Sunday, December 16, 2012

You will say in that day....

You will say in that day,…
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
“I will trust, and will not be afraid,” rings a little hollow in a society where kindergarteners are gunned down with semi-automatic weapons while sitting in their classroom on a Friday morning. We are broken-hearted. How can we not be afraid? How can we not be angry? How can we not be sick inside? How can we not be in murderous fury and anguish and deep, deep, sorrow all at once?

How can we find words adequate to describe what is going on inside us after one more in a line of horrific incidents?

In today’s scripture, the prophet’s song begins, “You will say on that day….’God is my salvation’.”  And struggling humanity wants to know: just what day will that be? What day is it that I will be able to trust, and not be afraid? On what day, now, can we send our kids or our grandkids or ourselves off to school trusting that we, or they, will come home at the end of the day?

An ancient lament gives the sense of the spasm of grief that convulsed our nation on Friday:
“A voice is heard in Ramah; wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be consoled, for they are no more.” 
What day is it that the world becomes a safe place? What day is it that we have peace? What day is it that we stop hearing news of school shootings, and mall shootings, and movie shootings, and temple shootings, and college campus shootings? Because I want to live in that day, God.

Show of hands: Who’s emotionally exhausted by this news? Who’s anxious, worried? Who’s sick at heart? Who’s P.O’d? Who would like to take “that day” right now?
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” 
Let’s face it: We need God. Let’s stop this pretense that somehow it’s all working out fine as an arms-length relationship. We are here because we need Jesus. We need the Prince of Peace. We need the God whose heart breaks for us, for twenty students and their families, for teachers and staff and those whose sense of safety has been shattered. We need some evidence that this is not all there is.

We know, too well, how to live in a society built on fear. But we were not born for fear. We were not born for such brokenness. We know this week’s act, deep within, for what it is: evil and broken and pain-ridden and sorrowful and desperately needing to be redeemed. And it is the fruit of a society needing to be redeemed. We know – very well - American independence and individualism and we know “I’m gonna make it on my own.” But these are not Gospel values.

Our misguided attempts at saving ourselves have come to nothing. We are sick, and we are heart-sick and we come to the point at which we know, we cannot fix this ourselves. We do not have anything more to offer as a solution to this horror. We cannot fix it with wishful thinking and we cannot fix it with avoidance, and we cannot fix it with mere sentiment, no matter how deeply heart-felt.

We cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long….” And the answer comes: As long as we pretend that the time is appropriate for mourning but not prevention. As long as we value our guns more than our children. As long as we give assault weapons moral and constitutional equivalency to a colonial-era musket. As long as we slash mental health funding and glorify violence and expect these twin evils to have no consequence.

I am praying for a day when children do not need to go to school in fear, when parents do not need to send their children to school in fear. I am praying for a day when I no longer have to write these damned sermons about gun violence. I am praying for a day when we will have the courage to face our American demons around gun rights and find a solution that keeps all of our children safe.

But until that day, to hold all of this, I need Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, God knows that we’re tired. That we’re weary and anxious and heart-sick and soul-sick. So the messengers keep coming, to remind us that salvation does not lie in pretending a naive faith despite the latest horror. God keeps knocking at the door to remind us that we are not alone. What is it the angels say, every time they show up? “Be Not Afraid.” What is it the prophets proclaim, to a sick and weary and disenfranchised people? “Be Not Afraid.” What is it the grown Jesus says when the boat is rocking and the storm threatens? “Be Not Afraid.”

God was not born into the world because it was practically perfect and just needed a little window-dressing. These are the circumstances of the incarnation: Violence. Loss of life. Anguish. Fear. Blood and tears and spit and vomit and the messiness of life in a land occupied by the powers of death. That is where God came, and that is where God comes: to a broken world in desperate need of a Savior.

It take so much energy to live with this level of fear. The land of fear has left us with parched and dry souls. It is impossible to praise from a dusty, scratchy throat; knowing that our cracked lips have forgotten the song of the angels, God offers living water from a deep, inexhaustible well.

We have a sickness for which there is only one cure: the Holy One who offers freedom, hope, love, peace. Some day, we will stop living in the illusion that we can save ourselves, from ourselves, and we will let go of the fear and the agony and the anxiety that goes with it. Some day, we will have the sense to say, “Surely, God is my salvation.” Until then, with Advent anticipation, we wait.

