Posts Tagged ‘guest preacher’

It’s All About Peace

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

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James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

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The text for this sermon is currently unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience.

-The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel and Professor of Religion, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA

A Homily by The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Sunday, August 26th, 2018

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1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

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About 18 months ago, I stood in the trauma room of a busy Los Angeles hospital. For probably the 7thor 8thtime my phone went off alerting me that there was an emergency. I walked in and saw the usual signs of a gang shooting. This was the first night I met Mark, whose name is not really Mark. Mark had been shot twice, looked to be about 15, and was covered in tattoos. As I searched for identifying gang symbols, I came across a tattoo of the rosary on the underside of his forearm. The mixture of religious and gang symbols was not uncommon. After speaking and saying a prayer, he went off to surgery. A few visits, and days later, the DCFS worker informed the hospital that they were out of placement options. Child protective services had nowhere for Mark to go when he was discharged, so they asked us to keep him while they “worked something out.” In the ensuing months, Mark and I had countless conversations.

He openly shared about his life and place in the gang, including the crimes he committed on the streets and even the strategies for not getting caught. Marks whole family belonged to different gangs. A dangerous fact and a harsh environment. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be as a kid he told me, “I never had a choice. The only choice I ever got in life was which gang I was going to choose.”

Over the course of the months, we talked a lot about faith and spirituality. Mark considered himself spiritual but not religious, as so many young people do. He shared how the rosary was a source of comfort and protection for him, which is why it was tattooed on his arm. He would continually ask me for rosaries because he would give them out to his friends and fellow gang members. In fact, the night he was shot, he had given his rosary to a friend, a fact that only reinforced his quasi-magical, or perhaps mystical, view that the rosary was a source of God’s protection.  

As we talked, I discovered that Mark was angry with God. When he was thirteen, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school to care for her and prayed every day for her healing. As far as I could tell, she was the only family member that ever cared for Mark, so when she died he lost the most important person in his life. He stopped going to Mass, for all intents and purposes he stopped going to school, and he was “adopted” by a local gang that he would later join. Mark was angry with God for the death of his grandmother. He felt pushed away, belief and trust were too hard, and so Mark walked away. He told me of the bargains he made with God if only God would save her. Good grades, a clean life, perhaps even serving the Church. But they did not work.

I imagine there are those of us who have made similar bargains to no avail. When life and faith do not go the way we plan or pray, it is easy to become frustrated. To be angry. Perhaps even to lose hope. Being angry, mad, sad, sorrowful, full of lament these are all normal feelings and expressions that occur as a natural part of life. Even losing hope can be natural; yet, the stormy waters of despair cut to the core. The loss of hope comes with a side effect of paralysis. Time slows and despair stretches. It is so insidious for its capacity to make people feel trapped. A loss of hope can feel like a loss of life itself.

In these times, one can feel that God has turned God’s face away. It can feel like, either God does not hear prayer or God is choosing not to answer. Sometimes it just feels like we are being pushed away. It can be hard to reconcile our image of God as all loving with feeling pushed away. Our Gospel reading today is somewhat puzzling in a similar vein. In these past few weeks, we have traveled through John chapter six where Jesus consistently calls himself the bread of life and draws the people to him. He fed the 5000 men and countless woman and children, taught from the mountainside, had to avoid being made a king, calmed the sea, and walked on water.

In fact, when Jesus tried to get away from the crowd by traveling to the other side of the sea, the people followed him. He had the crowds following him and eating out of his hands. It is here that Jesus delves into what is known as the bread of life discourse. And at first, the people want the bread that Jesus is offerings. He tells them about the life that it provides and they ask for it. They seem desperate for it and really, who wouldn’t be desperate for bread that provides life and hope. At first, they are willing to believe, based on the wonderful signs that Jesus has done. They believe that he is able to provide them with this living bread from heaven.

Yet, Jesus goes on. He not only has the audacity to say that he is the living bread sent from heaven but also that God is his Father. Jesus calls himself the bread of life from Heaven and reveals his deep and personal connection to the Father. This claim of a special relationship is a cause of complaining, but it does not yet cause the people to walk away. The desperate need for life and hope is still more potent, at least for a time.

Perhaps Jesus was not well versed in the church growth literature of the time. Because it is at this point, a potential climax for his ministry, that he seems to drive the crowds away. The signs, the miracles, and the teaching have brought the people. All is going well for the fledgling community and hope is so much easier to maintain when things are going well. Yet, the tide turns and in the midst of the grumblings, Jesus pushes harder.

 He goes on to use cannibalistic terms, saying that eating the Son of Mans flesh and drinking his blood are now requirements for his followers. You can almost hear the people say “I didn’t sign up for this.”   As they slowly back away. But some of the more ardent supporters, some of those more desperate for this bread, may have thought they had misheard Jesus or that Jesus did not mean what he said. So, verse sixty says “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Perhaps this was an attempt to help Jesus back off on this teaching. It is interesting that John uses the term disciples here. “When many of his disciples heard it…”

When we hear “disciples,” we often think of the 12 but there were many other followers of Jesus, some who were present for most if not all of his ministry. Here we have not just the crowds grumbling and questing Jesus, but his disciples as well. Those who had traveled with him and heard his teaching over time. These people knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. The text says “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”…

Does this offend you? While avoiding offending people at all costs is a hallmark of society, even our abhorrence for giving a reason for offense does not capture the sentiment as it is recorded in Greek. The Greek word is skandalizei from which our word scandal is derived. So, when Jesus is aware that the crowds and his disciples are complaining about him, he asks if his teachings are scandalizing them and then he doubles down. The crowds leave. Most of the disciples leave.

The scandalous radical nature of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is often lost on those prone to spiritualize this passage. This Johannine passage often gets filtered through the Eucharistic ritual where eating and drinking Christ is a regular practice. The idea of eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood has lost much of the scandalizing nature it held in ancient times. Perhaps though, other scandals can just as easily take its place as reasons why people walk away or lose hope.

Clergy abuses in all shapes and sizes, infidelity and sexual misconduct, financial mishandling, racism, sexism, the abuse of children. We see these across the country and across denominations. Scandals that cause people to question faith and hope. Now, unlike in John 6, Jesus is not causing these scandals through his teachings. Nonetheless, the church is burdened with them. Nonetheless, people are leaving due to failures of the institution and the people who are to be paragons of virtue. Certainty we cannot equate faith with the church and we might maintain that these failures do not occur in my church or our church. Yet, if we are going to hold that the Church is the body of Christ that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we ought to ask the hard questions. Why and how? We ought to weep, lament, and seek change. We ought to recognize the challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of scandal. The challenging of hope when hopelessness is so much easier.

What do we do when faith breaks down? When the well-worn paths of piety perish? When it feels that God is calling us to the impossible or when despair looms so large that the valley of the shadow of death feels like a permanent dwelling place. What can we do? We can walk away and look elsewhere. Give up on finding ways to incorporate faith into modern life. Giving up that there are deeper meanings and purposes to life. Eschewing hope.

In the text, Jesus turned to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” We do not know if they were the only ones left at this point, but it is significant to note that this is the first time the Gospel of John mentions the twelve disciples as a distinct group. John records some of the early calling stories we find in the Synoptic accounts but here, for the first time in John, they are named the twelve. Perhaps the last 12 still standing.            Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We don’t know the tone of Peter’s response. Perhaps this was a triumphant proclamation of courage and hope “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Perhaps it was said with a mixture of despair and realization “Lord, to whom can we go?” As if to say they would go somewhere if they could, but they’ve already left their jobs and are marked as your disciples no one else would ever take us at this point. We put our trust in you and now we have no other choice. “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Maybe it was said with a mixture of hope and despair. Certainty the disciples could not escape feeling despair as they watched Jesus and by extension themselves be abandoned by fellow disciples; and yet, they chose to stay which is fundamentally hopeful. The harshness of the teaching certainly would not have been lost on them. The reality that the people would go from trying to make Jesus king to having some try to kill him in the next passage would not have been lost on them. That even in the midst of rejection, even in the midst of hard teachings and hard times, twelve remained. Hope won.

Even a glimmer of hope, the smallest spark, and the dimmest candle stand in defiance to proclaim that all if not lost. Our summer preaching series is titled “Toward a Common Hope.” I love how Boston University’s paper titled their article about the series “The Necessityof Hope InspiresSummer Preaching at Marsh Chapel.” The necessity of hope inspires. Of course, the word inspires is derived from the Latin inspirare, in breath or in the Spirit. Hope is inspired in, by, and through the Spirit. The deprivation of hope in daily life means it has become a rare commodity. The need for hope is why people love stories about those who have beaten the odds or rise to the challenge.  People are so desperate for hope because far too many of us are starved of it. When Jesus says I am the bread of life, what he also says is I am hope.

It would be great if I could stand here and tell you that Mark, that young man I met with for months at the hospital changed his whole life. That he left resolved to get off the streets and go back to school. But I cannot. One day I went to the hospital and he was gone. As he had done in many foster care homes, he ran away. No goodbye. No forwarding address. For all I know, he could have left and been killed in the retaliation that was planned. I have no idea what effect my conversations had with him. What seeds germinated and which ones didn’t. But I choose to trust, hope, and pray that Christ is not done with him. That Mark has the opportunity to find nourishing hope that can only be found in the bread of life.

