Focusing on People, not the Fuss

Luke 10:38-42

Martha means “master.”

Head of the household.

And like her name implies, Martha was in charge.

She made sure that everything was handled.

  • When her brother Lazarus died, she was the first one to run out to Jesus on the road and scold him for not getting there sooner.
  • She was also the first of the sisters to recognize Jesus as the messiah in the Gospel of John.
  • And so it makes sense that Martha, the one in charge, is also the one in the kitchen, making preparations and making sure everything is in order.

And yet Martha gets bad press in a lot of sermons about this text.

And so I want to be clear here that hard work and Martha’s work in particular is not something Jesus is condemning here.

We all need Marthas in our lives.

Those people who are behind the scenes, making sure every detail is attended to.

People like our Ministry Team Lead for Hospitality, Jill Crawey and her team, including folks like Carol St. John, people who have stepped up in such a big way this past month to offer hospitality at 4 memorial services as well as at today’s Thanks for Giving meal.

You’ll see some of the work they’ve put in today, but a lot of it is things that happen behind the scenes.

I also think about Roberta Glaser and the team she’s developing to help us manage memorial services even better.

This past month, she made sure flowers were arranged, families were cared for, and ushers were called and in place.

And we can’t leave out Meg and Dorenda and Linda and… me too, who juggled logistics to make sure every service was equally meaningful and well-put-together.

And it wasn’t just memorial services where our Martha sides showed up this month.

I think about Marge, for example. Wow!

  • In addition to running a beautiful Generosity Campaign, she worked with Sammy to organize the boxes for the East Mountain Food Pantry. She calculated exactly how many potatoes and yams each family got, did the shopping, and then put printed forms on every box, so that the volunteers like me who showed up knew exactly what to do.

And then there are all of you who weren’t necessarily “in charge,” but who put in countless hours. Shopping, setting up, carrying food, serving, driving leftovers to Casa Q, winterizing our garden, or setting up our Cornucopia, among other things.

And it’s not just here at church where our Martha sides show up.

There are many of us who are hosting a large number of guests, maybe not here at the church, but in our homes.

I know one person here today who’s welcoming over 20 guests, not just for Thanksgiving dinner, but for 8 meals. And she’s doing all the shopping!

Whether it’s our job or calling or a volunteer position, these tasks and events involve a LOT of work.

And a attention to detail.

And that was Martha. It was her gift. The hard work and the attention to detail.

She made sure that everything was in order for Jesus’ arrival.

And I want to be clear, Jesus, in this text is not condemning the Martha’s of the world. In fact, Jesus praises Martha over and over in the Bible, saying how much he loves her.

And…in that spirit of love, Jesus also encourages Martha, and he encourages the Marth in all of us to keep perspective when faced with enormous tasks such as these.

I believe that here, he’s encouraging Martha not to stop working, but rather to relax, to breath, and to keep things simple.

This year, at Church of the Good Shepherd, there are some places we’re doing better at this than others.

For example, our Council decided to cater our Thanks for Giving meal this year.

The Council used to not only donate the turkeys but also cook them.

Knowing how much our Council works (and if you don’t, I’ll tell you that at least two of them volunteered over 40 hours last week), can you imagine, during this busy season, giving them yet another task?

I’ll confess that in that past, when we had the Council cook the turkeys, there was also some variation in the quality of the cooking…

Everyone has their gifts. Not everyone’s gift is cooking.

So this year, the Council is keeping it simple.

They’re hosting a beautiful meal, but they’re not fussing, at least not as much, in the kitchen.

Jill Crawley is still there, and if there’s someone you’re looking to thank or shower with gifts this holiday season, she’s a great person to consider!

Because even keeping it simple, someone still has to be in charge. And that’s Jill. She’s our celebrated Martha today.

Thankfully…she also has a crew of volunteers that is helping her.

And…my hope is, that they’re not so busy and distracted with all of their serving responsibilities that they forget to enjoy and get to know one another.

The Amplified Bible translates today’s text to say that Martha was not only busy but DISTRACTED with all of her serving responsibilities.

In the Message translation, Jesus says to Martha, “You’re fussing over far too much.”

Jesus pleads with her, “Martha, Relax a little. Keep it simple. I don’t need a feast for a king. What’s important is not what we eat or how beautiful it is, but who we are with.”

Keep it simple. And focus on the people, not the fuss.

Whether we’re hosting a meal (or 8), sharing time with guests, or putting together a memorial service, it’s important to remember that simple can still be meaningful.

At this point in my career, I’ve done over 150 weddings and funerals. And at just as many pot lucks, if not more. And no one has once said “I wish the linen had been ironed better.”

No one has once said, “I wish the hour devours at the service had been made from scratch.”

No one has once said, “I wish the bride had worn a more expensive dress.”

You know what people remember?

The couple getting married. Or the stories about the person who’s passed from this life. Or the people they shared those moments with.

In our text today, Jesus tells Mary that what she’s getting sitting at Jesus’ feet is something that will never be taken away from her.

Those stories, those intimate conversations, those moments of laughter – those are what stay with us.

I don’t remember what I ate at Thanksgiving in 1985. But I do remember singing along while my great grandfather played the piano.

I don’t remember whether the pie was any good at the Christmas pot luck in 2008. But I do remember talking to the 85-year-old member of my congregation who’d just gotten her first tattoo and wanted everyone to see it.

At our memorial services this month, I heard over and over again that people just wished they’d spent a little bit more time getting to know the person they were celebrating.

We learned amazing things about people at those services – like how Carl rescued dying service members from the front lines in WWII, how Jim McElhaney wrote love-note comic strips and left them for his wife Penny when he went out of town, how Wayne traveled the world and loved to sing Amazing Grace at the top of his lungs while riding his horse. And how Orp, was a clown. Okay, lots of us guessed that one.

But those stories made me wonder, what depths of one another’s lives are we missing?

What insights does that person sitting next to us have to share that we haven’t heard yet?

And what do we have the opportunity to learn and appreciate while we’re still here together?

Now, I certainly don’t want people to stop cooking or volunteering, but I do hope that we work to keep things in perspective, and when we can, keep things simple, fuss a little less, so that even those of us working behind the scenes can take a moment to sit, listen, and enjoy one another.

This church is full of extraordinary people.

For example – did you know that Jenny Sanchez, in addition to leading our justice ministry and working in our garden, is also a phenomenal Latin dancer? Or that Michael Tucker, our Vice Moderator, is also a writer and videographer and one of the few Americans to try his hand at writing in the Japanese genre of interactive online visual novels.

How many of us know that Sky, our Ministry Team Lead for Administration, is also a 3rd-generation blacksmith who’s forges steel swords in his garage.

Or that Karen Bash, our former moderator, is running for elected office.

And Dorenda, our accomplished pianist, also has the cutest puppy you’ll ever meet.

Of course, listening and sharing is a two-way street. In order for us to get to know one another, we also have to be willing to fill the role of Jesus, sharing our own stories and letting people know a little bit more about who we are.

Trust me, people want to know!

So many of us think that our lives are uninteresting. Or we’ve been taught to be humble and keep our accomplishments to ourselves.

But I’ve also never done a memorial service for anyone of any age where people didn’t have something in their lives that people valued, that was cause for celebration.

When we share who we are and what we do and what we care about, it brings us closer to one another.

So my challenge to us today and in this seasons of generosity and is to give thanks for the Marthas in our lives, and to also

Keep it simple. Share with one another. And focus on the people, not the fuss.

Sermon – “Money Talks”

Matthew 6:19-21

Today is the kick-off to our Season of Generosity, and the Worship Team and Generosity Team have challenged me today to talk to you about the spiritual reasons for giving money to the church.

 

So spiritual reason #1 – I give to the church because the Bible tells me so.

 

For those of us who value the teachings of Jesus and who follow his example, we should know that Jesus talks about money more than he did about heaven and hell combined.

 

In fact, Jesus talks about MONEY more than he does about love.

 

The only thing he talks more about is the “kingdom of God,” this vision he has for a future in which poverty, war, and hatred are eliminated.

 

And that “kingdom” of which he speaks, where love reigns instead of greed and hatred – he’s pretty clear that in order to build that kingdom, we’re going to need some people to finance it.

 

Almost a THIRD of Jesus’ parables, are about finances.

 

And yet, talking about money in church is something we don’t do very often.

 

Money is an uncomfortable topic for many of us.

 

It feels like something that should be kept private.

 

But why IS that?

 

I think that for many of us, money is something that pushes buttons.

 

Some of us are carrying considerable debt. I certainly fall into that category. We’re still paying off my husband’s student loans, and we have a credit card we’re also paying off.

 

For others of us, it brings up embarrassment about how much we DO have and perhaps how much we’re NOT giving away.

 

Or perhaps we just don’t want to make other people feel bad about what THEY have compared to what WE have.

 

I want to be 100% clear from the beginning of this sermon – although Jesus talks about money more than anything else, there is no where in the Bible where Jesus says that being in debt makes you any worse of a person than anyone else.

 

Likewise, no where in the Bible does it say that money is evil.

 

It does say that the LOVE of money can lead to evil. But money itself is neutral.

 

In fact, in many cases, money is seen in a positive light in the Bible.

 

The Apostle Paul, for example, in the book of Romans, chapter 16, thanks a woman named Phoebe. He writes, “I commend our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church. Give her any help she may need, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

 

Jesus praises the generosity of wealthy men and women who have given to the poor.

 

I have no doubt that in the modern era, Jesus would praise people like Bill and Melinda Gates for their generosity. Yes, they are crazy wealthy, but they’ve also used that wealth to fight disease in the developing world, among other things.

 

Today’s text says not to store up treasures on earth.

 

But that doesn’t mean don’t save for retirement or don’t accumulate wealth.

 

It simply means, don’t hoard money. BE GENEROUS.

 

When it says store up treasure in heaven, it’s also not saying bank good deeds the way you bank cash and you’ll be more likely to get into heaven.

 

We don’t have enough time to undo all of the bad theology associated with this text over time, but trust me when I say that Jesus is not telling us here that you can buy your way into heaven.

 

Jesus is simply drawing a clear line between material possessions and intangible benefits, and reminding us to do some self-reflection on where our heart really is.

 

Budgets are value statements.

 

When we look at how we’ve spent our money over the past year, or when we look at our budgets for the upcoming year, we’re able to see clearly what matters to us.

 

And Jesus is challenging us to consider putting our money where our heart is.

 

So that’s reason #1 – because Jesus is clear about it, and I, for one, think he had this God and community thing pretty well dialed in. And so when Jesus spends nearly a third of his time talking about money and about giving generously, I take that seriously.

 

Reason #2 for giving to the church is simple – it’s that this church changes lives for the better.

 

It builds that kingdom of justice and peace, that world ruled by love instead of hatred and fear. It builds a more just world through community, one life at a time.

 

I give, my FAMILY gives, because we believe that this community is changing lives for the better.

 

I give, because this place gives me hope for the future of humanity.

 

And that is not an overstatement on my part.

 

I mean that with my whole heart.

 

This place, for me, is the beginning of the building of the reign of God on earth, and that to me is invaluable and worth investing in.

 

I give, because my dollars pay to feed people who are hungry.

 

I give, because this place provides meaningful worship and opportunities for spiritual growth.

 

I give, because of the lives I’ve seen changed.

 

I give, because of Zack, for example, a young man who grew up in our church—a young man who experienced a Christian community that embraced his mom and her wife and celebrated their marriage. A community that welcomed him and treated him with respect and valued his spiritual journey. A community that invited him into leadership and asked to hear his voice and his perspectives. And now, as a young adult, as he faces the loss of his grandfather, Zack knows where to go to grieve. He’s found a UCC church near his college campus, and now a new community is caring for him.

 

I give, because of my son, who’s now in college, and taking a world religions class. He’s a pretty quiet student, but this week, after he got a question wrong on a test, he took the professor aside to challenge her. The question was whether baptism is a right of passage or a ritual. And he said, in many churches, baptism may be a right of passage, but in my church, baptism is a choice. And you don’t have to be baptized to be a part of the community. It’s not something that’s just a given.

 

And regardless about how we feel about the semantics of right of passage vs. ritual, my son was able to articulate what he believes.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because a child in our congregation knows that she can dance as an expression of worship, and because the other day, she wrote a joy that she’s a part of a community that’s open and loving.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

One of the greatest assets we can give our children is a church home. It’s proven over and over again that children that get involved in church are less likely to end up in jail or abuse substances. In addition, children who attend THIS church, leave here and enter the world as witnesses to God’s love, and then they share that with others. Zack Kinsman and Eli and Maggie, our dancing child, are going to make a difference for the NEXT generation, because they’ve experienced our love and our openness and our care for them. They share our values. And they’re going to share those values with the world.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because there are people like the woman in Bible study who was on a fixed income and didn’t have a lot of cash to spare, but when I told the Bible study class to pray for a family that was struggling to put food on the table, she wrote me a check for $5 on the spot to help pay for their groceries.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because this is a place that challenges ME, that pushes ME to grow theologically, spiritually, and emotionally.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because this place models, for me, what healthy community looks like.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because my poor jaded husband who used to work as a pastor and was chewed up and spit out and even abused by church after church… even though he has little faith in the institution of the church in general, he believes in THIS place, and when I talked to him about increasing our pledge this year, there was no hesitation.

