Saturday, November 30, 2013

Greetings! (First Sermon for New Church)

Greetings!  Greetings, Favored Ones! 
Does it seem a bit presumptuous, to greet you with the same words that the angel Gabriel used to greet Mary?  “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!”  Perhaps  . . . Or, perhaps not. 
What might our lives be like if we recognized that our God is always greeting us, every morning and at every junction in our days, greeting us and calling us into new life with God, as God was doing with Mary all those years ago?

Today the angels exclamation of greeting, and Marys response, seem particularly appropriate for us to consider, as we meet one another, most of us, for the first time.  

Lets ponder Mary for a moment.  Mary is a young woman, going about her business, probably helping her mother in the household, and perhaps wondering and daydreaming about her upcoming marriage, when – an angel appears!  Im always a bit surprised that she isnt more astonished by the arrival of a messenger from God – that, to me, would be quite something to take in.    Although, in one of my favorite childrens books about this particular event, which we know as the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel accidentally lands in a tree, his robes and his wings are pulled apart by the branches, and he pulls to a final stop in front of Mary in a rather tattered condition, seemingly as surprised by his arrival as she is.  So maybe theres a certain mutuality of bewilderment in their encounter.

That might apply to us, yes?  Im not the angel Gabriel, and you all arent Mary – but here we are, brought together by God, and perhaps we are a little surprised?  Who is this pastor?” you must be wondering.  “Who are these people?” I am asking.  “Who is this church, and who are we called to become together?” is the question on all of our minds.  “To what unknown future are we being invited to give birth?” 

Mary, we are told, is perplexed.  Much perplexed.  Baffled, bewildered, confused – by the angels greeting.  What does it mean to be told that you are Gods favored one, that God is with you?  And then, when she finds out – when she finds out that she, a woman as yet not living with the man she is to marry, is to bear a child, the Son of God, she is startled, and she has a big question.  “How can this be?” she demands? 

There must be so many levels to that question.  How can this be, since I have never had relations with a man?  How can this be, since it is going to embarrass my parents and ruin my life?  How can this be, since no one told me until just now?  How can this be, since I am an ordinary woman with no special line to God?  How can this be, that God would have a son?  How can this be, that the messiah, the anointed one, of our people, should be born in our little village?  How can any of this be at all?  

Do you sense any camaraderie with Mary this morning?   Are her questions your own?  Do you wonder, What is God doing here in BPC?    Do you wonder: How can this be?  How can it be that God comes to us, that God comes to ordinary people in an ordinary city, to tell us that we are favored by Gods presence and called into partnership with God?  How can that be?

Well . . . what does the angel Gabriel say to Mary?  Three things:

First: Do not be afraid.

Secondly: The Spirit of God will overshadow you.

And, finally: Nothing is impossible with God.  

First, Do not be afraid.  A tall order – we are fearful and anxious and apprehensive about so many things – and yet that phrase, or some version of it – Do not fear, Be strong in the Lord – is repeated hundreds of times in the Bible.  Do not be afraid of what lies ahead!  Do not be fearful of Gods call in your life.  Mary, do not be afraid!  Boulevard Church, do not be afraid!

Second: The Spirit of God will overshadow you.  We are accustomed to hearing those words in connection with Mary.  They provide a sort of vague explanation of the biology and genetics of the way in which God has engaged in her life so that she will give birth to the messiah. 

But dont they apply to all of us?  The Spirit of God will overshadow you.  Doesnt the Holy Spirit envelop and protect and encourage and enliven each of us when we are called into Gods great project for the universe?  Isnt the Holy Spirit overshadowing our lives when we and our community are called into Gods loving and healing plan for all peoples?  When we are called to serve meals to the community?  When we are called to walk through our city in prayer?  When we are called to consider new ways of being church?  What is all that, other than the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, calling us to give birth to something as of yet unknown? 

And finally: Nothing is impossible with God.  Now theres a sweeping statement if we ever heard one. There are some folks who say it all the time: Nothing is impossible with God.  But how many of us really believe it?  How many of us behave as if it is true?  How many of us say, instead, Oh, wed better not try that.  Oh, weve always done it this other way.  Oh, we dont have the money or time for that.  Oh, this will never work.  Oh, no one will ever like that.  Have you heard any of those words?  Have you said any of those words?  I surely have.  But maybe its time to catch ourselves and to say instead, when God is asking us to help to bring about a new thing,  that indeed, Nothing is impossible with God.  That we are called to the art of possibility!

