Posted in Sermons

Sermons preached by Pastor Hannah and guest speakers at West Concord Union Church.

Taking on Discipleship

  • May 14, 2019
Image from the Roman catacombs

John 21:1-19

In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus just keeps showing up.

First, Jesus shows up for Mary Magdalene – the first receiver of the good news of the resurrection. Jesus calls Mary by name and tells her: do not hold on to me. Go, tell everyone: I am rising. 

Next, Jesus shows up for ten of the disciples, making his way through a locked door. Jesus shows the disciples his wounds, and says: Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.

A week later, Jesus is back with the disciples in the locked room again. This time, Thomas is there to see and touch him. And Jesus talks to the disciples all about all the folks who are going to come to believe in him, without having seen him.

Finally, in today’s text, Jesus shows up catching fish and serving breakfast. Three times, Jesus asks Simon Peter: do you love me? When Simon Peter says yes, Jesus replies: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

What is Jesus up to, in these post-resurrection visits? Why does he keep showing up? What is he hoping to achieve?

Of all these stories, Jesus’ visit to Mary Magdalene is the shortest and most straightforward. He offers her comfort, and then says: Go, tell everyone: I am rising. And she does. Mary Magdalene goes right away to tell the disciples this news, and then begins to tell lots of other folks. Many sources tell us that Mary Magdalene was not only the first evangelist, but one of the greatest, travelling far and wide to speak to the humble and the great about Jesus.

Jesus’ visits to the disciples, however, don’t seem quite as productive. During his first visit, Jesus says: as God has sent me, so I send you. But the disciples apparently refuse to be sent. A week later, he finds them still in that same locked room.  During this second visit, Jesus talks about all the people who will come to trust in him without ever seeing his wounds. But the disciples aren’t eager to take the hint and go out evangelizing. When Jesus appears for the third time, they’ve gone back to their old profession: fishing. 

So, in this morning’s story, Jesus pulls out all the stops. This carpenter from a landlocked city gets the attention of his disciples by giving them unbelievable fishing advice. They catch so many fish they cannot haul them all in.  Jesus reveals himself as a skilled chef and host, preparing the disciples an amazing breakfast, timed perfectly for their arrival on the beach. Finally, Jesus turns his focus on Simon Peter, perhaps his most enthusiastic follower. This time around, Jesus tries to make himself perfectly clear. Three times, Jesus asks: Do you love me? Three times, Jesus says: If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Peter, Jesus says: put down your net, and go out and start taking care of my people.

The post-resurrection Jesus, it turns out, is quite similar to the pre-resurrection Jesus. Jesus shows up among the people. Jesus shows up with love. And Jesus shows up with an invitation: go out and do something with what you receive from me! Spread the good news about God’s love. Respond to God’s love, by loving one another.  

Somehow, it’s not immediately obvious to the disciples that they’re supposed to do something after the rising of Jesus. This season of Easter is a long, awkward transition for them between following the living Jesus, and getting their act together to begin the church. It may seem clear to us, now, that the disciples were supposed to do something with all they learned from Jesus, and with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But most of us struggle with the same things that they did.

How do we trust and love God deeply enough to do something about it? And what, exactly, are we supposed to be doing? How do we share the good news? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How are we personally called to do it today, if we can find the courage to try?

Jesus shows up from beyond the grave to give advice on this in our scriptures.  And this week, two more of Jesus’ followers passed into the realm of the saints who have an awful lot to offer us as well: wisdom about how to follow Jesus here and now. 

One of them is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans. She was just 37; let’s pray for her family, especially her spouse, Dan, and her two young children. Rachel grew up in an evangelical Christian church. She loved and challenged her tradition, and finally left it to join an Episcopal church. All along the way shared her wisdom, mostly in writing. She leaves behind her several books that we can read. Rachel tells us: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the spirit works. The future’s on the margins.” Rachel tells us, “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead, God wanted to use gay people to teach me how to be a Christian.”

The other leader on my heart who died this past week is Jean Vanier, a theologian and philosopher who founded L’Arche. L’Arche is an international network of residences for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Thanks to Melissa, we’ve built a local relationship with a L’Arche community; we’ve invited them to some of our Sunday Fellowship dances. I’m grateful that Jean got to live a good long life. Jean tells us: “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” Jean tells us, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”

There are so many voices, ancient and new, which have guidance for us about how to go about this mysterious work of discipleship. We are not alone in our discernment. And within this organization of West Concord Union Church, we have another resource to listen to.  

Twenty years ago, in a very different time, but with a few of the same people, this church affirmed an Open and Affirming covenant, expressing our desire to fully welcome a whole variety of people. This covenant includes people of all genders and sexual orientations, which is what the designation “Open and Affirming” is known for within our denomination.  That was controversial enough, at that time. It was a difficult process for this church. And – the statement doesn’t stop there. More than fifteen years before the statement was written, this church had begun explicitly welcoming folks of all abilities, so that is in the statement, too. Also included: age, race, socio-economic status, family configuration, and ethnicity. 