Even though life is not filled with story book endings, it does not mean that there is no hope. There is a sense in which the hope of Christ, the nourishment of the bread of life can be found in the most unlikely places. Faith and spirituality do not need to fit into neat boxes. Christ is not bound by the walls of the Church or words on a page. My friends hope is infectious. It only takes a little to grow and spread. But we live in a time where we must choose to search for hope. To plant hope. To nurture hope. And to share hope. Dear friends, choose hope.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

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1 Kings 19:4-16

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Matthew 11:28-30

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Exactly one year ago, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee for a conference. One afternoon we went off campus for a hike, and as we were driving back in one of the big University of the South vans, we started to pass an historical marker on the side of the road, and the driver asked, “Does anybody know about the Highlander Folk School?” I said, “Stop the van!” We pulled over at the site where the original Highlander Folk School had stood. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton, Highlander’s first focus had been the education and empowerment of rural people in Tennessee. It became active for decades in the labor movement, but when the unions reneged on their commitment to racial equality, Highlander shifted its focus to the Civil Rights movement. It hosted Citizenship Schools and voter registration drives across the South, and held workshops that brought whites and blacks together for training and planning. It was shut down by the state of Tennessee in 1961, and then reincorporated as the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, where it continues its work today. Pete Seeger learned the song “We Shall Overcome” at Highlander. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended its workshops, and a photo of him there was plastered all over billboards in the South with the caption, “MLK attends Communist Training School.” I had learned about Highlander as part of my seminary education, and have long been inspired by its scrappy dedication to democratic education, creative resistance to prejudice and oppression, and perseverance in the face of long odds.

My favorite story about Highlander took place in 1955. A number of black and white civil rights activists had gathered from across the South for two weeks of training. At the end of the workshop, these men and women went around in a circle to share what they planned to do when they returned home to their communities. One woman, though, could not think of what to say. She was in her early 40s, the executive secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery. But she had grown discouraged, and the thought of returning home was daunting. “I’m from the cradle of the confederacy,”she said, when her turn came. “The whites won’t let the blacks do anything, and the blacks won’t stick together. I can’t think of anything I could do that would make a difference.”

That was 1955. In 1956, this same woman decided that she did have it in her, after all, to do something, at home in Montgomery. Or, rather, to not do something. She decided not to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, in defiance of Jim Crow law. Her name was Rosa Parks.

This sermon series at Marsh Chapel is on the theme of “Moving Towards Hope,” and my sermon this morning is titled, “The Spiritual Utility of Discouragement.” We can’t move through hope, without moving through discouragement. And yet, discouragement is a feeling that Christians are usually discouraged from having. It is seen as a trap, the gateway to despair, or just plain negative. Pessimistic. We have a sense that spiritual people, and especially Americans, should be able to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining, to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what.

But you know, dumpster fires don’t have a silver lining. And there are many reasons why the phrase “dumpster fire” was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary earlier this year.

So I guess I’m here this morning to preach some good news about discouragement, for those of you who, like me, find yourselves deeply discouraged about our national life, the state of our democracy, and even the state of our humanity. The good news is that we can engage our discouragement, learn from it, maybe even wrestle a blessing from it. We can do that, with God’s help. Our discouragement has things to teach us, if we let it. But we can’t learn from it unless we are willing to spend some time exploring what discouragement truly is, and what its utility might be. So first we’ll define it; we will consider three uses of it; and then we’ll talk about how to move through it, towards hope.

Were you surprised that Rosa Parks, one year before her famous act of civil disobedience, was in such a low place? That she felt that all her faithful work of many years had been futile? That even after experiencing two weeks of the kind of equality and harmony that she had dreamed of, that she still felt powerless?

\If we banish discouragement from the range of spiritually acceptable emotions, and view our own discouragement as a failure, then we usually also reason that spiritual giants like Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the saints of the church—they must not have ever felt this way. Or, at least not for very long. But if you read biographies, or the lives of the saints—you’ll know this is not true. If anything, great souls have more and deeper bouts of discouragement, more intense periods of self-doubt, more times when they wonder if their work has been for nothing, than most of us. So the first step of grappling with our own discouragement, whether it comes from within, or from what is going on in our world, is to stop treating it like a sign of our weakness or failure, and instead to claim it as a rational human response to deep disappointment.

What causes discouragement? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has an alliterative answer: “fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear.” Discouragement is an emotional response to these four kinds of experiences. (http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/some-cures-for-discouragement)

I have a few different images for discouragement. The first is, discouragement as a crossroads. It is a disorientation that forces us to choose a new direction. It is a kind of reckoning. And just as a crossroads is between towns in a kind of no man’s land, our own times of discouragement can feel like a wilderness, where we don’t know which road to choose, or are too worn down to even make a choice, and so we’re stuck.

My second image is of a kind of sinking feeling. I think of discouragement as, when you are swimming in a pool, and you choose to allow yourself to sink to the bottom for a while. There might be lots of splashing and activity above, but you have sunk down so that, holding your breath, you are looking at the pool from below, from a new perspective. Now, if you stay there too long, you’ll drown. That is called despair. But this perspective, from the bottom of the pool, can be a useful vantage point, temporarily. You can see things with a stillness and a clarity that you can’t see from the surface. So while discouragement can feel like sinking, it is a sinking that can also allow us to go deeper.

And finally, discouragement is a heart condition. That is the root of the word, courage, cor, Latin for heart. To be encouraged is to take heart; to be discouraged is to lose heart. And this is “heart” in the sense of the Hebrew Bible, of heart, soul, and mind being wrapped up together: heart as the core, the center of our being. Discouragement rocks us to our core. It is destabilizing, diminishing; it’s a spiritual loss of oxygen.

So how can a condition like this have any kind of utility for us as Christians? Well, I’ll be frank with you: according to the great Google, most people think that it doesn’t. So this is some original theology happening, right now! But I am convinced, that in God, no part of our experience is wasted; what seems to be garbage turns out to be compost.

So here are three spiritual uses of discouragement, which we will look at through the lens of our scriptures for today.

First, discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. Second, it gives us a unique perspective on our situation that is disorienting, but also valuable. Third, discouragement is an important part of the soul’s natural pendulum.  There are three uses, because three is the holiest number for preachers! Three persons of the Trinity; three points to every sermon.

So, use number one: Discouragement throws us back on the mercy of God. When I’m doing fine, when it’s smooth sailing, I tend to chalk that up to my own efforts. The temptation of peaceful times is to become spiritually complacent. Fatigue, frustration, failure, and fear shake off that complacency quickly. I turn back to God—for assurance, for solace, for wisdom, for clarity out of perplexity. We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” just now—I love the way this hymn depicts prayer as this sheltering relationship in the midst of the storm of life. “In seasons of distress and grief/my soul has often found relief.” Our trials and griefs make us turn back towards God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”the Psalmist asks. In his distress, he longs for God, “as a deer longs for flowing streams.”Discouragement makes us thirsty for the waters of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest. . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Times of discouragement are painful—but they can also force us to seek God with a greater yearning; to go deeperin our relationship with God; to put away our stained-glass sentiments and to show up to prayer boldly, and with greater honesty and vulnerability. Our families, our friends, our colleagues may not want to see that side of us: but God does. Jesus says, take my yoke upon you. Let’s work on this together.

Secondly, discouragement gives us a perspective that is disorienting, but also valuable. It is the bottom of the pool. For Rosa Parks, the safety of the Highlander Folk School provided her with this kind of new perspective. She wrote, “At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, and that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave.” (Myles Horton, The Long Haul, pp.149-150) This supportive environment allowed her to confront her discouragement honestly: to admit to herself that she felt the odds were too great, and the forces of segregation were too strong for her to confront. She said, “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”But this strength came not by pushing away her feelings of doubt and discouragement, but by acknowledging them, and sharing them.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, of retreating to a place of safety, to confront the cost of facing the forces of oppression. Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But in the lesson from second Kings, we see him exhausted, ready to give up in the wilderness, having fled for his life from Ahab and Jezebel. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”It was all for nothing.

And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.

When this reading appears in the lectionary, it ends at that verse. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the sound of sheer silence actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. It tells Elijah to essentially go back, and foment revolution against Ahab and all the political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is told to start a holy war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha.

And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord.

Elijah’s time in the wilderness forced him to answer some big questions. And if we sit with our own discouragement instead of pushing it away, we, too, will have some questions to answer: core questions about our identity, our deepest beliefs, and what is truly possible for us. Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? And what can I really do?

Seasons of discouragement can be times of painful disillusionment in our lives. But you know, there’s a funny thing about the word “disillusionment.” To become disillusioned, is to experience loss. And yet, it is also a gain: because it is better to live without illusions! Disillusionment means we are no longer being deceived, or deceiving ourselves. The truth can hurt, but in the Gospel of John we are told that the truth will set us free.

The third utility of discouragement is that it is part of the soul’s natural pendulum. I’m thinking here of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Ignatius knew the value of the emotions, all the emotions, in the life of the spirit. He knew that the so-called negative emotions, channeled correctly, could help us grow in love and grow closer to God; in fact, that they are essential to our life-long conversion. He talked about a movement of the soul between desolation and consolation. And this movement continues all our lives, back and forth. This is how we grow spiritually. It’s important to understand this, and to understand that both states are temporary, and neither is better than the other. In times of discouragement, we need to remember that engaging with the sources of our discouragement can propel us out of this state, and into consolation, into encouragement, again. Elijah did as the still small voice commanded him. He did return, in spite of his fears, to confront Ahab, and to triumph over the prophets of Baal. Rosa Parks admitted her discouragement, her feelings of the futility of her work. And then she participated in an act of civil disobedience that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the bus boycott she wrote to a colleague, We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.” (https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/the-boycott/)

So how do we come to that place, where in the midst of such struggle, we don’t feel discouraged, but empowered and equipped? That rather than disoriented, disillusioned, we feel grounded in our identity, our purpose, and in the truth of God’s love? I think here, the Apostle Paul is our man.

Paul certainly embraced the full range of his emotions. No recipient of any of his epistles ever asked, “But tell us how you really feel, Paul.”

Paul understood that Christianity is the religion of paradox—and that from a disciple’s point of view, that means holding contradictions together within oneself. As he says in 2nd Corinthians in describing his often-calamitous missionary journeys, We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, Paul had a really robust theology of down but not out. And I think we need to have one, too. Paul was willing to wrestle the blessing out of discouragement, to call upon the name of the Lord in his times of need, to sing out loud and proud in prison. Paul was in it for the long haul. He was committed.

