Oct 182017
 

 

          This past week on one of those really warm sunny days I was at home in the afternoon and I opened the front door to let the warm afternoon sun stream in.  This attracted both our big grey tabby cat, Honshu, and our spunky little mini dachshund, Mocha. They both circled the patch of warm sunlight on the carpet eyeing each other and the posturing began.  It ended as it always does with the cat, who is at least half again as big as the dog and towers over her, planting herself smack dab in the middle of the warm sunlit patch, while the dog had to settle for a corner – a safe distance away -where she was half in the sun and half in the shade. 

In the three years they have been sharing our house with each other, there have been poignant moments when they have touched noses peaceably, but those moments have been few and far between and fleeting. What I have concluded is that their ongoing conflict with each other seems to stem from the fact that they are well – a dog and a cat.  Now I know that is stating the obvious, but as an adult I have never before lived with a dog and a cat, and I am now really noticing how different these two species are.  Our cat, Honshu is a typical cat, as one character on a favorite sitcom put it a cat is “temperamental, unpredictable, complex and hard to read, she makes people work before she lets them in, but if they put the time in and prove they care, she opens herself up to them.” (April on Parks & Rec, Season 6 episode 7)

Our dog on the other hand is like many dogs is loyal, territorial, eager to please, very predictable, and always ready to lick your face.  

But I am not giving up on the idea that they can be friends, and often when they are at a stand- off with each other I will plop myself down in the space between them on the floor – a space crackling with tension- and connect them to each other by petting each of them with one out-stretched hand.  This tactic has rarely failed to changes the air, eliciting purrs and wags on either side.

          Reading our passage from Philippians this week I started to think that we had misnamed these fury friends of ours.  Perhaps instead of Honshu and Mocha, we should have named them Euodia and Syntyche.  Paul names these two women in the outset of this passage from his letter to the church in Philippi, urging them to find unity in Christ, and further urging the community around them to find ways to bridge the gap between them.   They have been co-workers with Paul – a title he reserves for those who have labored long and hard for a faith community – and clearly their conflict troubles Paul.

          As it is with cats and dogs, so sometimes it is among us humans.  We meet up with people we just don’t seem to be able to get along with.  It may stem from a past hurt or conflict, or we may just be very different kinds of people who do not see the world from the same perspective. Now Paul could have laid it on heavy and reprimanded these two women reminding them that their unhappy divisions could have corrosive effect on the church they both labored long and hard to build, but instead he gave this advice to Euodia, Syntyche and the community around them:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

This is one of my favorite passages from scripture and I had never before noticed that it came as advice to faithful people who were struggling to get along with one another.  I have always loved these words, but I love them even more now.  As I consider people I struggle to understand or work with, these words soften my heart toward them and push me to look with gentleness toward them, noting the good features, rather than just our sticking points – is there anything that true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent?  This passage calls me to put my gaze there, because that shift has the power to call down the God of Peace between us, and that can change everything.  But that said we often need the help of community to bridge the gap, and it is a wonderful gift when a living breathing servant of God is the instrument of God’s peace between us when we struggle to as Paul puts it, “be of one mind in the Lord”.

          This powerful reading – about finding ways to honor the being of another who might seem to be playing a dog to our cat – when read in combination with the other scriptures of the day helps me take the long view of why pursuing understanding and peaceful co-existence is important.  In the passage from Isaiah, we find another strong and comforting image that may be very familiar to us because it is often chosen to be read at funeral services – the feast for all people on God’s holy mountain. But this morning we hear it read in the context of what comes before it – The Prophet tells of a time when God was:

       a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress, 
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

 

And a time:

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,

But God has turned that around and a time for feasting has arrived.  But notice it is a time for feasting for all people – not just the ones we would like to see on the guest list. 

          I will never forget a sermon one of my seminary professors  preached to us in a chapel service during my senior year.  He talked about the many images that scripture offers us of the realm of God, and how those images give us hope as we work for that realm to come.  Then he said that as far as he can tell from the over-arching themes of the Bible, the thing that will likely surprise each of us most when we enter that realm is that we will be spending eternity with lots of people we had imagined would never make it there.  And that he said, could be a living hell if we were not practiced in the discipline of making peace.