Our Open and Affirming Covenant sets lofty goals. It also expresses the necessity for learning and growth to reach them: and we’re still not there, 20 years later.  We’re still working on becoming more Christ-like in our love for one another. But this is no surprise. The work of love, the work of discipleship, is work we do day by day, imperfectly, and beautifully. The trick is to remember our intention, and to try again.

Let us rededicate ourselves to this covenant, and to the daily work of discipleship, by affirming these words now together. I invite you to rise, in body and spirit.  Take a deep breath, really let these words enter your heart.

Our Open and Affirming Covenant (May 2, 1999)

We, the members of the West Concord Union Church, are called to love one another as God loves us, freely and unconditionally. We further believe that diversity enriches our faith community.

Therefore, we welcome persons of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ethnicity and physical or mental ability into full membership and participation in the body of Christ. We celebrate family in all its diverse forms and honor, support, and bless all loving and committed relationships. As we are one in Christ, we are called to accept and respect one another in the face of our differences. We agree that continued dialogue is necessary as we each grow in learning and understanding.

We commit ourselves to work diligently to end all oppression and discrimination which afflicts God’s people in our society. We seek to explore new ways of affirming our faith in community according to the wisdom of the Gospel. We strive, as individuals, to become more Christ-like in our love for one another.

Amen.

Mother Tree

Luke 24:1-12

The women get up before dawn on that Sunday morning to carry spices to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. Their eyes are swollen. Their step sare slow. Their hearts are heavy.  For Jesus, their friend, so full of holy grace, was tragically killed.  But they get up anyway. His body must be tended to.

The women get up before dawn to carry on, but their grief is interrupted. When they arrive at the tomb, they see that the stone is rolled away. When they go into the tomb, they find it empty. Then two strange, dazzling figures appear, asking: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here, but has risen.”

What does this mean: Jesus has risen?  All kinds of wise people have wondered about this. Did Jesus’ body really rise? If so, was he some kind of zombie?  Was it simply Jesus’ spirit that rose? If so, was he some kind of ghost? Is Jesus’ rising a metaphor, or a miracle? Or is it, possibly, a terrible hoax?

If you have questions about the rising of Jesus: fantastic. Wondering over our sacred stories and interrogating God herself is good and holy work. Asking and doubting will only bring us deeper, and God can take it. I hope you have lots of questions about the rising of Jesus, and let me suggest one in particular: what does it mean? What does this rising that is at the center of our Christian story tell us about God?

It’s a big question. Maybe it will help if we shift for a moment away from Jesus, and talk about plants instead. We’ve been talking a lot about plants this season. We’ve been nurturing our spirits as if they were thirsty seedlings. We’ve been rooting actual plant cuttings in water. On Thursday some among us planted our cuttings in soil, and helped to make the flower gardens of paper and fabric that are all around us.

Plants have a lot to teach us about dying and rising. At this time of year in New England, we can see new life poking up out of the ground everywhere. But the story I want to share today has to do, not with that kind of plant, but with trees.  

At the University of British Columbia there is a Professor of Forest Ecology named Suzanne Simard. After growing up in a family of loggers, and going to forestry school, Dr. Simard became fascinated with what happens in forests, underground. So, she devised a series of experiments to try to find out if trees were somehow connected beneath our feet.  Lots of people thought this idea was ridiculous.

But Dr. Simard did her research, and as it turns out, trees are connected. Not just parent trees and their children; not just trees of the same species; all kinds of different trees. All kinds of different trees are connected, and not just to one or two other trees. One tree might be connected underground to 47 other trees.

These underground tree connections aren’t composed of roots. Instead, they’re made of mycelium: fungal tubes that infiltrate the soil and the roots. The mycelium network allows trees to pass things to each other. Trees share water. Trees share minerals. Trees share hormones. Resources and information pass from tree to tree to tree to tree, back and forth, around and around.

Trees share with each other. They form communities and support each other. And each community is anchored by a few individuals who are particularly well connected. These are called “hub trees” or, more affectionately, “mother trees.”

And here’s the thing that completely blows my mind. When trees near the end of their life, they change the way that they share.  But instead of becoming more isolated, separating themselves; or more dependent, relying on others; they become more generous. Sensing that they will not survive, these trees send their resources out to strengthen the trees around them. While they are dying, they give others life.

Imagine Jesus as a Mother Tree. In his 33 short years, he has become connected to so many people. His disciples, his followers, everyone who he heals, everyone who is changed by his words.  Jesus is a Mother Tree, deeply and widely connected.

Jesus is a Mother Tree, and his life is about to end. And his reaction to this is to give of himself even more generously than he has before. Jesus passes on teachings: “love one another.” Jesus passes on practices: the sharing of bread and cup.  Jesus passes on forgiveness, even to the people who condemn and torture him. Jesus passes on promises. Jesus shares so much that the tragedy of his death becomes more than simply a tragedy.  

