Saturday, March 28, 2015

Unwavering Mercy - A Palm Sunday Sermon

The Swiss Alps are a place of incomparable beauty.  This past week, they have also become a symbol of human tragedy and incomparable loss.
The contrast is stark and inescapable. Those astonishing peaks, covered with snow and rising to tremendous heights against the sky, challenging hikers and skiers and enthralling all of us with their magnificence.  And now – the backdrop to a most horrible event, an act in which 150 people were crashed into a mountainside and killed, and perhaps also a  consequence of terrible, incomprehensible, illness.  The contrast between beauty and horror stuns us all.
So it is with Palm Sunday.
Today: people filled with excitement, branches waving - a parade
By Friday: the crowds turned,  the shouts turned to jeers - a crucifixion.
Our lives, our world, are filled with such juxtapositions.   Beauty and horror, goodness and brokenness, the surging of hopes and the destruction of death, pressed against one another, operating in the same theatre of life.

But always, always undergirded by the steadfast love of God. The chesed of God.  The unwavering mercy of god.

Our Psalm today, Psalm 118, refers to the chesed of God, in our translation the steadfast love of God.  God’s steadfast love endures forever.   Chesed is sometimes translated as the loving-kindness of God or, as I have done in our sermon title, the unwavering mercy of God.  What does that mean?  A love that persists, a love that is unfailingly generous, a love that invokes mercy – forgiveness in the face of all transgressions.  A love that prevails, no matter what.
Today's psalm, with chesed as its center, is a favorite, is a well-known and beloved song of the Hebrew people.  It is possibly the most quoted of the Psalms. It was Martin Luther’s favorite psalm, which makes sense, given that early German reformer’s immersion in a profound sense of the love of God.

·         The psalm reminds us of

·         God’s abundant love – The abundant love of the God who saved the people of Israel.

·         Impervious love – The love of a God whose goodness never ceases.

·         Extravagant love – The love of a God who fills the universe with light.

·         Reversing love – The love of a God who holds up what we reject, who transforms the discarded                 cornerstone into the chief cornerstone.

·         Unwavering love – The love of a God who is steadfast in the face of all trials.

Psalm 118 is an articulation, an expression in word and song, of this extravagant love of God.

And our gospel story, the story of what we call Palm Sunday, is the enactment of that love --

                A love reflected by Jesus

·         Deliberate love – Look at all the planning  that goes into this Palm Sunday event.  Commentators                 tell us that over half of the story is devoted to the procurement of the donkey.[1]  This donkey                 acquisition is not haphazard event; Jesus knows exactly what he wants and proceeds carefully –           all of his actions are signs of a deliberate love.

·         And a humble love – it is, after all, a donkey that Jesus chooses.  There’s nothing wrong with a donkey – people often rode donkeys – but a donkey doesn’t present the same image that a prancing white stallion does.  Surely a king – a secular king, at least, a Roman king, a warrior king – would produce a horse to match his status.  Only a humble love would deem a donkey an appropriate mode of transportation.

·         And Jesus’ love is a courageous love.  By this point in his journey, he knows that a violent death awaits him.  And yet he straddles that donkey and rides into the city in which trial and    crucifixion loom head.  A courageous, steadfast love indeed.

·         And an all-encompassing love.  Jesus knows by now to expect betrayal; he knows that he is going to serve a meal in which he will give of himself to one who will betray him, and give of his life of behalf of others who will do the same.   But his love is so broad, his mercy so unwavering,  that he looks beyond those realities to the greater one, the one in which death will be no more.

This week is a reminder that we, made in the image of God, do not always mirror that sort of love
Like the crowds, our waving of palm branches does not signify an unwavering love.
·         When love is inconvenient or difficult for us, we back off.  I think of the day when it was so very cold and we cancelled our community meal – not my finest moment in ministry – although salvaged by the leadership of Doris and Sandy and all the rest of you who showed up anyway to prepare bags of food, it was still a day on which I was reminded that, in my case, at least, love is not always steadfast.

·         When our standards are challenged – I heard a radio show this past week in which the guests talked about the deserving and undeserving poor – and that’s a distinction we sometimes make, isn’t it?  We know that we are called to serve the poor – but if they don’t “measure up,” we may find that our love is a bit on the shaky side.

·         When subversive action is required - we shy away.  When we are asked to go public with our faith convictions, we often stop cold.  Maybe our love is not as strong as we had thought.