We wait through the world’s brokenness, through violence, and fear. We wait for love to be born. On that day, the deep wisdom of the holy writings will be ours, and the Gospel will be ours, and the Savior will be ours. On that day, the body of Christ will proclaim, together, prophets to the world, “Be Not Afraid.” And great in our midst will be the God who made, and saves, and sustains us.

Christmas comes to us on that day: when we proclaim:
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid.

Let all God’s people say, “Be Not Afraid.”

And let all God’s people say, “Amen.”

Text:  Isaiah 12:1-6.  Preached at McFarland UCC on December 16, 2012 (Advent 3), in the wake of the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut.  Following the sermon, we proclaimed life in the face of death, light amid darkness, and hope amid despair, by singing together, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Psalm 139 - a responsive paraphrase for my first confirmation class.

One:                God, you have searched me out.
Many:             You know what I hide in the deepest parts of me.
One:                You are familiar with all my ways.
Many:             You know me completely, and still you love me, Lord.

One:                You go before me, and behind me; you wrap me in your protection.
Many:             Such knowledge is almost too wonderful,
                        it is almost too difficult to grasp.

One:                Where can I hide from you?
Many:             If I sing out with glory and praise, there you are;
                        If I lie down, despairing and fit to die, you are there too.

One:                When I soar on the wings of dawn,
                        When I settle with the twilight breeze,
Many:             You guide me and hold me.
 One:                I need not hide from you, morning or evening, or anywhere in between;
Many:             You are the one who created me.                                                                        

One:                I praise you, for the wonderful way you made me.
Many:             I was woven together, with love and blessings,
                        Before the world ever knew me.

One:                You wrote me into your book of wonders.
Many:             Your love and care for me is written there for all to see!

Written for Confirmation Sunday at McFarland UCC, 12/2/2012

An Advent Prayer

Holy One,
You who creep in among us on a starlit night,
An unlikely blessing in an unlikely place,
Hear our prayer. 

We offer you our sorrows, and our joys.
We offer you our questions and our doubts.
We offer you the best and worst of ourselves.
We trust that you know what to do with it –
Celebrate, transform, redeem, forgive.

Teach us to be vulnerable, as you were.
Teach us to accept love, as you did.
Teach us to make a home for you.

Inspire us to be for you,
a light that shines in the darkness,
Let our words, and our actions, and
our hearts testify to your light.


Game of Thrones

From time to time, popular culture coincides with our church year in a particularly helpful way. I speak not of the cult of Black Friday, nor of Wisconsin’s high holy days, the gun deer season. While one could make an argument for the entire genre of reality TV as a monument to sin and depravity, that’s not where we’re going today, either. Instead, I want to take you to HBO, to a popular series known as Game of Thrones. 

In the church calendar, today is known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday. It marks the end of one church year, and the beginning of the next. How could we not talk of Kings, and Thrones, and what rules us, on Christ the King Sunday? Cable TV dramas are not generally a refuge for saints – and this one is no exception. I was going to show you a clip, but it was a little hard to find one safe to show in the sanctuary. The program is based on an epic fantasy spread across six books (and counting). It has its fair share of foul language, revealing dress, violence and blood and beheadings. In other words, this is not a series to be watching with your young children. 

The premise of Game of Thrones is this: Centuries ago, one king conquered seven kingdoms, and his family ruled for centuries until a rebellion by feudal lords ended the dynasty. The leader of this rebellion became the new King. Years later, he dies of a wound taken in a hunting accident, and a new power struggle begins. His best friend and right-hand man – know as the “Hand of the King” asks too many pointed questions about the King’s heir, and finds himself accused of treason. (Those of you who are familiar with the series will know that I am guilty of gross oversimplification…forgive me) Things don’t end well – for his dedication to the realm and to finding out the truth, he loses his head. The kingdom fractures. For a time, nearly everyone is declaring himself a ruler: the dead King’s son, the dead Hand’s son, the King’s younger brother, the King’s elder brother, the dead Hand’s foster son’s iron-willed father…in the way of epic plotlines and dysfunctional families everywhere. 

And these are just the players we know about! Everybody gets in on the action. At one point, a group is holed up for the night behind the gates of an abandoned town, when some soldiers ride up and bellow, “Open up in the name of the King!” The retort from inside the barricades is brief: “Which one?” 

“Which one?” 

Like the characters in this series, we are constantly part of the Game of Thrones, whether we see it, or not. To which king do you owe your allegiance? For which ruler do you open the gates? To which ruler do you bend the knee? Today, of course, you can’t figure out which ruler someone follows by looking at what banners they carry, what device is on their shield, or whose Great Hall they feast in. Most of us don’t go through a ritual of offering our sword to someone and swearing fealty. 