And so, BPC, how do we respond? 

What do we say as we embark upon the Advent season, as we begin a new church year, as we find ourselves drawn into relationship together, as we know ourselves called to give birth to something new and uncertain? 

Are we perplexed?  I should think so!  Do we have questions?  I hope that we do!

But let's also be fearless.  Let's also acknowledge that we, like Mary, are being overshadowed by the Spirit of God.  And let's remember, as we prepare to share in a mysterious and joyful meal together, that we are called into a season of birth of hope and confidence in possibility.

As we walk into the light of Advent, let us say with Mary, "Here are we, your servants - let it be with us according to your word.

Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!


Friday, November 29, 2013

Walk in a Relaxed Manner

I am in the midst of reading Joyce Rupp's book by the same title as that of this post for a book group. I am a big fan of Joyce Rupp's prayer and retreat writings and have used them in several contexts.  I can't honestly claim the same enthusiasm for her narrative approach to her Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, the subject of this book.  But I love the title - words of advice offered her by a fellow pilgrim; I am often drawn into pilgrimage language by Ignatius of Loyola, who often described himself as a pilgrim; and I am in need of a metaphor for my next venture: new (to me) Small City Church, newly re-unified life in all dimensions, new long-term commitment. I think that "walk in a relaxed manner" will do well.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Preparing the Way . . Or Not: Music II

King's College Choir Cambridge

Most people who've heard it more than once or twice (sung here by my favorite choir) probably know the story, which those of us who struggle through the holidays would do well to remember.  Here's the summary from the youtube site:

Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony. During the Thirty Years' War (1618--1648), the walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through its gates. Eight hundred of the 1000 homes in the city were destroyed by passing armies. Famine and plague were rampant. During the year 1638 eight thousand people died, including the pastor's wife. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors who had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors, too, died, and Rinkart was the only one left - doing 40 - 50 funerals a day. When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the war ended, and Rinkart wrote this hymn (based on Ecclesiasticus 50:22-24) for a service of thanksgiving for the end of the war. It is a testament to his enduring faith that after such misery he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude that is still known and sung in many languages by Christians all over the world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Last Day at Small Country Church

One last iphone look back.
A lot of clearing out and cleaning up . . .
Taking communion to an 82-year-old man in Hospice, and his wife and brother . . .
Lunch in assisted living with four dear ladies in their nineties . . .
A couple of more assisted living visits . . . more people in their nineties . . .
A visit to a nursing home for a last conversation with a man grounded there by a massive stroke nearly two years ago . . .
A visit to a group home to say good-bye to a man injured in almost every way in a car accident decades ago when he was a teen-aged driver . . . .
A glance at next Sunday's bulletin and a reminder to myself: It's not yours anymore . . .

Preparing the Way . . .Or Not: Hope

I have a friend, a teacher who offers his creative gifts and compassion to troubled young people and his artistic gifts to everyone whom he encounters.  As far as I can tell, his favorite two words are "hope" and "jazz." 
This morning, with the first of the holidays of this season almost upon us, I find myself thinking of hope and, in particular, hope for those of us who have lost children.
Perhaps we can recall the hope in which they were conceived, the hope which attended every moment we shared with them, whether those moments were many or few, the hope with which we sent them off to preschool or college or into marriage or parenthood, however far we were lucky enough to accompany them.
A couple of Sundays ago, I preached on the Pilgrims and on risk-taking for a community Thanksgiving service.  Hope makes it possible for us to take tremendous risks, and we know more than most the great risk inherent in setting forth in the fragile boat of parenthood.  
Perhaps tomorrow we might give thanks that we once harbored such expansive hope, that we flung it into the world, and that we shared some of the journey with those beloved passengers of ours. 
Perhaps, if we are feeling particularly hope-challenged as we remember those not coming home through this year's challenging weather patterns, we might ask that our hope in others and in the future be restored.
Perhaps we might give thanks that we remain open to the quest for hope, even as it calls us to oceans on which we had no plans to sail.
May you be blessed by the recognition of hope in unexpected places and unexpected encounters this Thanksgiving holiday.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Endings and Beginnnings

