Rev. Martha Hubbard

The Rev. Martha Hubbard is the Rector at St. Paul's Church.

Jan 082018
 

Audio Sermon

Sermon for Sunday, January 7, 2018 The First Sunday after the Epiphany

 

          In the down time I took after Christmas, I watched a couple of Netflix movies about the Obamas.  The first is titled “Barry” and it chronicles Barack Obama’s college years at Columbia University in New York City, delving into his struggles to define himself – to find his identity.  The second movie is titled “Southside with You” which hones in on the first date that Barack and Michelle had when they are both young professionals working for a law firm in Chicago.  I so enjoyed both movies because they gave me a window into imagining what went into the making of a couple I so admire.

          I liked the movie Selma, which came out a few years ago , for the same reasons –  because it allowed me to see how the civil rights movement and Dr. King developed over time.  It showed the important decision points, and the risk and uncertainty of taking each step along their journey.  It showed that Dr. King and his partners in that movement lived life one frame at a time, with a developing sense of who they were and what they were being called to by a higher purpose.  They were human, bound by the same ambiguities and uncertainties that we each face daily, and yet through prayer and community discernment they reached for that higher purpose.

          I have to think that the same was true for our Lord and Savior.  If he was truly human he was living life one frame at a time as we do.  The Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ formative years.  The Gospel of Luke offers only one scant story of Jesus at age 12 staying behind in the Jerusalem Temple as his parents and the group they are traveling with head back to Nazareth, thinking he is with them.  Upon discovering he is not, his parents return to Jerusalem and search frantically for him, until they find him deep in conversation with the rabbis in the temple.  Mary and Joseph expressed their distress, but the almost adolescent Jesus in nonchalant and unrepentant.  I wonder if the story was put there just to comfort parents of budding teens – the message being, you’re not alone, even the holy family had to negotiate the turbulent waters of adolescence!  But that is it – that is all the Gospels tell us about Jesus from the time he was born to his baptism in the River Jordan by his cousin John.

          This lack of Biblical witness has not stopped people of faith from thinking and wondering what Jesus was like as a child, and adolescent and a young adult.  In her book, Loving the Questions, author Marianne Micks describes a painting that resulted from just such wonderings.  She writes:

“The title of one of my favorite twentieth-century paintings is ‘The Virgin Spanking Jesus as a Child, Before Three Witnesses.’ Painted by Max Ernst in 1926… The little boy lies across his mother’s lap.  Her hand is raised high ready to descent on the small bottom with a resounding thwack, while three witnesses are peering through a small window at the back of the room.  A delicious detail is the hallo on the floor, slipped and fallen from the curly head.”(p.97)

Now while many of us in this day and age don’t use spanking to deal with our children’s misbehavior, and might not imagine Mary doing so either, this painting does raise an interesting question – did Jesus do things as a child that would have required discipline or even punishment?

          Another artist who wondered extensively about the pre-baptism Jesus was Nikos Kazantzakis, who in 1960 wrote the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which was later made into a very controversial movie.  In that portrayal, Jesus grows up wanting nothing more out of life than to continue in Joseph’s line of work – carpentry.  Yet he is tortured by mystical experiences that he cannot understand and that even his rabbi is unable to explain.  One scene in the movie that so captured my imagination about what Jesus went through to understand and accept his identity as the Son of God, was one in which Jesus, tortured by a sense that he is being called to something larger, makes a final attempt to resist by physically running from the force that is pursuing him.  He runs out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but his flight is futile.  Every hundred yards or so, the invisible force that pursues him knocks him to the ground.  After several such body slams he gives in – he lies prostrate, surrendered, ready to be guided rather than pursued by the hand of God.