Jesus rises: his body, his spirit, and his love. Jesus rises within the lives of the people around him. They are so filled up with the love they receive from him that many of them become Mother Trees themselves: reaching out deep and wide. It starts with Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James spreading the good news; and then Peter joins in; and then everyone else who eventually learns to trust the women. They spread the word about Jesus, who he is, what he teaches, and that he is still with us. Jesus is risen, they say, Jesus is rising. The good news passes on from person to person to person to person, across centuries and continents, until it reaches all the people who brought us here, this morning.

The women rise that morning in grief. We, too, have much to grieve. And we also have the good news of Jesus’ rising, and the electric connection of love that still tingles in the air, more than two thousand years later: a surge that swells in our hearts, a gift from the great network of givers of good news.

Through the grace and power of God, no life is simply extinguished, forgotten, discarded. No tragedy is left untouched by grace.  Instead, there is life even in the midst of death; hope even in the midst of despair; love, stronger and more persistent than the grave.  We are some of the very great many who have the privilege of receiving this good news, and we have the opportunity also to pass it on. I hope you will.

Palm Sunday Introduction

  • April 16, 2019

This day begins with celebration. After years of teaching and healing, of gathering up disciples and traveling around the region, Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem. His followers and the crowds in Jerusalem are filled with joy and anticipation, praising God.

Why are these folks celebrating? What do they anticipate? Perhaps they expect that Jesus will transform the religious institutions of Jerusalem, becoming the new high priest, bringing new energy and inspiration to the faith. Perhaps they expect that Jesus will overthrow Roman rule and become the new King of the Jews, bringing justice to the poor and the oppressed. Such an amazing, spirit-filled leader as Jesus must be destined for some kind of greatness, once he enters into a place of power.

But, as we know, this is not what happens. Just like always, Jesus surprises us. Jesus knows that bringing his witness of the truth of God up against the powers that be isn’t likely to result in any kind of human victory.  Authority resists challenge and change. Supremacy pushes back against revolution, whether spiritual or political. During Holy Week, we watch as person after person, system after system, fails to affirm or protect Jesus.

We may wish that our faith was centered around a different kind of story. A story in which God wins, without any tragedy along the way. But listen for the beauty in this story, the power in this story.  Because if love survived evil back then, it could survive evil now.  If God was with the humble and the broken then, perhaps she is with us, with them, even now. This is a story of great promise exactly because it deals with the most difficult and painful aspects of human life.

So let us listen now, to pieces of this sacred story as it is told in the Gospel of Luke. Instead of triumph, we will hear about controversy, conflict, uncertainty, betrayal, injustice, execution, and grief. Breathe deep, and enter in; there is yet good news, before this story ends.

Having it All

Genesis 37-47

Joseph has it all. He’s part of a big family, with plenty of siblings to play with: eleven brothers and one sometimes ignored sister.  Joseph’s family is prosperous, he has plenty to eat, and plenty of everything else he needs. Joseph is also rich in love. He’s precious to his mother, Rachel, and he’s his father Jacob’s favorite child. As a sign of his favor, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat, a special robe.

How do Joseph’s siblings feel, when they notice how Jacob favors him, and when they see his special robe?  Has anyone here ever been jealous of your siblings, or your friends? What were you jealous of?

Jacob’s siblings are jealous. They are jealous, because for all they have, they can see that Joseph is getting just a little bit more: a little more love, a little more favor, a little finer clothing. Now you could say that Joseph is innocent in all this. It’s not his fault that he’s been given so much. But eventually, Joseph does do something to make the situation worse.

You see, Joseph has these dreams. Vivid dreams. Dreams of sheaves of grain. Dreams of a sun, and moon, and stars in the sky. And all his dreams mean one thing: that his whole family is bowing down to him.  Now, we can’t help what we dream. But we can decide what we’re going to say about it. And Joseph seems to delight in telling his family about his dreams. One day, he tells them, you will be bowing down to me.

No one likes to hear about Joseph’s dreams. Not even Jacob.  And Joseph’s brothers are so angry, they decide to throw him into a pit, and then sell him to some travelers who are passing by.

That could have been the end of the story. Joseph could have been divided from his family forever, because of that one mistake he made, boasting about his dreams; because of that one mistake his brothers made, trying to get rid of him. That could have been the end of the story. But God has something else in mind. God has an amazing way of bringing something good out of something bad.  God has a special gift for drawing something beautiful out of something painful. 

The story doesn’t end there. Many years later, there is a terrible drought, and Joseph’s family does not have enough to eat. So some of Joseph’s brothers travel to a place where they have heard there is still grain. Where do they go? Down to Egypt.

We didn’t hear the whole story this morning. That’s because the story of Joseph is more than ten chapters long – you can read more of it at home. We didn’t hear all the things that happened to Joseph in Egypt before his brothers came to see him.  We didn’t hear all the tricks that Joseph plays on his brothers before they find out who he is. Joseph’s still a little angry about that time when they threw him in a pit, and sold him to strangers.