Years ago in a parish where I once served, there was a woman named Roz who, whenever she ran into another member of the parish, would ask them if they were committed. You know, in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. And it took a bit for these mild-mannered Episcopalians to realize that she was asking them if they were committed to Christ. Maybe we all need a friend like that—to challenge us and to provoke us into stating our deepest commitments, our truest purpose, wherever we are. Sometimes, our own discouragement is that friend—if we can befriend it.

         There is a wonderful few lines that I think sums up all I’ve been trying to say this morning. Margery Stoneman Douglas was the namesake of the high school in Parkland, Florida where, after the massacre in February, a number of students reignited the debate on gun control, all while in the earliest days of their own deepest grief. Margery surely would have been very proud of them. A journalist, advocate for women’s suffrage, ardent environmentalist responsible for the conservation of the Florida Everglades, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Stoneman Douglas passed away in 1998 at the age of 108. She once quipped, “I studied elocution at Wellesley College, and I’ve been going around elocuting ever since.”And her example has now inspired a new generation of courageous students, who are travelling the country, speaking and registering voters this summer. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-marjory-stoneman-douglas-was) This is what Stoneman Douglas wrote in 1980:

“Be a nuisance where it counts, but never a bore. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics—but never give up.”

We in the progressive Church need a robust theology of “down but not out,” and we need to engage in the spiritual practice of targeted nuisance-ing. This requires us to fully engage with our own discouragement, at the same time that we renew our trust in God, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy. To not be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed in all the violations of God’s law of love that make up the headlines today, would be to diminish our very humanity through callousness or willed ignorance. The odds are long: but God’s people are always in it for the long haul. We can learn from discouragement, and grow from it, without giving in to despair—and God’s grace will propel us into a new dawn of justice, compassion, and peace.

In God’s name, Amen.

 

Benediction:

May your own discouragement become a deep well from which you draw many gifts: reliance on God’s mercy; clarity from disorientation, and renewed purpose and commitment. May you wrestle a blessing from it, and widen the way of love in the world. And may God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and equip you to be a nuisance where it counts, to the glory of God’s holy name. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton, Pastor and Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts; Denominational Counselor for Episcopal/Anglican Students, Harvard Divinity School

Plenty Good Room

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

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John 14:1-7

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

-The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology

Luther on God at Play

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

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Gen. 32:24-30

Matt. 11:12-19

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Luther on God at Play[1]

Does God play games? The fear that God might lies at the root of the anxieties of the modern world. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, sought certainty in the face of the possibility that God (the deus deceptor) might play tricks; and his opponents, solid Dutch Calvinist theologians, accused him of blasphemy for suggesting that such a thing was possible.[2] Albert Einstein famously objected to quantum mechanics by insisting that “God does not play at dice with the universe.” Enlightenment thinkers criticized the Christian God on moral grounds, insisting that God had to act according to our own, rationally discerned rules. The roots of this modern anxiety go far back into medieval and ancient philosophy and theology, which placed God at the transcendent apex of a crystalline hierarchy of being, or set God over the world as a sovereign legislator.

For Martin Luther, however, God is a God who plays games.

By now, on the second Sunday in November, 2017, two weeks after the October 31 anniversary of 1517, you are probably tired of hearing about Luther’s Ninety-Five theses and whether or not they were nailed on the Wittenberg church door.  This morning, I want to propose a different framework for considering Luther and his Reformation in this five hundredth anniversary year: God at play.

In the Gospel read this morning, Jesus says: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  . . . Yet wisdom is justified by her children.”[3]

For most of the centuries since Luther’s lifetime, until the liturgical reforms of the late twentieth century, this Gospel lesson was the one appointed to be read at commemorations of the Reformation. Luther understood this text to embody God’s call as a call to play: to join with God in God’s divine game.

Luther’s world was one (perhaps not unlike our own) in which games were coming into their own.  In a remark at table in 1537, Luther observed that

Games with cards and dice have become common, for our age has invented many games. Surely there has been a great change. In my youth, all games were prohibited; makers of cards and musicians at dances weren’t admitted to the sacraments, and people were required to make confession of their gaming, dancing, and jousting. Today these things are the vogue, and they are defended as exercises for the mind.[4]

Luther himself played chess with students,[5] and was familiar with the ancient European game of Mills known in English as Nine-Men’s-Morris. He compared the devil with a player who catches his opponents in a “double mill” in which no matter what the opponents do, the devil has them his trap.[6] Luther penned a satire on the pope and emperor based on the old German card game of Karnoffel.[7]

Yet this kind of game based on rules is not what Luther has in mind when he insists that God plays games.  Rather, these are the games that humans try to play with God—to subject God to the rules, as if we could catch God in our own “double mill” of metaphysical or ethical necessity. For Luther, this human impulse to play games with God by catching God in our own rules was exemplified by the scholastic theologians who “speculate and play games with God up in heaven: what He is, thinks, and does in Himself, and so on.”[8]

Among Luther’s own supporters, he discerned a distressingly similar effort to entrap God in the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli, who argued that God’s omnipotence in fact precludes His presence in the Sacrament, because for God to be bound to the elements would be a limitation of divine power.[9] For Zwingli, the God of human games is bound by necessity even in his omnipotence. God is spirit; He cannot be flesh. God is light; He cannot be obscure. But Luther’s God, playing not human games but the divine game, is radically free.

God’s game, for Luther, is not a rule-based game like chess or cards.  Rather, it has more in common with a sort of unstructured play, of pretending and playing in back-and forth alternation between the players.  Luther loves to describe God as wearing masks which simultaneously conceal and reveal God’s self: the masks of Creation itself, of the Word and the Sacraments—and Luther speaks of masks which God invites us to put on in the world: the masks of parenthood or political office, of responsibility for neighbors and for creation.  For Luther, the point is not to remove the masks or penetrate through them to God in unmasked majesty, but to join in God’s game.[10]

Luther can sometimes think of the public masquing of Carnival in describing this masked play, but he imagines God’s masks above all in terms of the games between parents and children: the kind of pretending and tricks for the sake of jest that give way to shared laughter and joy. We might think, for example, of a father who lumbers around pretending to be a hungry bear, to the combined sheer terror and equally sheer delight of his children, a game which begins with terrifying ursine growls but ends with bear hugs and laughter.

Indeed, when Luther describes God as “Father,” he is typically not invoking a perilous analogy of being between human masculinity and divine activity, as Aquinas and other realist theologians do, but describing a relationship typified by this kind of play. “God plays with us, and we are his dear children; he dandles us and chastises us.”[11]  God is a father who plays games.

What sets Luther’s understanding apart is not simply the idea of God’s play, but the kind of play. The great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the first editor of the Greek New Testament, when he finally took up his pen against Luther, compared God to a father who holds out an apple to a child in order to teach the child how to walk over and take it. The apple is a gift, but the child must learn to respond in order to get the prize. In a similar vein, Erasmus argued about the commandments. God would not command “thou shalt” to human beings who were utterly unable to comply.[12]

Luther has a more complex image of divine fatherhood and of God’s games: “How often,” Luther writes, “do parents have a game with their children by telling them to come to them, or to do this or that, simply for the sake of showing them how unable they are, and compelling them to call for the help of the parents’ hand!”[13]

Erasmus’ God plays games that are edifying and straightforward and cultivate independence (perhaps the sort of educational games that parents buy for their children that get played once or not at all)! Luther’s God plays games with terrifying reversals; their point is not to teach a lesson to be taken away from the game but to draw the players closer together.

What matters is not rules, or winning or losing, but the playing itself and the persons whom the game binds together.

God plays this game through preaching: preaching which does not simply inculcate a set of rules to keep to march up the ladder until we reach God on the final rung, but preaching which summons us now to mourn with the wailing of the Law, now to dance with the piping of the Gospel.

God plays this game through song, like Luther’s dramatic hymn which we sing this morning, “Dear Christians one and all, rejoice,” itself a proclamation of God’s play with the world.  When we sing together in church, we are not only singing to God, but calling out to one another. When I come to church on a given Sunday, I may or may not feel particularly penitent or joyful or even very strong in faith. If it were simply a matter of my own devotion and the state of my own heart I might or might not feel like singing at all. But Jesus tells us that you need the sound of my voice, and I need the sound of yours. God’s game continues through our singing, the call of the children calling to each other in the marketplace.

God plays this game through ordinary human words, spoken by one human creature to another, and makes them the power of God unto salvation [Rom. 1:16]. The Scriptures themselves, for Luther, are examples (as well as witnesses) of God’s play. Why do the Scriptures deal so much with inconsequential, practical matters like the marriages, households, and flocks of the patriarchs and matriarchs rather than with high, spiritual mysteries? It is because, Luther says, “the Holy Spirit, God the Creator, deigns to play, to jest, and to trifle with His saints in unimportant and inconsequential matters.”[14] Things which seem unimportant measured in themselves are nonetheless important within God’s game.

God plays this game through the ordinary water of Baptism which, joined with God’s Word, becomes a “gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” [Tit. 3:5].  God plays through the Supper, in which Jesus gives not what the senses perceive or philosophy can explain but what Jesus’ words declare: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Zwingli, of course, sees all this as being “rather childish.”[15]  But for Luther, that is only being a spoilsport, the kind of peevish child who perhaps thinks himself too grown-up and refuses to join in the game. Luther writes, “these godless ones are not ready for God’s game—that is, for dealing with the Gospel—and they spoil it as much as they are able.”[16]

Here Luther stands also against old Pelagius, who described the mature Christian as so grown up that he no longer needs God (emancipatus a Deo) and with Augustine, for whom the Christian was always dependent on God’s grace like the child stilled at its mother’s breast (Ps. 131:2).[17] Spiritual growth for Luther is not increasing independence but an ever-deepening faith and reliance upon God, not independence. For Luther, the Christian never outgrows God’s play.