·         And when the lure of the many push us this away and pull us that, we succumb, don’t we?  That inner teen-aged voice which cries out, “But everyone else is doing it . . .” or “But no one else has to do this!” – that one stays with is, doesn’t it?
Like the crowds, we put down our branches and we turn away.
·         But Jesus rides on - the rejected cornerstone. 

·         Jesus rides on - the embodiment of complete, self-sacrificing, self-realized, enduring love.

·         The starkness of his courageous self-giving against the backdrop of greed, corruption, and resistance that will kill him is not yet apparent.

·         The boundlessness of his love is not yet clear.

·         The power of his very being -- to destroy and to conquer death itself -- awaits another Sunday.
We embark upon this week with a parade. A festival week in Jerusalem - a celebration of Passover, of liberation, of freedom.
But we know from our vantage point that it is to be a week of contrasts
A week not unlike this last one, in which a plane filled with jubilant travelers was crashed into the mountains.

By the end of this Palm Sunday week in Jerusalem, the laughter will have turned to taunts, the celebration to accusations, and the donkey will have given way to a cross.
Today, we celebrate -- we wave palms -which we will then put down -- in honor of the one upon whose steadfast love we depend.

Today we celebrate - and then we pause.
Our text gives us space to pause.   Have you ever paid attention to the final scene in temple. The parade is over, the crowds have gone home and, the Bible tells us:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”
He is alone, a solitary figure whom the crowds have deserted.

Evening has fallen - the light of day has been quenched.

This is no ordinary ruler taking command of the city.
This is the figure of steadfast love, of unwavering mercy, of undeterred self-donation --- the ultimate sign of grace and courage in a world sorely in need of both.

When you put your palm down today, do so gently.  When you put your palm down, remember that it is a symbol - not merely an object to be waved and discarded -- but a symbol of that which is unwavering: the love of God and the gift of Jesus, the one born not to conquer a city, but to claim victory for life over death.  Amen.

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Donkey Fetchers.” Christian Century ( April 4,2006).

Friday, March 6, 2015

Friday Five: Saints be praised!

Today's RevGals Friday Five takes advantage of the upcoming March 17 to focus on saints!  From 3dogmom:

Saint Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, which got me thinking about how the “official” saints of the church touch our individual and collective worlds. A woman I met recently was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and her parents honored the occasion by naming her for this saint whose feast day is the cause for much celebration. So for today’s Friday Five, please share with us a little something about the saints that are a part of your life in one way or another.

1) Do you have a “favorite” saint? Tell us about him or her!

I have at least two! St. Brigid ~ healer, artist, abbess ~ and St. Ignatius, whom I consider a friend, mentor, and teacher, even if he did live 450 years ago.

2) Some of us share names with a saint. If that is the case, has that saint, or his or her feast day, held any meaning for you?

My first name is Mary, so perhaps I should give some consideration to Mary Magdalene.

3) Is there a saint whose life or story intrigues you (other than number 1)?

Who comes to mind?  Some "official Catholic saints" and some who are important to me in various ways regardless of official status: Syncletica, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jesuit Peter Favre, founder of my Catholic boarding school Julia Chatfield (pictured above with my dear friend and sculptor Sister Agatha Fitzgerald).  We are doing a Bible Study on Exodus at church, and so this morning the midwives Shiprah and Puah come to mind as I think about life stories I would like to know.

4) Do you pray with, or to, a saint (or saints)?

Not "to," but I definitely talk things over with Ignatius, and I pray with many other saints in the sense of praying their words and considering their circumstances and challenges.

5) Many saints are designated patrons of occupations, needs or occasions (like traveling). Is there such a saint that factors into your life professional, or avocationally?

That would be Brigid, for ministry in general, and Ignatius and Peter Favre, for the ministry of spiritual direction.

Bonus: please share a picture of one (or more) of the saints named above.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Imaginative Prayer Walks

