People call me when they have troubles
I take responsibility for myself today

My life is so different than it was before I learned that God loves us.  I am not afraid today, of what the next hours or even minutes will bring.  Today I am not praying, “Get me out of this one, Lord, and I swear I will never do it again.”   When I decided to welcome God into my life, when I decided to abide in Jesus’ love, my life changed and those things are no longer part of it.  I invited God to prune away those things that took me into those places, and asked God to help me grow in such a way as to produce the healthy fruit, the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  The greatest blessing of all was when I realized that my past was simply that, my past.  God had not rejected me permanently for my mistakes and transgressions.  Those things are forgiven because God loves me, and I have learned to love God, even when things aren’t going well.  I know today that God has thrown those parts of me that will not ever produce good fruit into that fire, destroying them.  And they will not grow back, so long as I remain in Jesus.

Today I know that, just as Jesus promises in this passage, I can ask for whatever I wish, and receive it, so long as I live in Jesus and in God’s Word.  Not a new car, or to have my student loan debt suddenly disappear, or to magically lose the weight that I put back on, although those things would be nice.  I don’t even ask for those sorts of things anymore.  Today I ask for those things that will help me serve God and God’s people better - usually, some of that fruit that I don’t quite have a handle on yet.  I ask for my life to be a blessing to others, and to be more forgiving, and to practice acceptance better.  

When we love God and our neighbors, as Jesus commanded us to do, our lives become filled with the fruit of the Spirit.  And that fruit, which is the result of love, when poured out upon others, produces more fruit.  Just as a smile begets a smile, so love poured out into the world will produce more love, more kindness, more generosity, more compassion.  When we are filled with God’s love, our lives can change all those we touch.   My brothers and sisters, the gift of God’s love is the greatest gift we can ever receive. When we go from this place, then, let us touch each person we meet with the love we receive from our Lord.  And now let us stand and sing about “The Gift of Love”  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Living in God's Will

1 John 3:16-24   (NRSV)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Today is Earth Stewardship Sunday - the churchy version of Earth Day.  And there are tons of passages in the Bible that relate and refer to Creation, taking care of the earth, God’s bounty and how we are to use it, and so on.  I even have a Bible in which all of those sorts of passages are written in green, the way some Bibles have all of Jesus’ words written in red.  I could have used one of those Earth Day sort of passages.  But I had a preacher teacher in seminary who taught us that, if we use the lectionary, (which is a calendar of scriptures to use every day of the year, rotating through the Bible over a three year period) regardless of what the secular world is doing, several things will happen.  One - we will not subject our congregations to hearing the same dozen or so of our favorite passages preached on all year long.  Two - we will not be able to cherry pick a passage for the day that will perfectly reflect our personal feelings on what is going on in the world around us.  and Three - we will continually run up against passages that we have to struggle with, just as our congregations have to struggle in their understanding.  So - much as I would have loved to go to Genesis and the creation of the world for today’s message,  because I do use the lectionary almost every Sunday, I chose this passage on Love from 1st John.    

If you are like me, you may have looked at today’s scripture and thought, “Oh. John 3:16.  I know this one.”  Except, it’s not John 3:16.  It’s First John, a letter, possibly from the writer of John’s Gospel and/or the Book of the Revelation to John, to Christians who were dealing with the reality of some who had left the church and whose beliefs diverged from what John believed was the Truth about Jesus - that Jesus came into the world as a human to disclose the truth about God, to deal with the world’s sins and to provide an example of how we are to live.  Eternal life depends upon remaining in the knowledge of this truth.  John’s message revolves around two core beliefs - God is light, and God is love.   If God is light, we must reject sin and live according to Jesus’ example.  And if God is love, then we must love one another the way that Jesus loved, by laying down our lives for each other, and by living in truth and action.  

When I am choosing how to preach on any particular scripture reading on any given Sunday, I begin by reading the passage.  Not once, but several times.  And as I read I try to leave my mind open to the Spirit’s guidance, seeking the sentence or phrase that requires my attention on that particular day.  It’s a practice called Lectio Divina - divine reading - which is also a good way to practice daily meditations on Scripture.  Eventually, if I am paying attention, a phrase or word or sentence will almost seem highlighted, and I have my place to begin.  If that doesn’t happen . . .  well, let me just say I much prefer it when it does happen. I really prefer to follow the Spirit’s lead than my own thoughts on what I should preach.  