But in the end, Joseph relents. He tells his brothers who he is. He tells them not to worry about the things they did to him before. He gives his family the grain they need. And then, he tells them that the whole family can come and live in Egypt with him. They’ll have plenty to eat, as the drought continues. When the family arrives, Joseph kisses his brothers, and weeps on them, and welcomes them.

Something changes in Joseph during this story. At the beginning, he seems to really treasure his gifts, and how special they make him feel. He looks forward to getting even more, and being more powerful than anyone else in his family.  Joseph makes sure that everyone knows just how extraordinary he is. At the end of the story, Joseph sees all that he has, and he decides to share it. He realizes that taking care of the people he loves, and being close to them, is more important than anything else.

Sometimes we have a lot of something, whether it’s love, favor, money, special gadgets, social status, a special striped robe. When we have a lot of something, we have an important choice to make. We can try to make ourselves safe and special, by keeping what we have all to ourselves, and protecting ourselves from other people who might want or need it. Or, we can decide to be close to other people, sharing what we have, seeing what all that bounty can do in community.

Deciding whether to hoard, or whether to share – that’s a choice we have to make it over and over and over again. It can be really hard sometimes, to decide to share. Here’s the good news. No matter who we are, what we own, what we keep, or what we share, we always have a lot of one thing: the love of God. We are all God’s children, and God has so much love, and favor, that she gives all of us more than we could possibly need. Imagine that each person in this room, and everyone we ever meet, is travelling through life with the most fabulous coat imaginable, because we are a beloved child of God.

Being rich in love, opening our hearts to that gift, can make it easier to share everything else.  And the love itself begs to be shared: to flow through us, and connect us to one another.

One More Year

Psalm 32, Luke 13:1-9

Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. Through speech and story he is tackling tough topics: worry, money, conflict, responsibility. Then someone interrupts Jesus’ sermon to bring the crowd the latest breaking news: the Roman Governor, Pilate, has massacred Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. 

You can imagine how the crowd reacted. All the shock, and the grief. All the many murmured conversations.  All the questions: Why this? Why now? Why them? Why?

Then Jesus breaks in.  You may be wondering why, Jesus says; let me tell you what’s not the reason. Tragedy and accident are not a punishment for individual sin. The people who died are no worse than any of us. In fact, all of us need forgiveness.

Then Jesus tells a parable. Someone plants a fig tree in their vineyard. But the fig tree does not produce figs; and this person is enraged. “See here!” they shout at the gardener. “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

In the face of this tirade, the gardener replies graciously. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

When terrible things happen, like the massacre of the Galilean pilgrims, it’s natural to ask why. Sometimes there are clear answers. More often, there aren’t.  In the absence of clear answers, and even sometimes in their presence, we often settle on this answer: It must be their own fault. It must be, somehow, the fault of the victims. 

How could it be the fault of the victims? What could they have done to deserve their fate? Don’t worry – we’ll find something. Our human minds are endlessly inventive in finding flaws in other people.  We judge one another based on how we look, and how we talk. We judge one another for being too rich, or not rich enough. We judge one another for being too powerful, or not powerful enough to be independent. We judge one another for making different choices, and for simply being different, than we are. Out of fear and insecurity, we judge all the time.

Imagine Jesus standing in front of this crowd of folks who have just heard about a tragedy. Desperate to make sense of things, they try to imagine what grievous sins these other folks might have committed to earn them a death sentence. But Jesus has no interest in helping the crowd along this path of judging others. Instead, he turns their attention to their own behavior.  Think a little less about everyone else’s sins, he says, and a little more about your own.  Remove the log from your own eye, before worrying about the log in anyone else’s. Remember you live in a glass house, before you throw stones.

It’s good advice. We can’t possibly truly know anyone else’s sins. We definitely can’t fix them. It’s more fruitful to examine ourselves, to work on ourselves. Unfortunately, when we turn our attention towards ourselves, we don’t always make much spiritual progress either. We judge ourselves on things that aren’t so important, like how we look, or how much money we have.  We mull over negative messages we received long ago.  We dwell on some deep and surely fatal flaw that we imagine is unique to us and must be hidden from everyone else at all costs. We get stuck reliving the things we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to judging, we’re at least as brutal towards ourselves as we are towards others.

A lot of us don’t really appreciate it when scripture encourages us to repent. We imagine that God, or the church, or the pastor, is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and trying to make us feel bad about it. This feels counterproductive, because most of us are quite skilled at feeling bad about ourselves already. No need to revisit that. No need to amplify it.

But Jesus’ call to repentance is not an exercise in harsh self-criticism, guilt, or shame. It’s  an invitation to be freed. What is making you miserable, Jesus asks? What is separating you from love?  What lies have you learned to believe? What habits are harming you? There’s no need to keep carrying that burden, Jesus says. Consider laying it down on my lap, and allowing our good Gardener to help you find another way. 

