Monday, April 20, 2015

Sermon Shorts (Luke)

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I went to one of our favorite events at the Cleveland Film Festival -  showing of short films: eight films of about eight to twenty minutes in a two-hour period. We love to watch the creativity condensed into those short explorations. I

I had been wanting to try something similar in a sermon, and the Emmaus text in combination for our congregation's need for a bit of a breather -- something a little different -- in a season of intensity -- seemed to create an opportune moment:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’  He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’  Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:13-27

Have any of you seen the movie The Way, in which Martin Sheen starred a few years ago?  In The Way, Martin Sheen’s character decides to walk the Camino de Santiago in place of his son, who attempted the walk and was killed in a fall on his first day out.
The Camino de Santiago – the Road of St. James – is a several-hundred mile roadway, or set of alternative roads across Spain, ending at the Cathedral of St. James, named for one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. It’s an ancient path of pilgrimage, followed for hundreds of years and increasingly popular as a spiritual journey for modern-day pilgrims.
When Martin Sheen begins to walk, he knows nothing of the Camino, and no one else on the road.  But as the movie unfolds, he and three other characters begin to travel together, talking, sharing life stories, and challenging each other to be community.  Slowly, the terrible burden of grief his character bears is transformed into a journey of discovery – of himself, and of the son he has lost.
And isn’t that what long walks so often do for us?  A walk is often a means of working things out.  A conversation during a walk is an opportunity to discover others.  Next Saturday, during our church retreat, we will walk – participating in the Lake Shore Ministries Prayer Walk if we are able, or walking here at church if we would find an outdoor walk difficult.  I’ve done many outdoor prayer walks with our neighboring churches, and always find new friendships and learn new things about our neighborhood. And I’ve even done an indoor walk – we were the hosts one month this past winter when the cold and the ice got the best of us, and a few of us walked through our church, looking our at our city and praying from different vantage points.
Our story today begins with a walk – an interesting walk, as the two people walking appear to be heading in the wrong direction—toward Emmaus, and away from Jerusalem.  Like Martin Sheen’s character in The Way, they are grief stricken – in their case, over the crucifixion of Jesus – but they are trying to get away.  They aren’t trying to work things out at all.
And then this stranger shows up and, after they relate the events of Jesus’s death to them, and tell him how their hopes have been dashed and their lives upended, he begins to explain the life and meaning of the messiah to them.  What irony – in trying to avoid working things out, they find themselves walking with the one person who can offer clarity and understanding. 
I urge all of you – take a walk this week. Take a walk and see what happens.  Walk in solitude and ponder your life.  Walk with a friend and have a conversation about a new topic.  Come to the retreat and join the prayer walk.  We, too, are part of this ancient story; we, too, are on the road to Emmaus, so often trying to walk away from that to which we are called.  Try walking toward it, whatever it is this week!
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:28-31
I’ve got another movie for you – Babette’s Feast.

In this movie, a woman new to a town decides to take all of her lottery winnings and create a magnificent feast for her neighbors.  Unknown to them, she is a French chef of some renown, and the meal she creates is, truly, a grand feast.  It’s also a great gift of appreciation, in response to her having been taken in by two sisters in the village.

But the sisters are overly pious women who do not believe that they should indulge in the luxury of this meal. They decide to eat it but not comment on it.  However, another guest gushes his joy in the meal, and in the course of the meal, the other guests find new lives, new loves, and new joy of their own in Babette’s gift to them.

What happens when we break bread together?  I think we saw an example last week, when we gathered for a meal and conversation with the Beachland congregation.  We don’t know what will happen with that situation, but regardless of the outcome, new relationships are forming. 

In Babette’s Feast, the life of an entire village is restored. In communion on Sundays, our lives are restored.  On the journey to Emmaus, the disciples’ eyes are actually opened to Jesus when he breaks bread with them.

And so, I have another suggestion for you this week: Break bread with someone.  Go out and buy a loaf of really good bread – or perhaps you even bake your own – and share it with someone -- break it and ask: How is the goodness of God present to me in the ways in which I am nourished? In my friendships, in my marriage, in my family, in my work?  How does God come become present to me when I share a meal with someone else?

They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:32-35
What happens when your heart burns for Jesus?