With today’s passage, the focus came rather easily.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”    

Several of us were in Woodland, California the last few days for the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Northern California and Nevada.  Friday afternoon there was pre-event workshop on the Poor People’s Campaign, which is making a National Call for Moral Revival to end systemic racism, poverty, militarism & environmental destruction.  Not everyone involved in the Poor Peoples Campaign has the same political views or religious beliefs - but everyone involved can see the effects of poverty and hatred in their own communities, and wants to find ways to make the kind of changes that will be of substance.   At that Friday workshop I was invited to speak briefly on what we are doing in Selma - with Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life - which, for those of you who may not know, is a coalition of police, faith communities and help agencies to heal our city.  It is the belief of the Chief of Police and the rest of us who are involved that only by all of us working together - loving one another as Jesus taught us to  - can we effect the kind of change that will bring an end to the attraction of gangs to kids who can see nothing good in their own futures, and hope to the poor who see only that no one cares about them, to the homeless, the addicted, to undocumented children who are afraid even to play outdoors, to those with special needs who don’t know how or where to find help, to the sick who cannot afford to get medical care . . .  Here at First Christian this is just one of the ways we try to do more than just talk about loving one another, but act in truth and love.   Here at First Christian, and throughout Selma, we know that those of us who are blessed with enough are required to share what we have with those who do not.  

And what does any of this have to do with Earth Day?  Caring for the poor is more than simply feeding the hungry - which is very important and will always need to continue - but also in making sure there is enough food for everyone, which means making sure there is enough clean water to grow that food.  It is more than helping individuals get medical care for chronic asthma and allergies, but also in making sure that the air is clean so that we all can breathe.  It is more than finding temporary accommodations for the homeless - which we will always need - but also making sure there is affordable housing for all people, because as housing costs increase, so does the number of homeless families.  It is more than participating in a clean up day once a year in April, but making sure our poor neighborhoods receive the city services they need to keep alleyways and empty lots clean so trash buildup doesn’t contribute to major health issues.  It is more than planting a tree - which we all really should be doing! -  but also in making sure there is funding for the forest services so that our forests can keep producing the oxygen we need to survive and protecting the animals that are a critical part of our environment.  Earth Day is great, and all of the Earth Day activities, but if we are to love one another as God would have us do, we must pay attention to these things all year long.   I think that if we are to live in God’s will, the world will one day look again as it did when Adam and Eve were first placed in charge, before they disobeyed the will of God.  That’s why we chose this particular picture for the message slide.  

Jesus came to remind us, to disclose to us, what God’s will is for us and for the world.  Jesus came to remind us, to show us, what it means to live in God’s will.  The Book of Genesis tells us that God put us here to care for the earth, and for each other.  Jesus came to prove to us that God is love, and that if we are to love God as we are loved, then we must also love one another, we must love all of God’s creatures, just as God loves us.  We can see God’s love when we look at the world around us and see the beauty God placed us in the middle of.  I mean, have you driven on the roads around Selma lately? Have you seen the blossoms on the fruit trees, and the green of the grapevines, and the baby goats and sheep and cows and horses?  Have you heard the birds serenading you awake in the morning?  Have you smelled the roses in front of the church?  Have you recognized God’s love manifest in the world around you today?  

And Have you heard a farmer worrying about the bees?  Have you worried when the reservoirs aren’t full, and there’s not enough water for the fruit and nuts?  Or too full and in danger of failing?  Have you felt helpless, listening to a child struggling for breath because the air quality is really bad today?   If we are to live in God’s will, we will do more than talk about these things, and about poverty, and about hatred.  If we are to love one another as God would have us do, we will act in truth, taking whatever action we can, to make the change we want to see in our world.  It might mean taking out your lawn, to make more water available to the farmers.  It might mean car pooling or putting in solar panels, to help keep the air a little cleaner.  It might mean giving money to the people who are researching to find out what is wrong with the bees.  Or voting for people who will work toward those things that you believe will make a difference in education, in housing, in health care . . .  We may not agree on specific ways to care for the earth and for each other, but we don’t have to.  What we must do, however, is live in the way we believe God wills for us to live.  

My brothers and sisters, we live in the world that our God made for us.  If we are to love God, then we will live in God’s will, and care for each other, for the world we have been given, and for all the creatures in it.  Let us stand and sing together, “This is my father’s world.” 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Are you kidding?