Vincent Van Gogh, In the Orchard

Imagine, Jesus says, that your soul is a fig tree. It’s in a beautiful vineyard, being looked over by a competent gardener. Still, it has not born fruit on the schedule that you expected. Enraged, you decide to give up the project of cultivating figs, or caring for your spirit, altogether.  “Cut it down!” you demand, rudely. But God, the gardener, resists your tantrum.  Give me more time, God says.  At least one more year. Let me lay down some more nutrients. Let’s see what could happen, with a little more love.

Let’s take just a moment to try to welcome God’s grace and care into our hearts. I invite you, as you are moved, to settle your body into a comfortable position; to close or lower your eyes; to gently rest a hand or two on yourself, on your heart, on your stomach, on your lap. Just breathe.

God, help us not worry too much about other people, whether they’re doing it exactly right, we can leave that up to them.

God, help us not to worry too much about ourselves, whether we’re doing it exactly right. We’ll never do it exactly right, and the things we’re so worried about messing up may not be the most important things anyway.

Help us to breathe in, and breathe out, in this moment, in these bodies, in this life that is a gift from you.

Give us courage to notice, with honesty and kindness, what is harming us most, what is holding us back, what is making it harder to love ourselves and to love other people and to love you.

Help us to let go of any lies we have believed. Help us to let go of any guilt or anger that is weighing us down.

Guide us towards trust in you: Your skill in enriching the soil, Your faithfulness in returning, year after year, to give us another year to flourish, even when we haven’t made much progress.

In good time, may our souls grow, and bloom, and bear good fruit: sweet to the taste. Amen.

Unsatisfied

Desert’s Hand by Mario Irarrazabal

Isaiah 55:1-9

Most of you know I have two small children. As a parent, I have found it’s important to set expectations, create good habits, and make common sense rules. Many of you have parented, or taught, or taken care of small children. Consider what rules you have set for them. Perhaps these include guidelines about sleep, eating, screen time, exercise, time outdoors, kind behavior, or how to save and use money.

We all have ideas about how to create a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life, and we try to cultivate that kind of life for people who are in our care. Unfortunately, I have found that having great parenting ideals is not enough to make everything go smoothly. When I’m actually with my children, somehow instead of focusing on the really important stuff, I find myself spending a lot of time saying things like: “we can’t eat until you put your clothes back on,” or “please just go to your room until you can stop crying.” 

Even more alarming than the contrast between parenting ideals and parenting reality, however, is the contrast between the rules I set for my children and the things I decide to do for myself. After limiting their sugar and their screen time, and sending them to bed at a reasonable time, I find myself up hours later, after consuming significant amounts of cookie dough, binge-watching a TV show, and impulse-buying things I definitely don’t need on the internet.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to this disconnect between what we truly need, and what we often choose instead. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… listen, so that you may live.”

Isaiah was speaking to a people Israel who were just at the end of their exile in Babylon, or who had just returned from it. These are people both physically and spiritually hungry, and the prophet speaks to both hungers.  Pay attention to your deepest needs, the prophet encourages: seek good physical and spiritual nutrition. Be good stewards of your time, your resources, yourselves.  

What the prophet Isaiah describes sounds a little bit like what we might today call self-care. When we are worn out by work, by life, we are told: take care of yourself; you deserve it! In our culture, self-care often consists of movie marathons, bottomless tubs of ice cream, and baths with an improbable amount of bubbles. Self-care is wine glasses large enough to serve soup in. Self-care is luxury items with which to delight our senses, decorate our persons, and astound our neighbors. 

Self-care, according to today’s wisdom and advertising, is pleasure. Superficial, momentary pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be delightful and harmless, especially in moderation.  But choosing pleasure to excess, or choosing pleasure as our only form of self-care, is like choosing a bag of cheese puffs, or a pouch of sour-patch kids, when our bodies are longing for dark green leafy vegetables.

Last week, a clergy colleague of mine commented on social media that about 30% of her pastoral care consists of one thing: encouraging people to get some sleep. Which is to say, the deepest needs of our bodies and souls aren’t usually terribly complicated. It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to take care of ourselves. We’re not that complex to care for. Many of us simply need more rest, more movement, more dark green leafy vegetables. And then, to round it out, we need a little safe space in which to feel our feelings, and a little affirmation that we’re loveable and loved.

Our needs aren’t so complicated. But these simple, deep needs: these kale salads for our soul are somehow hard to choose. It’s easier to reach for the cheese puffs, the sour-patch kids, and the soup-bowl size glass of wine. What is the harm?  We’re adults, after all!  No one is the boss of us. No one can scold us and make us go to bed early.

But what if, when our pleasures don’t truly satisfy us, we just keep masking our deepest hungers with more pleasures, until our bank accounts and our bodies and our spirits are depleted? What if we spend our whole lives going hungry, when a feast is within easy reach?

There’s also another reason to try something different. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “See, I have made you witness to the peoples.”  Whatever we do, other folks will notice: our children, our friends, our loved ones. As God’s people, we have a responsibility to live a full and deep and beautiful life, not only for our own deep satisfaction, but to show others that it can be done: to help other folks choose abundant life

So here is my question. If you really cared about someone – a child, an adult, anyone – if someone was precious to you, what are the suggestions that you would make, to help them live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life? What are the most important rules, habits, expectations, or reminders, would you offer them?