We Presbyterians don’t like to talk that way, do we?  We are very uncomfortable with dramatic images like burning hearts, and we don’t like to talk about hearts aflame. We are, after all, the “frozen chosen” -- which means that we are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of being on fire for anyone or anything.

But look around and what sorts of things do you see people on fire for?  For those of you who were able to see the movie Selma: wasn’t Martin Luther King on fire for racial justice?  If we think about various causes – other forms of injustice, hunger, homelessness, health care – solutions emerge and take off when someone’s heart burns with a desire to see wrongs righted.

And here’s the thing about hearts on fire: they push us out into the world.   They entice us to care for others.  They motivate us to get moving.  Look at the Emmaus disciples – they turn around and head back to Jersualem, where the action is.  They stop running away and hiding out.  They stop complaining about what’s been lost and they stop looking to the past and to their dashed hopes – they embrace instead an uncertain future. 

They embrace the unknown.

We forget that, I think.  We know how the story works out – Jesus’s followers spread all over their world, and eventually all over the whole world, sharing the good news of the resurrection.  They create worshipping communities, they feed the hungry and care for the sick, and they seek to challenge the powers that be and to transform unjust structures . . .  and to change the world.

We know all that, and so we take it for granted. But the earliest disciples didn’t know what was coming.  They had no idea how the Holy Spirit was planning to move in their lives.    All they knew was that they had seen the risen Jesus, they had walked with him and eaten with him – and their hearts were burning.

What would that mean for you, for us, to live with hearts on fire for Jesus?
Would we risk more?

Would we be bolder and braver?

Would we be less tied to the past, less limited by the present, and more open to the future?

Would we be less jaded, and more filled with wonder?

Think about it.

Is your heart like a cold fireplace, a place where the remains of the past have been swept into a tidy pile in which the promise of the future has died?

Is your heart home to a few coals of hope, to the warmth of possibility, to a spark of creativity here, of innovation there?

Or is your heart on fire?  Could it be on fire?  Will it be on fire?

A heart of risk-taking, bold, courageous, awestruck fire?

What would it take for Jesus to set your heart on fire?


Sunday, April 19, 2015

There's a Woman in the Pulpit: Not Really a Book Review

So, Robin, what did you do today (Saturday)? What does a pastor do with her time?

Well, I started with a long walk, because I wouldn't get another chance today.  And then after I showered and dressed, I spent a little time on plans for our upcoming vacation, because I wasn't going to get another look at those either.  I was going to work on my sermon, but I never got to that.  I'm trying something new tomorrow, and I'm thinking maybe it's not as great an idea as I thought it would be a few weeks ago.  But last Sunday was very intense, and today was about to be equally so, and we all need a breather.  Maybe something a little different will be kind of fun.

And then I went to the church . . .

On a Saturday?

Yeah, I try not to do that.  But this month, three Saturdays in a  row.


At noon, we hosted a community meeting with the police.  We'd like to be more of a presence in our neighborhood, which is a bit of a troubled place -- a few vacant houses, several absentee landlords, and more than several young people who haven't yet found their way into college or work.  Not a good mix.  This will be the third time we've hosted an event for the police to bring folks up-to-date on the current state of the two streets bordering our building.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was consumed with a meeting with the consultant who's helping our church and another consider a possible merger.  He's helped us with two post-worship congregational meetings, and today he debriefed those events with the pastors and congregational leaders and helped us begin to plan next steps.  It was a long (three hours) but ultimately productive meeting.

A long day.

Which concluded with a funeral service for one of our matriarchs and a reception for her family and friends.   She was someone to whom I'd grown close during her many months of medical treatments, and someone with strong opinions about how things should be handled, so I put everything I had into getting her service just right.

And then I came home and opened the mail and took a selfie!  And finished the sermon.

This was a very unusual day, actually.  At least it was for a Saturday.   Three essentially one-time events, all on the same day and all on a weekend.  But they were all the things I do ~ just not usually all on the same day.

I thought we were going to talk about a book?

Right ~ there's a book!  The RevGals have made a book!  A book of short essays depicting the joys and sorrows, the mystifying things and the funny things, about our lives in ministry.  My essays are about how back when I decided to go to seminary I had somehow missed the whole idea that ministry is a form of leadership (and now here I am, leading a church through a major discernment process), and about how I doubted my future as a preacher after catastrophe flattened me during those seminary years (and now here I am, preaching every week).  The book as a whole is about just the sort of things which made up my Saturday.