Scripture      John 20:1-18  NRSV

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a]into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I think just about everybody here knows how excited I have been about Easter falling on April Fool’s Day this year.  Honestly, just about anybody who has ever met me knows how excited I have been about this.  I’ve been bouncing on my toes - like I used to be on Christmas morning, standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for my father to go down and turn on the lights and say the word that allowed the rest of us to walk into the space that somehow, overnight, had been transformed from ordinary living room into a Christmas wonderland!  Waiting for Easter has been harder this year than probably ever before!  

Easter is on April Fool’s Day!  How cool is that?  Oh, there are lots of congregations who celebrate Holy Hilarity the week after Easter, which I’ve actually never done or experienced, but apparently it’s all about jokes and such?  But for the most important day of the entire year - of the entire history of the earth! - to fall on a day dedicated to practical jokes and basic silliness - that  is awesome! Because, you see, although we will often talk about how Jesus kept doing things to turn the social order upside down, somehow we always do it so very seriously.   We take Jesus’ words and actions and suck all the life out of them, making them a subject for study and never one to just enjoy.  Consider, for example - “You have heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you to love your enemy” (Matt 5:44) and . . . ”if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink.”  (Romans 12:19) We get all serious preaching that, but really - Best joke ever!  It will make him crazy, waiting to figure out what you are going to do!  Waiting for revenge that isn’t coming.  

Another example, this one from a sermon by Kurt Vonnegut! - who was definitely not a minister, but who nonetheless preached by invitation in an Episcopal congregation on Palm Sunday, 1980.  When Judas, was fussing over the woman spending money on ointment to lavish on Jesus, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.”  Preachers tend to get pretty heavy handed trying to parse out what this actually means, and how we should use it as an example for our lives.  Vonnegut suggests that Jesus wasn’t making a social statement, he was being more than a bit sarcastic, saying (according to Vonnegut) “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” This, Vonnegut says, is a “divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil, but to chide [Judas] about his hypocrisy just the same.”    This example comes from an article in Christian Century magazine by Miles Townes, an author and elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), posted online February 21 and titled “When Easter Sunday Falls on April Fool’s Day.”  (  

Among the many jokes in Scripture Townes points out is the mistaken identity joke in today’s scripture reading.  Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener!  And she thought that because there was no way she could believe anything other than that Jesus was, in fact, dead, and that his dead body was missing from the tomb.  And for Jesus it was like, “Psych!”  When he spoke her name, it wasn’t so much compassionately comforting her, but more like, “Mary, it’s me!” like you might say to someone who doesn’t recognize you in a Halloween costume.  The joke, here, Townes says, is about Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus while we, the readers, are totally able to recognize him - like a scene in a Three Stooges movie when you can see the disaster coming, a paint can is going to land upside down on Moe’s head, but Moe can’t see that coming, and it’s even funnier knowing that we know and he doesn’t.   So we get to laugh twice! 

What better joke could be played on the world that thought it was getting rid of Jesus than to have him come back from the grave?   Instead of merely a martyr, a martyr who laughs at death!  “Death, where is thy sting?” is a massive joke, because death is supposed to be final, and yet, it isn’t.  The death that was to have brought darkness and despair to his followers, that was intended to end their movement, instead, gave them hope and power to go forward and continue to preach his upside down version of reality - the way of God instead of the way of the world.  

Everything about Jesus was of the “Hah! Fooled ya!” variety.  He was born of a poor family, not one of the rich and powerful.  He was a simple rabbi, a wandering preacher, not a great king or general or even a priest.  He wasn’t at all the kind of Messiah most people had been expecting.  Even his message was a backwards.  “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  “You have heard it said, hate you enemies.  But I say, love your enemies.”  “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.”  “Whoever wishes to be great must be first be servant to all.”   Instead of hanging out with the priests and scholars, he consorted with the outcast and unclean.  Everything about Jesus was backwards.  God planned it that way.

Sometimes I think that we don’t give God enough credit for having a sense of humor.  Yet all we have to do is look around to see that our sense of humor had to have its basis in our Creator.  I mean, kittens.  Puppies.  Hedgehogs.  These and so many other parts of creation make us laugh, bring smiles and joy to our hearts.  We are made in God’s image, and we have a sense of humor - some of us more than others, of course - so it seems to me that God also has a sense of humor.  I mean - camels!  For that matter, humans.   We be pretty funny, just being ourselves. 