This is a transition week for me. 
Last sermon at Small Church 1 last Sunday, and some final clean-up and two meetings scheduled tonight. 
Presbytery (our regional governing body) meeting last night, at which my membership was more or less transferred from one presbytery to another, pending paperwork that is mercifully the problem of other people at this point.
First sermon at Small Church 2 next Sunday, so trying to get some stuff moved in there and to think about the Annunciation and the word "Greetings!"  Last week one of my new parishoners looked at some of what I'd brought with me that day and asked, "Are those books all yours?"  LOLOLOLOLOLOL.  Just trying to clear off a few shelves at home.
Meanwhile, one of my current parishoners, a gentleman with whom I have spent many hours over the past two years, moved to Hospice last night and is actively dying.  The hospice nurse told his wife that much of what we have seen in the past few weeks have been signs of the end approaching.  I'm glad I have a 1.5 hour drive down there today in which to digest my anger at the many doctors with whom he has been spending his last days.  Why oh why oh why aren't they trained to recognize those signs and (this is most likely the real issue) talk about them candidly to the family?  This man has suffered so much these last days, none of it necessary.  I get so sick of that kind of hospital shit.
Well.  His wife is very grateful to the new doctor who finally sat her down and laid it out yesterday, and to the hospice nurse who filled in some of the blanks.  And I've got a little more information about the dying process tucked into my pocket. 
One other piece of information I did not have until a few days ago:  How difficult it would be to turn my people over to a new pastor!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Five Years Plus

Yesterday afternoon as I walked into Target, I ran into Josh's 4th-5th grade teacher and her husband, who was the principal of our Montessori school  at that time.   They were both fond of Josh, and he of them.
We exchanged greetings and updated one another on our families, and they went on their way.
As I grabbed my cart and headed down the aisle, I thought, "I have to remember to call Josh and tell him that I saw Jeanne and Bob today -- he'll be so glad to hear about them."