 

He said, “Absolutely. Church of the Good Shepherd is a beacon on the hill. It gives me hope for what community CAN be.”

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because I’m inspired by worship. By our liturgy and our music. because I’m recharged here and am able to go make a difference in other areas of my life, because I’ve experienced spiritual renewal in this place.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because members of this church do things like take food to youth at Casa Q, a place that houses LGBT teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes on account of who they are.

 

Those are kids who now know that someone cares about them.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because we choose to pay an educated, trained, professional pastor to do things like grief counseling, to perform memorial services, to preach and help us understand the Bible, and to hold us accountable to our mission.

 

And yes, I realize that’s me.

 

And yet, I appreciate that this church values the work of its professional staff.

 

I give, because there are people in our chairs this morning who were told they were not welcome in Christian community. There are others of us who were abused or otherwise hurt by the church. And and yet here, they are safe, and they are embraced with open arms.

 

What’s THAT worth?

 

I give, because every dollar I give to this place is multiplied.

 

That’s not true in the rest of my life.

 

When I go through the drive-through at McDonalds and get a burrito and small coke, it costs me $2.47. I know that number, because I go on a pretty regular basis. I love burritos.

 

And, if I get a burrito and a small coke every day this year, that’ll cost me $901.55.

 

That’s $900 that goes straight to my gut.

 

That money doesn’t multiply. It ends with me.

 

But what would happen if I gave that same $900 to Church of the Good Shepherd?

 

With $900, I could fund more than 1/2 of our Sunday school supplies and curriculum. How many lives could I change, and how many lives might our children change if I chose to spend that money here in stead.

 

With $900, I could pay our water bill for 9 months. That’s 9 months of pot lucks and hospitality hours where people are experiencing God’s love. And then going out, refreshed and whole to make an impact for the rest of the week. That’s 9 months of baptisms, of opportunities to welcome people into this community. That seems a lot more valuable to ME.

 

With just $3/day, I could keep the heat on in this place, so that groups like the Bible study and the bell choir can experience God and explore their connection to God and community.

 

That gift multiplies.

 

This church is an investment that pays much bigger dividends, certainly than burritos, but also bigger dividends even than any mutual fund or stock market purchase.

 

Because when we invest in THIS place, God and this community multiply our gifts and make an impact on the world that’s much bigger than anything we could do alone.

 

We already have a massive impact on our community both here and outside these walls.

 

And – I want to make it bigger.

 

I want to reach more children.

I want to comfort and welcome more people who are hurting.

I want to go deeper in worship and in our spiritual practice together.

I want to feed MORE people and let MORE people know that they are loved no matter what.

 

Part of the way we will that is by committing our time. And we’ll do that next week.

 

And… another way we will do that is by pledging our dollars.

 

And when we pledge our money, in addition to funding the ministries of this church, we’re also pledging to God and this community, saying that this place, this is where my heart is.

 

I’m not saying this will be easy. Some of us are struggling financially or struggling to get our finances in order.

 

And I want to tell you today that if you’re in that boat, I’m here with you, and I’m willing to work with you to sort that out. To get things situated and organized so that God and community have a place in your budget.

 

I don’t have all the answers, and I have a lot of learning still left to do, but I’m committed to this process, so don’t hesitate to talk to me about it. Because together, we can make things work.

 

As I said earlier – this place gives me hope for the future of humanity.

 

So let’s give generously and create a just world through community one life… and one dollar at a time.

 

 

Sermon 10-22-17 – The “E word”

Scripture: Acts 1:8, Romans 10:14-15

“The E word”

Throw out some words that you associate with evangelism…

Now think for just a few seconds about someone who showed you or told you about the love of God….

aWhat are some of the words that come to mind when you think about THAT person?

There’s a big gap there.

And yet the biblical example of “evangelism” connects not with the ugliness and the forceful, judgmental soap box nonsense we associate with evangelism.

Evangelism in the bible is all about bringing GOOD NEWS.

About bringing PEACE.

In the text from Romans, the Apostle Paul, who we’re pretty sure wrote this one, quotes the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah, when he says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

That’s an odd saying, isn’t it?

How beautiful are the FEET of those who bring good news?

Remember, we’re talking about a desert culture where people wore sandals a lot of the time.

No one had pretty feet.

So what in the world is Paul talking about?

Well, the text, which comes from Isaiah 52, describes the glorious day when the people who have been sent to exile are told they can return home.

See, in 597 BCE, after several revolts and political maneuvers, Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Babylonians.

And by destroyed, I mean left in complete ruin.

Thousands of people were sent into exile, and the temple in Jerusalem was knocked to the ground.

And those were who were NOT asked to leave, those people who were NOT associated with the government or who were not educated, they too faced extraordinary suffering, because there were fires throughtout the city, and thousands of people lost their lives when Babylon invaded.

And then for almost 60 years, for about 3 generations, the people of Judah, the educated people, anyway, the rulers and the merchants and the people who had had some kind of privilege in Jerusalem – all of them were kicked out of the city and forced to live in Babylon or in other places.

They became homeless overnight.

As a result, they faced extraordinary physical hardships.

Hunger. Poverty. A lack of safety. No shelter.

People had to leave their businesses if they had them. They had to leave their homes. In many cases, their homes were burnt to the ground when Jerusalem was destroyed.

Babylon was like a hurricane or a forest fire.

People lost everything.

And in addition to losing physical property, they lost people they loved.

People who were caught up in the fighting. Innocent people. Children. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Brothers and sisters.

And to add insult to injury, they also lost their place of worship.

And at the time, there was a belief that God literally lived in the temple in Jerusalem.

God was attached to the land and to the place, to Jerusalem.

So when the Babylonians destroyed the temple, God’s house, God too became homeless.

And there was doubt about whether God could still even EXIST outside of Jerusalem.

God, the God of Israel, was conquered.

So in addition to physical and emotional hardship, there was spiritual hardship.

So when the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and permitted the exiled Judeans to return to Judah, to return to Jerusalem, and begin reconstructing their temple, it was a GLORIOUS day.

And that time, that proclamation that the Jewish people could return to Jerusalem is what what Isaiah 52 is all about. And it’s what Paul is quoting in Romans 10.

Isaiah 52 reads:

How beautiful on the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news

Who announces PEACE

Who brings good news of good things,

Who announces salvation.

Who says to Jerusalem, “God reigns.”

Paul is quoting a text about returning HOME.

About returning HOME from EXILE.

THAT’s what Paul says evangelism looks like.

Evangelism, which comes from the Greek word, euangelizo. evan-geh-LEE-so

How beautiful are the feet of those who PROCLAIM, who EVANGELIZE peace. of those who EVANGELIZE good news.

And EVANGELIZE, in this context, is directly tied to the proclamation that the people of Israel can return home.

It’s not about telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t convert. It’s not about saving souls for Jesus.

Its’ about telling people they can return home.

That they can worship where they want to worship.

That they HAVE a home.

It may not be a physical shelter. A house they own.

But it’s a place where they belong.

How many of us, at one point in our lives, were told we were not welcome?

In a group?

At work?

In a neighborhood?

In a family maybe?

Maybe in the church?

And how many of us, even though we were TOLD we were welcome in a group or a family or a church maybe, even though we were TOLD we were welcome, we didn’t actually feel welcome there?

—-

I remember when i was as teenager, I was a bit of an ugly duckling.

And on my first youth trip, even though we talked all about Jesus’ love all the time, I felt like an outcast.

The kids in my youth group made fun of me. And when they weren’t making fun of me, they were ignoring me.

And it hurt.

And then at this big gathering of youth, where we were all going to work repairing houses, some kids from another youth group invited me to their Bible study.

Okay, to be fair, I was 14 at the time, and it wasn’t just any kids, it was two really cute boys.

So of course, I went.

And I had had a particularly rough day with my own youth group, and I was on the verge of tears when I went, and this youth group, this other group, embraced me like I was one their own.

Including the cute boys.

And I asked them, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

And one of them simply said, “Why wouldn’t we be? God loves you. And we love you too. You’re welcome here with us any time.”

That moment was a breakthrough for me.

Because I had felt so small, so low, and in the midst of my 14-year-old sadness about how unloved I was, someone told me, “you’re welcome here.”

It wasn’t anything big.

it didn’t take a lot of effort.

And yet, I think that youth group probably changed my understanding of the church forever.

In today’s text, when Paul encourages the Roman Christians to “evangelize,” what he’s encouraging them to do is to tell people they are welcome. That they’re free to come home. That they HAVE a home in community. And not just tell them actually, to SHOW them, through our actions, that they are welcome.

He’s not telling them to preach hellfire and damnation.

He’s not even telling them to speak explicitly about Jesus, although certainly, Jesus was someone who exemplified what Paul is talking about.

Jesus told people who others considered outcasts that they were honored and welcome and loved in God’s beloved community.

The good news Paul is telling the Roman church is that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here.

Now, for some of us, this message won’t land as hard as it will for others.

For many of us, those of us with privilege in particular, welcome is something experience most of the places we go.

For many of us, we don’t have to worry about store clerks following us around and treating us with suspicion on account of the color of our skin.

As a clergy person, I know I have unique privilege – I’m able to enter hospital rooms, for example, and even the ICU, when others aren’t.

As a white woman, I’m also not seen as a threat. When I’m walking my dog at night, people don’t cross the street afraid I might attack them.

As a US citizen, I have the privilege to vote for elected representatives. I also have the freedom to worship openly as a Christian.

I’m also married to a man, so I don’t have to worry regularly about whether or not my marriage will be honored by state agencies or whether businesses or religious groups will recognize my relationship as valid.

For those of us with privilege, and we all have privilege in one place or another in our lives, for those of us with privilege, it is PARTICULARLY important that we take Paul’s message to heart.

It’s PARTICULARLY important that WE evangelize.

That WE express God’s radical message that exiles are welcome home. That outsiders have a home in community.

I know evangelism is a loaded word. And… what if we reclaimed it?

Today, I say let’s do it. I, Pastor Sarah, progressive Christian minister, am imploring you, members and friends of Church of the Good Shepherd, Christians and otherwise, to EVANGELIZE.

To stand on the mountaintop and proclaim that all are welcome.

That ALL people belong.

And let’s not just proclaim with words, but with our actions as well.

In our families or workplaces where there’s that one difficult person who doesn’t quite belong or fit in or get along with others – evangelism is about welcoming that person into relationship.

In our nation, where there are people who are displaced and homeless due to natural disasters or other circustances – evangelism is about both sheltering people AND working to for solutions like more affordable housing and healthcare so that people ARE able to return home.

In our church, where there are people who are hurting due to grief or illness or spiritual alienation, evangelism is about holding them in prayer, offering hugs and meals and a listening ear, and staying the course with people who are in different places on their journey.

The vision of Church of the Good Shepherd, the place we want to go, the vision we yearn for is to be an inclusive community that shares divine love as a path to justice and peace in the world.

The vision of Church of the Good Shepherd, the place we want to go, the vision we yearn for is to be an inclusive community that shares divine love as a path to justice and peace in the world.

Sounds a little like evangelism to me.

I know the word evangelism is loaded, and it’s full of baggage that we can’t unload in a day.

And…let’s not toss out the heart of what it means.

Which is to proclaim PEACE and proclaim HOPE to people who have been living in exile of one kind or another, to proclaim the JOY of new life to people who have been living with physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship.

My challenge to us this week is to seek out someone, just one person, and evangelize. In this way. To evangelize to one person by taking an action or saying something that lets them know they are loved and they are welcome in our lives. It might be as simple as offering a hug. Or going to the UCC disaster relief website and donating money to help people displaced by natural disasters. Or it might mean reaching out to someone who’s experiencing grief or alienation and letting them know that we love them. Or it may be something as grand as reaching out to someone who we haven’t found the courage to forgive yet and finding that courage from the Holy Spirit to say, “We forgive you.”

May we all find the power and courage to evangelize this week. And may we all experience God’s welcome as we offer welcome to those who need it most.

Psalm 139: “Awesome Bodies”

There’s a sign in Meg’s office that says “Come in, we’re awesome.”

 

Did you know it’s biblical?

 

In our scripture today, the Psalmist writes that God knit us in our mother’s wombs.

 

That we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

 

The Hebrew can also be translated awesomely and wonderfully made.

 

We ARE awesome. Worthy of awe.

 

And not just our intellect or our minds or our souls. Our BODIES are awesome.

 

So you can go home today and tell your friends that your pastor said your body is awesome.

 

Because our bodies ARE awesome.

 

Our bodies are created by God, blessed by God, empowered by God to do God’s work.

 

And so today, we’re going to talk about our connection with those awesome bodies.

 

Now if you immediately had the thought, well, my body’s not THAT awesome.

 

Or if you immediately crossed your arms or put up your defenses because you don’t want to talk about the body at all, know that you’re not alone.

 

The body, though celebrated in Psalm 139, is not a comfortable topic for most of us.