Maybe you already know who, or what rules you. But if you don’t, here are a few ways to figure it out: 

  • How do you commit your time? Consider, for a moment, what is the most frequent entry into your calendar. Pull out your smartphone or your pocket calendar if you need to, while I’m talking. Maybe you’ll find your ruler lurking within. How do you actually spend your time? Maybe your work schedule rules you, or the sports schedule or your overwhelming load of homework. When you have to choose between two conflicting activities, what wins? That one might just be the ruler you have chosen. There’s another place you can look to see what rules you. Take a peek – as scary as it is in this gift-giving season -- at your checkbook register or your credit card statement. Pull out your checkbook, if you need to, as we talk. 
  • How do you commit your financial resources? On what categories do you spend most of your money? Housing? Home decorating? Travel? Debt service? Groceries? Charity? Your smartphone bill? Eating out, theater or sports tickets, club memberships, hobby equipment? So, what rules your schedule, or your pocketbook, or, a third category…just in case you haven’t settled on one yet: 
  • What captures your attention? On what do you spend your emotional, psychological, spiritual energy? What do you obsess over when you can’t sleep at night, or think about when you lose your focus at work, or muse on when you’re stuck in traffic on the beltline? When you snuck away from family gatherings this weekend, what was it for – surreptitious glances at your phone for work emails or text messages? Taking a turn at Words with Friends?
In at least one of these places, you will find what rules you. I ask you this: is it worthy of your devotion? Your allegiance? Is it worthy of your one wild and precious life? Sometimes, we don’t feel like we have a choice: it’s about brawn – we are captured or conquered with overwhelming force. Sometimes it’s a pragmatic decision, letting ourselves be ruled by whatever’s in closest proximity to us. Sometimes, our allegiance is won with stirring words…and sometimes it’s the influence of the crowd all around shouting, “Long Live the King” that causes you to lift your voice in acclaim. Sometimes it’s the ruler who has lifted you up from lowly places, and given you a title or an inheritance, who wins your undying loyalty. 

We’ve heard of a ruler like that: One whose kingdom is not of this world. One who came to testify to the truth. One who lifts up the lowly, seeks the lost, embraces the outcast. One who honors you a title better than any this world could bestow: Beloved child of God. And an inheritance beyond all we could earn or merit: a home in the heart and household of God. We who have been baptized, we who seek to follow the prophet of Nazareth, we who believe that God came to live among us as one of us – and in ways that confound logic, overcomes even the power of death: we know who wins the Game of Thrones. We know who conquers the false rulers, who offers freedom from tyranny and despair and division and madness. 

We call him, Lord. We know – at least a little bit – what his realm is supposed to look like. And we swear ourselves to it on a regular basis. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The words are all over scripture and Christian tradition, and sometimes they come without thinking, because they are familiar to us. We proclaim them week after week, day after day. We offer our allegiance to the carpenter, teacher, healer, son of Man, son of God, ruling over an upside-down Kingdom. 

He tells us that his kingdom is not of this world. He shows us that the way is not easy. He asks us to set aside all other rulers -- Kings, Queens, habits, addictions, conveniences – for the sake of the Realm of God. On this last Sunday of the Christian year, when we celebrate the end and the beginning, when we celebrate the Sovereignty of God, we hear: 

“Open up, you ancient gates, open up you ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!”

To what King do you owe your allegiance? For which ruler will you open the gates? 
The Sovereign One is drawing near: “Open up, in the name of the King!” 


 A sermon for Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday
Text: John 18:33-38

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading Between the Lines

What’s not to love about the book of Ruth? It has something for everyone:
  • Feminists: A book of the Bible named after a woman! A plucky woman who survives against the odds, a heroine who shows some initiative! (After all, she’s the one who makes the marriage proposal.) 
  • Those who are sentimental: “Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge…” shows up at a wedding now and then. Those for whom romance novels are a guilty pleasure: You can almost picture the cover – female protagonist who’s been flirting with the strong male lead for chapter after chapter, shows up at the threshing floor just when he’s done working for the day. Whatever do you suppose will happen? 
  • Even if romance isn’t your thing, it’s a well-told story. The conflict rises almost immediately, with a famine, and a journey in search of a more hopeful future, and then, unexpected death. There are plot twists and suspense in the middle. And it claims a happy ending when Ruth and Boaz finally get together. 
  • There’s even something for the mothers-in-law: Naomi beaming over the new grandson in her arms. And for the more financially-minded: a real-estate transaction (Chapter 4 – look it up). 
So many reasons to appreciate the book of Ruth. But this week, it kept rubbing up against current events in a very disturbing way. Which, if you think about it, is scripture’s job. Sometimes we open up this book, and it speaks a word of comfort and hope; sometimes it indicts us. This book is filled with stories of less-than-perfect humans trying to make sense of less-than-ideal circumstances – and often, blaming it all on God rather than owning up to their own junk. We can learn something there. Sometimes, in these sacred stories, God shows us our own shadow side, the individual and communal realities we’d rather hide from. 