The Center Does Hold - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

I want to tell you this morning how much God loves you.   I want to tell you that God loves you so much that God planned, always and forever ago, to accompany us as one of us, to be our friend, our brother, our companion, our savior, our healer, and our hope for eternity.
That’s why, today, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  Because we are loved by a king who is like no earthly king.
In a way, it’s a Sunday that serves as the culmination of the church year, which restarts each and every year on the first Sunday of Advent.  We’ve been through it all – announcement, pregnancy, birth, youth, adulthood, teaching, healing, torture, death, resurrection, and ascension -- and we want to say that we have been through it all as disciples of the king who lived a human life and rose victorious over human death.
But this is also the Sunday that leads the way into Advent, and so it also reminds us that we are about to celebrate the birth – of a king.   A king willing to be born into the vulnerability of life as we know it, to be laid in a manger and killed on a cross – a king whose life is entirely about love – love of us.
You know, we have a story that we tell ourselves – and the world – a story we hear over and over again, a story that helps us make sense of life.  And in that story, God creates the universe, and calls it and everything in it good.  And among God’s creations are human beings, who make a mess of things from almost the beginning by focusing, as we tend to do, on themselves, on ourselves, rather than upon our creator.  And their, our, sinfulness sets a sequence of events into motion, a sequence of personal sin and communal sin and the consequences of sin, a sequence in which we are still trapped today.  And then God sends Jesus, to clean up the whole mess.  Jesus comes to save the world by dying and by being raised to new life.  We know this story, right?  For God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten son, that all who believe in him will not perish but will have eternal life.  This is a GREAT story,
But wait: Is it possible that there is more?  Does the Bible tell us a lot more about Jesus? 
Oh yes, there is, and it does.
Let’s listen again to what Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,  . . . all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  . . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
Jesus was first.  All things were created in him and through him and for him, and in him all things hold together.  All things hold together.  God loves us so much that God created everything in Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus, so that it – everything --would be held, embraced, connected and interwoven in every possible way -- with love, by love, and for love.
We need to know this.  We need to know this because, so often, it seems that things do not hold together at all.  People get sick, people get hurt, people die.  Life becomes so complicated that we cannot begin to figure out what to do.  Wars consume lives, typhoons consume islands, poverty consumes the promise of youth, isolation consumes the hope of the elderly.  Things do not seem to hold together in any way, shape, or form.
William Butler Yeats wrote a poem, ironically and despairing entitled “The Second Coming,” at the end of the First World War, a catastrophe in world history in which over 37 million soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.  No wonder Yeats penned the line, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”  The world did seem to be a dark place of anarchy at that time – as it can also seem at this time.  Locally, nationally, world-wide – we see trouble all around us.  Some days, it seems that the only constant is that things fall apart.
And yet – and yet we know: the center does hold.  The center does indeed hold.  Because the center that holds everything together is Jesus Christ. 
What a magnificent hymn of praise Paul gives us here in this letter to the Colossians!  What a glorious expression of how things are held together – by one person, by the person who reveals God to us, by the person who is king over all by being the king who loves and serves all.  The many other things to which we give priority – all of our hopes and worries , all the people and achievements we celebrate, all of the anxiety and anticipation about the future – all of them give way to the one in whom it all holds together, the one in whom the fullness of God was – and is – pleased to dwell.    The one who is the firstborn of creation, the one in whom all else was created.
Our Christmas story changes a little when we realize this, doesn’t it?  Our story does not begin with a baby in a manger, or with an announcement by an angel to a young woman.  It does not begin with human beings and our brokenness.  Our Christmas story, our whole story, begins at the beginning, with creation, with a Christ in whom all else has been created.
And to make sure that we understand that, let’s listen again to the first words from the Gospel of John.  The Gospel of John does not offer us a nativity story, as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do.  At least, not a nativity story with a baby and angels and shepherds and a star and magi.  The Gospel of John offers us a completely different story of beginnings:  
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us  . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  . . . No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
There he is!  Not the baby in a manger, not the young man on the road, not the suffering and dying Jesus on the cross – but the cosmic Christ, the Christ who encompasses all of human experience in his divinity, the Christ who is the Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Son who makes God known to us.
Now maybe this all sounds too – well, Scriptural or theological in a way that’s hard to understand.  All these phrases – firstborn of all creation, before all things, fullness, grace.    What do those words even mean?
So, let’s end our time together with this.  Let’s say it as plainly and simply as possible, because it’s important:  Jesus was first.  Jesus tells us who God is.  Jesus shows us what love is.  Jesus shows us what it is to be human.  Jesus shows us how much we are loved.  How much we were always loved, before we even were.  And so:
If you are in a tough situation and you don’t know what to do, ask the one whose life is the light.  Look for what he is doing, in your own life and in the world as a whole.  Look for where love is active.
If you are feeling as though you’ve been pushed aside, remember that you were never first and neither was anyone else – except Jesus.  Look for his movement among us, and follow that, not someone or something else.  Look for the strands of love that wind their way into every facet of the universe.
If you don’t know how or what to pray, look to the one from whom we receive grace upon grace.  And know that he is, always, praying with you and for you.
If everything seems falling apart, remember that you and those you love, precious as all of you are, you are not the center – Jesus is, and he is a center who does indeed hold.  He holds grace and love and the peace of God, and draws you in, into a place in which all is cradled in the boundless love of your creator.
You know who your God is, because Jesus shows you, all the time.  You know that even when it doesn’t look or feel like it at all, the center does hold, because the center is Jesus Christ, firstborn, always among us from before time as we know it, King of all creation.    The Son of the God who loves us always, abundantly and extravagantly.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Preparing the Way . . . Or Not: Music I

I don't know how or where you are these days, so I will simply say that, for me, music was a long time coming back.  Music ~ so important to my life of prayer, of celebration, of sadness, of driving (!), of everything ~ for at least a year after Josh died, I couldn't stand to listen to it.  I recall slipping a copy of  Vivaldi's Four Seasons into the car's CD player that first winter and nearly driving off the road.  It sounded . . . sour, bitter, off key . . .    .  It was months before I tried again.
So when I offer some music as preparation for Thanksgiving, it's with those memories of enforced silence in mind.  Listen or not, as you are able.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Preparing the Way . . . Or Not: Be Quietly Courageous

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I want to encourage us all: Be brave.  Be quietly and extravagantly courageous.   Be tenacious.

There is an unseen community among us at Thanksgiving, the community of those for whom the empty place at the table is the most visible one, even if no one else sees it. 

