Sunday, June 17, 2018

I didn't do it!

Genesis 3:8-15 NRSV

3:8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  3:9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?"

10 He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."

11 He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate."

3:13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

When I was little, I was the good girl.  Not because I was so well behaved, but because I was really pretty good at getting my sister to do the thing.  For example, when I wanted a cookie I would talk my little sister into climbing up on the counter to get to the cabinet where Mother hid the cookies.  We invariably got caught - we weren’t exactly cat burglars - and my mother would be quite sure that I was involved, but it was always Patty who literally had her hand in the cookie jar.  Sometimes we would just try to look innocent when Mother discovered some mischief or other - like the time she walked into the kitchen and we were both covered in flour - but that pretty much never worked, because she knew us.  She knew that bag of flour didn’t just fall off the counter while she was on the phone.  Sometimes we hid, because we knew we were going to be in trouble, but she always found us.  And if one of us tattled on the other, that one got punished for tattling while the other got punished for the thing, so it didn’t really do a whole lot of good to try to blame each other for whatever.   

In today’s passage, God says, “Why did you do this?”  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.  “It wasn’t me - I didn’t do it! It was their fault.”  Well, Adam, yes.  You did do it.  And Eve, you did it, too.  The snake talked you into it, but you still did it.   God had been hoping that these two would be obedient, and satisfied with everything they already had.  I mean, they were in Eden!  Food fell off trees into their hands.  Nothing threatened them.  There were no dangers.  Only beauty surrounded them.  All they had to do was avoid the fruit of one tree.  But they decided that listening to the snake was a good idea, and so they ate.  They did the one thing they were’t supposed to do.  And then, they didn’t want to take responsibility for their behavior.  They wanted to shift the blame onto someone else.  So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And God punished them all - because they were all responsible.

A lot of bad theology has come out of this passage.  When I was growing up I was taught that women are inherently sinful - more sinful than men - because Eve was the first sinner and she tempted her husband to sin along with her.   He would have been fine if she hadn’t tempted him, so Adam’s sin is all Eve’s fault.  There’s a problem with this way of thinking.  For one thing, it takes all the responsibility away from Adam.  For another, this way of thinking allows people to  blame the victim in crimes such as rape.  “She must have tempted him somehow.  It’s the woman’s fault. It’s always the woman’s fault.”  The man’s unacceptable behavior is overlooked, while the woman has to defend herself.  We are still dealing with this in our justice system and in the way we talk about victims of abuse and sexual assault. It is changing, slowly, but we are still dealing with it. That is not what happens in this passage, mind you.  But it is a mind set that has arisen out of it.  

This passage is all about personal responsibility.    The snake said, “Hey, do this thing you aren’t allowed to do.” and they said, “Oh, ok.”  They could have said no.  They should have said no.  But they said yes, and then tried to put the blame for that first sin they committed somewhere else.  And I suspect that their punishment in part resulted from their second sin - the hiding and the blaming others.

And because they did this thing, because they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we know the difference between those two things.   We know what is right and what is wrong.   We might not be born knowing these things, but we are taught the difference.  We learn from our families, from our teachers in school, and from church folks, what is the right way to live.  “Don’t bite your sister.”  (Yes, yes, I did.  While we were in the bathtub.  And I got spanked.  Never did it again.)  “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  “Be nice to other people.”   “Help others.”  

Zoe Thompson, you are about to be baptized.  As of today this knowledge of Good and Evil will become even more important to you.   In a few minutes I am going to ask you if you repent, really repent, of all the things you have done so far that you are not supposed to do.  I am going to ask you if you will renounce evil - if you will say no when someone wants you to do something that you know is wrong.  From this day forward, you are responsible for keeping those promises. From this day forward, you will be responsible for your own behavior - not blaming anyone else, but taking full responsibility for every thing that you do.   
Baptism doesn’t change us into different people.   It doesn’t make us perfect.  It doesn’t take away  What it is, is a commitment to do the right, be like Jesus as best we can, and take responsibility for actions.    We’re not going to be perfect, because we are human and we are prone to error. We are going to do things that are wrong, even things that we know are wrong.  And we will be forgiven - as long as we are honest with God, confessing whatever we have done wrong and making amends for our mistakes. 