This particular book of the Bible is only four chapters – not too long to tackle in one sitting (even if you have to squeeze it in between loads of laundry). So, the first read was a quick one. And then at lunch I flipped open my web browser to catch up on the news – more than a little politics in this election season. When I went back to the Bible study, I started noticing things that I hadn’t noticed before. 

Ruth and Orpah and Naomi were part of a culture in which unattached women have next to no hope of a future. A nation in which, if you happened to be female, you we supposed to be under a man’s care – a father, or a husband, or failing that, your dead husband's brother.  When these women were suddenly widowed, they became socially and economically vulnerable. (“Economically vulnerable” being polite talk for barely surviving, on the edges, undesirable, unwanted.)  Naomi grew bitter, because a woman on her own in such a world was in for trouble. There was not a respectable place in the workforce for women, not a way to earn a living, not a way to support a family. Bare subsistence was the goal. 

A woman without a man to protect her was left to scrape up what she could at the edges of society. Ruth is every woman who went gleaning in the fields, rescued just slightly stale out-of-date bread from the store dumpster, collected meager tips at an all-night diner, and is even now working three part time jobs to try to avoid foreclosure.   Ruth's problems still exist.  Women’s participation in the workforce has been declining during the recession - a result of job loss, lower wages, and the high cost of child care and elder care (a burden which still falls disproportionately on women). Stay home to raise your children, and you’re a “welfare queen,” go to work (if you can get it) and you not only spend a huge proportion of your pay on child care, you’re labeled a neglectful parent. 

There’s no way to win, when you’re on the margins. We have been there in the Bible, in history, in our lifetimes. Truly, dependency, work without dignity, exhausting oneself while falling further behind, is not economic justice, not the life that God dreams for God’s people. 

The gleaners aren’t the only model of a Biblical woman from Ruth’s time. Alternatively, there were other images of single, independent, capable women: witches, prostitutes. There are those who paint such images of single, independent women now; politicians and elected officials and broadcasters and religious leaders attempting to marginalize and silence women who speak up publicly. During the Salem witch trials, being a single, opinionated and mouthy older woman could get you killed. In our own time, when Sandra Fluke, a law student, was put on a witness list to offer congressional testimony, she was excluded. A panel comprised entirely of men heard testimony entirely from men, about women’s bodies. When she spoke up anyway, for parity in health care, for reproductive justice, she was publicly labeled a slut. 

Truly, this is not the life that God dreams for God’s people. Not in the Bible. Not today. 

In a culture such as Ruth’s, a woman has limited assets at her disposal: her wits, her body, her relationships. All of them are necessary for survival. There is no shame in it – there should be no shame in it – but it should not be necessary. And so Ruth heard Naomi’s wisdom: Gotta get a man. Gotta make a baby. Gotta survive. She risked everything she had left to her in her quest for survival when she went down to the threshing floor late in the evening. A certain kind of woman was known to hang out on the threshing floor, around the men, at the harvest time. This is not news. When she goes into a place where “good girls” don’t go, perhaps you think, “she deserves what she gets.” 

Women were not expected to have control over their own bodies. We have been there in the Bible, in history, in our lifetimes.  We live with Ruth in a world where rich men can crack jokes about cheap contraception being “aspirin between the knees” while avowedly pro-life candidates can demand their pregnant lovers get an abortion. Ruth is every woman who has ever walked quickly home, wondering whether she should have worn a longer skirt and shorter heels, hoping that no one will get the wrong idea, hoping that no one will come lurching out of the next alleyway…and she is also every woman who has decided that her body was her best ticket out of poverty …and every woman who has let a man touch her because she felt she had no other option, and worried about her reputation all the while. 

This is not justice. Surely, this is not what God dreams for God’s children. 