To say that God is a God who plays games is, after all, to say that faith is the fundamental relationship with God.  The God who does not play games does not need faith. If God is caught in human metaphysical or ethical schemes, then I can know what God must necessarily do toward me by analyzing my own status: if I am good, then God who is Good must be good toward me. If I am like God in my inner being then I am part or participant in God. But with the God who plays games, there can be only faith, trust like that of a child who is tossed in the air and can only trust that he will be caught in his father’s arms. The point of the game, again, is not victory for one side or the other through the application of rules, but the relationship of trust and love that is deepened between the players.

Above all, God plays this game through Jesus.  Jesus is the Wisdom of God, the wisdom who calls out in the marketplace, the wisdom who eternally delights to play with humanity.  Proverbs 8[:30-31 Vg] describes her: “I was with [God], arranging all things, and I took delight day by day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world, and my delight was to be with the children of men.”[18]

This is the Wisdom who comes into the world incarnate not as a solemn grown-up but as a child. For Luther, the incarnation of the Son of God thus embodies this eternal divine game: “we have an infant, this Child [Isa. 9:6]: the mother bears Him for us, nurses Him for us; He remains a Child for us for ever.  He does not display Himself to us in somber seriousness, not in some terrible majesty at which we would have to tremble, but he shows Himself to us as a little Child, and in his childhood he plays with us to all eternity.”[19] God’s play with His beloved people in Christ is perpetual and eternal.

Luther finds God at play throughout the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures. Jesus jests and plays with his disciples, in words and deeds, terrifying them as if he were a ghost when he comes to them over the sea before revealing himself and consoling them by calming the storm.[20] Jesus plays with the Syrophonecian woman when he denies her plea for help, but she joins in the game and compels Jesus through her faith.[21]  For a moment, God’s game may seem terrifying even to the saints—the game of the cat which means death to the mouse, as one of Luther’s German proverbs puts it.[22] Nevertheless, behind the mask or specter of anger, God is playing as a loving father with his children, and the saints come to perceive the sweetness of God’s game.

In Genesis, Luther finds the ultimate and climactic game of God with the patriarchs and matriarchs in Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord, grappling all night until finally the divine wrestler renders Jacob helpless by putting his hip out of joint.  Yet Jacob will not let go. Luther insists, “[this] wrestler is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God’s Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers.” It is in playing, not simply in yielding but in wrestling with God, that Jacob comes to know God. “Jacob has no idea who it is who is wrestling with him; he does not know that it is God, because he later asks what His name is. But after he receives the blessing, he says: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face.’ Then new joy and life arise.”[23] It is this God who plays games who is able to become flesh, to reveal himself through playing, to gives himself as pledge.

When God plays his game with the saints, he does not simply set up a game for them to play (and lose) against terrible opponents—sin, death, and hell. Rather, God himself is in the game, in the Incarnation. God does not simply preside over the game in omnipotent transcendence. As we might say, quite literally, God has skin in the game. Therefore, as Luther says, “I do not have nor know any other God, neither in heaven nor on earth, but this One who is warmed at His mother’s breast, who hangs upon the cross.”[24]

To play God’s game is to play with God, the incarnate God. Wisdom, Jesus says, is justified by her children, the children who hear God’s call and join in God’s game.

Luther’s God plays games. In this five hundredth year of the Reformation, will we play along?

-Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Associate Professor of Church History, Boston University School of Theology


[1] See Christopher Boyd Brown, “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81.1-2 (January/April 2017):153-170. http://www.ctsfw.edu/resources/concordia-theological-quarterly/archive/   On the theme of God’s play in Luther’s theology, see Ulrich Asendorf, Lectura in Biblia: Luthers Genesisvorlesung (1535–1545) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998); John Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2008); S. J. Munson, “The Divine Game: Faith and the Reconciliation of Opposites in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis,” CTQ 76 (2012):89–115.

[2] Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 117f.

[3] There is a textual variant between ἐργων [deeds] and τεκνων [children].

[4] Table Talk of January 1537, WA TR 3:377, no. 3526a; LW 54:221–222

[5] Johann Mathesius, in Georg Loesche, ed., Luthers Leben in Predigten, Bibliothek deutscher Schriftsteller aus Böhmen 9, 2nd ed. (Prague: J. G. Calve/Josef Koch, 1906) , pp. 430-31. For allusions to chess, see, e.g., Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser (1521), LW 39:211 (WA 7:677); Notes on Ecclesiastes (1526), LW 15:40 (WA 20:47).

[6] E.g., Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:203 (WA 38:562).

[7] Eine Frage des ganzen heiligen Ordens der Kartenspieler vom Karnöffel (1537), WA 50:131-34.

[8] Sermons on the Seventeenth Chapter of St. John (1528/1530), LW 69:39 (WA 28:101).

[9] See Heiko Oberman, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, translated by Andrew Colin Gow (London: T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 195-97.

[10] For discussion of the larva Dei in terms of God’s play, see Anthony J. Steinbronn, The Masks of God: the Significance of Larvae Dei in Luther’s Theology, STM thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, 1991.

[11] De Sacerdotum dignitate Sermo, 1517?, WA 4:656.

[12] Erasmus, Discussion of Free Will, translated by Peter Macardle, in CWE. 76.  See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale, 1980), p. 297.

[13] Bondage of the Will (1525), LW 33:120 (WA 18:673).

[14] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 5:353, translation altered (WA 43:672).

[15] The Marburg Colloquy and the Marburg Articles (1529), LW 38:21 (WA 30/3:118).

[16] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:133 (WA 38:521).

[17] See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 351-52.

[18] Cf. Lectures on Genesis (1535-45/1544-54), WA 42:184, 44:466 (LW 1:248, 7:225).

[19] Enarratio capitis noni Esaiae (1543-44/1546), WA 40/3:641.

[20] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:229–231 (WA 38:579-80).

[21] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:253-57 (WA 38:593-97).

[22] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 7:225 (WA 44:466).

[23] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 6:130 (WA 44:96-97).

[24] Lectures on Isaiah (1528/1530), WA 25:107 (cf. LW 16:55).

Have You Not Known?

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

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Isaiah 40:21-31

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

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It’s a privilege to be with you today, in the presence of both this university and the broader listening community. In gratefully accepting Dean Hill’s invitation to preach today, I had no idea that it would coincide with the first category 4 hurricane to hit the Texas coast since before I was born. My heart is heavy with concern for many friends whose churches are closed this morning and who might not even be able to tune into this broadcast for lack of power. I ask you to keep the communities of the whole Gulf Coast and inland areas in your prayers, not just during this service, but in the long rebuilding time to come. And now will you pray with me?

I am the product of two United Methodist-related institutions—Emory University in Atlanta for seminary and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, for my bachelor’s degree. I’m a trustee of Southwestern now, and it’s been interesting to watch its relationship with the church change, even as the role and place of the church in our broader society has also shifted. You may be acquainted with those in the world around us who are way too smart to find themselves in church. You also may be acquainted with churches you are too smart or too nice a person to be a member of. It is an interesting time. But it is not a time in which the church is exactly sure of what to do with itself. What used to be clear isn’t anymore, and the word “decline” hangs as a dark cloud over our heads.

Yet we are here, in body or earshot, because we still believe there’s something to all of this. The church reacts to its changing context, either by trying out new venues and songs and language, trying desperately to crack the code and reach old and new generations of people who either stopped listening to us or never started. Or we hunker down and sing old songs with fingers in our ears, hoping the place stays open long enough to do our funerals. But there has to be something more to what we are about, doesn’t there? Something underneath and above and in the middle, a truth we could not have made up for ourselves. Even as the ground shifts beneath our feet, we hope, we believe, there’s a deeper foundation still.

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter a rock, the foundation for the whole church, which is kind of funny, knowing what we know of Peter. A rock? Really? Peter is, among other things, bone-headed and selfish, and on his worst day, he denied knowing Jesus at all. Yet Peter on this day knew one thing, the one important, true thing, which was who Jesus really was. And somehow Peter’s knowing, combined with the strength of that Jesus truth, was itself enough. Peter, with all his failings and fear and short-sightedness, was able to serve as the foundation for the church, because there was something bigger and better at work in him, despite himself, and he knew it. We are heirs of that foundation, that rock, that truth. Today, this moment, is a time when we as church in this country need to get clear about what that inheritance is and how it lays claim to us. And here in a chapel on a university campus, at the intersecting point of faith and knowledge, we sit in a good place from which to ask ourselves, “What do we know? What is true? What is the living word we have received and which Christ calls us to pass along, as challenging as the times may be?”

\My story of what I know starts with being a preacher’s kid and getting a full, early dose of church. By the time I arrived at college, I was trying on my own adult life, putting intentional space between my parents and myself. I struggled with profound feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. I studied political science, history, and Spanish. I worried about all the nuclear weapons we and the Russians had pointed at each other, and I hoped to help find a way to work for peace. I had serious questions about the faith I had inherited. I wondered whether the story of Jesus might have been a fairy tale written to help us live better lives. I learned in college anthropology and then later again in seminary that it’s very natural for humans to figure out ways to make meaning, to interpret the world around us beyond our control, and that religion is one response to that impulse. I took philosophy courses and tried to decide whether I was a hard or soft determinist; I considered that it’s very possible that most of what we call reality is something we’ve made up.

Yet every Thursday, I sat in chapel, in a place very much like this. I sang with the University Chorale my whole time in school, and sometimes we had to be there for worship. But I came even when I didn’t have to, drawn in by that space, set apart—its height and color, dark and light, cool and quiet, the sound of the organ, even the smell, which in Texas includes the aroma of bats. That chapel to this day feels to me like the embodiment of an alma mater, mother of my soul, always somehow pointing me up and out, while at the same time reaching in, deep, and bridging the distance between the two.