 

I grew up, like a lot of us, in a body-obsessed culture. A hyper-sexualized culture. And yet, I was simultaneously told in church and in my family that my body was something to hide and something to be ashamed of.

 

The church taught that my spirit was of God, but my body was of the world, the world being the place where all sin resides.

 

My spirit was holy, but my body was the source of temptation and sin.

 

Whether you grew up in the church or not, I suspect all of us have heard this nonsense tossed our way at some point.

 

This idea the body is like a wild animal that left up to its own devices would do nothing but sin. And that it’s only with our mind and willpower and spirit that we’re able to control and overcome these evil part of ourselves.

 

This is nonsense.

 

Seriously.

 

It’s just straight-up wrong.

 

But its’ something people have been teaching for at least 6000 years.

 

And it’s not just Christians. Philosophers like Plato deserve some of the blame.

 

Plato talked about the body and soul as separate entitities.

 

Then the Apostle Paul, who wrote a significant piece of the New Testament, picked up on that and made it worse by saying things like “But you, [Christian brothers and sisters], are not in the flesh. You are in the Spirit! Since the Spirit of God dwells in you! Anyone who does not have the SPIRIT of Christ does not belong to Christ.”

 

In other words – you’re either in the FLESH or in the SPIRIT. The Spirit is holy, and the flesh is evil.

 

The theologian Augustine of Hippo made it even worse. He promoted this body/spirit dualism and said things like, “With my mind I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”

Then Thomas Aquinas who argued similarly…

And on and on and on.

Western theology over and over again priviledged the spiritual over the physical, understanding the physical as the site for sin, while the spiritual was the place where we could connect with God.

 

 

There’s a lot of work to undo.

 

And modern scholars and philosophers and theologians, and feminist and non-heterosexual theologians in particular are slowly coming around to the idea that the body and soul are not actually separate entities. And that the body is, as Psalm 139 reminds us, beautiful, good, valuable, awesome.

 

And the soul and body are NOT separate. They’re integrated.

 

They’re one substance.

 

For those of us that are science geeks, think about matter and energy. They’re the same thing.

 

e = mc2

 

The body and soul are made up of the same substance. They are one and the same.

 

In the Gospel of John, it doesn’t say the Word, aka Jesus, became flesh and then God then gave Jesus a soul.

 

It simply says God became flesh. God became physical body. Not body and soul separate. 100% body. 100% Spirit. All one in the same.

 

Weird we’re so scared of bodies when the incarnation is at the heart of our faith!

John M. Bechtold, a scholar and pastor wrote, “In both the history of Western philosophy and of Christian theology, the body is often neglected, overlooked, or outright condemned. This is particularly odd for Christian theology given that its distinction and uniqueness stems from the doctrine of the incarnation.”

The idea that God became EMBODIED.

 

So today, I want to give us an opportunity to think about what it means to connect with God through our bodies.

 

When we live our lives and take actions. When we move our bodies and use our bodies to do work, we are doing work with awesome divine substance.

 

God knit us together in God’s image. We are made of God-stuff.

 

It’s not just intellect or this transcendent intangible spirit that are capable of transforming the world in God’s image.

 

No. It is also our physical bodies. our flesh. that is fully holy. fully divine.

 

We connect with God when our bodies go out into the world to serve others.

Project Share.

Or when we listen to someone or give them a hug.

Or smile at one another.

 

Another way we connect with God through our bodies is in worship.

 

When we come forward for communion.

 

When we stand to sing.

 

We put water on the heads of children who are dedicated in baptism and some of us even physically go under water and come back out in baptism.

 

We smile and hug or shake hands with one another.

 

We eat together.

 

All of these rituals are ways we connect with God and with one another.

 

One of the most powerful ways we connect with God is through prayer.

 

And our bodies are involved in that.

 

And the way we’re taught to pray has a history and it has an effect on the way we view and interact with God.

 

One of the oldest ways of praying is to lift up our hands, palms up.

This is called the Orans stance, and it’s been used for generations, including by members of Jewish and Pagan communities long before Christians adopted it, and it’s the traditional posture for prayers in eastern churches and Jewish synagogues.

It’s also biblical – on the day of his transfiguration, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, Jesus looks to heaven as he prays.

In the book of 1 Timothy, the author says, “I want people everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer…”

 

And yet in the West, somewhere along the line, we decided, well, someone decided that connecting with God with hands out-stretched was not the “right way” to do it.

We were taught instead to bow our heads, kneel, or prostrate ourselves before God.

One of the most common postures we take is looking down with our hands clasped in front of us.

<summarize in worship using gestures>

“This is the traditional posture of a shackled prisoner of war who is brought before the conquering king. The hands are clasped at the waist as if they were shackled in chains.”

“The eyes are averted—in ancient times, looking directly at one’s captor was insolent and a good way to get killed on the spot. This posture is for submissive petitions or for intercessory or penitential prayer, as we see in Luke 18:10-13.

(Ken Collins – http://www.kencollins.com/worship/pray-20.htm)

 

Is that the kind of relationship with God that we want to communicate with our bodies?

 

Another common one is kneeling with our eyes closed, hands folded.

 

(again – Ken Collins’ explanation – summarized in worship) “This is the traditional posture for requesting favors from a king, and so it became the traditional posture for prayers of repentance or supplication. The Council of Nicaea in AD 325 forbade kneeling on Sundays, because penitential prayer is not appropriate during a celebration of the Resurrection. In western Christianity, kneeling came to mean simple humility and submission, and so kneeling became the normal posture for most prayers in the west.”

It’s the type of prayer Jesus offers in Luke 22 when he’s begging God to spare him from the crucifixion and all the trials ahead. He kneels down and prays, “God, if you are willing, take this cup from me. An angel came down and strengthened him, and being in anguish, Jesus prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

It’s the stance of a beggar.

 

 

—-

So let’s consider for a minute, instead of a captor greeting a king, what would it look like for us to pray to God the way we might talk to a beloved friend? Would we use our hands to talk the way some of us do when we get excited? I’m going to invite you to try this on for a minute with me. So try this, if you’re comfortable.

“God, you will not believe the day I’ve had.”

<slap hand on knee>

 

What would it look like and feel like in our bodies to pray to God and experience God holding us close the way a nurturing parent holds a child?

Try this one on. “God, hold me close to you.”

<arms crossed across chest, holding self>

 

What about those of us in crisis, who just want to hold our head in our hands? That seems authentic to me.

“God I am broken. Let me experience your healing and wholeness.”

<bent down and holding head>

Or what about hands up to receive God’s mercy and grace?

“Thank you God.”

<Orans posture>

 

Instead of praying to God as subjects asking something of our king, what would it look like to pray to God as partners in God’s creation?

 

Would that look like a hand-shake? I’m not sure. Let’s try that one.

“God, will you be my partner in my next project.”

 

<hands holding other arm’s forearm>

What about praying to God as a confident person, unashamed of our awesome bodies, hearts forward and open to God’s message.

“God, I’m here and I’m ready for duty.”

<hands on hips, head up>

 

Could we dance while we pray? Or walk a labyrinth or just sit with the sunrise? Absolutely.

 

There is no where in the Bible where it says there is ONE way to pray.

 

As we lift our silent prayers to God, if you want to try on one of these postures, know that this is a safe place to do so.

<invitation to pray – invitation to stand or spread out if space is needed

<prayer>

Note: One of the most powerful things about this sermon was the talk-back from the congregation mid-sermon. I’m sorry I can’t communicate that better in this post, but if you’re reading this online, please do try these postures – they feel very different!

Blessings and Curses of Creation

Genesis 1:24-2

Today, we blessed our animals. But what does it really mean to bless something?

We said words of thanksgiving and words of hope.

Blessings, in the Bible are often like this.

They’re wishes.

They’re prayers to God that God fulfill what we hope for others.

But did you know that the word blessing in Hebrew is the same word for curse?

That’s right.

The same word, barak, means BOTH blessing and curse.

The only way you can know which one it is… is by context.

Susan MacKenzie commented to me that it depends on the tone of voice…
Think about “good for you…” Said one way or another.

But in the Bible, we don’t get the benefit of hearing the tone of voice.

It’s not clear.

We do, however, have examples of “blessings” that are both blessing-like as well as more curselike.

For example, when Jacob “blesses” his sons in Genesis 49, he blesses some of them with hope and wishes for great fortune.

To his son Judah, for example, he says
“Judah,You are the one whom your brothers shall praise;
Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s sons shall bow down to you”

He says to his son Asher – “May your food supply be rich and bountiful.”

On the other hand, his “blessing” of Reuben, his oldest son, feels more like a curse.

He says, “Reuben, you are my firstborn…And all of my strength and dignity SHOULD have been your birthright. But you are unstable and reckless. YOU will not succeed.”

Those are tough words coming from a parent.

And to me, they certainly sound more like a curse than a blessing.

So then looking at today’s text, what does our scripture mean when it says God BLESSED us, and gave us dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth?

Is it really a blessing? Or is it more of a curse? Or maybe both?

When it comes to caring for the creatures of the earth, it’s not entirely clear.

It certainly feels like God has blessed us with the creatures of the earth when a happy dog greets us at the door.

But perhaps it feels more like a curse when that same happy dog greets us with one of our shoes in its mouth.

It probably feels like a blessing for many of us when our cat snuggles up with us on the couch.

But perhaps it feels more like a curse when that same cat burrows into the couch.

It feels like a blessing when we hear the sweet music of songbirds.

And yet more like a curse when said songbirds take up residence in the tree above our parked car.

So what is God doing here?

What is God’s purpose and what was the author of Genesis’ purpose in saying that in the beginning, when human beings were created, God BLESSED us with the responsibility of caring for creation.

The Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn, the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California, has some insight here. He argues that determining whether something is a blessing or a curse has little to do with the outcome and more to do with the intention of the one blessing us.

In other words, if God intended to bless us with animals, even if they eat our shoes, what matters is the initial words and intention God had when God said to us, “Take care of the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

Rabbi Khan writes,“The act of blessing is not dependent on the fulfillment of its words….Rather, the act of blessing is realized in the moment itself. The blessing is the act of giving, the connection that is created, and the faith and caring that are expressed in the words and gestures.

The experience of receiving a blessing–the experience of hearing and seeing the focused, spiritual attention….can be [in itself] a source of sustenance, faith, and meaning.

In blessing, we concretize both what we yearn for…and we affirm our deepest links and connections, between one another and with the Source of All.”

I love what the rabbi says, because for me, at the heart of this blessing that God offers us at the dawn of time, is a moment of connection.

God is offering us, offering humanity, the opportunity to be a part of God’s creative process.

And perhaps, as the rabbi said, the RESULTS of our blessing creation, while important, are not nearly as important as our intentions and our orientation–either toward God and connection and love or toward hatred and revenge.

Whether this responsibility of caring for creation is a blessing or a curese is ultimately up to US.

WE, as people created in God’s divine image, and as partners in God’s creation, we have the opportunity to in turn bless or curse those in our lives, the people as well as the animals.

God has given us free will and responsibility. God has given us authority even, to use our words and deeds to impact others.

And we have a choice.

We can use our words and actions to cures others.

We all know that words ARE capable of inflicting pain. They’re also capable of bringing joy and laughter and healing and transformation.

So my challenge to us this week is to be mindful. Be mindful of whether are actions are intended to bless or curse others.

May we take our responsibility seriously as co-creators with God!

Amen.

Sermon 9-17-17 – Towers, God and Change

The Tower of Babel was written over 2700 years ago, probably around 600 BC.

It’s a story about people who come together, around a common purpose, which is building city and a tower that will reach so high that they’ll be able to see God.

They also want to be together. To unite under a common purpose.

They want to make a name for themselves and not be scattered.

But then, the story goes, God feels threatened by this new initiative.

God worries about what they might be able to accomplish next.

So God goes down, confuses their language, and scatters them to the corners of the earth.

This is not just a biblical story, but a story that appears around the globe.

In Cholula Mexico, there is an ancient story about the first people who wandered the land in search of the sun. They built a tower to reach the sky, but the God of the heavens was threatened and angered by their arrogance, and destroyed the tower and scattered their people.

The Toltecs have a story in which people are building a great tower when the gods confound their language and they can’t understand each other, and they’re all scatted to different parts of the earth.

There’s story about Montezuma and HIS attempt to unite his people and build a great tower to protect them from the next flood. But then the Great Spirit destroys the tower with lightning.

In Zambia, ancient sources tell of a story about people who tried to build a tower to the gods, but then the gods, threatened by the people’s creation, knocked them off the scaffolding and killed their builders.

There are legends like this from the Ashanti people, from the Kongo, from Tanzania, from Myanmar, and from Papua New Guinea, among others.

And what they all have in common is
1) a group of people who unite around a common goal, usually involving the pursuit of knowledge or the pursuit of connection with each other and with God. And then
2) A God or gods who are either jealous or threatened by this initative and use their power to confuse the people or destroy their work.

So what is it about this story that it’s so compelling and so ingrained in our human DNA that it appears in cultures around the world?

What it is about human nature that compels us to tell this PARTICULAR story?