The Bible does not have a direct pronouncement on most of the critical issues that face us in 2012, an index you can flip to in the back to find, "Obamacare - see page 170.   Romneycare - page 102.  "   No such luck.  We need to search for the truth around and behind and between the words on a very thin page. We have to look at the bigger story than the gotcha phrases and convenient excerpts. It means we need to know the Biblical story of God always redeeming God’s people, always leaning simultaneously toward justice and mercy, always leaning toward freedom. Immerse yourself in that story. 

So, re-acquaint yourself with the story.  And then be very suspicious when the system tilts in favor of those who have plenty of power already: when city councils feel free to decriminalize domestic violence, for budgetary reasons… when politicians contort themselves around twisted definitions of “forcible” and “legitimate” rape, as if there were any distinction… and candidates state that pregnancies that result from assault are a “gift from God.” 

Don’t insult God like that! The only part God had in that sexual assault was in not abandoning you while it was happening or after. God did not make you pregnant – that was your rapist. And your rapist is most definitely not God. Never try to pretty up human sin and evil by claiming God meant for it to happen. It’s another assault on someone who has already been violated. The life of a woman who has been assaulted is not any less precious than the life that may be growing inside her. 

God will always work to bring something out of even the deepest terror. But an undesired pregnancy is not the only way that the power of life can conquer death. God is bigger than that.

Truly, this is not what God dreams for her girl children, for her men children. Not in the Bible, not today. 

Be very suspicious anytime you hear those with a surplus of power and influence talking about people as if they were inanimate objects. And be suspicious when political parties conveniently find “women’s issues” and “family values” important every two or every four years.  Ask yourself, always, “is this the life that God dreams for God’s children?” 

Because last time I checked, God lavishes love on those around the edges. On the poor, on migrants, on the economically and socially and sexually vulnerable. On those who have been wounded and held back by the stupidity and arrogance and self-seeking of their fellow humans. My Bible tells me that when God came to live among us, filthy shepherds came to worship. In the person of Jesus, God loved the children and said “do not turn them away” -- so why are we contemplating cutting funds that help them and their families? God chose to hang out with the prostitutes and tax collectors, and counted among his best friends two apparently single women and a likely widow. It was the women who wept for him, who stayed until the bitter end, and showed up first for the new beginning. 

The witness that Jesus lived among us was of wholeness and healing and redeeming and including. In Jesus, God looked broken people in the eyes and reminded them that they were human beings too. 

So look, with the eyes of Jesus, at your Bible, and at your newspaper, and your television and your computer screen. Look between the lines of the stories for the people Jesus would see. People like Ruth and her mother-in-law. See how they are treated. And ask yourself, “Is this the life God dreams for God’s children?” 


A sermon on the book of Ruth, preached at McFarland UCC on October 28, 2012.   

Friday, July 20, 2012

Children of God

I preached this sermon after the Arizona shootings in January 2011. Sadly, it still seems applicable. Peace, and gentle thoughts for sisters and brothers traumatized by today's shooting in Colorado.

Sermon for January 9, 2011 Texts:  Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Gabrielle Gifford, Child of God.
Gabe Zimmerman, Child of God.
John Roll, Child of God.
Christina Taylor Green, Child of God.

These four people, and 15 others, were wounded or killed in a horrific shooting in Tucson, Arizona yesterday.  It took place in one of the most ordinary places, outside the grocery store, on an ordinary winter Saturday.    These four people were doing that most ordinary of things:  their jobs.    They had each followed a call to public service, of one sort of another – Gabrielle Gifford, elected as a congressperson, Gabe Zimmerman hired as a community outreach director, John Roll, appointed as a federal judge, Christina Taylor Green, 9-year-old newly elected student council representative, who wanted to learn more about government.

“Here is my servant,” says Isaiah, says God.  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”    God calls us into relationship, and God calls us to service.   “Thus says God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,…”
 And even so, those who give themselves to the people are not immune from suffering.    On the contrary, they sacrifice and suffer for it.  Sometimes, they pay the ultimate price.

The touchstones of our lives are, too often, the times when public figures who have answered the call to service, are cut down.   We differ in the details according to our generation, our geography, our culture, but the background sounds all too familiar.   The assassination of President Kennedy.  Bobby Kennedy.  Martin Luther King, Jr.   These are events marked with a before and an after.    They come out of times of turmoil, they leave us breathless, they stay with us forever. 