That’s actually one way I could describe my whole education—an ongoing process of connection and communication between the deepest place in me and the wild wonder, the out-there-ness of the world. And as we turn to today’s Old Testament text, I hear this same deep and wide soul connection in the reading from Isaiah. This prophetic word was a message of hope and consolation to the people of Israel, exiled in the 6th century BCE from their land and seemingly from their identity. They despaired over what would become of them and what it meant that their life in the Promised Land had been so violently cut off. They must have wrestled with the accusations and judgment of the early prophets, who called out the power structure of God’s people as unjust and brutal toward the poor. It was a tough and traumatic time, as they tried to figure out who they were now in relation to their covenant God.

The 40th chapter begins a long section that announces consolation for the people and hope for the future. As a pastor I can tell you that the first verses of Isaiah 40 are used today by the church as readings for Advent, while its final verses, which we read today, are common in the funeral liturgy. This is a big chapter, an important word resonating across the centuries for people who doubt or wonder or suffer, for whatever reason. And the consolation of this word comes in part through the message that God is life, at a cosmic level—stretching out the skies as you would pull open the drapes in the morning. Princes and rulers, those with power to wage war and exile whole nations—these wither under the breath of God, these of shallow seed and fragile root. No matter what trouble the people faced, the prophet proclaimed, God was bigger.

We live in a context very different from the one in which this particular text was written, yet much also remains the same. It is intriguing, for example, to consider the rulers of this day as withered shoots, blown away by a stiff wind. The crazy roller coaster of news that hurtles us through every week, leaders here and elsewhere, ones you agree with and ones you don’t—all blown away by the breath of God. Then there are the oppressive burdens borne by so many in our nation and the world—racism, both blatant and unacknowledged; systemic poverty, held in place by law and practice; state brutality, civil wars that terrorize the most vulnerable; journeys of fear and flight from one land to another, families seeking refuge on foreign shores, often without finding it.

And just as troubling, somehow, in the midst of so much suffering, we have become unable or unwilling to experience each other’s reality. Especially in this country, we have created bubbles of homogeneity and deafness for ourselves, unfriending and categorizing and writing each other off based on yard signs and Facebook posts. We’ve begun to believe that there’s something fundamentally wrong with “those people.” We’ve armed ourselves and taken sides and crafted narratives that explain the guilt of the other, without challenging or calling ourselves to account. And the weak and the long-oppressed continue to suffer, discounted as one more special interest group. How we might wish a hurricane like Harvey might wash it all away. It doesn’t happen that way, though.

So why, then, do we hope? From the perspective of the heavens, we are grasshoppers of a sort, scattered across the land, small and vulnerable. There is much about this complex life I—and we—do not know. But what I do know, I have learned in part from a community of people rooted in a God vision, not ready to be conformed to this world, not ready to say “uncle” in the face of great, destructive power, even when that destructiveness lies within ourselves. I have learned what cannot be proven, in the scientific sense, but what I have come to believe within the deepest fibers of my soul—that there is something bigger than me and us in this life, and not just bigger things that can hurt us. There is a different power at work for good in us and the world, and we know it because we experience it; we’ve seen it transform people and even whole communities.

The power to which we point as people of faith is that found in the final verses of today’s passage, words of comfort for generations of Jews and Christians and all kinds of people who have wandered into funeral parlors. Because you know it happens; hard things happen—youth do sometimes faint and grow weary; young ones do fall exhausted, to say nothing of older ones. Maybe it’s happened to you or your community; maybe it’s happening even now. But our proof of power lies in the strength that comes to us from outside ourselves when we are weak. Perhaps it comes through people gathered together, through music or quiet or the stars strewn above our heads. We may see it when what looks like randomness takes on pattern, or when selfishness becomes sacrifice. But it comes. Life and trouble, death and evil continue, but strength also comes, and it makes all the difference.

One name for that kind of power is love. It is love to which this text testifies; love in the eye of the Holy One without equal, who sits above the circle of the earth; love that Christians receive and proclaim in Christ Jesus; love that centers so many other faith traditions, too. It is love that breaks opens hearts and minds to the new idea, the different perspective, the stretch that true learning and listening require. It is love that allows us to take seriously testimonies of experiences we haven’t had, and to lay down power and privilege on behalf of people who are unaccustomed to either. It is love I have always found in spaces like this one and at the gracious table of Jesus Christ—welcoming, feeding, moving me up and out.

As church, as university, it is the power of love to which we should witness. In this brilliant world, traveling at breakneck pace; in this culture, which has trouble remembering what was important five minutes ago; in a land where human hearts are as selfish as forever yet also yearn beyond words for fullness of life—in this moment we must strive to create disciples of Christ who will testify to love and its power in their lives and communities. We must be and invite and form people who know there’s something important that’s bigger than they are, who sit upon the earth like tiny grasshoppers but who yet use their compound eyes to take in and know the world, and use their legs to sing a song of praise. We must testify to being lifted up as on eagle’s wings, humbled and empowered by strength that is not our own, and inspired to walk and serve and speak out on behalf of others and ourselves. We must be and invite and form mature, moral citizens, compassionate neighbors, people with what we call emotional intelligence, in addition to all that other intelligence y’all practice around here. From where I sit, I don’t know what to call that but love.

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

28 The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

God does not faint or grow weary;

God’s understanding is unsearchable.

29 God gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

We have inherited a word, a vision, a deep knowledge, a solid rock of truth as our foundation, and our work is far from finished. May God bless us with the joy and opportunity of sharing what we know, even in this uncertain and troubling time, as people transformed by love.

– The Reverend Laura Merrill, Assistant to the Bishop for Clergy Excellence

Surprised, Touched, Inspired

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

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Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Ephesians 3:14-21

Matthew 8:5-13

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Conversation is part of the fabric of human interaction. Our words can hurt or heal, divide or unite, create community or chaos. The recent violence in Charlottesville has sparked conversation about free speech, racism, antisemitism, national leadership, and the inherent values of our nation.

Robert A. Brown, the President of Boston University sent a letter to the community this week in which he said:

“As we seek in our democracy and our academic community to appreciate and understand difference, we speak of tolerance and the fundamental importance of free speech and respect for diverse points of view.  But tolerance doesn’t necessarily imply or entail acceptance or approval.  Palpably evil acts, such as occurred in Charlottesville, invite the challenging question about what is and is not tolerable or morally acceptable in speech and accompanying deeds.”

President Brown’s letter continues: “I believe it is a view that is broadly shared in our community, that a claim of inherent racial or ethnic superiority is abhorrent.  We must, I believe, explicitly denounce white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that make such claims.  The obligation of our community must be to hold fast to the values that are in our Boston University DNA.  As we participate in broader conversation in our society, we should seek to set a standard of civility and generosity of spirit in discourse that perhaps over time will be an illuminating counterpoint to the hate speech that threatens the very fabric of our republic.”

In this time in our country when there is so much division and hurt, we do seek deep conversations that help move us into awareness and actions. Persons of faith also seek spiritual strength to guide us in our conversations and actions.

In Ephesians 3, St. Paul asks God to strengthen us by his Spirit—“not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength.”

Paul says: “And I ask God, that with both of your feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Today I want to talk about 3 conversations that help bring us into the fullness of God, so that we can serve in a fragile world with inner strength and love.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a pioneer in integrative medicine and relationship centered care.  Dr. Remen writes books, practices medicine, teaches and works with helping professionals and activists who are burned out, feel like they have given all they can give, are tired, annoyed or resentful, and don’t want to do it anymore.

In her workshops, Dr. Remen takes participants through three questions.

What positive thing surprised you today?

What touched you?

What inspired you recently?

All of three questions are directed at what we call the heart.

In Hebrew scripture, the heart is the place where human beings connect with God.

These vivifying questions open up the heart, the place of aliveness, compassion, energy, connection love, deep understanding. The Psalmist knows about the importance of opening the heart.  The Psalmist says:

Create in me a clean heart O God,

and renew within me a right spirit.

Let’s examine each of these questions starting with the question:

What surprised you?

In the healing story of Jesus in Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a Centurion (a high ranking Roman military official) who says:

Sir, my servant  is home, paralyzed, racked with pain and paralyzed.  

Jesus responds without hesitation: “I will come and cure him.”

 

The Centurion says:

I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. You are the great healer. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.

Scripture says that Jesus was astonished. Really, really, really surprised.  For one thing, a centurion would never say that he is unworthy.  He had a power position. Jesus said, “Nowhere I have found such faith. Go home and so let it be done for you according to your faith. And the servant was healed in that hour.”

What does being surprised do?  Surprise wakes us up. Surprise almost has a gasp quality to it. Our perception of how the world works shifts, making way for a new reality that has unlimited possibilities.

In that new reality I ask myself, is my faith that bold? Am I willing to trust that all will be well?

For example, I would never say that if you have enough faith in Jesus you don’t need health insurance.

But I do have great faith in working as a team across party lines for our nation’s healthcare system in a way that brings equity and healing to all. And I do treasure the saying:

Everything will work out in the end.

If it doesn’t work out, then it is not the end.

And I am surprised how the healing stories of Jesus always make me think.

“What surprises you?” is a vivifying question.

Another surprise story is not in the Bible, but like many stories, it points to the gospel message:

Some frogs were hopping in the forest, and suddenly two of the frogs fell into a deep hole. They jumped and jumped trying to get out of this almost impossible situation.

The other frogs looked into the hole and shouted: “You should have been more careful, give up, you are already as good as dead. Stop jumping so much, your struggle makes us uncomfortable.”

Exhausted and dispirited one frog lay down and died, but the other frog put forth a super-frog effort and by a miracle, jumped out of the hole.

The observer frogs were shocked: “Why did you continue jumping when we told you it was impossible and why did you continue jumping when you knew it made us uncomfortable?”

Reading their lips now that he was close, the frog explained them that he was deaf. When he saw their gestures, he thought they were cheering him on.

The surprise ending is beautiful: It is astonishing that encouragement, companionship, just being there for each other has so much power. How can that be?