You have some wonderful wisdom, I know, about how to live well: deeply, generously, abundantly. So, please: consider taking your own advice.  Write your suggestions down, post them on your bathroom mirror, keep them somewhere where you’ll see them often. Be your own loving parent, and send yourself to bed early, and well-nourished.

Please pray with me.

God, your thoughts are not our thoughts; your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts and ways are so far above ours. Again and again, we choose what does not satisfy us; what cannot help us live well, love God, or serve our neighbors, but only depletes us, and wastes our time and money. Help us to care for ourselves and what is ours in a better way; as well as we would advise others to do. Draw us towards healthy food for body and spirit, a liberating word for our hearts and our lives, for you are always offering us what is good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bargaining with God

Genesis 15:1-18

When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

Please pray with me.

Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.

A Community Garden

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Our human bodies, in other words, are earth; as we know also from the second story of Creation, in which God forms us by hand from clay.

We are dust; we are earth; we are clay. Our bodies are like little plots of land, temporarily assigned to us by the organizer of an enormous community garden.

Have you ever spent time in a community garden, one of the ones divided into little individual plots? In warmer weather, I often walk through the one on the side of Cousins’ field, a few blocks away from here. I love seeing how different each section of the garden is. Some folks have elaborate fencing, while others seem unconcerned with protecting their borders. Some folks lay down straw between their plantings, others woodchips. Some use black plastic to keep down the weeds. Some folks fill their whole plot with tomato plants, so that by August there are an unbelievable number of heavy, red tomatoes sagging on the vine; almost too many to pick, even on a few square yards of land. Other folks plant a great variety of things: eggplants and zuchinnis and pumpkins, several kinds of lettuce, a selection of herbs, borders of colorful flowers, and accents of whimsical garden decor. Some plots show the marks of a meticulously ordered mind, and dedicated daily care, while others are beautiful in their wildness.

I wonder: what kind of garden are you growing, on your little plot of God’s green earth?

Our scriptures are full of plants, both literal and symbolic. Our first scripture this morning, from Deuteronomy, works on both levels. It speaks of the importance of bringing the first fruits of our harvest to God. God has done so much for us, and for our ancestors, the scripture argues, that it is only right that our very first fruits should be shared with God and with God’s people. “You shall set [your offering] down before God and bow down. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God has given to you.” (Deut. 26:11)

Our second scripture passage speaks not of abundance, but the lack of it. Out in the bleakness of the wilderness, far from water, and without any food at all, Jesus contends with the devil. What will he do, what will he say, while deprived and depleted in the desert?

The Hebrew scriptures describe how God nourishes us with water, so that our leaves will never wilt (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8).  God sometimes destroys plants in scripture, ripping them out of the ground or even burning their roots.  Other roots, like the root of Jesse, are miraculously preserved.

In the Greek scriptures, Jesus uses parables about seeds to describe how the good news of the gospel grows, or fails to grow, in the soil of our lives.  He curses a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Matthew 21:19). Jesus also says, “I am the true vine.. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (John 15:1, 5)

The letters of the early Church in our scriptures are surprisingly full of plant imagery as they describe the identity and spiritual health of new Christian communities. We are compared to a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the existing plant of faith (Romans 11). We are instructed that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10) and warned of the danger of a root of bitterness in our communities (Hebrews 12:15). We are told that we are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17). And in the letter to the Colossians, we hear: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

At the very end of our bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), and just a few verses later, Jesus proclaims: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16

In all this rich plant imagery, it’s hard to pick a favorite text, but I am particularly drawn to a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that I hadn’t remembered (7:15, 17-22):

May God grant me to speak with judgement,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise…
For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits* and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

O to know the virtues of roots!
Imagine that your body is a small plot of land, a temporary assignment in a community garden as large as the universe. There’s a lot we can’t control about the plot of land we are given. We can’t change the kind of soil we have, the sun exposure, the natural rainfall, which plots border ours. But there’s many variables we do have a choice about: what we plant, and what we pull up. How we employ mulch, and manure, and irrigation.  Whether we undertake staking and pest control.

What kind of garden are you growing, with the plot of land you were given?  Is there anything about your gardening habits that you’d like to change?

As we start this season, I encourage all of you to consider claiming a Lenten practice: something you will intentionally do or not do, this season. It may be that you have too much of something in your garden right now: aphids, or acidity, or technology, or plastic, or self-criticism.  It may be that you have too little of something in your garden right now: nutrients, or water, or movement, or meaningful human connection.

Come see our strips of soil and add your own!

Let’s take a moment now to consider at least one thing that you could do, if only for these forty days of Lent, that would bring greater health to your garden. If you are moved, and if you have not already done so, please write down your commitment (anonymously) on a brown strip of paper, to be dedicated here today, and to encourage and inspire others here.

On Ash Wednesday, those who were here started some new roots, by placing plant cuttings in water, in the jars that are now in our entryway. As the season starts, we’re also enriching our soil, with these pieces of paper, these commitments to ourselves, and our community, and to our world.  Who knows what could grow, if we only grant ourselves what we truly need?

Please pray with me: Holy God, I am a humble little plot in your great creation, dust and dirt, earth and clay, seeded by your Spirit. Please forgive my inexpert gardening, and grant me the grace to keep on trying, while I learn from you about the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. Build up my soil, and establish my soul until it grows strong, flourishing in all seasons. May I bear abundant fruit, offering my first fruits to you, sharing my bounty with neighbors and strangers, and in good time, returning my plot to your careful stewardship. Amen.

Healer

  • February 19, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is a healer. His very first act of ministry is healing, and the healing continues on from there. Jesus overcomes fevers and leprosy. He restores a withered hand. Jesus even reverses paralysis. People with all kinds of diseases and physical challenges come to Jesus. He lays his hands on them; and they are healed.

Jesus’ healing also goes beyond the physical. He performs exorcisms; he knows how to silence demons. He pronounces the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the relationship between a person and God. Jesus understands his mission as caring particularly for sinners, for those who are far from God. He says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:21)

Jesus is a healer. He heals bodies, and he heals spirits. He pays special attention to the most painfully suffering bodies. He feels a particular calling to serve the most tortured spirits. Even when he teaches, Jesus is healing: extending an invitation to the minds and hearts of his listeners, to be changed.

What does Jesus have to teach us in this gospel? What kind of healing might his words provoke?

What we hear today is a passage from what is known as Jesus’ sermon on the plain; he is preaching, not on a mountain, or in a boat, but “on a level place.” The passage begins on a very encouraging note. Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” According to Jesus, those who are most in need will find their needs met through the grace of God. Even hatred, exclusion, and defamation may be a reason for joy: after all, the greatest prophets suffered the same.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of God promising blessing and help to those in very difficult circumstances.  But from here the text takes a troubling turn, in a passage unique to this gospel. Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

It’s one thing to promise comfort to those in need. But why proscribe suffering for those who have money, or food, or laughter, or acclimation? Some of us may have more than we need, but who needs woe?  Why would a healer desire woe for anyone?

I love the text from Jeremiah today in conversation with Jesus’ words.  Jeremiah has his own list of blessings and curses – perhaps these inspired Jesus. But my favorite part of this passage comes at the end: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart…”

We like to think that our hearts are pure. Listen to your heart, we tell one another. Follow your heart. But what if our hearts are not always reliable? There was a wonderful UCC devotional about this recently by the Rev. Quinn Caldwell. What if our hearts are persuaded and perverted by evil?  What if our hearts are flawed, and we don’t even know it?

There are plenty of examples of heart perversion and heart delusion in the news. Politicians, who refuse to own up to the ways in which they may need healing from the widespread scourge of racism. Church leaders, who refuse to take responsibility for committing sexual assault, or for reassigning sexual predators within the church. But it is too easy to point fingers at others. All of us have been taught racism and misogyny and all manner of other prejudices: they’re embedded in our cultures, and in our social structures. Many of us enjoy privileges such as wealth, skin color, or education, that we barely notice, let alone try to mitigate.  How can we heal from hurts that are hidden from us?  How can we recover from illnesses that we consciously or unconsciously ignore, because they benefit us?

The prophet tells us that God tests our sometimes untrustworthy minds and searches our sometimes devious hearts. God digs deep, and gets close.  When no one else can, God offers us accountability for those parts of ourselves we wish we could keep hidden from everyone

What if Jesus does not so much wish blessings on some, and woe on others, but healing for all? 

Healing: in the provision of food, and funds, and laughter, and reassurance, for those of us who desperately need it. And healing: in the redistribution of wealth and food and pleasure and acclimation away from those of us who have been glutted by them, whose hearts and minds have been damaged by overabundance. 

We may, almost all of us, be in need of both kinds of healing.  The meeting of our deep needs and greatest hungers. The chipping away of overabundance and habits of dominance. To quote Isaiah: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)

This kind of dramatic rebuilding of our inner landscape, and our social fabric, may hurt while it helps.  The rebreaking of the bone, the opening of the heart: healing can be terrifying as well as tender.

This gospel shows us Jesus as a healer. We touched last week on the terrible truth that God does not always heal or provide for us in the ways that we desire.  Still, I believe that Jesus is reaching out towards us in healing. That wherever we are unhealthy from a lack of something, God is blessing us there. That wherever we are unhealthy from too much of something, God is trying to help us with that, too. God is working with us for the healing we desperately desire, and the healing we haven’t realized that we need, and the healing that is really inconvenient and uncomfortable for us. For God desires our healing, and the healing of communities, and the healing of creation.

Gracious God, there are a lot of blessings in our lives, and a lot of woe, and sometimes we’re not even sure which is which. Keep working on us; keep working with us, on everything from our bank accounts to our bodies, on everything in our minds and in our hearts. You know what true health is, for us, and for us together, and for our world. May your power heal each of us us, and work in us for the healing of the whole. Amen.