There are times in each human life that are inflection points, before-and-after times when your trajectory changes, where you can point back and say, “there, that’s where it all hung in the balance.”   There are times in each relationship.  There are times in the life of each community, where you can say the same:  “that day” or “that meeting” was the one where it all changed.   And there are times in the life cycles of nations and civilizations where you can feel the water rising, the current building, the stakes becoming higher and higher.   Times when you look around you and see things changing.   Times when humanity is rushing toward an inflection point.   I am convinced that we are in one of these times.   

We live in a time when words of division, words that incite hatred, dominate public discourse.  The violence increases.  There have been open calls for “Second Amendment solutions”, for revolution, for “taking our country back.”  Within the past year, rhetoric has been shifting toward action – there have been dramatic increases in the number and activity of hate groups; even before yesterday’s horror, elected officials’ homes and office have been targeted, and attacked.     With every speech, every broadcast, every internet posting, divisiveness is released into the air, floating among us, seeding destruction. 

And with each release, we accommodate ourselves a little more to this reality – some of us shaking our heads in sorrow, some of us withdrawing.  But the more we hear it, the more it becomes part of “normal” – even if it’s an unsavory, undesirable, “normal.”    Our thinking and our feeling becomes more and more polarized , more “us” vs “them.  We stand in the river of muck that is this new “normal” and watch it flowing by us and around us.  It saturates our clothes.  We get used to its stench.  We catch ourselves speaking its language, almost without noticing.  Blame, and distancing, and depersonalizing.    We stand hip-deep in the muck of this river of sin.  Yes, I used the ‘S’ word.   Sin.  There’s no other word for it.   Sin.  We stand hip deep in this river of us-vs-them, hatred and violence, and forgetfulness.  We forget who we are.  And we forget who we are called to be.   And we forget who is our brother, and who is our sister, and who all of our other relations are.  We forget that we are children of God – and we forget that that “other” person is, too.  That, my friends, is the very definition of sin. 

And so, I say this name too:  Jared Lee Loughner, Child of God.

Because Christ stands in the river with us and weeps, that we have come to this.  That one Child of God could have their soul so twisted, their senses so clouded, by the evil all around us, that it seemed somehow right to seek to end these lives.  That it seemed somehow an act of justice, an act of redemption for him to do so.  Christ stands in the river and weeps that there are others out there who believe he was in the right, and continue to believe that he was in the right.  Christ stands in the river and weeps that there are many who want to demonize Jared Lee Loughner, Child of God, this day - who make him a mere object, an embodiment of all they hate and fear.  Jesus Christ stands in the river of hatred and fear and division and ugliness that we have poured forth.  Jesus Christ, God’s servant, God’s child, agent of transformation.   Christ stands witness in this moment.  

Hear these words: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan [River], to be baptized by him. …And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove …"   John the Baptist, the prophet who preached repentance, who washed people clean in the river, is present in this moment.    The Prince of Peace, upsetter-of-the-status-quo is present in this moment.  The heavens have been ripped open.  Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are present in this moment. 

We are at an inflection point.  We are standing hip-deep in the filthy river, and John is pointing to it, saying, “What are you going to do? What word will you speak?”   And Christ stands next to us, in the river – because where else would he be? – he stands next to us, holding this moment open, holding the crack in the heavens open for a little bit longer, holding the opportunity open with all the strength that comes from knowing that he is a Child of God, offering us the invitation to reach out to heaven.  

The Creator stands ready to speak, and the Spirit stands ready to help us fly.    But we need to speak the words ourselves.  We need to be the covenant.   We need to be the light.    The world is waiting for this Word.  The nation waits for this teaching.   The Children of God are waiting, on the coasts, and in the desert, and the mountains.  Reach!  Speak!  Risk!   Help God do a new thing.  Live your call as Children of God! 

Oh, dear God, help us take this moment, is all I can pray right now.  Jesus Christ, I pray, transform us.  Give us the strength you had, to stand upright in the midst of violence, to see it clearly and to challenge the brokenness.   Spirit, breathe into us the holy promises.  Help us live as God’s servants, a gift of light and love to the world - so we can hear the voice of God speak once again from the heavens, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”   In the name of the One who transforms the most difficult situations, who calls us by name, and who calls us to serve.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

In Her Own Words: The Hemorrhaging Woman

It started about 12 years ago. I can’t really pinpoint the day things started going wrong. I was tired all the time. I felt like there was this constant drain on my life. It wasn’t like it was a huge, dramatic event. Life just got gradually got worse and worse. I hurt, I didn’t have any energy, I seemed to catch just about every illness that went through town.