In the end, it is not about the words.

It is about the power of what we call the Divine presence.

We are surprised about the simple power of encouragement.

Jesus was surprised that the Centurion really got what Jesus was teaching about the true power of God. I think Jesus spent his life giving a message that people couldn’t take in.  And when they did, He was deeply touched.

Let’s examine the second question: What touched you today or recently?

What was so beautiful or so powerful, that you were humbled by it, opened, connected, heart-filled?

I am always touched by the story of Moses at 120 years old, in the wilderness giving his final lecture to the people of Israel who would have to enter the Promised Land without him.

FINAL lectures or sermons are so touching when people sum up years and decades of wisdom and give it to us as a parting gift.

Deuteronomy 30: 11. The commandment (commandment to love and obey God), I lay on you this day is not too difficult for you, it is not too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say:

Who will go up to heaven for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?

No – it is a thing very near to you — on your lips and in your own heart so that YOU can do it.

The story of Moses’ last lecture touches that deeply vulnerable place in us where we feel like we can’t go on, we can’t recover from loss, can’t turn our country, our world, our planet around.

Moses says to the gathered people: God has given you everything you need to keep moving forward towards the promise. That is God’s covenant with us. But remember, Moses said that to the gathered tribes, not just one person.

The story is touching because it touches a place in each of us that is afraid; and says to the fear: As a community, you have everything you need to create a Promised Land.

A second touching story is from the Islamic faith tradition. It has been a really horrific year for the Muslim community in our country and parts of our world.  So I want to honor this tradition,  this faith, by telling one of their ancient stories that always warms my heart.

Shuaib received a magnificent horse from his brother as a present.  The next day Shuaib came out of his house, and saw a street urchin walking around the powerful beautiful animal, admiring it.

“Is this your horse sir?” the ragged child asked.

Shuaib nodded and said “Yes, my brother gave it to me.”

The boy was astounded. “You mean your brother gave it to you, and it didn’t cost you nothing?  Boy, I wish….” He hesitated.

Shuaib knew what he was going to wish for.  The street boy was going to wish he had a brother like that. But instead the boy said:

“I wish I could be a brother like that.”

We are touched by acts of selflessness. We are all longing to be lifted out of ourselves. Out of our egos that want more and more, the ego constantly compares ourselves to everything and everyone, and labels things as good or bad, less than, more than. It is exhausting to live racing around in a pool of self-absorption or self-loathing, which is simply the other side of the coin.

We long to be surprised, touched and inspired to higher ideals, authentic relationships, deeper healing.

What Surprised you? What Touched you?

 

 Dr. Remen’s third heart-opening question for us is: What inspired you?

The word inspiration is from the same root word spirit, breath, life.  Inspiration implies that our spirit is alive, breathing, awake.

Inspiration opens us up to the divine life force that is always and everywhere around and within us.

A family took care of a 96-year-old Mom who was dying of weariness and Alzheimer’s, and inability to swallow.  It was a long arduous journey. It was smelly and not fun. They really wanted to be there for her and with her, but they were wearing down.

One day the son came across an article about how Japanese tea bowls are repaired.  The Kintsugi method is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powered gold.

Basically, you fill the cracks and chips with gold.  The bowl is not thrown away, but becomes more beautiful because of the events in its life that occurred as it served us.  The cracks are honored rather than disparaged.

The image of the old bowl, its cracks and fragility honored with gold, inspired him, and reawakened his desire to serve and love in the face of the great challenge of taking care of a dying, non-communicative elder.

What surprised you, what touched you, what Inspired you?

These questions take us to the place of the heart, the place where God is able to speak to us, energize our spirits and motivate us to move forward and create a world that benefits all of God’s creation.

I close with St. Paul’s hopeful words to the Ephesians and to us:

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Ephesians 3:20-21

Surprising, Touching, Inspiring.

That is the good news of the Gospel. And how will you bring those three golden elements to honor and encourage a chipped and cracked world that needs them so much?

The Reverend Rebecca W. Dolch United Methodist Minister Church of the Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York 

Talking About Death

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

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Acts 9:36-43

John 14:1-3

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Testimonials always get my attention.  I love to hear people tell stories about what works for them. Diet testimonials are the best: “How I lost 96 pounds and transformed my life.”

Children give testimonials all the time. A three-year-old said:

“I was really, really scared, and then I put my special blue blanket over my head and now I’m not scared anymore.”

The Tabitha story is a testimonial of the early church telling how Peter resurrected Tabitha from the dead, this devoted woman who helped the poor.

I’m convinced that we can all benefit by becoming more comfortable hearing and telling stories about death. Every single one of us is going to die, and if we live a very long time, we’ll have to deal with the death of most of our friends and family.

In addition to death, we have hundreds of other kinds of losses. Like people moving away, the world falling apart, families falling apart, health and health care falling apart, society and the climate acting crazy and out of control, and everything changing all the time. All losses prepare us for the next loss and the biggest ones, especially if we give testimonials, stories from our own experience about what makes loss bearable, and how we have grown and learned from loss.

Today, I will continue to talk about Tabitha, and I want to share 8 testimonials from Mom’s passing.

 

TESTIMONIAL #1: Death is Normal

Note: our family is far, far from ideal, but Mom and Dad were superstars about talking about death.

Death was kind of like a distant relative we would finally get to meet and when we did, it would be very wonderful.  The Best. Safe, Fun, beautiful.  Quite soon everybody we knew and loved would join us.

As children, we went to the calling hours of our parent’s friends and relatives from the time that we could behave.  I remember mother and Grammy looking at my Great Aunt Lilly in the casket and straightening her dress, and talking about her.

They answered my 7-year-old questions: “Can she hear us?” No, not like we hear people.

“Can I touch her?”  Yes, but her body will be very cold, and her spirit isn’t in it any more—it is with Jesus. Her spirit can visit us in our hearts, when we think about her, but it doesn’t live here any more. It is not scary. Just different. God has it figured out; we don’t have to worry about it.

 

TESTIMONIAL #2: The Bible Speaks

Picture this: I was 12, sitting at my grandmother’s funeral. The preacher got up and read from John 14.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.

Believe in God, Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

At that moment the Word was so profoundly real that I knew it was true in a mysterious kind of way, and I also knew from that day forward that the Bible could speak to you like a close friend, and tell you things you needed to know. When people read stories about what Jesus said, Jesus was talking directly to you.

 

TESTIMONIAL #3: Cremation

I remember the struggle that Mother had years ago, deciding to be cremated instead of buried, because she loved the casket traditions she grew up with.

Daddy reminded her that at one of the churches he served the cemetery had to be dug up and moved. When they excavated, they saw that at the bottom of each grave was a simple layer of earth that had once been a body a hundred+ years before.  Mama said in her southern voice:

“Well, I guess I might as well be cremated and get it over with.”

 

TESTIMONIAL #4: Humor and Sorrow

Mom and Dad were OK about death, knew it would come, and Dad made jokes about it all the time.  When we was really sick, he’d say: ”I made honorable mention in the obituaries this morning.”  When he began to lose mobility he said: “keep moving and they won’t throw dirt on you.”

They made funeral arrangements early on, talked about it, and dealt with death a lot.  They had such a positive feeling about death, but they weren’t naïve. Dad lost two siblings in childhood, Mom lost her mom and dad and six brother and a sister, one of them dying by suicide. They lost their oldest son. Dad always told the story of how a soldier on each side of him died in World War II. They weren’t immunity to tragedy, heartbreak, unfairness, horror.  But still: Death was normal and God is in charge.

 

TESTIMONIAL #5: Saying Goodbye

We were with Mom when they took out the breathing tube they had given her until we could all arrive in North Carolina. Her brain aneurism had made it impossible for her to breath on her own at 85 years old. She lived about 10 minutes and then in one last long exhale, she was gone. He essence vanished and left her sweet old body looking like a beautiful sculpture, not a living being.

Just the night before, I talked with her on the phone.  Her last words were what she always said at the end of a phone call:

Bye bye darlin’ I love you.

I’m telling these stories, because I think it is important to give testimonials about death and dying. Death is normal.

Telling the stories of this precious season called the end stage of earthly life is healing. Sharing our faith and trust in the eternal presence of God is comforting.  And it is important to remember to say something like “bye bye darlin’ I love you,” every time.

 

TESTIMONIAL #6: Memorial Services

As a pastor for 40 years, I have performed hundreds of Memorial services, and I have loved doing them. But going to Mother’s service as a daughter, not the minister was different.

I wasn’t talking about someone else’s death.

I was experiencing my Mama being gone, and her spiritual presence being with me. It wasn’t like the Bible story of Tabitha being raised from the dead when Peter prayed.

But for me it was a small scale subtle experience of resurrection. Mama is gone. And the great mystery is: Mama’s spirit is still here.

We didn’t do anything grandiose at mother’s service. We talked about how great she was with laundry. She never, ever washed socks with dishtowels. She started teaching adult Sunday School at age 80 when she finally got over a fear of public speaking.

Steve, Her former next-door neighbor of 20 years drove 2 hours to the service, came up front, and said:

“Jean knew that my partner and I were gay. She called us “the boys next door.” And she treated us like her boys. She gave us the key to her house in case we ever needed to get in. She was a wonderful neighbor.”

I just want to say that the town where Mom’s memorial service was held a decade ago was not a place where you talk about being gay, certainly not in church. But that is what happened at Mother’s service.

A Memorial service is a chance for God to use us one more time to make an impact on the people in our orbit.

A memorial service is a way of making all of us who are still alive, more aware of the small ordinary things that make a difference:   keeping things and relationships really clean, being neighborly, kindness, making lots of people your family.

So don’t let me hear about any of you saying:

“Oh no, I don’t want anything. No service, nothing at the burial.”  You’d be denying your friends and your family and maybe even some strangers, a chance for the healing of the Holy Spirit. That happens when our hearts are opened by love and grief.