We tend to think of courage as painted with huge, sweeping streaks of red and orange.  Valor on the battlefield, triumph at the top of the mountain, arms flung wide at the finish line.

I want to suggest that courage is also represented by fragile, thin lines scratched across the canvas of life in pale hues, colors barely visible.

Thanksgiving courage is the mother whose inner heart trembles as she whips the potatoes in the kitchen, surrounded by the voices of women chatting about children home from college.

Thanksgiving courage is the dad outside tossing a football with the nieces and nephews as his mind replays his own child's last game a decade earlier.

Thanksgiving courage is the young girl who laughs with friends in the evening before returning home to the empty apartment.

Thanksgiving courage is the elderly man who walks his dog quietly down the street, gazing wistfully at the lighted living room windows and the driveways filled with cars in his neighborhood.
Thanksgiving courage is the four ladies in their nineties at the dining room table in the assisted living facility, talking quietly of family traditions long past and turning their faces resolutely toward Christmas, when children and grandchildren from California and New York will arrive for a few days.
Thanksgiving courage is the woman whose husband's disability precludes his ever coming home again, smiling gently as her friends talk over kitchen remodeling crises.
Thanksgiving courage is the parents who take dinner baskets to the families living at Ronald McDonald House,  remembering their own holidays spent in cramped quarters far from home and hoping against hope for a miracle.
One of my friends once commented on her surprise at discovering, over and over again, that people whom she had envied as they talked about their trips, their homes, their super-sized grown-up toys, so often harbored silent stories of deep loss.
So: Be quietly and hugely brave out there in the grocery aisles and around the office water fountain and at the pre-holiday craft sales.  Just do it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Love Teaching Intro to Religion!

I am procrastinating grading so . . .
From some college student reflections:
"At first I was not happy about the requirement to go to outside events, but now that I have been to a lecture and a mass, I feel that I have gone outside my little bubble and witnessed others' beliefs and thoughts."
"Learning about the history of the Bible is surprisingly interesting."
"Religion has not been a huge factor in my life in the past several years, but now I think I might go back to temple."
"I had never really thought about the possibility of multiple interpretations of a Biblical text."
"To be honest, I was not looking forward to this course at all . . . but now I am excited to take my next course next semester."
Yes . . . there was at least one very unhappy student ~ I'm afraid I was a bit sarcastic one day and my meaning got lost, but I was very glad that she raised her concerns so that I could address them.  (At least I hope I did.)
I have been a bit preoccupied with my old church-new church stuff this term, and sometimes I feel more behind and confused than my students do.  We cover way too much in this survey course -- from Ignatian spirituality to Tillich to Freud to Frankl to Biblical criticism and exegesis to interfaith dialogue to Islam to justice.    The instructors have a lot of leeway, as long as we cover some basic ideas foundational to discussing religion, address the Bible and interfaith dialogue, and deal with a religion assigned by the department -- that's where Islam came in this semester. 
I started with Ignatian spirituality -- something almost no other instructors do, but hey: we're in a Jesuit university and I think it's always a good idea to understand your heritage.  Whether they are Jewish or Christian (no Muslim students this term), Ignatius has become a part of their heritage by virtue of their presence at the school.  And I'm ending with a discussion of justice across traditions because soon it will be cold and dark and stressful all the time, and I think that's something they can sink their teeth into even when they've about reached the end of the semester.
The most fun?  Reading their reflections on their "outside experiences" ~ a Catholic-atheist debate, an apparently dynamite lecture on the theology of sports (I have a number of athletes in class), Jewish and Methodist students at mass, a Catholic student at my home Presby church, a martial arts class, an Otis Moss, Jr. sermon ~ I think they're having a good semester.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Preparing the Way ~ Or Not: Stones of Memory

One of the reasons the holidays are so difficult is that the feeling of Absence is so intense.  There is not a day ~ not an hour, really ~ in my life in which I am not aware of my son's absence, but the holidays, with their memories and traditions, music and fragrances, exacerbate to the nth degree  the sense that there is a hole in the universe.
And if you are anything like me, one of the most painful realities of both daily and holiday absence is the silence on the part of friends and family.  Among my most treasured possessions now are the very few emails,  most of them written by college friends, filled with stories and thoughts about Josh. 
At Josh's funeral service, one of our adult friends mentioned in his eulogy the sight of Josh racing across a soccer field, blonde hair flying in the wind.  It was such a gift to me, the knowledge that someone else had noticed a sight that I had so loved.
So I challenge us all: Let's do the same for someone else this holiday.  Let's each write a note to someone who has lost a child, a parent, a friend, a brother or sister, and fill it with concrete, tangible, loving memories.  We all know they haven't forgotten, but we all know, too, how much they need to hear that others haven't either.
A few stones of memory, offered as small but precious gifts.