When it got so bad that I couldn’t take care of my daily errands, I knew I had to do something. I called the doctor. He hemmed and hawed and said he needed to consult with colleagues. He suggested a certain medicine. I went to the pharmacist, and it cost more than twice what I was expecting. I was on that prescription for a few months before we decided it wasn’t doing anything. Hundreds of dollars down the drain.

I was getting used to being at home. It was far too inconvenient, and far too taxing, to travel around town. A small trip to the market sapped all my energy. I did make one big trip, to the city. Somebody – one of my neighbors, I think - suggested this specialist might be able to help me. That doctor said he’d have to research the literature, that I was a unique, and interesting case. After that trip, I gave up on Western medicine. I tried acupuncture. I did internet searches, staying up all night long. I found this website – there was a combination of natural supplements that might do the trick. I was running out of hope, so I ordered in bulk, even though it put my checkbook into the negative. I waited impatiently for the mail to arrive – about the only thing I could muster the energy for.

When I went out to the mailbox, the kids in the neighborhood would look at me, and point. I could almost hear them…”there’s that crazy lady”, they said. “Yeah, the one who never leaves her house!” “Well, she’s out there now! Don’t look her in the eye, it might be catching!” Let them think what they wanted. It didn’t matter. Days in front of the computer evolved into days on the sofa, weeks in bed. Somebody from church had groceries delivered every week, but I just let them ring the doorbell and leave the bags on the porch. I didn’t want any visitors. I’d spent everything trying to get better, and I only seemed to get worse.

Then, one day, when I cracked open the door to the porch, to bring in the bag of groceries that was my lifeline, I saw a note atop the bag, a note from my prayer partner. Inside the envelope was the following: “Dear Grace – there’s somebody new in town. Word is that people with all sorts of chronic illnesses have gone to him to be healed. They say he can change lives with nothing more than a touch! I’ve heard of people bringing handkerchiefs to him to be blessed, to give to people who are laid up in the hospital. I don’t know if you’d be interested, but they say he’s going to be at the fairgrounds this weekend. - J” And a little bit more… “ps – It’s all quite exciting. Everybody seems to know about him, there are crowds wherever he goes. Getting out might do you some good. Why don’t you call me?”

I shook my head. The last thing I needed was more false hope. I went to bed. Despite myself, I started wondering what it would be like to meet him. What would a modern-day miracle man look like? Would he have a magic wand? Carry an aura of power? Look like some earthy-crunchy leftover from an earlier decade? “Silly,” I said to myself. “Stupid. Pointless.”

But the idea kept growing. Saturday dawned clear and sunny. I got up. ‘Why not open the curtains,” I thought. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of my closet, looking for something to wear. When I stepped outside, I realized just how crazy it was. What in the world was I thinking? I walked down the sidewalk. As I got closer to the fairgrounds, more and more people joined me. Here I was, worrying about being conspicuous, and nobody even noticed one more person in the crowd.

I thought about going back home. It was so bright out, and all these people were so noisy! Way too much energy out here, too much hustle and bustle. My legs were getting shaky from the effort. This was more than I’d walked in years. Suddenly, I saw a knot in the crowd. A surge of excitement carried the people around me forward. My breath caught in my chest. I couldn’t turn around now, even if I had wanted to. We were packed elbow to elbow. I would have been trampled, if I slowed down, if I tried to go back home. I was almost lifted off my feet by the crush of people. This group up ahead looked important. “That must be him,” I thought. “Something big seems to be happening, I wonder what it is,” and the people around me kept exchanging their own thoughts, excitedly.

And then, the world stopped. Well, the people around me stopped. I stopped. He stopped. Time seemed to stop. You see, when the crowd slowed down, momentum kept moving me forward. I tripped, stumbled, fell forward on my shaky legs. And I landed – horrors – landed with my hand, outstretched, touching him!

As I bent there, on my knees, I could feel something different inside me. The pain, the tightness, the sense of not-right-ness – they were all, each and every one of them, gone! My plague of 12 years, my constant companion had suddenly, and without warning, stopped. I was tongue-tied with amazement. I had spent the past 12 years being painfully aware of every twinge in my body, every signal that my lifeblood was draining away, every piece of me that had stopped working properly as a result. I knew this body. And I knew, without a doubt, that this time in my life was over. I felt whole, for the first time in years.

 But then, I found myself afraid. He stopped, he turned around, he somehow knew, that he had been touched. A circle formed around us. It was like our own personal stage, like we were acting out something that had happened before. I started shaking all over. I started stammering, trying to explain what it was I knew. I’m sure I sounded like a total idiot to everyone there. And before I could continue, his words calmed me. ‘Daughter,’ he said – with so much love in his voice – ‘daughter, you have been healed, go in peace.’ And I stood up, and slowly walked back home, feeling like finally, I was alive, part of the human family once more.

Thanks be to God.

Text:  Mark 5:21-43 - Preached at McFarland UCC on 7-1-2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let It Be Known

This is not the same Peter we usually hear about.

Peter, as we usually meet him in scripture, is a fisherman, a working-man, a little rough around the edges, a little thick in the skull. Nothing subtle about him. Prone to thinking big, but a little fuzzy on the execution. Peter begged Jesus, “call me to you, so I can walk on water.” And he sank below the waves, until Jesus extended a hand to rescue him. Up on the mountaintop, Peter said, “Let’s build a house up here, just us, in this holy place!” And Jesus just had to shake his head and lead him back down. At their last dinner together, Jesus says he must wash his disciples’ feet, and Peter says, – “Don’t just wash my feet, wash my hands and my head too!” And then, close to the end, Peter follows the arrested Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and stands there, waiting, to hear what’s going to happen next. That night, he denied Jesus three times, saying “I do not know that man.” By the next afternoon, his desertion was complete - like most of Jesus’ followers, he ran away from the terror of the cross, and hid.  Some disciple. Some student, he was. 

Except, four Sundays ago, we learned it wasn’t the end. Three days after they thought all hope was lost, the Risen Christ shows up, walking through locked doors to get to his people, breathing the spirit of life into them once again.  Yes, even Peter - the clumsy, clunky, imperfect Jesus follower who could never quite get it right. 

And so when we meet Peter again in the book of Acts, we find a disciple we hardly recognize.  He preaches a passionate sermon. “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified,” he says. Going up to the temple, he encounters a man begging, and heals him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And when the crowds are confused, he preaches again: “Why do you wonder at this, why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” All this public talking about Jesus gets him arrested. And still Peter keeps talking about Jesus. Questioned by the elders, the authorities – in the very setting that Jesus had been questioned not so many weeks before – he boldly proclaims: 

‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ 

“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ.” He might as well have been talking about himself. Because nothing else could take the Peter we know, and love, and shake our heads at, and turn him into a preacher. Nothing else could take the sad, broken man who had denied his beloved teacher and ran away in terror, and turn him into a passionate witness to the power of the Resurrection. 

It’s a Jesus thing. We’re not so used to talking about Resurrection stuff in our UCC tradition. We connect with the moral teachings about “love your neighbor”; we like what Jesus has to say about forgiveness (it comes in really handy sometimes); we can feel really warm and fuzzy about the “come unto me and rest” Good Shepherd (especially after a rough week at work). 

The Jesus part, we’re good with. But when somebody starts talking about how following the Risen Christ changed their life, we have a tendency to squirm. This Resurrection-and-New-Life business gets a little edgy. Doesn’t seem quite like “us.” A little too supernatural, a little too preachy. I spent 3 years in the South on a military installation after growing up in a nice little Congregational church in New England, and I got a lesson in “Jesus”-ing down there. Let me tell you, nothing shuts my willingness to listen down faster than when somebody gets their Jesus all up in my face. 

Even so, I am here to tell you that Resurrection Happens. That the power of the Risen Christ is a life transformation that we cannot understand, that we cannot control, that we cannot co-opt.  

This woman is standing before you in good health because of the transforming power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who died in alone and in agony, and whom God raised from the dead. 

Resurrection happens. God took a woman broken in body and in spirit and gave her the power to preach. I would not believe it if it had not happened to me. 

It happened to Peter. It can happen to you. 

The Risen Christ came with transforming power, into a burned-out, worn-out group of disciples and built a church through them. It is happening here. Right here, right now. 

Resurrection happens when you throw your broken self into the arms of Jesus Christ, and he says, “Rise!” When you recognize that there is no other way that a whole and abundant life is possible, despite all your striving. That following him is a whole lot faster way to find the still water and the green pastures than blundering around on your own. Those Paths of Righteousness aren’t just to make you look good in public, but for his name’s sake. 

I don’t want to get my Jesus all up in your face. You have your own story. But I am here to tell you that Resurrection Happens. The Bible tells me so. My own life experience tells me so. And I offer my testimony to you: when you choose to follow the Way of the Risen Christ, miracles happen. There is power in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. 

Alleluia, and Amen! 

For the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2012
Texts:  Psalm 23, Acts 4:1-12