Your memorial service or funeral is not for you.  At your service, the rest of us have a chance to frame the relationship we had with you during life and start to piece together the relationship we have with you when you leave this earthly plane.

It is a time when we start picturing you with the angels–a new picture that needs developing.

 

 TESTIMONY #7: Kindness

 We had the calling hours at Mom and Dad’s house. People showed up with food and flowers and hugs and love and stories. All these people simply sharing kindness in the face of grief.

I started sobbing over the four chocolate meringue pies that showed up, because Mother always made Daddy a chocolate Meringue pie for his birthday. It was a symbol of 65 years of love, and marriage, and seeing it opened my heart, and I connected with the love, and with the loss, and with my Dad.

At the time of death or loss, or grief, people are more willing to be vulnerable, intimate with you if you create some space for that.

In the Bible story we read, that is what the women did for Tabitha. They came to her house to prepare her body, they brought the clothes that she had made for them and showed everyone and talked about her other acts of charity and devotion .

That Bible story in Act 9 give us guidance about how to go through the death of a loved one.  They wept. They helped. They reached out for guidance.

We had calling hours at Mother and Dad’s home. Their neighbor, Mr. A.J. Dexter sat beside me and told stories about growing up as a sharecropper’s son. The sharecroppers were the next to the lowest on the social scale in rural N. C. in the 1940’s.

Sharecroppers were kind of like the women in the Bible that Tabitha served – poor women who didn’t have decent clothes until Tabitha made them and gifted them.

Mr. Dexter shared that his mother made his clothes from feed sacks.  He stuttered so badly that all the kids made fun of him.

I asked Mr. Dexter, how did you get over stuttering?  He answered quietly, with great authenticity, looking me in the eye:

Rebecca, I gave it over to the Lord in prayer.  And the Lord gave me a 10th grade teacher who worked with me every afternoon after school before football practice, until I could talk. It was a miracle, he said, a miracle of prayer and conviction and her kindness.

That is what Peter did in the Bible Story.  He prayed for Tabitha, this woman who has served God by serving the widows who had no resources. The story about Tabitha became a testimonial of how God can do what we think is impossible. Open-hearted testimonials like Mr. Dexter’s and Tabitha’s friends and her healing, open our hearts.

The pay-off of an open heart is the experience of being empowered by kindness, fueled by tears, strengthened by pain, and connected heart to heart with other beings – strangers who tell sweet stories at calling hours, characters in the Bible, and all the people you know. The open heart connects us with the divine mystery that Jesus proclaimed: “Where I am you will be also.”

Here is a summary:

Death is normal, God is in charge, talk about death, use humor, grieve, celebrate life at the time of death, kindness is the greatest gift, and God works in ways that seem impossible. Bear witness to this truth.

 

TESTIMONY #8: Life/Death/Life

My brother died of cancer at age 46. The night he died our whole family was there: his wife and three teenage sons, Mom and Dad, my other brothers and their families, and my own. When he breathed his last, we called in the Chaplain, who was wonderful with children. We talked about important things, and then all piled into one elevator. Just before it closed, one of Kelly’s sons let out the biggest belch ever heard, and everybody started laughing like crazy. Couldn’t stop. It was the type of laugh that released years of tension and sorrow.

A woman was running to catch our elevator, but when she got there and saw these crazy laughing people, she decided to take the next elevator.

We filed into the lobby, laughing, crying, hugging and talking about logistics.  Logistics ground us at a time like this. The elevator opened again, and out came the woman we saw before.  She came over to my Mom and my brother Jim and asked this question: “Has there been a birth?”

They answered at the same time: “Yes, there has been a birth.”

We are born. We walk together. We suffer, laugh, die, and we are given a new birth into what Christian call the resurrection and the life everlasting. God is with us the whole time. Thanks be to God!

And that is the good news of the Gospel.

The Rev. Rebecca W. Dolch, United Methodist Minister Church in Upper New York Conference, Ithaca, New York 

Salt and Light

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-16

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The point of salt is to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

The point of light is to shine. We are the light of the world.

The point of life is to love. We are alive.

 

I.[1]

Jane was a traveler, and as happens to travelers from time to time, one day she found herself in a new city—the City of Everywhere.  Perhaps you’ve been there.

Jane had not, but being a city girl at heart, having grown up in the land of the bean and the cod, she was open to the experience.

After all, the City of Everywhere was beautiful; the streets were clean, the architecture was appealing, and the people were so friendly.  There was just one thing, one tiny detail that, as Jane walked down the street, she thought was a little strange.

You see, no one, not a single person that she passed was wearing shoes.

Strange, Jane thought, as she ducked into a coffee shop.

As she was waiting for her iced latte, looking around at all the shoeless people, her curiosity finally got the better of her and she said to the manager, “Excuse me, manager.  I’m new to your city.  What a wonderful place, the streets are so clean, the architecture so appealing, the people so friendly.  I just have one quick question.  Tell me, why doesn’t anyone wear shoes?”

The manager gave her a knowing smile and offered in a thoughtful voice, “Ah, that’s the question, why don’t we?”

“Right.” Said Jane, “That’s what I’m asking, why don’t you wear any shoes? Don’t you all believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes?!” said the manager, “Of course, we believe in shoes, that’s the first article of our creed—shoe wearing. Oh, think of the suffering shoes prevent; think of the sores, the splinters, the stubs avoided by those wonders of wonders—shoes.”

Jane, a little freaked out, smiled and nodded her head and quietly left the coffee shop. (With her iced latte of course.) As she walked down the street, she was in such a state of consternation that she almost missed the beautiful stone building in front of her.

It had a spire that reached to the sky and colorful glass windows with pictures in them. As she was staring at it, an old man said to her, “Beautiful isn’t it?”  “Yes,” said Jane, “What is it?”

“This?” said the man pointing to the beautiful building, “Ah, this is our pride and joy. This is our shoe manufacturing establishment.”

Surprised, Jane responded, “You mean you make shoes there?”

“No, no, no,” laughed the man, “don’t be silly. No, this is where we talk about making shoes.  We have a staff of people we pay to speak to us each week about shoe wearing.  We broadcast the message live on the radio for thousands to hear and there are moments when the speakers are so persuasive about shoe-wearing that people weep and commit to wearing shoes in the week ahead.”

Sneaking a peak at his feet, Jane asked the man, “You go here?”

“Every week!” said the man, “and even when I miss I tune in on the radio or listen to the podcast or read the blogpost later in the week.”

“Well, why don’t you wear shoes, then?”  said Jane.

The man, looking her in the eye, nodded with a knowing smile, “Ahhh, that’s the question, why don’t I?”

Just then, over the man’s shoulder, Jane noticed a small cobbler’s shop across the street.  She excused herself to the older man and crossed the street into the shop. Though the sign said “open,” there was not a single customer there. Interrupting the cobbler as he was putting the finishing touches on a beautiful pair of shoes.  Jane asked the cobbler, “Why is your shop empty?”

The cobbler responded, “As you can see, I have plenty of shoes, but people around here just want to talk about shoes. No one actually wears them.”

Then Jane had an idea. Surprising the cobbler, Jane bought as many pairs as she could carry and ran across the street to the man she had just left and said to him, “Sir, good news, I have shoes for you.  They are different shapes and sizes, but surely there is a pair that fits you?  Isn’t there?”

The man, looked down at the shoes and then up at Jane, then back down at the shoes and back up at Jane and his faced turned a little crimson, “Thank you miss, that’s very kind, but you see, it’s just not done.”

Said an exasperated Jane, “Why don’t you wear shoes?”

Said the man, “That’s the question, Why don’t we?”

And as Jane traveled back from The City of Everywhere to here, that question resonated in her mind, “Why don’t we, why don’t we, why don’t we?”

 

II.

Jesus was standing on a hill giving the sermon of his life before he gave his life as the sermon.

He began poetically, perhaps you’ve heard it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,” and so on and so forth.

And then, according to Matthew, he got to the meat of the sermon…or at least the seasoning.

Looking at the disciples, he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Now if we’re honest, that’s sort of a weird thing to say, but setting the strangeness aside for a moment, we should recognize what he was doing.

He was pausing in the middle of the sermon at the beginning of his ministry, to remind the people gathered around him of who they were, of why they were important.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

To be clear, he was not speaking literally, he was speaking theologically.

He was saying to the disciples and in turn to us that we are people of worth.  By virtue of our very being we have worth.

Not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And sometimes, as we know, we could use the reminder.

After all, we live in a world that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed tries to convince us that we are not enough. That who we are is not enough. That our worth comes from how we look or who we know or who knows us.

But friends, it’s not true.

We are more than our tweets, more than our Facebook or Instagram likes. We are more than the way the world perceives us, more than our jobs, our grades, our bodies.

We are the salt of the earth.  In other words, we matter not because of the things we do, but because of who we are.

And for those who may have forgotten between last week and this one, let me say it again, you are as I am a child of God.

But accepting that, friends, is only the first step.  We also have to live like it matters.

Jesus continues, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste (its saltiness) how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In other words, friends, the point, the entire point of salt is to be salty.

We know from our own experience that when we lose our proverbial saltiness, when we forget who we are in the eyes of God, when we try and find our worth in those fleeting things of life, money, sex, accomplishment, it can feel like the world is walking all over us.

The good news is that even then, we have worth.

You see, not only was salt an important preservative of the ancient world and a form of currency, (hence something not being worth its salt), it was also frequently used as a leveling agent for the most common fuel for outdoor fires of the time: manure.

That’s right: manure.  Salt helped manure patties to burn longer, hotter, and more evenly, and then, when they were done, the solid charred remains were used on roads to help absorb mud.

In other words, they were literally trampled upon…and still had worth.

And while that doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, think for a moment about what it would mean for us to be leveling agents for the world.  What would it mean if we took seriously the call not only to preserve the message that Jesus was sharing—to not only talk about loving—but to be the agents who helped spread that message evenly. To all. To spread it in such a way that long after we are gone, the love we shared made the path a little easier for those who come after us.