          Now neither of these 20th century imaginings about the young Jesus would fit very well into the popular view of Jesus as the God-Man who knew what and who he was from the beginning, and who was like us in every way except that he did not sin.  But then again, if Jesus was fully human, he was not untouched by the corporate or systemic sin that is woven into the fabric of our communal human existence.  Here I want to quote Marianne Micks again – she writes:

“Jesus lived in an occupied country. He was aware of Roman oppression.  He was part of a culture that knew as much about governmental corruption as our own, as well as about hunger, poverty and disease.  In his public ministry Jesus worked against all of these sins of his culture, but he hadn’t been unaffected by them as he was growing up and trying to figure out what he was meant to do with his life.  He may indeed have increased in wisdom and stature and in divine and human favor, as Luke’s Gospel puts it, but not without struggle.” (Ibid. p.98)

          To imagine the ways in which Jesus might have struggled with the corporate sin of the world he was living and moving in, is to connect with him on a visceral level,  because that is the world we live and move in also.  To imagine that Jesus did not simply and easily rise above the sin of the world can draw us to him in our own contexts of struggle.  And from that point of connection we can often draw inspiration to more fully follow him.  The Gospels are silent on the details of his formative struggles, but the Gospels do make clear that Jesus chose the path he did in order to follow God’s call to free the world from the bondage of sin.

          And the first step on that path of liberation was for Jesus to step down into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.  And that is where our Gospel Lesson for this morning, from Mark’s Gospel, comes in.  Interestingly Mark, the earliest written of the 4 canonical Gospels, is the only one that makes absolutely no attempt to suggest anything about Jesus’ life before baptism.  Mark gives not stories or words about Jesus’ background, family lineage, or origin as the Word of God incarnate as the other three Gospels do. Mark just starts off with John and Jesus in their early 30’s on the banks of the Jordan.  What are we to make of this absolute silence about all that had gone before in their lives?  By telling us nothing of Jesus life before he came to the banks of the Jordan, Mark might be silently communicating that those details are not important in the light of what is about to occur.  The one who steps into the water brings with him some 30 years of life lived, but the details of that life for not the issue here.  The newness that will occur through this sacred act is what he wants up to hone in on.  This is not to say that all that has gone before is obliterated. On the contrary, the message I hear is that all that has gone before this moment in life is taken into the hands of God, who wastes nothing, and is redeemed as the building blocks of the new relationship that is being forged.  In God’s naming of Jesus as his beloved Son in this moment, the eternal hold of the corporate sin system, which every person is born into, is broken and a new path of life is emerging.

          With the washing of baptism the context of life is enlarged, and grace enters the picture – the grace of God and Child reaching toward each other in cosmic embrace.  And God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is not just some sort of cosmic pat on the back.  This statement of God’s pleasure with Jesus, and all who have followed him into the waters of baptism, is a commission.  It signals that God’s pleasure now resides with and empowers Jesus in all that lies ahead of him.

          Today in place of the Nicene Creed we will share in the words of our baptismal covenant, as a reminder that the same is true for us.  No matter what has gone before – no matter how our hallo has slipped, or how we have attempted to run from God, in the waters of baptism – as was true in the Spirit hovering over the waters in the opening verses of the book of Genesis – God seeks to bring something new out of the chaos of sin.  God seeks to bestow upon us grace to turn things around.  God seeks to give us the power to raise our arms and be swept into the cosmic embrace which is offered us each time we open our hearts to the power of our baptismal covenant. 

          The temptation here is to say, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ But the Gospel is no fairy tale.  As our recitation of the Baptismal Covenant will remind us today, this is a daily returning to God and a living of life by challenging moral precepts.  And if Jesus’ life is a reflection of and pattern for our own, temptations and suffering are and will be part of the path we walk – there is no getting around that.  But baptism does change the context for us – not by being a holy zap that magically transforms life, but by being a starting point for a lifelong partnership with God, who promises us that through thick and thin we will never be alone.  God is with us and we are with each other in the Beloved Community we call church.

          It is reported that whenever Martin Luther was assailed by temptation or suffering in his struggle to be true to the call he heard from God, he would sit in his study and say over and over, almost as a mantra, “I am baptized, I am baptized, I am baptized…” May we keep those words close to our hearts as well.  Amen+

 

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Dec 132017
 

 

Advent is here again, seeking to knock us off our dead center certainties, and our attempts to button life down securely. Advent is here again calling us to traverse the wilderness of uncertainty and disorientation.  And in our Gospel lesson we meet the patron saint of disorientation, John the Baptist. He is not what any had expected when it comes to the Herald of the Messiah. He is wild, unconventional, and yet with a compelling presence the draws us out, with all of Jerusalem to take a closer look.