(Previous related posts are linked in the tab above.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Not Exactly Fairy Tales

I've been re-reading  Margaret Silf's book Inner Compass, a gentle, hands-on introduction to Ignatian spirituality.  No jargon, but many exercises to help a reader sort through her spiritual life with the creativity and focus that the Spiritual Exercises encourage.
One of her suggestions is to recall your favorite fairy stories and use them as you might a Gospel contemplation: ponder, ruminate, explore, wonder, seek.

They aren't fairy tales, but the two childhood books that came immediately to mind for me were Heidi and The Secret Garden.  I was probably about eight when I discovered them, and I know that I re-read them several times over the next few years.
At eight or nine, I would not have seen what I realized immediately last night: Girls without parents, thrust into worlds in which they had to depend largely upon their own wits and determination for their emotional survival.  Girls whose inventiveness enabled them to triumph.  Girls who found beauty in nature even as they were surrounded by angry, withdrawn, grieving adults who were themselves struggling to surmount terrible losses.

A few years ago my daughter asked me why I had studied literature rather than psychology in college.  I responded that I had addressed exactly that dilemma all those years ago, and concluded that they were essentially the same major, but that one told stories in the form of technical terms, experiments and graphs, and the other in the form of imagery, metaphor, and textured words. 

These days, a little girl such as the one I was would acquire a therapist and a support group ~ all to the good, I'm sure.  But I hope that someone would also hand her novels with characters who might become her best friends and guides through the treachery of a motherless childhood. 

Monday, November 11, 2013


Too much going on these days . . .  time to look at water.  Birch Bay, Washington. Sunset.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Are You On God's Side? (Sermon - Amos)

This is my attempt at this year's Veterans' Day sermon.  Until my current congregation, I had never been in any institutional setting, school, church, or otherwise, where Veterans' Day was even mentioned, but in my congregation it's extremely important.  My own feelings about the day itself are extremely mixed.  But I do hold the men who want to recognize it and whom I've gotten to know a bit, in high regard, so I want to do what I can, for God and for them.


“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Do you know those words?  Of course you do!  You hear them replayed every January when our nation  celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King roared out those words in his “I have a dream speech” at the March on Washinton fifty years ago last August, and again in his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech on the night before he was killed less than five years later.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
We have been moving through the Bible in chronological order this this fall, hearing together the story of creation, the narratives of some of God’s earliest people, Abraham and Jacob, and now, as Advent approaches, we are listening to the voices of the prophets – those called by God to speak the truth about justice and righteousness, loud and clear.  We tend, in contemporary culture, to think of prophecy of some kind of fore-telling, as prophets as people who can divine the future.  And indeed, the Biblical prophets did warn the people of the catastrophes likely to befall them if they did not realign themselves with God and God’s purposes.
But it was that re-alignment that the prophets were really about.  By the time of Amos, the prophets are speaking to the people as a whole, and not merely to their kings, and their message is consistent:
You are called to justice and righteousness.   You are all, every one of you, called into God’s project of care for all beings and all of creation.  God’s project – not your own. 
Abraham Lincoln, a man with a prophetic voice for our own nation, famously said, “Our concern is not whether God is on our side.  Our concern is whether we are on God’s side.”  And that is the question for us, isn’t it?  Not: Is God on our side?  But: Are we on God’s side?
And what is it to be on God’s side?

When we think of justice and righteousness today, we often limit ourselves to those concepts as portrayed on television or in the  movies or in the news;  we tend to think in terms of our criminal justice system.  We think that justice is all about exacting the appropriate punishment for a wrongdoer, and about somehow exacting retribution on behalf of those who have been wronged.