Or said another way, friends, what would it mean if we wore the shoes we talked so much about?

Let’s be honest, Christians haven’t always done this well…if at all.

When was the last time Christians made the news for their love? Think of the last year alone and all of the fear of refugees, of immigrants, of our Muslim brothers and sisters.  What has been the Christian voice?

The entirety of the Christian faith is predicated on the notion that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst—to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not a part of our faith, it is our faith.   And yet, when our voice is needed, we’ve been silent at best, and complicit at worst.

Friends, salt is meant to be salty.  We are the salt of the earth.

But just in case the salt metaphor is not working, Matthew has Jesus switch to a new one…light, though the point is the same.  He says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that it may give light to all in the house.” In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.
Do you hear?  Let your light shine before others.

The point of light is to shine.

So, in case we’ve missed it, here’s the point—we are not people who get together to just talk about light, we are people who shine it. We are not people who talk about shoes, we wear them.  Or, to drop the metaphors for a moment, we don’t just talk about life, we live it…and the only way to do that is through love.

I give you a new command, love one another.

Sometimes we can get really cynical about this whole faith thing. We look at it and shake our heads and think, this is all a bunch of manure.  And most of the time, we’re right.

The truth is, our faith is only as good as the people willing to live like it matters.

We have spent too long convincing ourselves that our faith is about what happens when we die.  But the opposite is true…it’s about what happens when we live, not at death, but right now.

And the only way to life is through love.

Friends, what is it in your life that is worth dying for?  Isn’t it worth living for as well?
As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

And if changing the world seems too hard, let’s start with the part we have some control over—ourselves…our interactions with each another.  If we can make those relationships a little more loving, if we can practice forgiveness and grace and compassion in those, if we can make a little kingdom of heaven here, then there just might be hope for The Cities of Everywhere.

And if there comes a time in our travels through life when we look in the mirror and discover that we don’t love as we should, then we owe it to ourselves to ask the hard question: Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?  Why don’t we?

-The Reverend Doctor Stephen M Cady II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This allegory is based on “The City of Everywhere” by Hugh Price Hughes which I first discovered in the writings of Howard Thurman.

Among You (Us)

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Romans 7:15-25a

Luke 17:20-21

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The kingdom of God is among us.

Many years ago, there was a man who worked in a pottery factory—a large man, a quiet man… Let’s call him Joe.[1]

Like so many of us, every day, Joe came to work, kept his head down, did his job to the best of his ability and then went home.

Now, as happens in most factories, there was always something extraneous to the process that was left over at the end of the day; nothing much: a piece of glass, a bit of ribbon, a shard of broken pottery—you know, trash—the result of human error along the production line.

Most of those items would be discarded, thrown away, sent to a landfill somewhere never to be seen again, but not all of them.

You see, before he left for the day, much to the bemusement of his coworkers, Joe went around silently sifting through those extraneous pieces, those scraps of the industrial process, the things that everyone else had thrown away. He would search until he found at least a couple of items to add to what most considered a pile of junk now occupying a rather comical portion of his locker.

But the snickers from his coworkers didn’t stop Joe.

No, every day, either staying late or coming in early, Joe found some time to do something with that junk. Every day Joe E Everydaworked with those scraps to make something new, not always large or complex or artful, but new so that he always had something colorful or unique to bring home.

You see, Joe had a son at home whom he knew from his birth would never leave his bed.  His “wee lad,” as he called him, spent each day in his small bed in his small room in a small house.  And large Joe, though he couldn’t always find ways to express it with words, loved his “wee lad” more than anything in this broken world.  And though it meant a little extra time at work, he brought something home every day that he knew, if only for a moment, would make his son’s face light up.

Every day he pulled together scraps that others had discarded in the name of love.

The kingdom of God is among us.

Once, according to Luke, some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming. We don’t have much context for the question in Luke’s Gospel, we’re just told that once—that is, at some point—they asked it.

And if we’re honest, we get it.  After all, it’s a question we’ve asked from time to time as well.  If not always in those words.

Perhaps some of us have done so this week. As we look around at the political mess we find ourselves in, as we get increasingly terrifying news alerts on our phones, as we witness the saber rattling our leaders, as we learn of the ice caps breaking apart, of meetings with Russian lawyers, of health care without the care, of nobel peace prize winning dissidents dying in prison, it might be only natural to pause and ask ourselves…is this the end? Is the kingdom of God finally upon us?

The Pharisees had similar question.  They were concerned with timing.  Who knows? Maybe they wanted to get invitations out in time for the party.  More likely, they wanted to prepare themselves for the end; for that time when God would come in final victory and their hard work would be rewarded.

Now to be fair, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, also seemed to believe that the Kingdom of God was imminent; as each of those gospel writers said in their own way, they believed that not a generation would pass before the Kingdom would be upon them; hopeful words for those first century Christians to whom they writing.

Those early Christians must have heard these gospels and taken comfort that the kingdom of God was right around the corner, that the uncertainty and alienation and exclusion of their present age would soon pass…that they needed only to bide their time.

But, as we know, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, was wrong.   John, writing at least a generation later, had to deal with their misunderstanding in his gospel, but friends, no matter how we dice it, the kingdom of God didn’t come about within a generation. Nor, as it turns out, in the hundreds of generations since.  The truth is, we’re still waiting for that uncertainty and alienation and exclusion to pass.

In other words, the gospel writers were wrong.

Now, on the one hand, it’s comforting to know that even the gospel writers could be wrong every once in a while…after all, we know the feeling.  On the other, though, it’s a little disconcerting.

Here, they had been waiting for something to happen, longing for something to happen, promised that something would happen, and then, it didn’t.

And now we, nearly 2000 years later, are left to ask, “Why?”  Another question with which we have more than a passing familiarity. Why?

Fortunately, we get by with a little help from our friends.

In our case today, we receive some help from the Gospel of Luke itself; from a quirky little passage that speaks about the Kingdom of God in such a different way than the rest of the gospel that its authenticity to Luke has been questioned.

You see in our passage today, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming he surprises them by saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is,” or “there is it!” for, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Do you hear? Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” or as might better be translated, “within you.”  The Kingdom of God is among us.

That changes some things, doesn’t it?  At the very least, it shifts our attention from the sky to the mirror.  Not that that makes it easier, it doesn’t, but it does make sense.  It makes sense to us that the Kingdom of God is not something that happens to us, but rather something that we take part in.  It’s not passive, but active.

Friends, the Kingdom of God is not some apocalyptic vision about the end of the world, but rather a hope for a world in which we all finally and fully live as God commands.

And fortunately, we know the gospel writers didn’t get that part wrong.  We have the rest of Scripture and our own experience to affirm it: in the end, we know how we are called to live.  We know that as a people of faith we are really only called to do two things: to love God and to love our neighbor.  Or said more succinctly we are called to love. Full stop.

“I give you a new command, that you love one another.”

For some of us, that means staying a little late at the factory.

For some of us, it means letting go of a broken relationship, or workplace, or heart.

For some of us, it means changing the way we spend our time or money or life.

The truth is, we don’t love in the abstract, we love in the concrete.  Human to human, person to person, heart to heart.

Friends, the kingdom of God is among us and is revealed one relationship at a time.

The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out on our own.  That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’ve tuned in this morning, isn’t it?   To get a little help from our friends?

The purpose of the church universal is to help one another find better and fuller ways to love.  And though we’ve made it more complicated and at times missed the point entirely, that’s really the only purpose we have.

Friends, we are called to keep reminding each other that each person we encounter is someone of worth, a child of the same God.

All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor, broken and whole.  All of us are God’s children, which among other things means that we have an awfully big family to care for.

It means we have an awfully strange family to care for.

It means that we collect the scraps that everyone else thinks of as trash.

But we don’t do it alone.  And as we know from hard experience, we can do an awful lot if we know we don’t have to do it alone.

As Howard Thurman said, we have each, by the grace of God, been given a crown to grow into…a crown which we did nothing to earn and, thank God, can do nothing to take away. A crown of grace which means that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the kingdom of God is within us.

Friends, Luke believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. He believed that it would not be long before the barriers that we use to divide ourselves, the walls that we build would finally and fully be taken down.  After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor through a wall.

Perhaps he was more optimistic than he should have been, but the good news, friends, is that the Kingdom of God is just as close today as it was when Luke was writing.

The kingdom of God is not a place.  It’s our hope for a world in which we each recognize the crown we have been given and then help others to do the same.

Do you hear? The kingdom of God is among us.

And sometimes it only takes one act of love to change this broken world.

Nobody quite knows how Joe’s co-workers found out about his “wee lad,”—no one ever spoke about it.

Nevertheless, one by one, the other pottery workers began to collect scraps of their own.  And soon, a couple times a week, Joe would return to his locker to find a little cup with wheels or a painted piece of scrap, or an engraving in wood, and he understood.

Over the next few months, the culture of the factory began to change.  The workers were said to grow quiet, becoming gentle and kind, swearing less frequently, even if not altogether.  Then, at some point they noticed the increasingly weary look on Joe’s face and knew that the inevitable shadow was drawing nearer.

They began to do a piece for him every day and put it on a sanded plank to dry so that he could come in later or go home earlier.

And so it was that when the funeral bell tolled and that small boy finally left that small house in a small procession, there stood a hundred stalwart workers from the pottery with clean clothes on, having taken the day off for the privilege of walking alongside Joe and the “wee lad” that not one had ever seen in life.

Do you see? They couldn’t take away Joe’s pain—that’s a part of love.  But in the end, they could remind him that he was not alone.

Friends, neither are we.

The kingdom of God is among us…let’s not leave each other waiting.

-The Rev. Dr. Stephen M. Cady II, Senior Minister from Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.


[1] This is my adaptation of a story found in Howard Thurman’s The Growing Edge.