Although long walks are one of my favorite parts of life, they haven't been among its features this year, and most especially not this past week. With temperatures hovering around zero every day, I haven't even been to church or to the university for two days.  So, as part of my Lenten plan to revitalize my prayer life, I have begin to take imaginary walks, looking for God in the places and among the people I have spent time with.  A few days ago, I prayed through a list of many of the institutions of my life ~ churches and schools, for starters ~  and now I am "walking" though their neighborhoods.
This morning's "walk" through the area surrounding my home church included the neighborhood, around which a friend and I frequently walked while our children were in their Montessori preschool there, and a trip across the street to the huge park.  That park has been home to our children's play when they were in preschool, to later soccer and softball practices and games, and to long walks with a good friend.  I recalled one walk  across the park to the Great Meadow and beyond a couple of summers ago,  with a woman whose father and extended family I had accompanied through his death when no one from my home church was available. 
I found myself praying for many people I hadn't thought of in years; and for my home church pastor, whom I know often goes running there; and even in gratitude for the Rockefeller family, whose vision and money established an unusual neighborhood and its expansive park!
I am finding that I walk so much that I know several places in intimate detail, and they are associated with people from all times of my life.  It's an excellent way to pray when the ice and cold have forced me to hibernate. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Star Children (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Tonight we are invited into what is for many the most moving season in the Christian calendar.  Advent is filled with joyful anticipation, Christmas with the astonishing discovery that God chooses life as one of us, and Easter with the radical fulfillment of our highest hopes: death is no more. 
But Lent – Lent is that season in which we come face-to-face with the great mystery of each of our lives: We are born, and we die.  We are born, quite literally, as star children, for we all bear within ourselves stardust: elements which were once bits and parts of the heavenly bodies above.  (Yes, this is true – almost everything on earth was at one time part of a star, now scattered across the universe.)  And when we die, we turn to dust once again, to earthly dust, to the ground – itself stardust --from which Adam, whose name means “made of the earth,” was created. 
And in between – in between we live lives worthy of both stars and earth.  Lives in which we aspire to the skies, to great deeds and expansive love.  And lives in which we are often grounded by sorrows and suffering.  This night, this season, pull us back to our groundedness, to the reminder of our mortality so necessary to our understanding of the dazzling magnificence of resurrection.  But it also turns us toward the stars, as we prepare to receive the ashes, the dust, which remind us of who we are: creatures of stardust. Creatures of light as well as of earth.  Creatures of life as well as of death.
On the first Sunday of Epiphany, back in January, many of you received star-words, words which I hoped you would put in conspicuous places and would ponder from time to time. To what, I asked, might your word be inviting you this year?  How might it expand your life, ground you, challenge you, encourage you?
Tonight I ask you to consider you star word once again.  How might you live out the Lenten season, how might you journey toward Easter, in light of your star word?  How might it guide you into a deeper experience of this season?
Our text tonight, from Matthew, awakens us to the three church practices of Lent: generosity, prayer, and fasting.  And in this passage, Jesus admonishes us to do these things in private.  How confusing!  So often we rejoice, as a church, in community, in the doing and understanding of things together.  We give together – our weekly offerings are pubic events, and much of the good work we do – the meals, the thrift shop – are done in community.  We pray together every week, in worship and at Bible study.  And when we give up food – we like to let people know, don’t we?  In fact, we ask others to be our support system when we try to relinquish our hold on something really important – like chocolate!
But sometimes, sometimes, it behooves us to practice our faith in private, or silently, or without drawing attention to ourselves.  We give something without anyone knowing about it.  We pray quietly and alone in our own homes.  We sacrifice something, whether chocolate or some other desirable food or activity, without fanfare.  Sometimes we are called to journey deeply into the deserts of our lives, into those places in which it seems that suffering and sorrow reign, into those lands in which confusion and bewilderment hold court, and to do so quietly, seeking the companionship of God alone.  The silent land, author Martin Laird calls it – that place without distraction, without the clamor of community, without the burden of the expectations or hopes of others – that place in which we might find a new clarity, a new discovery, a new recognition, of who we are and of who God is.

What might your star word convey to you, how might your word lead you, into the silence and toward this renewed openness toward God?  When you receive ash on your forehead or on the palm of your hand tonight, you might ask: What does my word suggest needs to die in my life?  What do I need to release? What attachment is holding me back from the fullness of life?  And when you consider your star, and the stardust from which you are make, you might ask:  What does this word invite me to? What is longing to be born in my life?  What am I called to embrace?

In a few moments, the sign of the cross will be marked in ash upon your face or hands.  The cross – a symbol of death, and life.  The ashes – from earth, and from sky.  This is the season in which we remember that we are creatures, not gods, but creatures of both: of death and of life, and of earth and of sky. And that we are called to turn to our God in wonder and in awe, recalling our mortality and awaiting new creation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reading and Watching Mysteries

"What does this mean?" I asked my grandmother. 

About to leave for my first year of college, I was standing over her dining room table, sifting through the stack of condolence cards she had received after my first step-mother's death a few weeks earlier.

"I guess you've pulled out a stack of mysteries again," a college friend of hers had written.