Today, Zoe, you are making a commitment to God, to  yourself, and to this congregation, to be a Christian in every way - to dedicate yourself to Jesus and to the love of all of your brothers and sisters.  Today you become an adult in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the church, for you are taking the biggest, most important step that we, Disciples of Christ, ever take - you are stepping into that baptistry a child and coming back out of the water a Christian, dedicated to living your life in Christ from today forward.   Come with me now, to prepare for your baptism, while the congregation sings “Standing in the Need of Prayer” from their hymnals page 579.

 (Disciples of Christ baptize by immersion.  A video of Zoe's baptism may be available on later today.)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

But I'm too busy!

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NRSV

5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 

5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 

5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.    

We know that observing the Sabbath day is important.  Our very first example of Sabbath observance comes in the book of Genesis, when “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”  We really do think that Sabbath is important.   And yet, we don’t really observe it.  So, let’s talk about keeping Sabbath.

Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) is Saturday, the seventh day of the week.   The Jewish people were really serious about doing no work on the Sabbath - many still are.  Even today rabbis continue to study and determine which things are and are no the kind of work one may not do on Shabbat.  Turning on electric lights, for example, is like lighting a flame, so that may not be done.  Putting in false teeth is still being debated.  (Leaving them in overnight is the preferred option.) There have been times when I was talking with my orthodox Jewish friend in Jerusalem early on a Friday morning and he will suddenly say, “I have to get off the phone.  Shabbat begins in 5 minutes.” Which means it’s about to be sunset in Jerusalem and he has to make sure whatever lights need to be turned on are on before the sun goes down, and that computers, phones and tv are all turned off.  His wife will have all the cooking for Friday night and Saturday done before sunset.  Saturday morning, he and his family will walk to shul (synagogue), which is no further than 2,000 steps or 2/3 mile from their home.  When they get back home, they might read Torah or play games with the children, but none that require work, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or writing down scores.  They are serious about observing Sabbath.  

We don’t actually observe the Sabbath.  Rather, we worship on Sunday, which is called the Lord’s Day, because it is the day the women came and found the tomb empty - the day of the resurrection.  The earliest disciples went to Temple on the Sabbath, and gathered together on the 1st day, the Lord’s Day, to learn about Jesus and share a meal.  As the decades passed and more Gentiles joined the church, it simply became the norm for Christians to worship on the Lord’s Day.  So worship day and Sabbath aren’t really the same thing for most Christians - although our Seventh Day Adventist brothers and sisters do worship on the actual Sabbath.    What has happened, though, is we have kind of shifted what we mean by Sabbath.   There are a lot of people who believe that Sunday is the Sabbath.  It’s not.  But it is the day we, Christians, worship God.

There was a time in this country, not all that long ago, when churches had morning and evening services and everyone went to both.  When Sunday was dedicated to worship and rest and family time, and the acceptable recreations for Sundays including reading edifying books, family dinners, and playing games.   Most stores and businesses weren’t open on Sundays, although many restaurants were.  I remember when 7-11 stores were the only places open on Sundays.  Today, of course, malls and stores are open on Sunday, kids soccer leagues play on Sundays, and of course, major league sports of all kinds fill the airways. And that is partly because fewer people actually go to church today than did, say, in the 1950s.  And it’s partly why fewer people go to church than they did, say, in the 1950s.  I both love and hate that malls and stores are open on Sundays, because it’s convenient for me (after worship), but it also means that in many cases, people who might want to be in worship today can’t be, because they have to work.   (That whole soccer thing . . . I have a friend, a pastor, married to another pastor, whose daughter played soccer on Sundays instead of going to church.  I know, right?  But there wasn’t any other day to play, and she was really good.)  

I get my hair done at Urban Cuts, the new barber shop over on High Street, and the owner is very proud of the fact that he works 7 days a week.  He goes to the gym most days, and works the shop from open to close.   He’s about to get busier because he’s opening a new shop in the Hanford Mall, and he’ll be running back and forth between the two.  I keep telling him he needs to take some time to himself.  He says “I’m too busy to take time off.”  He’s young and fit.  He can do it, but still.    Even God needed a day off!

For you students, the ones who are heading off to college or graduate school, or who have jobs lined up and are ready to begin your career . . . take some time for yourself.  And before you say, “I’m too busy to take time off!” . . . I get it, I do.  Because I’ve been in college and grad school and holding down jobs while studying and writing papers and serving a church and coming home to a husband to cook and clean for and all of that. I graduated from seminary on a Saturday, was ordained the next day, and was on my way to my first church two days after that.  I did not rest in between (because I don’t think driving across country is restful), so I know it’s not easy.  But even God needed a day off. 