But the Biblical prophets tell us, over and over again, that God’s justice and righteousness are much broader and in many ways for us as a culture, more challenging concepts.   
The question is not whether God is on our side in our conflicts, whether they be conflicts as simple as a football game or conflicts as significant as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The question is whether we are on God’s side in all things.  Are we attentive to what God wants for all people and for all of the world?
The prophets are clear about what justice and righteousness are.  Justice and righteousness are about care for the disenfranchised.  You might want to read the Book of Amos sometime soon.  (It’s a short one!)  Amos describes a world in which the wealthy regularly and dramatically take advantage of the poor in every possible circumstance, and then go off to worship with great sacrifice and show and deem themselves faithful people.
And Amos has nothing but harsh words for those who manage wealth and position to their advantage at expense of others, and then worship God extravagantly, oblivious to their own wrongdoing. God is not interested in their liturgical finery, in their feast and festivals:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
This is a tough day for those who listen to God’s words.  Let’s be clear: God is.not.interested. in our worship, in what we have to offer God in church, if we are not offering ourselves in service to others. Those who are poor.  Those who are homeless.  Those who are undocumented.  Those who are injured.  Those who are mentally ill.  Those who are lonely.  Those whose lives we do not approve of.   Those who are hungry.  Those who are “different” – in color, in religion, in ethnicity.
What does it mean to be on God’s side?  It means to recognize that abundance, God’s abundance of hope and love, extend to all, and to act accordingly.
What does it mean to be on God’s side?  It means that we are called to be uncomfortable.  It means that we are called to ask ourselves, every day, “After I worship God with singing and prayer and praise in our beautiful church, do I go out the door and serve God?  Do I honor God’s project for justice and righteousness by caring, in whatever ways I can, for those for whom God cares deeply?  (In other words, for all people?)
Today, we honor a particular form of service, as we recognize our veterans and their service to our nation and world.   We are called to remember that there are those among us who have pursued justice and righteousness in particularly demanding ways, in ways that took them from home and family for long periods of time, in ways that compromised their physical safety on a daily basis, in ways that mean that today they remember fallen friends and comrades even as they – and we – give thanks for freedoms thus preserved.
And although it is our national day of remembrance, we remember also those who have fought for other nations.  We are reminded that others, too, have dreams and hopes for their nations and that they, too have sacrificed, by the words of the patriotic song of Finland, found in our hymanals as “A Song of Peace”:
This is my song, oh God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
We honor all those who have sought peace by their service, for in seeking peace they have been on God’s side. 
We honor those who have challenged us to a better world by their service.  In seeking God’s justice and righteousness for all,  they have been on God’s side. 
A couple of weeks ago, I read a news report, written by a religion journalist who was flying to LAX and noticed that several soldiers in uniform were on the flight.  As the plane neared Los Angeles, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that the plane was bearing the body of a fallen warrior.  The soldiers on board were his military escort.  The pilot asked that the other passengers await deplaning until the soldiers had gotten off so that they could meet the casket and the family members, and told them not to be alarmed by the lights and sirens and water hoses, as the airport traditionally greets fallen veterans with a water salute and a police and fire escort.
The plane’ cabin became silent as the plane landed and the soldiers exited.  The journalist could see out the windows on the other side as the flag-covered casket was lifted down, and then one of the officers re-appeared on the plane and spoke over the loudspeaker. “We vow that a fallen warrior will always be given a military escort home,” he explained. “That’s what these soldiers were doing today, and today you, too, served as the escort for one of our soldiers.  Thank you.”
The passengers, still silent, gathered in the waiting area after they got off the plane, and watched through the windows as the flag was folded and handed to the veteran’s wife or mother – the journalist wasn’t sure which.  It was only after that moment that they began to disperse through the airport.
Today, we in this congregation escort those among us who have served our nation, and we are grateful that they lived, and that we might be their companions on this day of memory.  We remember those who have already died, whether in battle or after postwar lives we hope were a great gift to them.  We remember and honor the parents and spouses and children who served at home, waiting and hoping and sacrificing their lives as well. And in particular we honor those among us who know what it is to sacrifice daily, body and spirit, in the cause of justice and righteousness.  Amen.