Do I want to read this book?

If you are a seminary student, Yes!  If you are a new pastor, Yes!  If you are a seasoned pastor, Yes!  If you wonder about the pastoral life, Yes!  (And if your daughter or daughter-in-law or sister or mom or spouse or good friend is a pastor, then for sure: Yes!)

We went to seminary and we studied Greek and Hebrew and scripture and theology and how to make a hospital visit and how to conduct a funeral and how to work with a couple hoping to get married and how to preach a sermon.

And then we became pastors and were asked to host community meetings for struggling neighborhoods and to figure out what to do with diminishing membership rolls and to manage financial crises.   And some of us have done it while raising young families or dealing with personal crises of our own.  And some of us against resistance having to do with our gender or our relationships.  And some of us while wearing clerical collars and red high heels, and others while wearing jeans and sneakers.

Curious?  I think it's a great read, I think you'll feel that you are among friends, and I think you'll see how astonishing and marvelous this call to ministry is.

There's a Woman in the Pulpit is available from the publisher (linked above) as well as from Amazon and B&N, and in Kindle format, of course. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Transformed and Transforming: Sermon for Easter 2 (John and Act)

Look at the change in the Christian community between our two texts this morning!  Look at the transformation that takes place between our story in the Gospel of John and the description in the Book of Acts!  In just a few short years, Jesus’s disciples have been completely transformed, from a frightened and uncertain group hiding from public view into a thriving community of worship and mission.  They experience the Risen Christ, and look where he takes them!      
Let’s look more closely at what our stories have to tell us, beginning with the gospel narrative in which Jesus appears to the disciples a week after his resurrection. And what are the disciples up to?  They’re hiding out!  Frightened, terrified actually, that they will be associated with the man who has been crucified for insurrection against the government.  Lost and bewildered: what are they to do without the leader they have come to depend upon?  Inside, behind locked doors – this does not look like a group with a lot of promise insofar as spreading the word of the resurrection is concerned.
And on their own – they are not.  Of course not. 

But Jesus appears in their midst—twice, as it turns out – and two things happen.  Two encounters, two conversations, in which they are transformed by his resurrected presence.

In the first encounter with Jesus, the disciples rejoice.  Of course they rejoice! Wouldn’t we, too, rejoice in the re-appearance of someone whom we deeply love who has died?  Rejoicing  would be the order of the day.  But there’s more to it than their own rejoicing, because Jesus has a commission for them:
“As the Father has sent me,” he says, “so I send you.
Send.  Pay attention that word, send.  It’s one of the most important words in the Bible.  Jesus sends.

The word in Greek, in the language in which this book was first written, is pempwo; it means to send, to insist that something – in this case, the good news of the resurrection and the unfolding kingdom of God – be carried or sent to others.  In Latin, the language into which it was first translated by the church,  the word is missio – mission, in English.  We might think that a mission is a plan, an idea for getting something done – but at its root, a mission is a sending.

Jesus sends.  Jesus does not say, “Oh, this is excellent  -- stay here, locked up by yourselves inside, and be afraid.  Don’t even try to go anywhere, because it’s too scary and challenging out there.”

No – Jesus does not say that at all.  Jesus says, “I send you!”  Get going.  Be bold! There is a whole world out there waiting for good news – I am sending you out to share it!

But there’s more.  More to these encounters, and more to what we are called to do, and to be. 

You may recall that one of this disciples is absent from this incredible, tremendous meeting.  And you may recall that when he returns and hears what has happened, Thomas says. “I don’t believe it.”  We get that, too, don’t we?  If I walked in here and told you that this morning I had seen someone who had recently died, seen them in the flesh and talked with them, you would not believe me.  “Show me,” says Thomas.  "I'm not going to believe this until I see Jesus for myself, and touch his wounds with my own hands.”

And so Jesus, who never leaves anyone behind – Jesus, who is always gathering people to himself – Jesus, who understands us, and understands our skepticism and our grief and our anger, because he is one of us – Jesus comes back for Thomas.  Jesus makes sure that Thomas has the experience of proof that he needs.
And Thomas?  Thomas’s response is, “My Lord and my God!”  “My Lord and My God!” What sort of response is that?  That’s a worshipful response.  That’s a response of praise and adoration and wonder and awe and humility.   That’s worship.
In this one short story, we have the essence of Christian life in community.  Worship, and mission.

When I was in seminary, we had to take a course called Missiology – the study of mission.  Who knew there was such a thing? (Not me!)  Now, I was not looking forward to this required course.  To me, the word mission was about something like missionaries – about sending people out to the far corners of the world to proclaim the news of Jesus Christ.  And that was not something that held any appeal for me.  As a former world history teacher, I knew a lot about the damage that had been done to cultures across the globe by Christian missionaries who so often though they knew best.  I didn’t think that I wanted to study missiology.

But, to my surprise, I loved that course.  I practically inhaled everything I learned in that course.  Because, as it turns out, mission does not mean setting yourself up as the expert and running roughshod over others in the process.  Mission means being sent – and in Christianity, it means being sent with the good news of the kingdom of God among us.

Our professor had a thesis for his course – a main idea.  And what he told us was this: That the church does a lot of things.  We do education, and spiritual formation, and we care for each other and we feed and clothe the needy, and we visit the sick, and sometimes we remember that we do those things in the name of Jesus and sometimes we don’t.  But his conclusion, his main idea, he told us, was that everything we do – everything – comes down to two main projects: Worship, and Mission. 

We worship, God, and God sends us into the world with the good news.  That’s what all of church -- all of who we are and who we are called to be --  that’s what it all comes down to: Worship, and Mission.  If we aren’t doing worship and mission, then we aren’t church.  If we aren’t transformed, if we don’t hear Jesus saying “I am sending you” and if we don’t follow Thomas in saying, “My Lord and my God!” – then we are not church.  If we are not, like those very first disciples, transformed by the Risen Christ from a huddle of frightened people clinging to one another into a community sent into the world, then we are not church. 

So how do we do this?  We are two little churches gathered here on this fine second Sunday of Easter – and how do we do this?  We are scared, aren’t we? – we are small in numbers, and low on funds, and we might close and we might disperse – we are in a tough spot, and where are we?  We’re inside, talking to each other!  How do we open ourselves up to become people transformed by the Risen Christ among us?  How do we open ourselves up to become transforming people, a community sent to transform our world? 
We start, I think by looking at what happened in the earliest church communities.  In our second reading today, from the Book of Acts, we are offered a glimpse of one of the first of these communities, a flourishing community in which – guess what? – people have been transformed themselves by the Risen Christ and are completely engaged in the transformation of their world.  They share, they care for the needy, and they proclaim the resurrected Christ.   Hiding out in upper rooms has come to an end.  The time for hanging out with only one another for company is long past.  Sharing the good news – witnessing to the resurrection in word and deed – that’s what the first churches are up to.
Now this early community – it sounds a little extreme  to us, doesn’t it? These folks own everything in common – no private property – and they sell their homes and use the proceeds to care for the needy.  A different world!  But let’s not let ourselves be stopped by the radical nature of their particular approach.  Let’s ask, instead, how can we adapt what we learn from them to our own circumstances? 
How can we, like the first churches, become people “of one heart and soul?” 
How can we, with this bold example before us, how can we ourselves, perhaps even as one congregation, become a community of worship and mission with “one heart and soul?”  How can we open our hearts during this sacred time, this time of Easter, of resurrection, of hope, of new life, of new possibilities – how can we open our hearts to the Jesus who walks among us?  How can we be transformed by his risen presence into a transforming people, a people who gather to worship and then welcome the invitation to be sent, to care not only for one another, but to practice kindness and to pursue justice in that big wide world out there?

This, my friends, is an important day for us all.  Today is a time to gather, to talk, to question, and to wonder, together.  It’s a day to pause, inside, to worship, to say in unison, “My Lord and my God,” an to take stock and allow our hearts to be cracked open by the Jesus who is here, stopping with us as we consider the future. 

But it’s also a day to recognize, with great joy, that as followers of the risen Christ, we are sent.    We are people who have been invited to the greatest of missions, the mission Dei, the mission of God.  The mission in which children are encouraged and the hungry are fed and the imprisoned are visited and the sick are attended to. 

Worship, and mission. They’re both right there in Scripture.  Their potential lies among people who are unsure and hesitant, but who recognize Jesus when he walks through the door. Their fulfillment lies among people who respond to the calling to be church, proclaiming the good news and serving the world.

That’s us, my friends: B and B Churches. Called to worship and to mission.  Called to be both transformed and transforming. 


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Unblogger

I haven't blogged regularly in soooooo long.
Most of my life seems to fall into unbloggable categories these days.  The stories belong to other people, or are too sensitive, or simply constitute more than I want to say.   
Consequently, I am out of practice.  And I don't want my writing gears to rust into scrap metal.
I'm going to work on this. As of last month, I've been blogging for ten or eleven years.  That's a long portion of life recorded in bits and pieces of writing published for other people to read. 
I think I might want to hang onto the next decade as well.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

There was a garden . . . (Maundy Thursday Meditation)

We humans, we beloved creatures of God, created in God’s own image, began our lives in a garden.  I want you to imagine that garden for a moment: A lush, verdant garden, filled with waterfalls and ponds and lakes, bursting with color and song, a setting for the artistry of God.  Palm trees and maple trees, hummingbirds and sheep, lions and lambs . . .  and human beings.  It all began in a garden.
And then things went terribly wrong.  Things went terribly wrong as humans grasped for something more, as humans reached beyond themselves and sought to become gods.  The one thing not given to us, that was the one thing for which we reached.

And so gardens became something different.  Death entered our world, and our gardens reflect that, because they, too, die.  Plants bloom and grow for only a season, and then they wither and die.

But not forever.  Gardens may be places of decay and death, but they are also places of resurrection.  Places of NEW life.  Places of hope.
Tonight, we first begin not in a garden but indoors, in a room.  We begin in a safe, cozy, inside place, in a gathering of Jesus and his closest friends. Probably they have gathered for a Passover meal, for that meal celebrating the great liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.  That celebration would explain their presence in Jerusalem.  And who is there, at such a meal?  The Twelve, surely.  And perhaps others unmentioned – Jesus’s mother, Mary Magdalene, perhaps others of his followers.  All gathered safely inside for a meal . . .

A meal which takes a couple of unexpected turns.  It begins with a foot-washing, a frequent occurrence for those who wandered dusty roads all day, but surprising in that Jesus, the Lord and leader of those present, insisted upon washing THEIR feet.  And then a meal – again, a usual occurrence, but this time altered by Jesus’s declaration that the food to be eaten and the drink to be consumed were his way of offering his very self to his followers, of becoming food and drink, of becoming nourishment for them. 
When we partake of the same meal in a few minutes, let us remember who was present for the first one.  Those who followed Jesus, yes.  And those who struggled, like Peter, soon to deny him three times.  And those who questioned, like Thomas, soon to doubt his resurrected presence.  And those who turned away, like Judas, soon to betray him.*  All there.  All present.  Just as we, with traces of each of them in our DNA, are all present.

And then . . . and then “there was a garden.”  Listen tonight for our first reading during our Tenebrae service, our service of shadows, for there will be a garden.  The Garden of Gethsemane, to which Jesus and his disciples repair after their meal.  How astonishing, that the story of human life begins in a garden, and the story of human liberation from sin and brokenness begins in a garden.  A place which to us is synonymous with sorrow and loss – a place which is synonymous with death – is a garden, a place of death in which the possibility of life yet lurks.

And then . . .  and then “there was a garden.” Listen for those words again in our final reading tonight.  Almost all of the candles will be out, and we will be sitting in silence and shadow, and we will hear that “there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” Joseph of Arimathea, who asks permission to take Jesus’s body from the cross, will lay it in a tomb in a garden.  A tomb – a house for the dead.  A garden – a home for of abundant hope.  A hope which will be realized in only three days.

What is going on here?  Human life begins, and then falters, in a garden.  Jesus begins his journey to the cross in a garden.  Jesus’s body is laid to rest in a garden.  And . . . in the end, as promised to us in Revelation, the final book of the Bible . . . there will be a garden, a garden in the city to which we are all invited.

But for tonight . . . tonight we pause in the darkness, in the quiet room for a meal, and then in the silent garden, silence of a garden in which violence and death loom ahead.  We cannot know Sunday until we know Thursday and Friday.  We cannot know the joyous abundance of the blooming garden until we know the hard, cold ground of the garden of winter.

Listen carefully and remember . . . there is always a garden.  Let it speak to you, of what has been, and of what we wish were not, and of what can be.  There is always a garden.  Amen