So many of you, here in this room, as so busy that maybe the only restful time you get is the hour or so you spend here on Sundays.  You have jobs and family obligations and volunteer responsibilities.  You spend all of your time and energy taking care of others, and when I ask you about taking some time for yourself, you tell me, “Pastor, I’m too busy.  I just don’t have time to rest.” But dang, people.   Even God needed a day off!

And then there are my clergy brothers and sisters, who work in the Lord’s vineyard every day, from before sunrise until they are ready to drop at night.  There is so much to do, so many to minister to, hungry to feed, naked to clothe, prisoners to comfort, so much suffering to help with, so many who need to hear the word of God at the lowest times of their lives.  They work and they work, and they never rest.  I admire them greatly, but I also confront them about their own health and well being.  “Take some time off,”  I say.  “When do you rest?” I ask.  They say, “I can’t take a vacation.  I’m too busy to take off even a day!” And they  tell me they have to work all the time, because Satan never rests.   And they ask me, when I tell them I am taking a day off, or going on vacation, how I can take time away from the Lord’s work.  My answer to them is twofold.  One, if they’re taking the devil as their model they are looking in the wrong direction.  And two, even God needed a day off!  God told us to rest, to take time from our work, even church work.  

God said, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”  

It feels a bit awkward to read those words while acknowledging that I don’t follow this commandment, and that we would all probably find it way too difficult to spend an entire day every week doing no work, nor causing anyone else to work. (Like people working in stores and restaurants, for example - including internet shopping.)  I mean, I am the one who is supposed to tell you all to obey the Commandments.  But our world is so different today.  I know you don’t have a whole entire day to read the Bible and pray and meditate, listening for God’s words in response to your prayers.  I don’t have that, and those things are kind of in my job description.  But on my day off, like yours, there’s still laundry and shopping and doctor’s appointments and all of those other things to do.  (Of course, my friend in Jerusalem and many other Jews around the world, including the US, do manage it. . . )  

However, I can usually find an hour in my day.  Just one hour.  And maybe you can too.  And maybe during that hour you can take the One Hour Sabbath suggestion attached to your worship bulletin and do those things.  Christopher McCauley, who wrote that, is a spiritual director and was one of my teachers when I was studying Spiritual Direction.  I admire him greatly.   Keep in mind, though, that he is a contemplative.  His suggestions may not suit you.  And if they don’t, that’s ok.  Don’t try to do a form of Sabbath rest that isn’t restful for you.  If the suggestions there don’t work for you, maybe you can just turn everything off for an hour.  Read a book.  Go for a walk.  Play with your kids, or pets.  Do whatever brings you peace.  Whatever allows you to really rest.   Whatever allows you to find a closeness with God.  Take Sabbath time, keep it holy.  Don’t say, “I’m too busy.”  Because even God needed a day off.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who will go?

Isaiah 6:1-8 NRSV

6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  6:2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.  6:3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”   6:4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

6:5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  6:7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."

6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!”
Many are called - 

From 1940 until 1973, during both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the United States Armed Forces that could not be filled through voluntary means.  To put that in historical context, the draft began in August 1940, when America was not yet involved in the 1-year old Second World War, because President Roosevelt considered it a prudent step to train American men for military service, just in case.  It continued through the Korean War and ended in January, 1973, a few months before direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended.  During that time period roughly 13,500,000 draftees entered the Armed Forces.  There were also many volunteers, many of them men who had received their draft notice and preferred to serve in a different branch of the military than the Army.   Many were called, indeed.  And most answered that call, serving with honor and distinction.   Today our military is once again all volunteers, men and women who have heard and answered the call to serve our nation in uniform.  However, registration for the Draft through Selective Service is still required of all men ages 18-25 - both citizens and immigrants living in the U.S.   This weekend, we honor those men and women who answered their nation’s call, and served and have died.  We remember them with dignity and with all the honor they deserve.  

People are called to all sorts of different work.  We often think of teachers, doctors, dentists, fire fighters, police, social workers, community organizers, and others whose lives are dedicated to helping others as having a calling, or vocation.  Ministers.  Even attorneys and politicians - I know.  I know all the jokes about attorneys and politicians.  But truthfully, many serve because they sincerely want to be of service to their community.   One young person I know went to law school so he could help protect the environment.  Another so she could help protect those who can’t help  themselves.  Many of these who know they are called to a particular field have gifts that make this a obvious choice for them.  For others, however . . . 