And there he is, outside the bounds of what most consider normal and he calls us to repent. Sadly the word repent has so often been misused as a weapon against people who are out on the margin-not unlike John, but unlike the majority in someway. John uses the word repent not as a weapon, but it’s an invitation. He is not pointing it at someone else. He is entering into repentance himself and inviting others to do so as well, because he is convinced of the transformative power of repentance especially in the face of the glory which  is about to break in.

The Greek word for repent is Metanoia which literally means to turn around. Metanoia-to change course radically, to walk off the well-worn path and to take a look at reality from a different vantage point. Part of me loves that invitation, and part of me shies from it. What will happen if I take John up on his call to Metanoia-I fear I will become disoriented and at the same time I long to become disoriented. I am worried but if I do vere off course to follow John into the wilderness, I won’t know what’s going on-I worry my well-constructed templates for understanding life will not work out there. And yet part of my heart yearns to run after him, so that I can dive into an understanding that is deeper than anything I have known before.

Advent gives permission to that longing. Advent urges me to believe that bolting off course in wild pursuit of that transformation of my heart is more elemental to preparing for Christmas than all the shopping and baking and decorating I’ve laid out on my calendar. And yet each year as Advent rolls around I struggle to understand this metanoia, transformation John is pointing to. Is it just one more self-improvement technique? John does not answer. He just pointed to the water he is standing waist deep in and invites me to join him. Before I step in, I want to ask for a guarantee or at least see some stats and transformative outcomes.

But Advent and offers none of those because the deep waters that John is calling us into defies the descriptions of this manifested world. There is no adjective, description or measure that can capture what is going on here. And yet we feel it. We get water splashed on us, and we are prayed over at our baptism, and then we are on this rode together, being invited deeper in with every spiraling holy year.

A question we might ask ourselves this second Sunday of Advent:

Is there any part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative waters -some aspect of my life or the way I am in the world that I have been safely sheltering on shore? The awareness that comes in thinking and praying on your answer to that question may open a new understanding of yourself. Now if you’re like me, your knee-jerk reaction maybe to rationalize what you perceive-explaining it away somehow-or, if the evidence is compelling, to quickly figure out what to do about it-how to fix it. But Advent calls us to something else. Advent’s work is to ask a question  – Is there a part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative water-some aspect of my life that I have been safely sheltering on shore? And then to just sit with it. To let it be. To see what new awareness arises and then to let the acceptance of all that open up around that awareness. To be in the presence with the newness of what is discovered rather than to take action on it. Perhaps to share the awareness with a trusted friend with spiritual guide or director. In all this to trust God to work transformation in surprising and grace filled ways on a time schedule that is not necessarily ours. As the writer of the second letter to Peter wrote:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day it’s like 1000 years, and 1000 years or like a day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

Saint Augustine once wrote to God, “Our hearts are restless, until we find our rest in Thee.” That is the truth this off-road course Advent offers us time and again.  Each year we come back around to this invitation to an open ended, unstructured space where we can risk disorientation for the sake of discovering again how much we are in need of being with God. Not that we are ever really apart from God, but we often block ourselves from the closeness with God by becoming so identified with our life situation that we forget we are not the one writing the plotline. We forget the mysterious workings of God’s grace and the connection that we have always had with the source of all that is.

Metanoia is an unblocking-a turning around to find God closer to us than our own breath. Metanoia is not an event, but a process that carries us overtime-not just as individuals but it’s a body-with all people and with all creation. For life is a web, not a bunch of disconnected beings for events. What we have come to trust in Christ Jesus is that the web is shot through with God’s grace. And we trust when we veer off our individual, me centered path long enough to receive a deeper experience of our life in the web, we become infused with that grace and that grace empowers us to live in ways that will yield great good for generations yet unborn.

It all starts with the willingness to set aside fear, to veer off-road into the wilderness, to put on the Advent garb of trust in the power of God in Christ to transform us day by day.