The story of human creation and divine destruction?

3. Many scholars believe this is a simple origin story about why we all speak different languages.

And that’s possible.

But here’s the thing. You could tell THAT story any number of ways.

You could say that an earthquake happened and people were divided by big rifts in the ground.

You could say that an evil ruler came along and divided people unfairly and banished them to different places.

You could say that people ate some kind of poisonous mushroom that numbed their mouth so they talked like this and could no longer understand each other.

Why tell the story that GOD was threatened by human unity and chose to scatter them and shatter their plans?

It certainly is a way to explain our diversity. And it points to God’s power, which is something that a lot of ancient stories do.

And… I think there’s something much more subtle going on here that can point us to why this is a part not only of the bible, but of our human narrative.

For the most part, we human beings have a hard time understanding what God wants of us.

We have a hard time hearing the voice of God separate from our own voice.

There’s a great story about a group of wise people who visit a magical well where it’s said that if you speak your desires into it, you’ll hear back the voice of God.

So each one, one after another, goes to the well and speaks to God.

And each one comes back and tells the others what God told them.

And the old Christian woman of the group says – God is a wise old woman. And she is Christian.

And the young buddhist monk says, no – he is young and male and buddhist.

And on and on.

Because when they speak to God, the voice they hear back is themselves.

So what if, the role of God in this story is NOT actually played by God throughout history, but it’s played by another saboteur.

What if the actions of God in the story are actually OUR actions.

When people come together and unite for a common purpose be it building a city or a tower or forming a support group or fighting hunger in the city… whatever it is.

What typically sabotages that effort?

Is it God?

Sometimes it’s circumstances. Sometimes it’s other people. And often times, it’s US.

If we read the Chrsitian scriptures and listen to the teachings of Jesus, God empowers us to connect and work together across our differences.

God sends the holy spirit on the day of Pentecost so that we might understand each other better.

Perhaps this story is not about God at all, but about our own choices to push back against change.

And our own choices to divide into groups of people that are just like us and our choices not to understand those who are different from us.

And our choices to play small so that we stay safe.

We’ve all experienced the challenge of change, whether it’s working as as group or individually.

How many of you have tried to stop smoking?

How many of you have tried to lose 5 pounds?

How many of you have tried to turn down chocolate cake?

We know these decisions are healthy for us, and yet we resist.

Organizations do the same thing.

How many of you have tried to pass new bylaws in an organization and met resistance.

Even in the this church, which, as churches go, has a phenomenal openness to change – how many of you in leadership have felt some resistance to changing a policy or a way of doing things here?

Resistance happens without fail.

The way one of my mentors explained to me was like a train system. We get a group together. We tell them – we’re getting on a train and going to Chicago.

Is everyone on board with going to Chicago.

Everyone’s on board.

Until about an hour into the trip, when someone says, “Hey – but can we go to Los Angeles instead?”

“No! We’re going to Chicago.”

“But can we go to Los Angeles? Because we really like Los Angeles. We’ve been there before. We’re familiar with it. It’s comfortable for us. I really think we should go to Los Angeles.”

And someone else will say, “Well, Chicago sounded nice, but I really want to just go back to Albuquerque.”

“No! WE’re going to Chicago. WE all agreed. We’re going to Chicago.”

“Well, I think Albuquerque is the place to go.”

Suddenly, the group is not speaking the same language. And they’re scattered.

But Is that God? Or is it something else?

I want to put it out there to you today that the sabotaging force is NOT God.

And the people building the city or the tower are NOT evil. What’s wrong with making a name for ourselves if we’re making a name for ourselves by being the most generous congregation in the city?

What’s wrong with building a community and putting up a tower that says God is still speaking and making a name for ourselves as a community that welcomes everyone.

The force of sabotage is NOT God.

It’s us. And it is part of our human nature.

It is expected.

And it’s a simple side effect of the way that our brains are wired.

And, it’s not impossible to overcome if we work together and focus and persist, even when other people or circumstances or our own fears get in the way.

This text, at its core, is not about a jealous God. It’s a projection of the authors’ own fears of change.

These stories, worldwide, reflect what is so basic to humanity – a desire to maintain the status quo.

We’ve just projected our very HUMAN fear of change onto God.

Remember that our brains are wired for SURVIVAL.

We may want to thrive and make the world a better place, but our brains, our hardwiring is most interested in just keeping us alive.

And thank God.

God created us in this way. Or evolution did. Or both.

We were created in such a way that the vast majority of our mental processes are unconscious.

When I walk across the stage, I don’t think consciously about putting each foot in front of the other or moving my joints or managing the distance or the level changes, if any.

My brain does that automatically.

I don’t have to think about it.

This is one of the reasons why racism is so hard to combat. Because our brain makes snap judgments based on past experiences and cultural norms that we’ve incorporated throughout our lives.

We don’t think consciously, there is a white man or there is an African-American man and he is safe or he is not safe. We just judge. And it takes a lot of conscious mental effort to overcome our ingrained biases.

Research shows that about 95% of all of our brain activity is beyond conscious awareness.

And thank goodness. Because we don’t have the time or the energy to think through every single movement or judgment. If we did, we would be totally paralyzed. WE couldn’t accomplish anything.

The unfortunate part is that THAT part of our brain, the unconscious part of our brains is wired for survival.

It’s wired to keep us alive.

And as long as we’re breathing and not starving to death, its’ content to keep everything the same.

My brain’s not going to start changing my depth perception tomorrow as long as I’m surviving.

Likewise, it’s not going to change my habit of choosing cake over vegetables as long as I’m surviving.

Our unconscious brains lives by the motto – “If it a’int broke – don’t fix it.”

Human organizations reflect the same pattern.

It’s REALLY hard to affect change in organizations, in communities, and in cultures in general because organizations are made up of people whose brains are screaming at them, “Keep everything the same. Things are working just fine.”

Even IF some of our habits are unhealthy. Even IF some of our habits include activities that hurt other people.

Survival brain doesn’t care.

The survival brain says, don’t push things out of balance.

Don’t rock the boat.

If it aint broke, don’t fix it.

Don’t play too big or take too many risks.

Because hey – we’re breathing and fed and have access to water already. There’s no need to push our luck.

But that’s not the voice of God.

That’s our projection ONTO the voice of God. Because like the people at the well, we tend to think God sounds just like us.

But God isn’t about separating us. Or knocking down our creations.

God isn’t about destroying projects where people are trying to unite around a common goal.
And we know this, because when Jesus came along 600 years after this story was written, he did everything in his power to fight back against our unconscious bias against change.

He fought to make it 100% clear that God is not a God that calls us to play small.

That God is NOT a God who when we’re uniting around a common cause smites us down.

Jesus pushed us to remember that as loud as the voices are in our heads that tell us to be cautious, to hold back and keep things the way they are, that the movement of the Spirit nudges us in a different direction.

And if we listen, we can change lives for the better.

Jesus challenged the status quo at every turn.

He told people to give up their wealth.

He told people to go against their culture and eat with people who were outcast.

He pushed the boundaries of cultural norms, having people from different ethnicities and genders spending time together in the same place, which was totally taboo at the time.

He told the Disciples to give up their livlihoods – to drop their nets and follow him.

He told PETER to come to him and walk on water – to take a step out of the boat and put his food on the ocean in the middle of a storm.

These are not rationally sound decisions. They don’t match with what we know keeps us safe.

They are not decisions that the survival brain will support.

And yet Jesus calls us to make them anyway.

Jesus told us that the world as it is is NOT okay. He believed in us. God believes in us.

And God believes that we can do better.

God also calls us to unite in community, because change is nearly impossible alone.

So my challenge to us this week is to listen a little bit less to the voices that wrote the Tower of Babel story. To the voices in our own heads that tell us, keep things just the way they are.

And to listen a little bit more to the Holy Spirit and to the teachings of Jesus who called us to radical action on behalf of those most in need.
May we rock the boat of apathy, build cities and towers for justice, and push one another to embrace the radical message of Jesus that calls us to move in a new direction.

Amen.

Sermon on Jeremiah – Clay in the Hands of God

My grandmother was a potter, and she had bigger biceps than any woman I’ve ever met.

 

Has anyone ever tried to make a pot on a potter’s wheel?

 

Have any of you been successful?

 

It’s hard, right?

 

It takes extraordinary strength.

 

I’ll tell you, no one dared arm wrestle with grandma.

 

Clay may seem like a soft, malleable material.

 

But when you use a potter’s wheel, which spins, the strength of your hands and biceps and forearms suddenly comes into play big time.

 

Ideally, the clay moves where you lead it.

 

If you push up from the bottom, it rises.

 

If you push down from the top, you can create a basin.

 

If you push with your fingers or with a tool in the middle, you can create shape.

 

But you do all of this AGAINST centrifugal force, which, according to my kids Physics textbook is the natural tendency for an object to fly outwards on a circular path.

 

Now, depending on how fast the wheel is going, this force can be significant.

 

The faster the wheel and the higher the pottery is off the wheel, the more danger there is of the pot losing its center altogether and making a big big mess.

 

You know you’re toast when the clay starts wobbling.

 

It does this kind of <sound effect> thing, and if you don’t catch it quickly and slow down the wheel and patiently recenter your clay, before you know it, the speed of the wheel throws clay everywhere.

 

And you have to pick up the pieces and start all over again.

 

 

Today’s passage in scripture is one my favorites, because it uses this beautiful metaphor of the potter to describe the way God works on us.

 

With extraordinary strength, and precision. With patience, and creativity, and skill.

 

 

 

The prophet Jeremiah knows that his people are far off-center.

 

He fears that on account of their egos and desire to be a big player on the international stage, that they’ve gotten too big, their wheels are spinning too fast, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to fall apart.

 

Jeremiah is right – the people of Judah WILL be attacked, they WILL be defeated, they WILL be scattered.

 

But God reminds JEREMIAH, that despite all this, God is committed to picking up the pieces, reentering them, and reshaping them in God’s image.

 

When we’re in the midst of our lives, when we’re in the midst of the world, that spins and spins, it’s EASY to lose perspective the way the people of Judah did so long ago.

 

Because God is not the only force working on our lives.

 

We’re surrounded by communities, for example. More often than not, community helps us center. This community certainly does that.

 

There are other groups and organizations that may contribute to us wobbling a bit more.

 

We’re also surrounded by MIXED messages from advertising, from our families and our family system, from our culture, from politicians, and from our own occasionally less-than-helpful inner monologues that tell us messages and stories that throw us off.

 

Now our inner monologues are all unique, but what unites us as human beings is that we all have SOME unhealthy messages and habits that push us away from our center from time to time.

 

They’re centrifugal forces that CAN threaten to throw us into pieces.

 

They’re compulsions like Jerusalem’s compulsion to play big on the international stage.

 

Or our own compulsions to be needed or respected or valued by someone or some group outside of ourselves. To be needed or respected or valued by someone or something other than God. We get too big and we wobble out of control.

 

Others of us have a compulsion—a force that pushes us to distract ourselves and keep busy. To keep that wheel turning as fast as possible, because otherwise, we might have to face our grief or other uncomfortable emotions. Or we might have to sit with our own imperfections. So we spin and spin and spin and eventually burn out or we pass out or we fall apart.

 

Others of us have the compulsion to berate ourselves and knock ourselves down. To do the opposite of what Jerusalem did, keeping OUR pot low to the ground. If expectations are low, we don’t have to risk failure or accountability. But we also won’t know success. We’ll stay safe, but we won’t actually take shape into the beautiful creation God created us to become.

 

The Good News is that whatever our compulsions may be, whatever forces throw us off or get in the way of us taking shape into who God designs us to be, if we allow God to work on our lives, if we put intention into making God our center, God will shape and reshape us over and over again.

 

God will smooth out our rough places, push us back into our center, pull us up into leadership or into new ways to serve.

 

And if everything does fall apart, God will pick up the pieces, center us, and start again.

 

This summer, while we’re apart, my prayer for all of us that we find our center, in God, in communities that love us, and in experiences that shape us and help us become who God is working with us to become.

 

Amen.

 

A Mother’s Day Prayer

 

“A Mother’s Day Prayer”

Gracious God,

On this day of celebrating your love, we lift to you those who have given us life, those who have loved us, and those who have taught us. May your blessing pour out upon the women who gave us birth and on all of the women who have been mothers to us along our journey.

We praise you, O God, for your gift of motherly love, both gentle and fierce, both strong and humble. We thank you for the hands of those mothers who worked so hard in raising some us, those mothers who cared enough to correct us, and those mothers who taught us your love.

We also call forth your compassion upon mothers who caused us pain and suffering.

Even though we may not be able to heal those relationships, we ask that help us forgive. Release us from our anger and resentment, we pray.

We lift to you all mothers today, knowing that they are all imperfect. We believe in your healing, and we believe in your love and we believe that you love every mother, even when they cause harm. We stand together in solidarity with all of these mothers, for we all are in need of your grace.

We ask special prayers for people this morning who are grieving the loss of their mothers.

We also lift up mothers who have miscarried or lost their children later in life. We also pray for women who have weathered the complex emotions that come with having an abortion.