Lowering Expectations

  • February 12, 2019

Texts: Psalm 138, Luke 4:16-30

When Jesus preaches to a hometown crowd in Nazareth, he starts out bold: declaring that he is a fulfillment of the ancient scriptures, a messenger of God’s good news. Everyone is transfixed by his presence, and his preaching.  Everyone speaks well of him. He is a hit.

Oddly, Jesus isn’t satisfied by this overwhelmingly positive response. He seems determined to deflate everyone’s excessive expectations. Jesus tells the crowd: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’… The truth is there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath…There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them were cleansed except Namaan the Syrian.”

Jesus knows what the folks gathering around him are thinking. They are counting on miraculous personal healing. They are expecting a complete political overhaul. They are looking to him for the answers to all of their problems. So Jesus warns them not to get their hopes up too high.  Even the great prophets Elijah and Elisha only helped a small portion of those in need; why would he be any different? I can’t do everything, he tells the people.

How do the people react? What do the people of Nazareth do when he tells them that he can’t fix all of their problems? They are so filled with rage that they drive him out of town, and try to hurl him off of a cliff.

Our scriptures are full of good news. The psalmist tells us that God preserves and delivers us. The prophet Isaiah promises good news for the poor, release to the captives, and the end of all oppression.  And yet, suffering and injustice still exist.  God can’t fix everything; or at least, God hasn’t yet. If that fills you with rage, and makes you want to push someone off a cliff: you are not alone.

Whole schools of theology have developed around what is sometimes called “the problem of evil” or “theodicy.” Scholars have dedicated lifetimes to the puzzle of why a good God allows evil to exist.  Great literature also picks up this issue; one famous example is the book The Brothers Karamazov.  If we want to wrestle with the question in the context of scripture, the go-to-text is the book of Job. But we need not be great scholars or theologians to notice the presence of evil and suffering in our world. Nor can I say that all the learned effort of so many people has led to a solution to the problem that is entirely satisfying.

What does it mean to put our trust in a God of love and healing and hope, while suffering continues?  Are we simply fooling ourselves? Or is there an honest way to get through the muddle?

Some of you are familiar with the story of Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. She was busy with her life, getting married, having a baby, teaching classes, doing research, writing a book on the prosperity gospel — when everything was interrupted by the arrival of cancer. More specifically, hard-to-diagnose, and probably imminently life-ending cancer.

Suddenly, the underlying assumptions of Kate’s life were up in the air. She couldn’t count on moving forward with any of her long-term career plans. She couldn’t even count on raising her son, or having any more time with her husband. She certainly couldn’t count on everything working out for the best, or everything happening for a reason. That kind of everyday positivity suddenly seemed like a terribly false fantasy. Kate discovered that her life, instead of being a slow progression towards greater accomplishments, and greater wisdom, might just end, in the middle of everything; breaking her heart and the hearts of many others.

Graciously, Kate has welcomed us into her struggle with mortality. She has written a wonderful book as well as many articles, and she has given several interviews. If you haven’t already, I really encourage you to read and listen to what she has to offer. Kate Bowler’s honesty is rare. So is her humor, and her challenge to deeper faith

Kate’s story is her own. And, one of the reasons it is so powerful to read is because she touches on a universal problem. If we are lucky enough to live long enough, and love well enough, we all have our hears broken by how unfair and painful and tragic life can be. Any certainty we have in the good is challenged.  Even our bodies betray us, and the delicious illusion of immortality erodes.

Jesus comes to us with God’s good news, the news he learned from his ancestors in faith. All of us who follow Jesus are called to share the good news with one another, too. But Kate’s story, and so many that are like it, caution us to pause and examine what exactly that good news is.  Does God really promise us boundless prosperity and perfect bodies and astounding romance and flawless purpose-driven years of eternal life on earth, if only we’ll wait and hope and pray?  No; though most of us seem to get confused about some or all of that, from time to time

God’s good news is not human wish fulfillment. God doesn’t act on our terms, or on our timeline, or in any way according to our plans. God doesn’t stop death, and She hasn’t yet stopped all suffering. Rage is an understandable response.

Still, God does preserve and deliver us. God can heal and save us. God is love, and love is real. Love is the strongest force in the universe. Love begins and ends all things. Love is in and around us all the time.  Love helps us to endure what seems unendurable. Love helps us to heal what seems impossible to repair. Love draws us together, and points us towards what is beautiful, and empowers us to make our own small contributions to the work of love, that is, the work of justice and compassion.

Continuing to put our trust in that great big capital -L Love of God, amidst the reality of everything else, may only be possible in community. In community, where folks show up beside us with little-l love all the time.  With prayers, and soup, and awkward silences, with tears and laughter, and with just another hand to hold in the waiting room, and another voice to join in the song.

Together we can find a way to keep singing. We shall sing of your ways, writes the psalmist, for great is your glory. You have increased the strength of our souls. Your steadfast love, O God, endures forever.

Thanks be to God.