God bless you and any off-roading you do this Advent. In Christ name and sake. Amen+

 

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Nov 292017
 

 

          The big piece of equipment the optometrist swings in front of your face and has you look through during an eye exam is called a phoroptor.  It holds all the lenses that they flip back and forth in front of your eyes as you try to read the eye chart, in order to find the best prescription of lenses for you to see clearly if you don’t naturally have 20/20 vision.

          Well we need a spiritual phoropter today, because it is the last Sunday of the Church year, when we remember and celebrate Christ as our King.  But as we envision Christ as King today, we need a special focus.  The lenses we might use to bring into focus our world’s notion of kingly power simply don’t work for getting a clear vision of Christ as King.  Christ bears little resemblance to the kings of this world.  To get a clear view of Christ as King, we need to flip out the lenses of power and majesty, and flip in the lenses of humility and compassion.

          In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Markus Borg argues that a rule of compassion was central to who Jesus was.  He sees the crystallization of this compassion rule in one verse taken from the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus commends his disciples to, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” And Borg argues that it is through this crystallization, this lens that we will best see Jesus for who he is: a compassionate king.

          In Jesus’ own day, the dominant crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was not in sync with Jesus compassion rule either.  If the crystallization of Jesus message was, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, the crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was “Be holy as God is holy”.  At that time and point in history, that religious establishment understood holiness to be directly linked to keeping the purity code.  This code was based on the many laws related to purity that are found in the book of Leviticus.  Based on this code, the labels of “pure” and “impure” were applied to persons, places, animals and social groups in the first century Jewish world.  And these classifications had significant social ramifications with regard to the valuing of people in society.  Those seen as pure were imbued with a higher value than those seen as impure because the dominant theology of that time and place said the purer you are, the more like God you are.  Let me just stress that this was one theological strain in Judaism that held sway at one particular moment in the history of the Jerusalem religious establishment.  It is a strain of theology that is not unique to Judaism; indeed it is a strain of theology that has recurred in many different times, places and faith traditions before and since.

          With this purity code as it’s predominant lens it is no wonder that the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day did not recognize Jesus as King.  Jesus, though a devout Jew, was a man who blatantly broke the purity code by eating with those whose behavior deemed them as impure, such as tax collectors and prostitutes; by touching and healing those whose physical conditions deemed them impure, like lepers and the blind and lame; by keeping company with women, whose impurity came as part of their birthright.  In almost everything he did, Jesus blatantly called into question the social boundaries that had been so carefully constructed by the purity code.  It is no wonder that the adherents to that code did not recognize him as king.  They were expecting the promised messiah and king of Israel to come as a great political ruler who would lead a regime change by overthrowing the impure gentile government of Rome that so oppressed first century Israel.  The last thing they thing they were looking for was for their messiah and king to come and challenge their religious piety.

          Yet Jesus did not challenge those purity code boundaries in order to mock of anger the religious establishment.  Rather he did so to proclaim that God’s holiness had little to do with external forms of purity and everything to do with internal purity, which he defined as compassion.  His words and actions, his living and his dying preached this, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.”

          In Hebrew the word compassion is the plural of the noun which translates into the English word womb.  So to say that God is compassionate is to say that God is womb-like. And so, to seek to imitate God is to seek to be womb-like too.  That is, to feel for others as a mother or father might feel for their children – in ways that are life giving, nourishing, caring, embracing, and encompassing.  That is what lies at the heart of so many of Jesus’ words and actions.  Even when he is being confrontational with the religious establishment he is doing so out of a desire to break open their rigid focus on purity and to lead them into a place of compassion.

          But lest we get too focused on the folly of the religious establishment of that day, perhaps we should flip the lens onto ourselves.  We need only look around to recognize that compassion is not the predominant lens that focuses our society.  If the message, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, was central to Jesus, what could we say is the central message to our society?  “Be successful as God is successful”“Be powerful as God is powerful”?  What is the dominant lens of our cultural phoroptor? When we look through that lens do we see Christ as king or as confronter?  Do we see ourselves as sheep or as goats?