Friday, November 8, 2013

That Theology Stuff

This is one of my favorites in a  long time!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Preparing the Way ~ Or Not: Milkweed Spirituality

I feel a particular bond of affinity with milkweed plants.
My grandmother used to "raise" monarch butterflies, which is to say that she would go out and collect milkweed leaves on which tiny pearls of monarch eggs had been laid or on which very small caterpillars were already munching, store them in mason jars on her back porch, and replenish the jars with leaves in increasing numbers as the caterpillars chomped their way to full size.  Eventually the caterpillars transformed themselves into sea foam green chrysalises highlighted by strings of golden dots. A couple of weeks later the chrysalises would darken and the black and orange wings of a monarch butterfly would become visible; then, the first crack in the casing would appear, the butterfly would emerge to dry and expand its wings, and, finally, off it would flutter, perhaps to lay its own eggs on milkweed plants and eventually to sojourn to Mexico. 
If you google image "monarch butterfly life cycle," lots of photos of this exquisite miracle will appear.  For us, it was part of summer's routine: check the jars on the back porch, and bring them into the dining room to watch as butterfly emergence time drew near.
Last week as I took a long walk through one of the county parks near my church, I happened upon a few milkweed plants in their final stage of life.
It occurred to me that the plants themselves illustrate something of the spiral of a mother's grief during the holidays.  Closed tightly and barricaded with small prickly stubs?  Cracked open to spill forth seeds that might take root next spring?  Pod exhausted, seeds strewn, nothing left but the feathery wisps that once carried transported seeds via wind power?
Each year is different; sometimes, each day.  Each stage, sometimes brief, sometimes recycled again and again, sometimes extended for years, carries the invisible weight of its own terrible beauty.  Life begins and ends, and the mystery persists.

In which milkweed stage are you today?  This holiday season?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The 30 Days of Gratitude Debate

There's a FB thing going on: each day in November, post something for which you're grateful.
I don't usually bother with those sorts of posts.  Way too much discipline for me, to remember something for 30 days in a row.  Or even to get started on the first day. 
But this year, I'm giving it a try.  (Having started on the second day, or maybe the third.  I can't remember.)
Some astute writers have criticized this effort.  (Not me personally, but in general.)  Too public.  Too likely to generate social media envy.  Too likely to turn into bragging.
I get that; I totally get that.  Often when people post about the triumphs of their children or their own glorious parenting experiences, I metaphorically curl up in sadness.  I think, "Yeah, that used to be me, but no more."  And I am sure that some of my own posts have the same effects on others, including people who have become dear friends due to our losses of beloved children.
But when I read the gratefulness posts from many of my friends, what I see is not misplaced triumphalism, but miracles.  I have so many friends now who have in recent years lost parents or spouses or children or homes or jobs or health (and some of them have lost in more than one of those categories), and when I see their expressions of gratitude for the small gifts of life, I think: miracle.
There is a woman with whom I am FB friends who lost her son to suicide five months ago.  This evening she posted something that caused me to go back and look at what I had been writing at five months.  It was the beginning of February, and I was back in seminary.  As I told this friend, I recall feeling as if I were underwater all the time.  Here's some of what I blogged:
"[I]t is nearly 9:00 am and I am just getting up. I was awake three hours ago but I knew that would make for too many hours in the day and so I went back to sleep. I will be up late into the night because I won't be able to sleep then.

[I] have to pace myself carefully. I am doing things: going to class, studying, writing papers, working with a couple of people, planning for the future. Each takes so much energy and requires so much recovery time. I forget what I've focused on within five minutes of reading or hearing it. I look at notes and say to myself: We had an entire lecture on that? I lose everything, little things and really important things. I stumble across them later and can't imagine how they landed in the place they did. I write papers and have no idea whether they bear any resemblance to what is expected. I make schedules for accomplishing things and then I stare into space.

I am still writing thank-you notes. The cost of each one is so high. Only a few lines, but each reminds me of something else ~ a relationship, an occasion in the past, someone else entirely whose claim on my time is perhaps more urgent. I did not know, Before, that when I received an acknowledgment from someone for flowers or words offered in a time of sorrow, that the note itself might represent a morning's work. Or a week's."
I could not at that time have come up with a single thing for which to be grateful.  And I have plenty of moments, five years later, when the grief washes over me with such intensity that I wonder whether I will still be able to breathe when it recedes.  But I also have much for which I feel genuine gratitude.
I am doing 30 days, more or less, of gratitude because I can.  And that seems kind of huge to me.