We acknowledge these women’s motherhood, acknowledge their grief, offer them grace, and ask that you offer them comfort.

We lift to you the heart of every mother who has watched her child die of hunger, every mother who had been a victim of abuse, every person who has lost a child due to violence.

We lift to you the prayer of every mother who has ever loved and lost.

We also lift up women who felt called to give birth, but whose lives, due to circumstances, took a different path. Hold them close today and surround them with your care.

We also ask that you nurture women who have chosen not to be parents. Affirm their gifts and life’s path as you do for us all.

We who are mothers or who practice mothering in our lives, where we have failed, help us to forgive ourselves as you forgive us.

We thank you for showing us your light and love through those who have reflected to us your mother’s heart.

We lift to you our Mother Earth. We lift to you our Mother Church. And although we cannot fully express our gratitude, help each one of us to be your blessing of love for the world.

Amen.

Parts of this prayer are taken from a prayer by the Rev. Jane Sommers found on the worship resources page for the Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. You can find her original prayer here. As we pray for justice and grace in the Methodist church around issues of LGBTQi rights, we can also pray with thanksgiving for pastors like the Rev. Sommers who write such meaningful liturgy!

Sermon on Romans – “Inventive in Hospitality”

Romans 12:9-13 – the Message Translation:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy members of the community; be inventive in hospitality. (The Message Translation)

Romans 12:9-13 – the NRSV Translation:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

 

Sermon: “Inventive in Hospitality”

 

In today’s text, the Apostle Paul invites us to be “inventive in hospitality.”

 

The NRSV, which is a more literal translation, tells us to “contribute to the needs of the saints; and extend hospitality to strangers.”

 

Nothing about inventiveness.

 

And in the historical context, Paul’s words as we hear them in the NRSV can be dismissed as Paul’s agenda for the church.

 

Paul left Jerusalem to preach to the non-Jewish people. He believed it as his job to bring the message of Jesus to the whole world.

 

But before he left, he made a deal with the folks in Jerusalem that wherever he traveled, he would take up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem.

 

So in this text, it’s likely that Paul is encouraging his audience to contribute to this offering, which he’ll take back and give to the poor in Jerusalem.

 

Paul also encourages his audience to extend hospitality to strangers.

 

Now since Paul didn’t actually found the churches in Rome, some scholars suspect Paul is just asking on behalf of himself.

 

Saying, in effect, “Romans – if you want to be good Christians, part of that is extending hospitality to strangers, like me.”

 

So that’s one way to read this text – a simple request from Paul to give money to Jerusalem and shelter to Paul.

 

But for me, there’s so much more here.

 

 

As I said before – there’s nothing about being “inventive” in the Greek text of Romans.

 

Although it does say, in my own reading of the Greek anyway, to offer people extraordinary reverence, and to greet them with awe, the way you greet God with awe, and to be persistent in your attempts to meet their needs.

 

And I suppose that when I consider what that requires, it really does require a bit of inventiveness.

 

The truth is, we don’t all have the resources or skills to care for all of the people we encounter who are in need.

 

And in fact, in many cases, it’s not appropriate for us to be the ones to meet their needs, at least their most obvious needs.

 

It requires us to look beyond the presenting problem.

 

To look deeper, to examine the situation from the center of who WE are, from a place that is both genuine and that honors the other as equally valuable.

 

And it’s not easy.

 

It requires inventiveness, because we don’t all have the resources or skills to care for all of the people we encounter who are in need.

 

And in fact, in many cases, it’s not appropriate for US to be the ones to meet their needs, at least their most obvious needs.

 

For example, if I’m on a hike, and I encounter someone with a broken leg, I can be inventive and create a splint and if we don’t have cell service, I can support them on their limp out of the woods.

 

But with my skills and education, it would NOT be appropriate for me to reset the bone. Or to put their leg in traction.

 

And I certainly don’t have the knowledge or resources in the middle of the wilderness to create a cast.

 

We will encounter situations regularly in our lives where we WANT to help, but where we don’t have the time or resources or knowledge to help.

 

Times when one of the best things we can do is call for help from someone else.

 

But Paul and the message of Jesus aren’t going to let us off that easily.

 

<a note here about Casas Adobes – in the sermon in the 1st service, I talked about the ministry they’re doing with women in Mexico. In the 2nd, a church member from Casas Adobes shared what they’ve been doing. In brief – Casas Adobes wanted to help people who were poor and hungry. They learned that Mexican neighbors across the border from Nogales were using newspaper from the dump to put in their children’s clothes to stay warm in the winter. So the church started collecting coats. Eventually, the church sent down people who have sewing skills to help a women’s cooperative how to make coats. They also sent people with advanced sewing skills who helped the women learn how to make Quinceanera dresses, which the church helps them sell back in the US for 5 times as much as they would make in Mexico. With the money they earn, the women are building community programs that feed children and support education.>

 

Casas Adobes could had said, well, we don’t have the resources to host someone in our church <as would be the case if they were to decide to be a “sanctuary” church>, so that’s that.

 

But instead, they chose to be inventive in hospitality….

 

And they reflected on what skills they DO have.

 

And they sent people with sewing skills to Mexico to partner with a women’s cooperative, where they taught women to make beautiful dresses.

 

And now those gifts are being multiplied – the women in Mexico are investing that money in their families, in their business, and in their community.

 

What Casas Adobes has done and is still doing is absolutely extraordinary.

 

It is a living example of the Gospel message alive in the world.

 

And…it’s taken a lot of work.

 

I know that we have what it takes to do ministry like that as a church.

 

And…I also know that it’s important not only to think about the big picture, but also the small picture as well.

 

To be inventive in hospitality in everyday life, not just in big projects, but in the ways we care for one another.

 

<I told a story here about one of our church members who hosted a beautiful dinner in honor of the SW Conference pastors and moderators – a way to honor people who serve the rest of us all year.>

 

<Another story – about someone who took a plant to someone who’d just lost their son – thinking that perhaps in these dark times, the woman might like to have a little green – a little sign of new life with her>

 

<Another example – one of our church members who sends meaningful cards to people.>

 

<Another – someone who comes on a regular basis to do landscaping and yard work for the church.>

 

God multiplies our gifts when we share them and small gestures can consequently make a big impact.

 

One of our Southwest Conference churches, Shadowrock UCC is offering sanctuary to someone who’s waiting for their appointment with immigration.

 

And that person happens to be a Pentecostal.

 

Can you imagine what that must be for that man?

 

He’s been there for almost a year now.

 

In a radically progressive Christian church.

 

I mean put yourself in his shoes.

 

Not the fear of deportation part, but just the church part.

 

Could you survive for over a year in a church that worships in such a different way than we do? Can you imagine being there and not being allowed to leave…?

 

Well, Shadowrock UCC understood that for him, it might be difficult.

 

They offered him all of the typical things you’d expect from loving hospitality – a bed, food, people to talk to.

 

But they also did something inventive.

 

Something no one expected.

 

They invited him into worship.

 

Not just to worship they way THEY worship.

 

They invited him in to pray.

 

And this wasn’t a 30 second prayer.

 

He’s Pentecostal. It was at least 15 minutes long.

 

Can you imagine the impact that had on a man so deeply rooted in his faith – to be able to pray with his brothers and sisters, even if they disagreed theologically, he was able to be in a house of worship and speak HIS words to God.

 

It doesn’t take an over-the-top gesture. It doesn’t take a lot of money or years of planning and work,

 

Although I believe we ARE called to the type of ministry that is being done by places like Casas Adobes,

 

We’re also called to the small gestures, the ones that God uses to make a big difference.

 

My challenge to us this week is to think differently.

 

To LISTEN to others needs.

 

To listen PAST the first need we see.

 

And imagine how WE might be able to offer inventive hospitality.

 

In big ways or small. Amen.

 

 

Sermon 4/23/17 – “Listening to Love”

John 21:13-15

Translated from the Greek with the support of the Amplified Bible

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these [with love that spans all that is and ever will be, with total commitment and devotion]?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You [with a deep, personal affection, as for a close friend].” Jesus said to him, “Feed My lambs.” Again He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me [with love that spans all that is and ever will be, with total commitment and devotion]?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You [with a deep, personal affection, as for a close friend].” Jesus said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me [with a deep, personal affection for Me, as for a close friend]?” Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you [really] love Me [with a deep, personal affection, as for a close friend]?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love You [with a deep, personal affection, as for a close friend].” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.”

 


“Listening to Love”

 

You may notice that our scripture today has a lot in parenthesis.

 

This is because the translation comes from the Amplified Bible, which is one of the only Bible translations that includes notes in the text about the deeper meaning of words.

 

I used the Amplified Bible this week, because in most translations of this passage, Jesus simply asks Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

 

And he asks 3 times, and 3 times Peter says yes – a direct contrast to the 3 times he denies Jesus before the crucifixion.

 

But if we use a translation that doesn’t explain what Jesus means by love, Jesus could mean, “Do you love me like a brother? Or do you love me like you love French fires?”

 

The Greek, and the Amplified Bible translation, which is included in your bulletin today, lets us know exactly what kind of love Jesus is talking about – and it’s two DIFFERENT kinds of love.

 

Phileo love, which means brotherly or sisterly love, the kind of love you have for a close friend, intimate, personal love for someone you know well and admire.

 

The other word they use is Agape – a spiritual and sacrificial love – a kind of love that means you would do anything for someone. And it’s love that’s not earned, but simply given unconditionally. It’s not just love between people who know each other, but unconditional love shared with the stranger and even with the enemy. It’s a broad and universal love.

 

And in this passage, the author of John uses both.

 

Because the Gospel of John uses phileo and agape several times, many scholars argue that they’re just synonyms and that the fact that Jesus uses two different terms for love is insignificant.

 

And I’ve read the scholarship, and I still disagree.

 

The author of the book of John was a scholar.

 

The Greek in the Gospel of John is some of the most beautiful language of the Bible.

 

And the author of John is VERY intentional with language.

 

The book of John even opens up talking about the significance of language.

 

The author of John uses the metaphor of language to describe the nature of GOD.

 

John chapter 1 – “In the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God.”

 

So the use of agape and phileo in this passage for ME, is anything BUT insignificant.

 

The author of the Gospel of John uses linguistic tricks all over the text. Even with names.

 

Like the name of one of today’s main characters, Simon Peter.

 

Simon Peter has 2 names, and both Simon and Peter are used SEEMINGLY interchangeably throughout the Gospels to refer to him.

 

But if we pay close attention, they’re not actually interchangeable.

 

Simon means listener. And Peter means rock.

 

And when Simon Peter is listening, the Gospels refer to him as Simon. And when he’s being stubborn or hard headed, he’s referred to as Peter.

 

I invite you to read the Gospels sometime or search them on the web and look for when Jesus calls Simon Peter SIMON and when he calls him PETER.

 

When Simon Peter confesses to Jesus – YOU are the messiah, Jesus calls him Simon, the listener.

Simon is the first person to declare and to understand the true nature of Jesus. He’s listened. He’s understood.

 

But later, when Simon Peter cuts off the ear of a soldier who is trying to arrest Jesus, Jesus calls him Peter, the stubborn, unmovable rock. The one who hasn’t listened to Jesus’ message and understood that Jesus came to bring peace.

 

When Jesus walks on water and Simon Peter tries to follow him out into the water, it is PETER, the ROCK, who sinks.

 

In today’s passage, it is SIMON, the listener, to whom Jesus appeals.

 

“SIMON, son of John,” he says, “Do you love me?”

 

Not do you love me the way you love fishing or do you love me the way you love the other disciples. But do you AGAPE love me?

 

Do you love me with unconditional and universal love that spans beyond me as a person and understands me as the risen Christ, as something much bigger and broader?

 

To which PETER, the rock, the stubborn, immovable disciple answers, “Of course I love you, bro. I PHILEO love you. Like a brother. I admire you a lot. I feel close to you. Yes, I love you, bro.”

 

“Then feed the little lambs,” Jesus says.

 

And Peter the rock, is silent. Maybe he nods, as if to say, “Yup, Jesus. I got it.”

 

But Peter, the rock, doesn’t get it.

 

He doesn’t get that Jesus is asking him not only to love him, but to love the world.

 

Peter understands how to love his Jewish brothers and sisters. How to love the people in the synagogue and in the Greek-speaking Christian movement.

 

We’ll learn in the book of Acts that Peter is an establishment kind of guy. He’s a rock. He’s a foundation.

 

Many people believe that Peter was a bishop in Antioch, and possibly in Rome as well.

 

He wasn’t an evangelist.

 

He was an institution builder.

 

Peter understood how to play the political game and to love the people in his inner circle.

 

How to PHILEO love them. Like family.

 

Here, Jesus challenges him to expand his understanding of who is deserving of love and care.

 

When Jesus says “Feed my little lambs,” anyone familiar with raising animals would have understood that to mean that Peter should feed the lambs who are motherless and who don’t have a mother to nurse them.

 

In other words, don’t just care for the people who are already in Christian community. Who have role models and mentors.

 

Feed the little lambs. The orphans. The ones who need nourishment but don’t have anyone to give it to them.

 

But when Jesus says, “Feed my little lambs,” Peter, the rock, the immoveable and silent and stubborn disciple says nothing.

 

He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t listen closely, anyway. He doesn’t read between the lines.

 

He stays put, where he is. And stubbornly insists in his head, I’m sure, that he’s already doing what Jesus is asking of him.

 

So Jesus asks again, “Simon, listener, do you love me, do you AGAPE love me. Do you love me with unconditional and universal love that spans beyond me as a person and understands me as the risen Christ as something much bigger?”

 

And Peter, the rock, responds, “Of course I love you, bro. I phileo you. Like family.”

 

To which Jesus says, “Then shepherd my sheep.”

 

Jesus compromises here. It’s subtle, but if we pay attention, we catch it.

 

Caring for the orphan lambs is not something Peter is prepared to do. It’s not his calling. So Jesus shifts and says, “Shepherd my sheep.” The adult sheep.

 

In other words, take care of the flock, those who are already with us in the movement for love and justice. Lead them.

 

And Peter, the rock, says nothing.

 

He still doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get what Jesus is asking him to do.

 

So Jesus asks him one final time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

 

But this time, Jesus uses the word “Phileo.”

 

“Do you love me like a brother,” Jesus asks.

 

To which Peter, the rock, gets annoyed. “Of course I love you like a brother,” he says. “That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time.”

 

“Then FEED my sheep,” Jesus says.

 

Peter hasn’t understood yet what Jesus is getting at.

 

So Jesus meets Peter, the rock, the immovable Disciple where PETER is.

 

And he invites him to do what believes Peter can do. If he can’t reach out to people outside the inner circle. If he can’t shepherd the flock of existing Christians, perhaps he can at least feed them. Give them something to nourish their bodies and souls.

 

And Peter is still silent.

 

We don’t have it in our text today, but in verse 18 and 19 of this same chapter, Jesus will continue his thought.

 

And he’ll say to Peter, “When you get older, someone will take you where you don’t want to go.”

 

In other words, even you, Peter, the rock, will eventually be moved. Whether you like it or not.

 

“So follow me,” Jesus says.

 

And Peter does.

 

Peter, the immovable rock, moves and simply walks behind the risen Christ.

 

Peter when we encounter him at the end of the Gospel of John is not ready to embody the resurrection.

 

He’s not ready to be the listener or to be the one who reaches out to new Christians and cares for the poor and those in need beyond the walls of his own community.

 

He’s not even ready to tend to the flock that already exists.

 

So Jesus meets him where he is.

 

And loves him where he is.

 

And says simply, walk with me.

 

And Jesus does the same for us.

 

We’re not all ready to embody the resurrection.

 

We’re not all ready to reach out to the stranger and to our enemies with unconditional love.

Some of us are not ready for leadership.

 

Or to step outside our comfort zones.

 

Certainly there is a place for those who are.

 

And we get into the book of Acts and the letters of Paul later on, we’ll encounter people who step WAY outside their comfort zones to embrace people who folks like Peter rejected in the beginning for not being Jewish enough or not fitting into the rules and regulations established by the institutional church to which Peter belonged.

 

And we want to celebrate those people who risk and who embrace the agape love that Jesus calls us to.

 

And…God also celebrates those of us who are in a different place.

 

The truth is, the world needs people who can express AGAPE love. People who are willing to take on the big picture. People who are willing to march or lobby for change. People who understand the integrity of ALL creation and fight for environmental justice. People who can understand systems and people who get that borders of faith and nationalities and ideologies are not solid walls that should ever keep God’s love from us or our love from one another.

 

And the world also needs people who can express PHILEO love. Brotherly and sisterly love. People who are willing to be with those who are suffering and offer them that personal and intimate compassion that they need in times of challenge. The world needs people who, with PHILEO love, can embrace community and bond with one another and love one another as family.

 

And the world also needs people who are willing, like Peter, to just take that first step and walk with us.

 

To accompany us on OUR journeys.

 

Jesus called Simon to agape love, but eventually understood that what Peter needed was simply to follow for a while.

 

When God calls US by name, what kind of love is God calling US to?

 

Is God calling us to leadership?

 

Or is God simply calling us to follow right now?

And who in our lives have we been asking so much of that we could give a little more grace to this week? The way Jesus did to Peter?

 

Who might we be asking too much of, given where they are in their lives and what they’re capable of right now?

 

May we discern these questions with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

 

Amen.

Easter Sermon – Clinging and Letting Go (Hallelujah!)

John 20:1-18

 

Hallelujah!

 

Hallelujah!

 

Christ is risen!

 

Easter is here!

For the last 6 weeks, we’ve been doing a study here at Church of the Good Shepherd on the stages of grief.

 

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. and Acceptance.

 

Very light-hearted work… <sarcasm>

 

But today, we come to the empty tomb and discover the risen Christ and we shout hallelujah.

 

And all of our grief is over, right?

 

Well, not entirely.

 

It’s not really possible to slam the door on sadness altogether and just be totally full of unequivocal joy, is it?

 

Now the brass helps. 

 

And the bells and the choir and the view and all of us gathered here.

 

But there ARE mixed feelings in the room today.

 

Not all of us are celebrating and experiencing the fullness of joy without also experiencing glimmers of sadness or anger or regret or uncertainty.

 

The good news is that even on Easter, a day of extraordinary joy, we can sing hallelujah knowing that God is with us, but we can also sing hallelujah knowing that ALL of who we are is welcome in this place, including our mixed feelings.

 

In our text today, on that FIRST Easter morning, Mary Magdaline is full of mixed feelings herself.

 

It’s only been a couple of days since Jesus’ violent death at the hands of people who were afraid of them.

 

The Disciples are hiding in their homes, cowering behind locked doors.

 

And Mary is searching for the teacher she loved.

 

Searching for a way, perhaps, to connect with him, honor him, offer him a final act of loving care by anointing his body.

 

But he’s gone.

 

The stone guarding the tomb has been rolled away.

 

Panicked, she runs to tell Peter and the other Disciple.

 

A Disciple who is unnamed, perhaps so that we might put OURSELVES in his or her place.

 

And Mary tells them that Jesus is gone.

 

They have to see for themselves.

 

So they race to the tomb and see the linen wrappings rolled up.

 

And they believe Mary’s story.

 

Terrified, they run home, fearful that the powers that Jesus’ fate may happen to them as well.

 

The scripture tells us that they haven’t put all the pieces together yet.

 

All they know is that their beloved teacher was dead and buried, and now he’s gone.

 

So they flee. They hide.

 

But Mary doesn’t run.

 

She stays.

 

She weeps.

And she clings to the memory of her beloved teacher, not sure where to go next.

 

In the midst of her sorrow, God appears to her in the form of Christ.

 

Through her tears, and in the dim early-morning light, she doesn’t recognize him at first.

 

She thinks he’s the gardener, and so she cries to him desperately, “Tell me where you’ve taken him. Tell me where you’ve laid him, so that I can take him away and anoint his body.”

 

But then Jesus calls her by name.

 

Mary.

 

And in that moment, she recognizes him and calls out to him with a term of affection. Teacher! She cries.

 

She embraces him.

 

She CLINGS to him.

This man who has comforted her, who has taught her, who has turned her life around, this man who has led a movement and taught her the meaning of love lived out in the world.

 

She clings to him with all her heart and all her strength.

 

Mary’s been drifting the last two days, disoriented by grief, uncertain of the future.

 

And now this anchor in her life, Jesus, has miraculously returned to her.

 

And so she clings tightly to him, so as to never let him leave her again.

 

But Jesus’ response is not what we expect.

 

“Do NOT cling to me,” he says. “I’m on my way to be with God.”

 

I imagine when he says this, that Mary is devastated. Perhaps she holds onto him even tighter.

 

When loss is immanent, we struggle sometimes to let go.

 

And even after someone or something has gone, it’s difficult for us NOT to cling.

 

When we face loss or transition of any kind in our lives, it’s natural to want to hold on.

 

Whether we’ve lost someone we love, or we’ve lost a job, lost health or ability, received a difficult diagnosis, or we’ve moved to a new place or a new phase of life, perhaps we’ve been accepted to college and we’re preparing to lose the security of our parents’ home and our friends here.

 

When we experience transition or loss of any kind, it’s natural to want to hold on to what’s disappearing from our lives.

 

We look at photos. We tell stories about how things used to be. We mourn and we remember.

 

We celebrate the good times.

 

And these are healthy responses.

 

But What Mary does is she tries to cling to something that can no longer be.

 

In those moments outside the tomb, she’s not celebrating his ministry, or imagining how she might live into his legacy.

 

She’s denying that he’s leaving her all together.

 

She’s not holding onto memories. She’s clinging to the idea that things will somehow be the way they used to be.

 

She’s clinging to the idea that Jesus will be with her in the flesh the way he used to be, a living breathing man who can not only see and hear but embrace her and lead her.

 

But that man is gone.

 

This vision, this risen Christ, is not back in the way he was.

 

He’s different.

 

And things will never be the same again.

 

When we celebrate memories or learn from the past, we honor the legacy of those who have passed and the legacy of the experiences that have shaped us.

 

But clinging to the idea that we can bring back or reinvent or somehow fix a reality that’s gone –

 

That kind of clinging keeps us from turning to new beginnings.

 

Turning to possibilities.

 

Mary clinging to Jesus keeps her from initially recognizing the miracle of the moment – that Jesus, who died a violent death at the hands of the powers that be – was NOT defeated, but triumphed over death.

 

Even more miraculous – even though his time on earth following the resurrection will be brief, his message and movement will continue on for generations.

 

And Mary misses that at first. Because she wants to cling to the Jesus she knew.

 

Later that day, Jesus will appear to Mary and the other Disciples again.

 

And the Disciples will rejoice together that their beloved teacher has returned to them.

 

But Jesus won’t let them maintain the illusion that he’ll be with them forever.

 

He won’t let them maintain the illusion that things will be just the way they were before the crucifixion.

 

Instead, Jesus will tell them, God sent me. And now I send you.

 

He’ll breathe on them and tell them to receive the Holy Spirit.

 

And then tell them that all of the power he has is now given to them.

 

He allows them to rejoice, but he also challenges them to look ahead and to take on the responsibility of continuing his work.

 

That it’s now up to THEM to carry God’s message into the world.

 

Easter IS a time of celebration and hallelujahs.

 

Jesus is risen!

 

Nothing could keep the love of God from continuing in the world – not violence or fear or even DEATH.

 

And yet, not even the resurrection, not even Jesus’ triumph could keep time from continuing on.

 

Not even Jesus could keep the world from changing.

 

So Easter is bittersweet day for the Disciples and even for us.

 

It is a day to rejoice that Jesus is risen, that Jesus has triumphed over death.

 

But is also a day to be apprehensive.

 

It is a day to take this new beginning and our part in it seriously.

 

Jesus doesn’t come back and rule the world as a king who makes everything right.

 

Instead he comes back and gives us the Holy Spirit and tells us it’s up to us.

 

So let us sing hallelujahs, praises to God, knowing that there IS nothing, not even sin, not even death, that can keep the love of God from this world.

 

And let us sing hallelujahs knowing that together, we can continue God’s work in community.

 

And let us sing hallelujahs knowing we can be free of our need to cling to people and experiences we cannot change.

 

And let us sing hallelujahs knowing that wherever this journey of life and love leads us, we are not alone.

 

Hallelujah.

 

Amen.

 

 

Palm Sunday Sermon

Palm Sunday – “The Gift of Accepting Extravagant Hospitality”

John 12:1-7; 12-19

Can’t you just imagine it?

 

The crowds, with the smells and the colors and the cheers.

 

Hosanna!

 

And Jesus, on his donkey, humble yet honored, smiling as he walks through the crowd.

 

And on the other end of town, at least according to tradition, a Roman leader marches into town on his giant horse, surrounded by soldiers and the cheers of admiring citizens.

 

Quite the contrast to Jesus’ followers – a mix of all ages, rich and poor, without uniforms, following a man on a donkey.

 

It’s a poignant scene.

 

And yet what actually touches me most about this story is not Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but what happens before.

 

When his beloved friend Mary greets him on his WAY to Jerusalem, and anoints his feet with oil.

 

An act that is usually reserved for burial, but one that she chooses to share with him while he’s still with her.

 

And she doesn’t just anoint his feet with any regular oil.

 

But with expensive oil that probably came form the East – perhaps as far as China – perfume that likely cost her the equivalent of over $50,000 dollars.

 

Maybe more.

 

It was extravagant, but any measure.

 

And yet Jesus not only acknowledges her, but celebrates her action.

 

And in doing so, teaches not only her, but all of the Disciples gathered, what it looks like to receive the hospitality of others.

 

They’ve all received generosity from Jesus in the past, but here, they get to witness JESUS receiving generosity.

 

Something that for most of us, is extremely difficult.

 

What do most of us do when we get a compliment?

 

Some of us say thank you.

 

Most of us deflect.

 

Ex: I recently judged an art show. The person running the show publicly complimented me and thanked me for my work on the event’s Facebook page.

 

Did I say thank you?