"Oh," she sighed.  "After your mother and brother died, I used to lie on the couch every afternoon before you came home from school and read an Agatha Christie novel.  I couldn't bear real life, so I buried myself in mysteries in order to escape."

She shrugged her shoulders.  My first stepmother had not generated the sort of love that my mother had, a decade earlier.  My grandmother did not, in fact, require a pile of novels the second time around.


I was never much of a mystery reader myself.***  I can't stand suspense, and I certainly can't enjoy the artistry of a work of fiction ~ novel, play, film ~ if I am tortured by an uncertain ending.  I almost always read the end of every book that comes my way within a few minutes of getting started. ( I've already read the synopses of all of this season's Downton episodes, which appeared in Britain months ago.)

Real life is enough perhaps?


But some months ago, inundated by challenges at work and reaching a point at which I felt I had nothing to say for myself about anything at all, I started reading mysteries.

The newest Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus book, which happened to come out just as I needed it.

All ten Inspector Gamache novels.

The first couple of the Kate Shugak series. 

The three Grantchester books, which as of last Sunday night are appearing on television in Masterpiece Mystery form.


I'm not sure what this means.  Approximately one mystery a week  (and my work as pastor and college teacher requires a LOT of reading, plus I am always reading other books as well ).  I have been practically inhaling murder and mayhem, geographic longing (I think everyone who reads Gamache wants to go to Quebec tomorrow, and I'm feeling the same way about Cambridge now that Grantchester has been launched), and the lives of characters whose personalities are as intriguing as the crimes they solve.

Maybe I'll review a few of them.

Maybe I'll figure out the appeal.

(***It seems that 1.5 years ago, I was equally baffled by a wave of mysteries in my life.  Hmmmm.)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marts Lives Here Now

When she came to my daughter's attention, she appeared to be a scrawny, parasite-infested, injured kitten who had appeared out of nowhere in a friend's yard, having apparently crawled out from under the house next door.
Back story: Abandoned, and leaped from the attic window always open in the house in question?  Thrown from the same window?  They're called carpal hyperextension, these injuries that cause her to walk on her wrists rather than the pads of her feet.  The vets have been mystified, but I've read that they're often caused by a jump or a fall from a great height.  Shaken by a dog?  Hit by a car? Her back legs and hips wobble and her tail is permanently bent.  Crawled under the house to hide, and emerged only when she was almost completely lost to starvation?
Vet:  Cleared of terrible feline diseases, treated for all those crawly things, given her shots and some meds, age calculated at eight years, maybe more.  Not a kitten, but a starving adult.
At my daughter's: She began to grow, and coarse, rust-colored fur began to reappear in the patches from which it had fallen out, but she hid out in the basement, thanks to the predatory resident cat. It became apparent that she is totally deaf.  She acquired the name Martha Washington: an old lady found on Washington Street.
Here: Marti came for a visit and ended up staying.  She spent the first couple of weeks hiding under a blanket on the guest bed, coming out occasionally to gaze solemnly at me from her silent world.  She kept eating, gradually learned her way around the house, and defends herself against Glinda's unfriendly attentions.  Her fur continued to grow, and now it's soft and black.
Sometimes I feel such dismay for her.  She can't run or roll on her back. She can't leap into a window or onto a mantle; she can barely scramble onto the couch.  Her past (eight?) lives must have been sheer hell.
And then I am astonished. As damaged and abused as she has been, she is an affectionate, contented friend.  She nudges my hand with her nose, reaches for my arm with her foot, and squawks a meow.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Simple, Elegant Equation (Christmas Eve Sermon)