The thing that separates us from God’s grace is sin.  And part of our sin is our determination to take everything way too seriously.  It is, perhaps, our Puritan heritage, in which anything that is thought to be worthwhile must be taken very seriously, and anything humorous is considered a waste of time, at best, something that might possibly help us relax, but which certainly has no place in the seriousness of life - or Bible study.  Yet, there are enough teachers and students among us who know that humor is an excellent teaching tool.  So perhaps Jesus, arguably the world’s greatest teacher, in order to bridge the gap between God and humanity, utilizes humor more than we realize.  Townes suggests that in order to really understand the Bible, we have to be able to find and appreciate the jokes found therein (and some of them are seriously for adults only!)  Come to think of it, we do recognize quite a few jokes in the New Testament, because we frequently laugh at the cluelessness of the disciples.  

God is good at jokes, but I still think that me just being here, doing this, is one of God’s sillier jokes.  Because God knows who I am, and who I was, and where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, and still called me to serve.  And for me, that’s all about resurrection, because I woke up one morning knowing I was dead inside.  I had reached the end of what I was able to bear and had to do something different.  And as I made the physical changes I needed to make, and started to learn about how to live and act differently than I had my whole life, I found that spiritual change was happening, too.  My soul, which had been dead and empty, was beginning to fill with a new life.   And in that new life I discovered that some things I had thought were normal - and which, in the eyes of the world, are normal - were no longer the right way to live.  So instead of always thinking that I had to get mine first, I learned to make sure others were cared for first - in as small a thing as to hold open a door for a person behind me instead of going through the door and letting it close in their face, or letting the person with 2 items go ahead of me in the check out line - little stuff that society says we don’t have to do because it’s all about me first and winning, don’t ya know.   Later, as I began to switch sins for virtues - worry for faith, greed for generosity, denial for acceptance, materialism for altruism, gossip/lying for truth, and so on - I discovered that my life was now filled with more light than darkness.  (This switching of sin for virtue, by the way, is more like cleaning the house than building a new one. Pretty much a constant effort, not a once and done kind of thing.)  And when God called me to the ministry, I had to ask “Are you kidding?” because I knew who I had been, but God knows who I am.  The joke, as usual, was on me.  

Townes ends his article saying this.  “We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed.”  I like that.  I like that in our study of Jesus’ ministry, we should be looking for his laughter, his joy, his jokes.  I like that when we say, “He is Risen” we are proclaiming God’s greatest joke.   

So let us go forth, looking for that laughing Jesus in our Bibles, and in our lives.  Let us go forth knowing that He is Risen, indeed!  

Please stand and sing with me, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Do not be afraid.

Scripture: John 12:12-16 NRSV

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
    the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15  “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
    sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Do not be afraid . . .  

The crowd is gathered, shouting Hosannahs and covering the street in front of Jesus with their cloaks and palm branches, so the feet of the young donkey he rides on don’t have to touch the ground.  They are celebrating the entry of their king!  Why then, is John ’s telling of this celebratory event interrupted with the words, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.”?  You know, I’m not entirely sure.  Because when I looked up this prophecy, which comes from the 9th chapter of Zechariah, none of the translations I could find said, “Do not be afraid.”  Almost every one began with “Rejoice greatly!”   When John wrote his gospel, some 60 or more years after the  events took place, he knew what was coming, of course.  But he also knew the Scriptures, and the words of the prophets, so it’s hard to say why he chose to report Zechariah’s words just this way.

Zechariah was a prophet living after the fall of Jerusalem, after the exile.  The people were despondent, living far from their homes, enslaved and in despair over whether they would ever see Jerusalem again.   Zechariah knew that they would soon be reunited with their homeland - for God had told him so, and he reported God’s words to the exiles, saying, 
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Stop worrying and celebrate, people of Jerusalem!  For your savior is coming, and you will see an end to war and to your suffering under his rule.  And indeed, they would be liberated when Babylon suffered defeat at the hands of Cyrus the Great, who would return them to their homes and even help them rebuild their temple.   The region would know relative peace for close to 200 years, when Alexander the Great conquered Cyrus’ great empire.  

And in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem, indeed all of Judea, was occupied by the Romans.  The people were oppressed, enslaved, and wondering why they had been abandoned.  They were worried and fearful, waiting for their savior to come, and they couldn’t understand what was taking so long.  They were expecting  someone like David, who had united the tribes and kept them all safe from outside threats, or Elijah who defeated the priests of Baal, or one of the judges who defeated their enemies and kept things going for 40 years or so before the next invasion, or even maybe someone like Cyrus.  They would have been telling each other the prophecies.  They would have been reminding each other that God always always sent someone to save them from their oppressors . . . so when Jesus appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, riding a young donkey . . . here, at last, is the fulfillment of prophecy!  Here is the one who is coming to rescue them - like the judges of old, like David, like Cyrus.  Here is someone who will toss out the Romans and return them to the way things were!  Yay!  We don’t have to worry any more.  Hosannah!   