 

No – I deflected – I said “It was such an honor to be a part of the event!”

 

I also turned it around and complimented HIM for his hard work planning and executing the show.

 

I minimized my experience as a judge and said that I know they must have been desperate if they asked ME to judge but I’m thankful I was able to fill in for the better judges.

 

Psychologists recognize this human instinct to reject praise.

Many of them theorize that it’s an issue of self-esteem.

When people say things that are kind or do something kind for us, it   contradicts our own self-image, so we reject it.

 

At the same time, I know people with a very healthy self-esteem that are still extremely uncomfortable with compliments or kindness done for them.

 

It’s ingrained in our culture.

 

It’s a part of the way we relate to one another that it’s more polite to be self-deprecating.

 

To come across as humble, not arrogant.

 

Imagine if someone said, “You did a great job!” and we said, “Oh yes I did!”

 

People might think we were bragging.

 

And arrogance is looked down on.

 

Even our own theological upbringing can have an impact.

 

How many of us were taught as children that we’re not worthy of God’s love?

 

That it’s only because of Jesus’ sacrifices that we’re able to receive God’s love at all?

 

I can’t speak on behalf of the church universal, but I’ll speak on behalf of myself – if you were told that the only reason God forgives and loves you is because Jesus died on the cross – I am so… sorry….

 

God does not care if we are worthy or not!

 

Being WORTHY has nothing to do with it.

 

God’s love is not about REDEMPTION. And it’s not about EARNING anything.

 

It just is.

 

God’s love is God’s love and it comes to us without condition. Without us DOING anything.

 

And goodness, that’s hard to accept.

 

Because we get stuck on this “worthiness” nonsense.

 

We have voices from our past – critical parents perhaps or coaches or teachers, or perhaps just our own perfectionism that tells us that good things will only come to us if we’re good or that love is something that must be earned.

 

But God doesn’t work that way!

 

And that lesson – the lesson that God’s love is extravagant – is the precise lesson Jesus is trying to teach Mary and the Disciples in that intimate moment they share before Jesus’ march into Jerusalem.

 

Jesus shows them how to RECEIVE hospitality.

 

How to RECEIVE extravagant love.

 

Notice Jesus doesn’t respond – oh I’m not worthy of such a gift.

 

He doesn’t deflect and say – No, Mary, let me wash YOUR feet instead.

 

He welcomes and appreciates her gift.

 

He takes it in.

 

And lets himself be loved.

 

In doing so, he accomplishes something extraordinary – he allows Mary to experience what’s its like to share extravagant hospitality.

 

And in doing so, he gives her a small insight into what the heart of God is like.

 

He’s not being selfish, as Judas would suggest, in accepting her gift.

 

In fact, it would have been much MORE selfish to keep all the service, all the good deeds, all the giving to others all to himself.

 

It feels good to care for others. It’s meaningful. It connects us with the very Spirit of God that gives to US freely and without condition.

 

In accepting Mary’s gift, Jesus demonstrates for the Disciples the importance of RECEIVING hospitality.

 

The importance of silencing or at least ignoring those very human voices that we know Jesus experienced as well – those voices that say, “This is too much.” “This is over the top.” “I’m not worthy of this kind of love.”

 

And he allows her to love him.

 

In doing so, he allows her to experience God even more intimately.

 

Don’t we want to give that gift to others?

 

The chance to embody the Divine?

 

It seems like an extraordinary gift, doesn’t it?

 

To empower someone to live into their call to BE the Body of Christ.

 

And yet we hesitate.

 

Because we’re worried about looking arrogant. Or we don’t think we’re worth it. Or we’re embarrassed.

 

Jesus knows that the road ahead is going to be difficult.

 

He knows that the end is near for him.

 

And yet instead of getting into a frenzy and trying to take care of everyone else and making sure everyone else is okay before he goes, he instead receives their care, and in doing so does more to prepare them for his death than he possibly could in any other way.

 

My challenge to us this week is to open ourselves to the care of others. Open ourselves to their compliments. To say “thank you” instead of deflecting. To say “thank you” when people offer us gifts instead of listening to those voices that tell us we don’t deserve them. Those voices that tell us we’re not enough.

 

Our deserving and worthiness have NOTHING to do with God’s love.

 

May we embody the humility of Jesus who dared to let others serve HIM.

Amen.

 

Food for thought as we approach Holy Week:

Many Christians believe that the miracle of Easter is that Jesus died for people like us, and in doing so, set us free from sin.

As a result of his sacrifice, the gates of heaven were opened up, and Adam and Eve’s original sin was forgiven. As a result of Jesus’ death, we sinners are now all reconciled to God.

But what if…God always loved us…without condition?

What if all people, from Adam and Eve to Cain to Jezebel to the Woman at the Well – what if God loved them too—without condition—and offered them grace?

What if…we don’t need an intermediary to bargain for our souls?

What if…Jesus came, not to die for our sins, but rather to teach us how to LIVE and how to embody the love of God—the love of God that’s been there from the beginning?

The journey ahead through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will not going to be easy.

And…we do not have to travel this path alone.

May God go above us to watch over us, behind us to encourage us, beside us to befriend us, and before us to show us the way.

Lenten Series #5 – “Acceptance” (and the Journey Ahead)

Lenten Series #5 – Acceptance (and the Journey Ahead)

Ruth 1:1-9, 14-20

We made it to acceptance!

It was quite a journey, wasn’t it?

I was so excited about getting to today – to acceptance when we started out – at the beginning of Lent, I saw it as this beautiful destination ahead – a shining light at the end of the tunnel, that grief tunnel of denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

But it turns out, acceptance is NOT a light at the end of the tunnel.

In fact, it’s not a DESTINATION at all.

We got here, we arrived at acceptance, and yet, the work of grieving and healing is far from over.

Acceptance is a journey.

It’s not a utopian promised land where we arrive and everything is okay.

In fact, just because we find ourselves in the acceptance stage of grief, it doesn’t mean that we’re happy at all.

We can accept that our loss is real and still be sad about it.

Acceptance DOES start with acknowledging that our new reality, the reality without our loved one that we lost or the new reality without our job or without our vision for how things would be – acceptance starts with acknowledging that the new reality is THE reality.

But that’s just the mental part.

The conscious-level cerebral acknowledgement of reality.

Beyond THAT is the tougher work. The process of adapting to new habits and ways of being that correspond with our new reality.

The truth is, when we experience any kind of loss, it’s not just the person or profession or thing itself that we lose.

It’s all of the habits and parts of lives that were CONNECTED to that person or thing that we’re grieving.

We not only lose our loved ones, for example, but the habit of going to visit them in the hospital or calling them on the phone.

We not only lose our job, but the habit of driving to work and listening to our favorite radio program.

We not only lose our health, but we lose the habit of biking or skiing or other activities that used to be a regular part of our lives.

When we move, we don’t just lose our home, but we also lose the daily connection with our neighbors. We lose the habit of getting up in THAT bed with THOSE was and THAT view. Even if change is good…it still includes thousands of small losses that we must mourn.

Grief is never a singular event.

It’s a network of loss, a web of connections that are severed when we lose someone or something, and those connections that considerable time to rebuild and reconnect.

The mental, cerebral part of acceptance takes time, but much less time that the journey of adapting to our new relation.

Consciously, up here <pointing to head>, we can fathom that life is different now on the other side of loss.

But that’s only part of the acceptance process.

In order to be complete and whole on the other side of loss, we also have to travel that journey of rebuilding and reconnecting our lives in new ways.

And that journey can take a long time.

And it also looks different for each of us.

In our scripture today, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah all experience extraordinary loss. And yet their journeys toward acceptance are all slightly different.

When Orpah’s husband dies, she chooses to listen to Naomi and return to her mother’s house.

Leaving Naomi is a major loss, but Orpah chooses to return to a familiar place – her mother’s house.

For Orpah, this decision makes sense – it’s a faithful decision for her.

Unfortunately, we don’t know how the story ends for her, but Jewish legend has it that Orpah, the one after whom our tiny Orp is named, legend has it that she will marry a Philistine man and give birth to 4 giants, including Goliath.

We don’t know, but we can imagine that in time, Orpah adjusts to her new reality.

Ruth takes a different path. She also faces the death of a spouse, and the death of her father-in-law, and yet for Ruth, the faithful choice is different.

Instead of clinging to her land and her people and her gods, Ruth clings to Naomi.

Her love for Naomi may be the strongest bond in her life, and the prospect of having that cut off is simply unbearable.

So Ruth chooses to sever her ties with her culture and homeland instead.

And you’ll notice almost immediately, Ruth gets to a place of acceptance, at least up here <point to head>. She says to Naomi, “Your people are my people and your God is my God.”

Ruth makes a declaration of acceptance – she proclaims that she’s ready to move into the new reality in which her husband is dead and her allegiance is to Naomi and her people.

And yet I imagine it takes Ruth quite a long time to actually LIVE into this new reality and BECOME a woman who is connected and tied into this new reality.

Ruth lived in Moab all of her life.

Moab was the mortal enemy of Israel. According to the Bible, the Moabites famously refused refuge and hospitality to Israelite pilgrims on their way to Jeruslaem.

Now Ruth is choosing to go into a land where she will have to rely on the hospitality of those very people her family’s likely scorned for generations.

She takes an extraordinary risk leaving Moab, and yet, she does so without severing the one connection in her life that is perhaps the most meaningful, her relationship with Naomi.

The scriptures says that she “clings” to Naomi. The same word is used in the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy to talk about the way married couples cling to each other and the way that God clings to us.

It’s a profound love that Ruth has for Naomi, and she holds tightly to it.

Because it’s her lifeline, really.

And until she can settle and develop new habits and new connections, it’s all she has.

Acceptance of the death of her husband and father-in-law and acceptance of the loss of her homeland are something Ruth does up here <head> quite quickly.

But it will be a journey of years before Ruth really settles in and accepts and lives into her new life.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that before Noami and Ruth are able to settle in Judah and begin their life there that they first have to take a 50-mile journey through the desert together.

Transitions require time, and sometimes, they include considerable pain and tribulation.

For Naomi, the journey extends even farther – beyond the desert.

Naomi, of all of the women in this story, experiences the most lost and shows most poignantly how long the journey toward acceptance can be.

Remember that Naomi has already moved once. She left everything she’d ever known in Judah and traveled to the other side of the Dead Sea to settle in an enemy land in an effort to keep her family alive.

They live there for 10 years, adjusting to the strange new culture and ways of the Moabites. She becomes a new person. An immigrant, yet, but one who’s assimilated and connected to her new neighborhood.

And just as she’s finally getting the hang of things, settling into her life as an immigrant in Moab, everything is turned upside down again.

Her two sons, who are fittingly named sickness and death, lose their lives.

Her husband passes away as well.

So a major piece of her network, her web of connections and relationships and habits and ways of being in Moab are cut off all at once.

So she clings to what she still has, which is her daughter-in-law Ruth and these tentative tendrils of connections she has with her homeland of Judah.

When she learns that the famine in Judah is over, she decides that’s where she and Ruth should go.

But the desert trip is not long enough for her – it’s not enough of a journey to get her through her grief and get her ready for a new life.

When she arrives, her relatives and neighbors see her and ask, “Is that Naomi?”

But Naomi is different now, remember, she’s been away for 10 years in Moab, she’s a different woman. And she’s a bitter and hurting woman.

She’s experienced untold grief and loss.

And she’s become someone new as a result.

And so indicates this not only by telling them about her sorrow, but by literally changing her name to Mara, which means “bitterness,” in order to mark for herself and for the people who knew her growing up that she’s a different person than she used to be.

For Naomi, the journey takes years. It’s not until much later that Naomi is able to settle back into life in Judah. We don’t have details about when she started going by Naomi again, but at some point, she reclaims that identity.

I suspect it’s not really until Ruth and Naomi’s relative Boaz give birth to a child named Obed that Naomi finds a path through her grief, a path into her new reality, a path into a new identity as someone who can survive and exist and be present and connected in this new reality in Judah.

In Ruth Chapter 4, it says that Naomi holds her grandchild and coos over him and waits on him hand and foot. And the neighbors all say, “Look at Naomi and her baby boy!”

Naomi FINALLY finds a new path forward, and it’s caring for this child.

But for her, the journey is long.

And for us, the journey can be equally long, if not longer.

I think about how difficult it is to change just one habit.

There’s road work in my neighborhood right now, and a street is closed off, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten that I have to drive another way.

If changing a habit as simple as our driving patterns is that difficult, how much tougher is it to adjust to the new reality we face when someone dies, or when we face our own health crises or when we retire or when we’re faced with anything that changes our reality.

Acceptance doesn’t happen as soon as we recognize something up here, in our conscious minds.

Acceptance is a long journey that includes developing new habits and connections and intentions and purposes for our lives.

My challenge to us this week is simply to be patient with ourselves.

To recognize that change is difficult.

And that loss includes not just one change, but a web of changes that are all struggles for our minds and bodies and hearts to adjust to.

With that, I challenge us also be patient and compassionate for others who are experiencing loss and grief and change.

