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.