          All of this makes me reflect on the wedding garment spoken of in the arresting parable we heard read from Matthew this morning. My bet is we will be well dressed for the banquet of the next realm and have a great time there, if here and now we can work on a spiritual garment woven of threads of acceptance, forbearance and forgiveness.  And my dear co-workers in Christ if we are to prepare such a garment for ourselves we are going to need each other’s help.  Let us never forget that.  May our gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. Amen+

 

           

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Oct 102017
 

Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God so we may love and serve you today and always.  Amen 

So our first reading this morning from the Hebrew scripture, often referred to as God’s Divine Love Song,  can give us whiplash: vacillating, from one voice to another voice with emotions swerving around delight, guilt, fear, confusion, rage and hope – all in 7 short verses………Isaiah was not messing around in the telling of this parable! 

“Let me sing a song for my beloved.”  What an amazing beginning – one that can conjure up profound images and beautiful feelings of great love for the one who is beloved.  But we soon learn as we read on that all is not sweetness and light in this love story. 

Isaiah, the prophet, lets us know that God is the one singing this song.  He tells us, using God’s voice, that God has done all of the work required to create and then protect the environment so that a vineyard would flourish and yield plentiful grapes.  But instead of a harvest heavy with succulent fruit,…..wild grapes, good for nothing but feeding scavenging birds are the result of all of God’s care and love.

Then we hear the plaintive voice of God essentially asking, “Why???? ….Why wild grapes?” And quickly God’s voice changes from that plaintive voice I hear as full of pain, sadness, and sorrow to one full of disappointment and frustration asking, “What else could I have done for there to have been grapes full of sweetness?” 

The song goes on, rapidly shifting to a song filled with expressions of anger, painting a picture of judgment and vengeance and it becomes a song of terrifying, furious punishment…..ending in promises of destruction and abandonment.

And then Isaiah comes back in – in his own voice!!! summing it all up for us (in case we miss the point) by telling us that in this parable the House of Israel — the Northern Kingdom, is the vineyard of our Lord, while the people of Judah — the Southern Kingdom, constitute the planting of the vine by God. And the parable goes on to show us that the covenant between God and the people is being betrayed…….The covenant that was created when God told Moses, way-back in the day as we read in Deuteronomy, that God would bless them with many blessings and Moses said that the people would keep God’s commandments.  Isaiah, tells us that with that covenant God expected righteousness and justice from the people and now, instead, God was receiving the fruits of a broken promise.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like stories like this of a vengeful God — a God who metes out punishment in return for bad behavior.  But isn’t that what we read here in Isaiah? 

Some love song!

While I was in school, a number of us would sit about in the evenings talking, trying to understand, with each other’s help, some of those theological or spiritual issues we inevitably had to grapple with, trying to make sense of them.  One of the concepts we often grappled with was this idea of a vengeful God, a God who punished and exacted retribution.  One of the things we discussed was that the Hebrew prophets’ use of parables was very different from how Jesus used parables — the parables we are probably a little more familiar with.  Jesus’ parables were usually about furthering the understanding about God’s Kingdom – of spreading the Good News……but, the Hebrew prophets’ parables served a different purpose.

The prophets were great at using parables that did not evoke good feelings…..Their parables usually caused the people of their time to unwittingly condemn themselves and their own behavior…..so that they would finally see the devastating consequences that would occur if they did not change.  The prophets in the Hebrew scripture were not fortune tellers or soothsayers as we so often think when we hear the word prophet; rather, they were messengers of and from God who explained, clarified or reframed situations.  They used parables to paint pictures that said, “This is what will happen if you keep doing what you are doing – so wake up and change — so it won’t happen that way!” So, just because this lesson reads as if God was causing catastrophic, revengeful events to overcome God’s people, G’sod beloved, it doesn’t mean that those outcomes were inevitable.

And let’s step back a bit and look at what was going on at this time in history……Before we come upon Isaiah in this morning’s reading, we have 4 chapters that tell us all about the sinful, corrupt ways of the people of Israel and now we learn that Judah is headed the same sinful direction. And Isaiah, being a messenger using God’s voice, is saying to the vineyard and grapes, “Stop this or things won’t be good – this is not how you promised me, your God, you would behave”. Isaiah’s prophetic voice is giving the warning that the love of God and love of neighbor are no longer the center of the people’s lives, that the people have forgotten the covenant they made with God during Moses’ time — and that they had better shape up!! 