Something Gary Woods said in his message last week struck me.  He said that if we simply use our gifts in God’s service then it’s all about us, not about God.  I disagree, in that it was God who gave us those gifts in the first place. But there’s also the matter of God sending us places where we have to call on gifts we didn’t know we had.  For example - When I got to college, I really didn’t like math. And I was willing to swear that my dislike of math stemmed from the fact that I was in Mr. Hornberger’s Algebra class when we were told that President Kennedy had been shot.  So when I got to college and had to take a math class I found something called Math for Non-Math Majors, which was like a Math Sampler.  There were the usual algebra, calculus, and geometry, but also fractals and logic and number systems and optical illusions.  It was cool.  But the coolest thing was the instructor.  She was not your typical Math teacher.  She told us that her calling in life was to help those of us with Math Phobia get over it. And she told us why.  You see, she hated math.   She was a dancer, who majored in Dance in college.  And in her college, Dance majors did not have to take math!  But after graduation, discovering that it is difficult to make a living as a dancer, she started substitute teaching, where she discovered that the most urgent need by far was for math teachers.  So she bit the bullet, went back to school, and became a math teacher.  And discovered the joy of opening the eyes of students to the beauty of Math.  She went back to school again so she could teach math at the college level.  Math was not her gift - dancing was.  But she received a call to do something she really didn’t want to do, and thus improved the lives of many - including me.  We really never know what God has in store for us.  But we do know that no matter what God calls us to do, the gifts and talents we need will be provided.  

And then there’s me. I was a secretary.  I was good at it.  I liked being a secretary.  I liked having someone  else in the position of authority.   I disliked being the person in charge.  I was terrified of speaking in front of people.  Then one Sunday in church, while Pastor Betsy was preaching, God said, “You need to be doing this for me.”  A few weeks later, when I was talking to women in the County Jail about changing their lives so they didn’t have to keep going back to jail, God said, “You need to be doing this for me.”  I did not want to be a minister. I kept not wanting to all through college and a year or two into seminary.  Oh, I was willing to do what God said, but I didn’t have to like it.  Likewise, after leaving Chapman University, as much as I loved Chapman, I did not love California, and I swore I would never come back.  And so, here I am.  In Selma, California, serving as your pastor.  Not where I thought my gifts and talents would take me.  Certainly not my plan for my life.  But it is, apparently, God’s plan for my life.  And I wouldn’t change a thing.  I love what I do.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  

Last Friday afternoon a colleague of mine was on his way to work when he ran into a police roadblock. Later he would write about his experience. 
 As I sat on the highway, the radio announcer shared there was an active shooter. Soon, our daughter Emily sent me a text. Suddenly I realized I was stopped on the highway because the crime scene was growing and traffic had been stopped. I was within a mile of the school, looking behind, and realizing, that they were diverting traffic away from the area.  [A little later]  The police who had stopped the traffic were … going from car to car, asking where those of us who ended up within the blocked area were heading, so that they could then direct which way to go.
When the sheriff's deputy had me roll down my window, he asked, "Are you a parent?"
I replied, "No, I'm a hospice chaplain on my way to visit a patient."
He then looked at me and said, "We could sure use you at the Junior High."
I didn't hesitate. I said, "Sure, where do I need to go?” 
His boss would share later that day, "God had a divine plan." What's the chance of a hospice chaplain being in a line of cars in front of a school where death seemed to be everywhere?

Todd Williams could have gone to work, to comfort the dying in their homes and hospitals. That is his calling, after all, and his job.  Instead, he went where God called him that day.  The folks in hospice care needed him.  But not in quite the same, immediate way that he was needed at the High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

We never know when God is going to call us to drop whatever we thought we were supposed to be doing and go someplace else entirely.   We never know when someone is going to say to us, “We could really use you over there.”  

Isaiah was very sure he was not worthy of being where he was, seeing what he was seeing, and hearing what he was hearing.  But God found him worthy, and acceptable, and just exactly the right person to send.  His doubts were removed, his sins were forgiven, and he stood before God saying, “Here am I.  Send me.”  Let us be like Isaiah.  When we are called, even though we may be quite sure that we are not gifted in the ways that this call requires, let us trust God to know us better than we know ourselves. Let us trust God to know where we are needed. Let us hear that call, and answer that call saying, “Here am I.  Send me.”  

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.”