A new movie came out a couple of months ago, a movie entitled The Theory of Everything.  The Theory of Everything tells the story of famous scientist Stephen Hawking – of his extraordinary career as a physicist, of his marriage family, and of his experience of life with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or what we often call Lou Gehrig’s disease, the degenerative neurological condition which over the course of his adult life has destroyed most of his physical capabilities.
As a brilliant young graduate student, Stephen Hawking began to explore the topic that would become his life’s work: Time. Does time have a beginning or does it not?  How does time work? As he himself explains it, Stephen Hawking wants to find the simple, elegant equation that explains – everything.
I’ve been thinking about this movie for weeks, and about this idea of a simple, elegant equation that explains everything.  As a physicist, Stephen Hawking’s  writes equations that look like math problems.  And if you’ve forgotten what an equation is – and I know that anyone here in high school is a lot closer to that definition that some of the rest of us! – an equation is an assertion that proclaims the equality of two quantity quantities.  For example, 2+2 = 4 -- one quantity is described as 2+2, and the other as 4, and they are equal.  That’s what most of us understand to be an equation. 
What on earth do equations have to do with Christmas?  (I'm sure you're wondering now how this happened ~ you came to a Christmas Eve service and landed in algebra class?)
Well, when Stephen Hawking, who is apparently not a person of faith, at least not in the conventional sense, does his work, he writes in the numbers and symbols of math and science.
But what if he is actually overlooking the simple, elegant equation that explains everything? 
What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is the Christian proclamation, the Christmas message?  What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is this:
Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus = savior.
What does that even mean?
What does savior mean?
We have a lot of different ways of thinking about Jesus as the savior of the world, but as Professor Joan Nuth reminds us, it helps ~ yes, it really does help! ~ to begin with the Greek and Latin words from which the word savior comes – words which mean:
To make whole.
To heal.
One who saves -- makes the broken whole.
One who saves--  heals the sick and the injured.
One who saves, in other words --  gives life.  Creates anew. 
It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?  That the Christmas story could be the story by which all things cracked and smashed are made whole, the story by which all trauma is healed, the story which relates the beginning of a grand new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a re-creation of the lush, flourishing garden of vitality and peace in which we got our start?
Yes, it seems unlikely that this story could tell us how God embraces the world.
The setting? An apparently arbitrary time on a speck of land on a very small planet in a vast universe of galaxies.
The cast of characters?
A man and a woman on the road, relying on visions and dreams for their sustenance while they are caughtup in that most bureaucratic of human enterprises – a taxing authority!
A baby – the most vulnerable of creatures, entirely dependent upon other human beings for nurturance and care.
Some shepherds and their sheep – the rough and tough guys and girls of their world, and their band of smelly, dull-witted animals.
And angels – all right, that might be a clue: something completely unexpected and entirely new is happening here.  But as far as the people are concerned?  They all look pretty ordinary.
And what about the context?  A world in profound need of healing, both then and now.
Then: Domination and oppression by a world power, slavery, poverty.  People who were lame and blind and ill, lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors – isolated and excluded and reviled.
Today: War and terrorism, Ebola, relations between black and white in turmoil, injustices and protests, people who are hurting and sick and angry, isolated and ignored.
It seems unlikely, that this story of a stable and a star, of people on the road and a baby delivered in a manger, unlikely that this story could have any impact on the vastness of human need. And yet, and yet --
Jesus is born to save, to make whole, to heal
By bringing together heaven and earth
God and humanity
Angels and shepherds
And by embracing the whole of human life: birth, death, great joy, unfathomable suffering ~
Jesus is the savior.
A simple, elegant equation? 
Let me tell you just one thing more about equations this time, about chemical equations.  Now for this I needed help, from my friend Michelle, who is a chemistry professor and a gifted spiritual writer, as well as from two friends who are chemistry teachers – one of them our own S.A. They explained to me that a chemical equation often requires a catalyst.   A chemical equation tells us how certain kinds and amounts of materials to which a specific catalyst is added result in certain products.
Michelle also pointed out to me last night that in a chemical equation, the materials we start with often bear no resemblance to the products  --  the results -- in the equation. 
For instance, hydrogen and oxygen are both gases and both highly flammable – and oxygen at high concentrations is poisonous to breathe! But let’s say that these gases, hydrogen and        oxygen – are our starting materials. 
Now add a catalyst -- a spark—and the product is not another gas, but water!  As michelle says: Pure, cool, wondrous water is formed.   
From gases, from something we cannot see, we get water – something we can hold and drink and bathe with and swim in, something tangible and refreshing -- and essential to our lives. 
Was that too much?  I’ll tell you the truth: it’s hard for me to think about.  Gases plus spark equals water. A mystery.
But – tonight – let’s try, just for tonight, to extend this idea of an equation in which we start with one kind of thing and end with another.  To a mystery more vast and more incomprehensible and – yes – more filled with joy than the mystery of H20.
For tonight, and for always, the equation is this:
A tiny baby, lying in slumber deep, and a human community in constant turmoil and pain – those are the materials with which we begin.
Love – that’s the catalyst.  God’s great love for all of us.
And the product? The product of baby plus humanity catalyzed by God’s love?
A whole, complete, healed, redeemed world.
The end product doesn’t look anything like the materials with which we start, and yet -- There it is: the simple, elegant equation: Jesus is the savior of the world.
Jesus, that tiny baby, is born tonight, to make whole, to heal, to re-create, to make new. 
Jesus is the savior.
Merry Christmas.