When John wrote his gospel, he needed to remind the people listening just what a difficult situation Jesus was riding in to, because by the time this gospel was written Rome had destroyed the Temple and much of the city.  In Jesus’ time, the people of Jerusalem had a lot to worry about.  They didn’t know, whenever they left the house, if they would come home safely again, or if the Roman soldiers would decide to rape them, or take them into slavery, or punish, even kill them for some imagined crime, or a crime someone else did.  “A Jew did this thing.  You are a Jew, therefore you are guilty, and it doesn’t really matter at all whether or not you are the actual criminal.”  Jewish lives simply didn’t matter to the Romans.  Even the nobility and the Temple leaders were fearful and could not allow anyone to call their authority into question - for their authority, even their lives, rested in the hands of the Romans, and in their own ability to keep the people pacified.  The people of Jerusalem had a lot to be fearful of - a lot to worry about.  And by the time John wrote his gospel, Roman persecution of Jesus followers had begun.   So, it does make sense that John would replace, “Rejoice!” with “Do not be afraid” in speaking to the people of his time, a time of trouble and great fear. They were worried.

I was kind of amazed to discover that the Wikipedia entry for Alfred E Newman is quite lengthy.  Since he made his first appearance on the cover in 1954, he has appeared on all but two issues of Mad Magazine, a humor magazine which makes fun of pretty much everything and everybody - and which was totally banned in my house!   (Needless to say, I grew up on Mad Magazine.  Because my brother hid it under his bed along with the Playboys he “borrowed" from my father, and was happy to share his contraband with his little sisters.)   But even before that, since the first recorded appearance of this iconic face in an advertisement for mince meat in 1895, he has been symbolic of a person who has not a care in the world.  His tag line,  “What? Me Worry?” is almost as famous as his face is.  He has sailed serenely through a bunch of wars, the Cuban missile crisis, riots, 9/11, lots of elections . . . even 1967’s Summer of Love couldn’t faze this guy.  Given all of that, I can’t imagine any situation in which this face might become worried or fearful or even a bit nervous.   

Alfred E Newman doesn’t worry about anything because he really doesn’t care about anything.  He is, after all, not an actual human.  We, on the other hand, care - about a lot of things.  And we worry - about a lot of things.  We worry about our health, our financial situation, the state of our city, our children, the future of our church - this particular church or the Church as a whole.  We might worry about our relationships, about whether we are ever going to find “the one.”  We might worry about spending our golden years alone or whether we’ll make it through the rest of the semester - or Holy Week.  We all have a lot of things to worry about.  And while there are those who would say that worrying is a sign that you have no faith, that’s not exactly the case.  Worry and fear are feelings. They are physical responses to actual situations, and there is nothing wrong with having those responses.   Faith, however, is seated in our hearts and is that which helps us get through those feelings and emotions.  Even Jesus was fearful and worried about what was to come - we know this from these words in Luke 22:42-44:  42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Yes, Jesus worried, but at the same time, he had faith that no matter what, God would bring him through to the other side.  He had faith that, no matter what, God would be with him.  His faith enabled him to walk through his worry and fear, and continue on the path that he was about to travel, the path that he knew was ahead of him.  His faith kept him from being paralyzed by his fear and worry.   Just as the angel from heaven strengthened Jesus, our faith can do the same for us.

It would not be good to be like Alfred E. Newman, never knowing fear or worry.  They are things that help us know we are human.  Nor is it good to allow our perfectly legitimate fears and worries to paralyze us.  Again, we look to Jesus for answers and for our example, whose humanity is made so very clear in the events of  this coming week.  The week to come is without doubt the most powerful of the Church year - filled with experiences of joy and celebration and love and fear and worry and great pain and suffering and grief - it is filled with every emotion known to humanity - even jealousy, because surely that is what impelled Judas to betray his Lord.  My sisters and brothers, I invite you to live this week in all of those feelings.  Walk with Jesus from today’s triumphal entry to Friday’s death and entombment.  Allow yourselves to feel those feelings - and know in your heart, in that place where your faith lives - that God will bring us through to the end.  

Let us stand and sing together, the story of the week that is to come.