Their journeys are ongoing as well, and we have the opportunity to support them as they find new ways forward.

We may not always agree with the way they choose to change and lead their lives following grief.

We sometimes look on at people who have lost a loved one or gotten divorced or lost a job and we think, “What in the world are they doing? Their actions are just not like them?”

May we remember that who THEY are is fluid and changing and affected not only by grief, but by their journey toward acceptance.

May we all find patience for one another, patience for ourselves, and persistence in our journeys of healing.

Amen.

Lenten Series #4 – Depression – “Being WITH one another”

3/26/17

Scripture: Matthew 14:1-14

Children’s Sermon: Pastor Sarah showed pictures of celebrities and “tough” men and women who cry, including Michael Jordan and Superman. The message – when you cry, there’s no need to apologize! We all cry. We all feel sadness sometimes. Even Jesus experienced sadness.

Sermon:

I’m struggling with today’s topic.

 

Depression.

 

Ick.

 

Can we just get to acceptance already?

 

Depression is an uncomfortable feeling, and it’s uncomfortable to talk about as well.

 

This week, I tried to read excerpts from the DSM 5, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, in an effort wrap my brain around the topic.

 

I wanted to understand the difference between what psychologists call “major depression,” and “dysthymia,” which are mood disorders and the depression stage of grief.

 

So I read big chunks of the DSM5.

 

Which was no help at all…

 

I mean, it did clarify that grief is, in fact, normal, and that people who are in the depression stage actually have many of the same symptoms of folks who are suffering from major depression.

 

It explained that just because we’re sad doesn’t mean that we have a mental illness, even if that sadness pops up from time to time for many years.

 

So that was helpful at least in clarifying that depression in grief is natural human experience.

 

But all of my reading and work to wrap my head around the neurological and physiological processes that come with grief didn’t really help me understand this depression stage any better.

 

Because the reality is, we CAN’T wrap our heads around the depression stage of grief.

 

We have to wrap our HEARTS it.

 

And that HURTS.

 

And that pain of grief is not somewhere I really want to go.

 

Thankfully, our scripture today offers us an way into this difficult conversation.

 

In Matthew 14, Jesus mourns the death of his friend and cousin John the Baptist, a fellow prophet.

 

John was murdered, because he was a serious to threat to Herod, the ruler in the region.

 

Herod, was understandably concerned, because the Roman Empire has just stripped his brother of HIS title and authority on account of his brother’s incompetent leadership.

 

Herod feels all this pressure not only do well by his people, but to do well by Rome, so that he will be afforded the chance to continue his rule.

 

John was upsetting the status quo. Riling people up. And riling people up specifically against Herod and against the practices of the Roman empire.

 

People were rushing out into the desert to be baptized and repent, not only of their personal sins, but for their collective idolatry, for their worship of money and power and empire.

 

John was also preaching against things like political corruption and against Herod’s own misconduct. And people were getting on board. There were anti-Herod and anti-Roman demonstrations in Jerusalem.

 

And so Herod knew he had to get rid of John.

 

So he put him in jail.

 

But for Herod’s wife, that wasn’t enough.

 

She wanted him dead.

 

So John is murdered by people who are afraid of him.

 

Nearby, Jesus is preaching and teaching a very similar message. And he’s causing quite a stir himself.

 

In fact, Herod asks himself at one point, is Jesus John the Baptist come back from the dead?

 

Jesus’ message is having a very similar effect to that of John, including creating a lot of anxiety for the powers that be.

 

So imagine what Jesus experiences when he hears the news of John’s death.

 

His cousin and close friend has just been murdered in a brutal way.

 

So Jesus is mourning John’s death.

 

On top of that, Jesus has to be grieving the loss of his own safety as well, and coming to terms with the real possibility that his life will end at the hands of Herod or Rome.

 

Life as Jesus knew it as a quiet little carpenter’s son from Galilee who preached in the local temple – those days are over.

 

Jesus is a celebrity at this point.

 

And John’s death only heightens the anti-Rome, anti-corruption frenzy that was already building in the region.

 

When Jesus preaches, at this point, even when he’s in remote desert areas, he’s preaching to over 5000 people.

 

And his life is in serious danger, now more than ever.

 

So in all of his grief and fear, Jesus runs.

 

And he isoslates himself. He goes to a place out in the water where he can be with his grief.

 

This is a classic sign of that someone is in the depression stage of grief.

 

They isolate themselves.

 

I think most of us have experienced those times.

 

When we’re so overwhelmed with the pain of loss, that we just don’t want to speak.

 

We just want to crawl into a hole, cry perhaps, and let our grief wash over us.

 

And that’s exactly what Jesus does.

 

Unfortunately, many folks struggle to get out of this phase.

 

Major depression can very easily be triggered isolation if we let ourselves hide out for too long.

 

Now Jesus reminds us that mourning alone, grieving and really FEELING our sorrow is natural and good.

 

But it’s also good to return to the world and be with people.

 

Not just with people as in surrounded by people.

 

But really WITH people.

 

Tuned in to them.

 

Open to them.

 

Jesus sails out into a solitary place, but then after some time alone, he lands his boat, opens his heart to the people he meets, and takes compassion on them.

 

I suspect that Jesus didn’t necessarily WANT to be around people.

 

But being WITH folks, truly present to them, is an essential part of the healing process, for Jesus and for us.

 

Those of us who are introverts, and I suspect even Jesus may have been an introvert himself – we don’t know – but those of us who are introverts will find this particularly difficult.

 

But whether we get energy from being around people or being around people is exhausting for us,, it turns out that being with people, truly present to them, authentic in our relationships with them, being WITH people, even just in small does, is essential to our healing from the depressions stage of grief.

 

It is essential to our healing and moving from the depression stage of grief to the acceptance stage.

 

In Matthew 14, Jesus chooses to heal people. I have no doubt that he hugs people, that he opens himself to their love just as they open themselves to his message and his touch.

 

And in the process, Jesus himself heals.

 

In the verses following our text for today, Jesus will share a meal with over 5000 people.

 

5000 people.

 

And the scripture says, “They all ate and were satisfied.”

 

Jesus and 5000 people, all in search of meaning and healing and hope come together, they share a meal, and they are all satisfied.

 

There is something powerful about time together with people around whom we can just be ourselves that is profoundly healing.

 

Scholars and healers and spiritual guides alike agree that one of the best things we can do when people we love are in the depression stage of grief is to just be WITH them when they’re ready.

 

To just show up.

 

To hold the space, so that they can mourn.

 

Now his isn’t easy, especially if we’re not comfortable with sadness ourselves.

 

Which, in reality, is pretty true for all of us.

 

But if we can push ourselves to tolerate and hold the space and hold the pain, without trying to fix it or advise our loved ones how to just see the bright side, if we can just listen and let pain exist, if we can just be WITH people, we can do extraordinary work to help them heal.

 

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

 

That one of the best ways to “fix” people’s grief is to not “fix” it at all?

 

But to just sit with it?

 

If we can tolerate the discomfort, we have the potential to provide a space where they can do the tough work not only of mourning, but of healing.

 

So my challenge to us this week is to be WITH people.

 

Whether we’re grieving ourselves or caring for those who are grieving, to be truly present to people, even when it means being present to their discomfort or pain.

 

I want to close by telling you something that’s comforting to me in all of this.

 

And maybe it will be comforting to others as well.

 

I personally feel better knowing that God felt pain.

 

That when God was here in the form of Jesus Christ, God wept. God suffered. God experienced grief.

 

And God experience healing.

 

I pray to a God that doesn’t promise to take away all my pain.

 

I pray to a God that understands it. That dwells with me right in the midst of it.

 

May we find the courage to dwell with others as well.

 

Amen.

Lenten Series #3 – Bargaining

Lenten Series #3 – Bargaining

John 11:17-22

“Bargaining for hope.”

Today, we’re going to talk about bargaining.

Most of us practice bargaining on a regular basis.

Hey, we say, if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.

We negotiate.

Sometimes we do this with services. Like while my husband and daughter were away, my son and I split up the extra chores.

I’ll walk the dog if you take out the cat litter.

Sometimes we go back and forth.

In the case of buying something at a garage sale, perhaps, we might say, well, that thing I want – it’s not really worth $30 to me. I’ll give you $20 and take it off your hands.

And and the seller comes back with a counter. How about $25.

And we come to some mutually agreed-upon solution.

This is bargaining.

It’s a simple and human way of doing business.

In grief, it’s not much different.

Only, instead of bargaining with other people, we’re bargaining with God.

And there are not clear price tags or voices speaking back telling us what the cost will be for what we want.

So we guess.

And we pray things like, “God, if you let my loved one live, I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life.”

God would probably like that, right?

Who about, “God, if you heal my friend, I’ll give more money to the poor.”

That seems like a fair trade.

After a loss, we sometimes make an attempt to change reality, even.

And say things like, “God, let my grief just be a dream. I’ll give you anything if you just let me wake up and have this tragedy I’ve just experienced not be real.”

God can work with “I’ll give you anything,” right?

Sometimes, we bargain for things that are less significant.

We’ll say things like, “God, I’ll be kind to the next person I see if you’ll just give me a parking spot.”

My mom swore to me growing up that God always answered her prayers for parking.

And so I used to think that if I just wished and prayed hard enough, and if I sacrificed enough, God would do anything for me.

The toughest part of this bargaining with God in grief is that sometimes…it works.

I say that’s tough, because then when we really need God, when we need God for something else, it can be incredibly frustrating and angering when we feel like God DOESN’T hear our prayers.

It’s a trap.

Because the reality is, we don’t know what God’s doing on the other end of the bargain. We don’t know what God’s asking for. We can’t negotiate with someone or something that we can’t easily see or feel or understand.

So we project onto God what we THINK God wants.

And what we THINK God is up to.

And then we don’t get the resolution we want, we simply blame God for not holding up God’s end of the bargain, which it’s quite likely God never signed onto in the first place.

Now in defense of bargaining, I want to say that when we’re faced with tragic news or any kind of obstacle to our well-being, it’s natural to try to do whatever we can do to resolve our pain.

It’s natural to believe that if we only pray hard enough or change OUR behavior and behave well enough, things will go OUR way.

And sometimes they DO go our way. So we begin to believe that we understand how God works and how to influence God’s behavior.

Kubler-Ross tells the story of a woman who was hospitalized with severe pain. She had a son who was getting married, and she bargained with God – if only I could be there, I wouldn’t ask for anything ever again. She made all kinds of promises about how she would act and what she would do if she could only live long enough to attend her son’s wedding.

Kubler-Ross writes that a team of doctors and specialists combined their efforts to teach her self-hypnosis, “which enabled her to be quite comfortable for several hours.” She left the hospital in an elegant gown and was able to attend the wedding.

Her pleas were granted.

And yet, even after her greatest desire was granted, she continued to plead with God and the doctors for more miracles.

“This was great,” she said to the staff. “But you know…I have another son getting married next year.”

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Bargaining is NATURAL part of the grieving process, but it is not a RATIONAL part of the grieving process.

It’s not RATIONAL to bargain with something or someone or something that we cannot control or understanding.

It’s not RATIONAL to believe that WE as human beings can control the entirety of the future or control all of the variables that go into healing and wholeness and even life itself.

And yet it’s NATURAL to want to try.

To put ourselves on the line and put our energy and intentions out there to do whatever we can to relieve the pain and suffering we face.

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And just because it’s not RATIONAL, doesn’ mean that bargaining is someone bad.

In fact, bargaining is can be one of the most healing parts of the grieving process.

Because bargaining, at its heart, is actually about hope.

When we bargain, we offer God something in return, sure, but at the heart of our bargain is a hope that God will change the situation, that something unforeseen, something miraculous will happen.

And research shows that HOPE is healing.

And that one of the BEST ways to care for people who are in this bargaining stage of the grieving process is to welcome and celebrate their hope.

There is CERTAINLY a time to be practical.

And….when someone is in this bargaining phase, where they’re hopeful that something, anything, may shift, on account of their behavior or on account of God’s grace, it can be extremely comforting and uplifting when we confirm and support that hope.

Studies have shown that hope, whether it’s realistic or not, can actually maintain people through profound suffering.

Kubler-Ross writes that patients “showed the greatest confidence in the doctors who allowed for hope—realistic or not—and [dying patients and their loved ones] appreciated it when hope was offered in spite of bad news.”

This doesn’t mean we ought to lie to people about what’s actually going on. It doesn’t mean we ought to ignore their pain and how difficult their situation may be.

It does mean that we have the opportunity, if we pay enough attention, to recognize when people are in this bargaining phase – when they’re grasping for any kind of hope, and we have the opportunity to be with them and share with them this hope that something unforeseen may happen that they may have a remission, that their loved one may live longer than expected, or even than something beautiful may come from their overwhelming grief.

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Martha and Mary and both lash out in anger at Jesus when they say, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.”

But Martha also offers hope. She says, “Jesus, even now, even in my darkest moment, even in my grief and my pain, I know I KNOW, that God will give you whatever you ask.”

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My challenge to us this week is to learn from the example of Martha….

May we all find the healing power of hope and celebrate the hope of those who are grieving.

Amen.