          That is the question of this morning’s parable. In this parable the son of man, in the final judgment, applauds that part of the human herd that have looked out, not just for themselves but also for others – those whose vision is focused on the life of the larger community. This parable announces that social orders that are in sync with the reign of Christ are those that have a community focus at their heart.  Social orders in which power and wealth are instruments used to serve the common good. Social orders in which no one is left behind.  Indeed Christ does not just applaud these ways of being in the world, he says that he is to be found among those who are on the outskirts of the flock – so to serve him is to serve them.

          Christ the King says:

          “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty, a stranger in your midst, naked, ill and in prison, and in my need you gave me water, clothing, comfort and friendship.” (Homilies for the Christian People, p. 176)

Christ is not some being sitting on a throne up above the sky, robed in glory and remote from us. Christ our King reaches out to us each day, in the minutia of our lives.  As one eloquent preacher put it:

          “Christ the king is hidden in the open hand begging for a taste of bread and a cup of water, in the struggle for justice and peace, in the lives of women and men who abandon the strategies of fear and intimidation for the politics of hope and mercy…It is there Christ reigns.” (Ibid.) 

Let us pray:

          Compassionate King and Shepherd, your love gives us the vision to see that we are a herd of cross-bred sheep and goats.  We long to be more fully yours.  Come correct us where we have gone astray, tend us, and lead us in your ways and for your most gracious purposes that we might meet you again in each other and in each person we would serve in your name!  Amen+

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Oct 252017
 

 

“Whose Image is on this coin?” Jesus asked them. They were members of two groups in the religious and political establishment -that Pharisees and the Herodians. These two groups were constantly feuding with each other on the payment of taxes to Rome. Yet they had joined forces to trap Jesus who’s radical and teaching and preaching threatened to bring the wrath of Rome down upon all of them. So they went together to publicly ask him about the payment of taxes assuming that Jesus would not be able to please both of them, and would have to lose face in one way or another in front of the crowds.

“Whose image is on this coin?” he asked them. “The Emperor’s.” They answered. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” he replied. With this answer Jesus acknowledged that Caesar should receive what is due in taxes-an answer that was sure to please the Herodians – but the rest of his answer made it plain that Caesar was not to be worshiped as a God-an answer that was bound to please the Pharisees. So neither group could argue with him. They hadn’t seen this coming. Thwack! Jesus springs their trap in such a way that it does not catch him but snaps back on those who set it. Most importantly however his words teach those who listen critical lesson about the difference between human and divine power and domain. So what can we take from what Jesus is saying to apply to our lives.  What does it mean for us to give what is due to this world’s structures of power and authority, and to give to God, what is God’s?

In a commentary on this passage Biblical scholar Ralph Klein says:

“Paying taxes in our society does not have the potentially bad connotations it had in the time of Jesus.  Unlike those in Roman Palestine, we have chosen our government, and it has the full legal right to tax us.  We often complain about the taxes we pay, and we rightly criticize waste in government, or the excessive proportion of our taxes that goes toward the military-industrial complex.  We need to be careful however, lest we participate in the cheap and trivializing joking that goes on about taxes.  Taxes are a part of the social contract that holds us together as a people, and they are a recognition that many social problems or public works are so immense that they can only be approached by all of us together working for the common good.  We need to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”(Proclamation Series A, 1999, p. 257)

So the images of our government on our money remind us of our duty to contribute our part toward the upkeep and well-being of our whole society.  We should keep this in mind as proposals for tax cuts are presented in our congress these days.  And we need to ask ourselves, who would those tax cuts serve? Do they serve the whole of society?  Are those most in need and at risk being served by tax cuts?  If not, why not?  As people of faith who seek to follow after a God who is as the Prophet Isaiah put it “ a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress” perhaps it is time we asked those questions of those who represent us in Washington.  There are all sorts of tools available to us to do so- from pen and paper and the US postal service, to online portals to our representatives’ offices. How will we speak out in a faithful way about the taxes we pay for the health of our society?