During one of those evenings sitting around at school trying to figure this all out, a colleague said that she always thought of these types of passages as God’s way of showing us that there was a reset button available to us — that God was metaphorically cleaning the slate, thereby letting people start over when they had messed up. 

Reset…… It became a code word for us used in conjunction with this action – reset (do it) as if we were pushing a button. Whenever we came upon this type of passage, one of us would say, “Reset”…. and after a while we would just make the motion (Do it) knowing what it meant to us. Our instructors were very confused one class when a number of us simultaneously suddenly pushed an imaginary button.  It spread into our daily lives as well…frequently one of us would say to another, “Reset”, or just make the motion, and we’d stop and examine what was happening that might not have been what God expected or desired of us.  To this day, I find myself often telling myself, “Reset.”

At the end of the parable Isaiah tells us that God desired and expected justice and righteousness – God expected the people would love one another and would love God and would carry out God’s work and uphold justice.  But we know from those first 4 chapters that the people of our parable’s day weren’t in right relationship with each other or with God. They weren’t being just or righteous. And In order to do God’s work, they needed to be in right relationship, or at least trying to be.

And what about us in our day?  What about us and our right relationship with God and with each other? Are we in right relationship?  What about our social, political, economic and legal systems?  – the systems we are all a part of creating?

Let’s ask those questions in the light of our most recent national tragedy — Is it righteous that there are 323 million people in the US and there are 283 million guns in the hands of civilians? Is it righteous that 4.5 million more guns are purchased each year? Is it just that approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence, including suicides, in the United States a year? 30,000 people…..that is close to double the population of Newburyport. How righteous is it that we have a legal system where a semi-automatic gun can be purchased —- and then modified into a fully automatic weapon of mass murder using a kit purchased from the internet for just $99? How just is it that ammunition is created and used, not only to kill, but to cause maximum pain and suffering through unbelievable damage to the human body? How do we fare when we ask ourselves those questions? How do we fare when we look at other systems in our world or in our personal lives? Sometimes pretty good…sometimes mediocre and sometimes pretty awful? ………. Have we really examined our own individual and collective fruit lately?  

And if we find it to be pretty awful, what then?  What do we do then? Do we explain away the shortcomings in our personal interactions? Do we turn the radio down or the TV off because we have become resigned or numb to the horrors of our systems? I suspect we sometimes come to church to escape harsh realities of our lives…..and that’s OK…….but sometimes as Christians, we must reflect on the regularity those unjust tragedies like mass murder….of how we as a people fail. Do we listen for a prophetic voice to point out areas we need to change…to guide us to action that changes what is not righteous, not just?  Who are our prophets? Who in our lives do we listen to who will tell us when we need to hit the reset button? An old friend, a spiritual advisor, a family member, the Bishops against gun violence? Do we take the time during our noisy day to listen for God’s voice? In today’s world taking the opportunities around us for things like contemplative prayer, quiet reflection or long walks, can be so necessary for us to allow those voices to enter into our awareness and help us know how to change.

This lesson is a story about God creating, tending and nurturing us.  So yes, this is a story about God’s overwhelming love for all of us as individuals and as a community. And it is a story of that love being spurned by the beloved. But no matter how badly we behave, how often we spurn God’s love, we have Jesus to embrace us. God gave us the ultimate reset button.  Jesus.  As Br. James Koester, one of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist brothers wrote, “No matter how many times we reject God’s love, no matter how many times we as individuals turn our backs on God’s love, no matter how many times we as a community spurn God’s love, no matter how many times we as a church scorn God’s love, God always, in the person of Jesus stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross longing to embrace us and bring us home.”

Yes, this parable is a love song from God to God’s people, from God who delights in God’s vineyard. A god who doesn’t just write off those who don’t live up to his expectations and desires. What a gift from God Isaiah was delivering…..to be able to see that a change needed to happen and that the reset button could still be hit… It is a love song from God to God’s Beloved, to us, God’s cherished.                                                                                       

And it is a gift that is just as available for us to unwrap today as it was for the people of Isaiah’s day………………… if only we listen for the prophetic voice, accept the gift and hit the reset  button. 

Please God.  Amen

 

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Oct 022017
 

 

          (Standing next to Sealia) As you entered church this morning you may rightly have wondered what on earth is sitting where our low altar usually stands.  If you were here early enough you might have come forward to take a closer look and figured out that this is our seal sculpture that children of the parish have been working on all summer with the guidance of Ingrid Sanborn and Meghan O’Reilly.  Her name is Sealia and she is quite something isn’t she?!  Everything that makes up her features and covers her body is garbage that a group of us collected at our Beach Cleanup day last June over a Salisbury Reservation beach.  With a little Gorrila Glue, some paint and a lot of creativity and love she has come into being to bring us joy, but also to act as a prophet among us as we celebrate the memory of St. Francis this day.

          Sealia is not unlike the Prophet Ezekiel who forcefully declares to God’s people:

You say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 

Wow!  Ezekiel never was known for sugar coating anything!  But the heart of the matter here is life and death and God sends Ezekiel to get God’s people’s attention – to get them to wake up, to turn from wrong to God’s ways.  As God suggests with forceful love at the end of this passage – “Turn then and live.”

Sealia is a prophet like Ezekiel and Francis.  This morning she puts herself in our way as we approach the altar of God and commands our attention, making us consider how our ways in this world are fair and unfair to the other creatures God created to populate this planet.  Sealia is evidence that some of the ways we live have very dire consequences for those other beloved creatures of God.  She blatantly points out how our use of plastics impacts ocean ecosystems. 

For example, look at her fabulous silver whiskers, and her wonderful toenails on her 3 flippers – they are all made of plastic drinking straws.  One thing I learned from Meghan during Sealia construction – plastic drinking straws in the oceans are hazardous to sea creatures, especially whales, seals and turtles. They get into whale stomachs and cause havoc.  Sea turtles die when straws get stuck in their noses and throats and cause them not to be able to breathe or swallow.  Seals who get them in their stomachs die because the straws stick there giving them the sensation that they are full – so they don’t eat and starve to death.  These are tragic outcomes of something many of us use on a regularly without thinking much about it. Now the magnitude of the problem of plastics in our oceans can threaten to overwhelm us, but there are simple actions we can choose, in our own daily lives that can make a difference. 

Again, Sealia’s straw whiskers and toenails can spur us to action. This week I read a wonderful article from the Washington post about a national movement to do away with plastic drinking straws- I’ve posted that article on the bulletin boards in the hallway and the parish hall. Seattle has named the campaign the “I don’t suck campaign” and that city has set the goal of ridding their city of plastic drinking straws and utensils by 2018.  This all inspired me to join the movement.  I got myself this set of stainless steel drinking straws. I commit to carry these in my purse and use them instead of plastic.  And whenever I can will, speak to management of establishments that use plastic straws about switching to paper drinking straws which are biodegradable and as it turns out are far cheaper than plastic.  I invite you to consider joining in this venture – imagine what all of us making this sort of concerted effort might mean locally – it would be a way of choosing life – not just for ourselves but for many other beloved creatures of God. A way of turning from unfair ways to ways of righteousness.

One of the bright spots of Sealia are the brightly colored Jelly fish that the Cherub Church children created from plastic shopping bags which are another scourge of our oceans.  These brightly colored shopping bags around the edges of Sealia can represent to us a small victory – such bags have been banned within Newburyport for a couple of years now, thus reducing significantly the number that make it into our stretch of ocean and raising our awareness that when we shore dwellers make even small every day changes, we can make a significant impact. God bless Sealia, and God bless us as we heed her prophetic presence among us. 

In Jesus Name and in memory of Francis.  Amen+

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Oct 022017
 

The day on which the people of Nineveh repented was a very bad day for the prophet Jonah. Most prophets would’ve been thrilled with the success that Jonah had realized- but not Jonah. As he stood in Ninevah and watched the Assyrian residence of that city repent and turn to God, as the result of his prophecy to them, his heart was seething with anger. He railed at God telling God, “I’m angry enough to die!”

In his mind the whole situation was cruelly unfair – what rate did the Assyrians have to be spared from God’s wrathful desctruction? The  Assyrians who had pillaged and plundered Isreal time and again, year after year? The Assyrians who had taken Israelites away in chains, to live in exile far from their beloved homeland? The Assyrians who had never before cared anything for God’s word or will.

And it wasn’t fair that he, Jonah, a faithful Israelite had been called on to be the prophet who had made the Assyrian repentance possible. He had wanted no part of it and even tried to flee to Tarshish which was in the opposite direction from Ninevah. But God had worked it so that Jonah had been thrown overboard from his Tarshish bound vessel and been carried  to the shores of hated Nineveh in the belly of a whale. It’s hard to have a good day as a prophet when you feel like just so much fish vomit. But, the call was then crystal clear to Jonah-he was to prophesy in Nineveh. But he did it grudgingly and the outcome made him cry out that he would rather die than live with this injustice – the injustice that Israel’s most hated enemy should be saved. It just wasn’t fair!

It just wasn’t fair! That is what the day laborers told the landowner. It just wasn’t fair that they who had worked the whole day,  received the same pay as those would work half a day or less. After all in their minds they had “born the burden of the day in the scorching heat”, while the other part day laborers had not worked as heard. How could the landowner dare to pay them the same wage? It just wasn’t fair!.

It just isn’t fair! How many times have we felt that same way? Like Jonah, or the day laborers in the gospel parable, we look on in unbelief and sometimes even disgust as others receive things that they don’t appear to have earned, or deserved. And this feeling of injustice is only magnified when we view those seemingly unearned blessings from a place or situation which we have not chosen for ourselves – from a shore where we have landed after having been spit up, as it were, from within the belly of the twists and turns and paradoxes of this life.

No we don’t like it when we, who try so hard to be faithful, seem to finish last behind those who in our mind seem less deserving. And we might say, “no wait a gosh darn minute, this just isn’t fair!” And with Jonah, we stand on the shore of our discontent and shaker fisted heaven and we accuse God-“this is not the way it is supposed to be is it? what about the first being last in the landscaping first? We supposed to finish ahead at some point? Are we supposed to get moved to the head of the line while those who have lived on top get moved to the back? 

Well not according to this morning’s readings. These readings point out the very real possibility that the reversal will be no rehearsal at all, but rather an evening out in other words the line won’t be turned back to front, but rather everyone in the line will be brought to stand shoulder to shoulder and each will receive enough last will be first and the first will be last because first and last will be the same thing the kingdom of God is not about just desserts the kingdom of God it’s about abundant mercy and generosity.

Writing in the Christian century magazine the Rev. Anthony be Robinson talks about is vegetable garden and how it relates to all of this. Restaurant Robinson rights:

“there is a secret about my vegetable garden. The part of the garden that is really flourishing is not the rose that I so carefully planted. The part that is growing gangbusters is a surprise of pumpkins and zucchini that I never knowingly planted. Other seeds I measured out padded into the earth watered and weeded. The pumpkin in the zucchini came as a surprise. Apparently they were in the compost that I cast haphazardly around early in the spring. It’s hard to take credit for their flourishing. They remind me that even though I have put labor and intention into the rest of the garden, it too, finally has the quality of gift-of an abundance and beauty that is not in exact proportion to my labor or school but wondrously exceeds them.

Are we really like the all day workers? Or are we the inheritors of gift and grace, of zucchini and pumpkin, of mercy and blessings that are not strictly correlated to our efforts and virtues, and are far greater and wilder than we imagined or dessert? Is it possible that from gods perspective we’ve all shown up at 5 PM? When are only measure is fairness, when are preoccupation is are just desserts, we lose touch with a sense of grace and graciousness. We forget about the wild zucchinis the people who love us more than we deserve, and the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us. True compassion is probably most evident not win the deserving share their well-deserved surplus, but when those who feel that they have been blessed and forgive and beyond what they have right or reason to expect, express their gratitude. Many of commented in recent years about the hard edge of anger building up in our society. Could it be that when life is reduced to”You get what you deserve” and to economic values alone, hearts untracked and compassion and kindness dry up? Perhaps knowing ourselves as receivers of astonishing mercy is what opens our hearts and our hands to others.” (the Christian century magazine, 8/25 through 9/1/ 93)

I want to close now with a prayer that comes from the Reverend William Willamon- let us pray:

Christ or compassionate friend and Savior give us grace so to deal with others as you have graciously don’t with us relieve us of our desired to keep score, to set too high standards and to punish ourselves and others when we do not reach those standards. Deliver us from putting accounts of all the ways that others have offended us, Ron & Donna’s, or caused us fine. Help us grow past the place of taking full credit for accomplishments, where we see all of our blessings as our own achievements, and miss seeing your hand at work in our lives. I was versus one, give us the grace to be more gracious with the world and with ourselves. Enable us to see that all of us live upheld by your love, not by efforts. We decided to great lover of souls, give us the grace to be more gracious . Amen (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 27, No. 3, Year A, 1999)

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