          Then there is the second part of what Jesus says in response to the Herodians and the Pharisees – “Give to God the things that are God’s”. How do we live into that statement?

          Last week my I took my mom out on an errand and we ran into a friend of mine who took one look at us and said to me, “This must be your mother- you are the spitting image of her.”  The coin bears the image of the leaders of the state, but physically we bear the image of our parents and our family’s genetic line, but spiritually we each bear the image of God.  I love the old Jewish adage, “Before each person goes a band of angels proclaiming loudly, ‘make way for the image of God!” God’s image is emblazoned on the very core of our being.  From our birth we are marked as God’s very own.  And as St. Augustine of Hippo said, “God loves each of us as if we were the only one.”

          When we bring children to be baptized – to receive the primary sacrament of the church – we touch on this truth, acknowledging that we need God’s loving partnership to raise up the treasure of a person who has been entrusted to our care.  A child has been put into our arms and in that sacramental moment we return that child to the embrace of God in the church, thus honoring that ultimate divine imprint that will carry them farther than we ever could.  Baptism reminds us to make way for the Holy Spirit’ power to work among us.  And each time we are part of that sacred rite our own baptismal turning over is renewed – the turning over of our full self to God in Christ.

          And as we live more deeply into that turning over of our lives and wills to God, amazing things take place.  When we dare to renew this commitment daily, problems that seem insurmountable find resolution in ways we could not have predicted.  We are led more and more to take a breath or a step back before charging ahead on self-will alone, and we find God leading us to do and say things that we could not have done or said on our own.  It is not that we live happily ever after, but when we do our imperfect best every day to turn ourselves more fully over to the One whose image is emblazoned on the core of our being, we recognize that we never go through the hard times alone, and the joys of life we feel more deeply.

          But we do not do this alone.  The Christ we follow gathered followers around him and wove them into a community that has been handed down to us.  We need faithful community to sustain us and to join in taking faithful action in the world.  We need each other to reach out and bring comfort and relief to those who are in need around us – those who hurt or hunger in body, mind or spirit.  We need each other to nurture the next generation as they grow up into the full stature of their path with Christ.  We need one another to puzzle and tussle with over what it means to worship and contemplate, and take faithful steps where we live and work each day – in the nitty gritty of our lives.  And we need each other to shine in this world with a light that draws others to the presence of Christ we count on in this place. 

          So, may we each be inspired once again to give the best of who we are back to the One from whom we came, that goodness may outweigh brokenness in this world.  Part of that is of course, as we have been reminded over the last few weeks, taking time once again to stop and ask ourselves what percentage of our income God is calling us to give to this Godly work here at St. Paul’s.  The tithe, or 10 % is our goal, and our individual situations and circumstances are going to help each of us to prayerfully determine what percentage we will give as a pledge for the coming year. In that process, I pray that each of us will be freed from fear of economic insecurity, and that we will find faith to step up to what we hear God calling us to. 

          I want to leave you with one final image that I think expresses so beautifully what God can do with and through us when we trust and give back to God our hearts, our minds, our treasures and our actions in this world.  In a workshop I attended years ago in another diocese, the workshop leader had a large framed artistic rendering of the face of Christ at the front of the conference room.  From where I was sitting, it looked as though it was a black and white photograph of a mosaic from some European church.  Under the picture were the words, “Behold the face of God”.  After a while of looking at the picture from our seats, we were invited to the front of the room to see the picture up close.  It was only then that it became clear that it was not a photo of a mosaic, but rather a mosaic of photos of people’s face, arranged in such a way that the color values of each picture fit together to create the picture of Christ’s face that could be seen from a distance.  The message is this – by giving ourselves to God through Christ in the church, we become precious parts of the mosaic of Christ’s face to the world.  Without us the picture is not complete. 

          “Make way for the image of God!”  The angels proclaim before each one of us, and before us as a church as we show Christ’s face to the world.

          In his name.  Amen+

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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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 Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 – The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Wed, 18-Oct-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 – The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
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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 Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 2-Oct-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
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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 Sermon for Sunday, September 24, 2017 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 2-Oct-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, September 24, 2017 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost