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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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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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Sep 222017
 

Several years ago now I had a conversation with a parishioner from one of the other three parishes I have served over the years.  In that conversation she told me that she wanted to let me know that she was sorry for not having done enough to support me during my time of ministry in that parish, and that she had felt badly about it for years.  I was shocked. I saw it very differently.  I had always felt very supported by her during my time in that parish.  I told her just that and said I hoped she would lay her burden down then and there.  We parted renewed in our sense of appreciation for each other and the time in ministry we had shared, and that blessed interaction has stuck with me ever since.

I was reminded of it again this week as I read our first lesson, from the book of Genesis.  At the outset of the reading Joseph’s brothers are worried, because they are in dire straits.  Nearly starving due to the famine in their homeland, and having come down to Egypt where there is food aplenty, they find that the one Egyptian official who can give them relief is none other than their brother Joseph, whom they sold into slavery years before.  So they begin worrying among themselves, saying, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

It is a difficult thing to come face to face with someone you fear may bear a grudge against you, whether your wrongdoing was real, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, or imagined as in the case of my former parishioner who made amends to me.

In Joseph’s life story we can see the transformation that needs to take place for each of us if we are going to embody the forgiveness God calls us to throughout our scriptures this morning. A journey that includes coming to an expanded view of ourselves and others.  If we read back into this story of Joseph and his brothers we will see that his brothers’ actions in selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead were unquestionably wrong.  While their actions may have been indefensible, their frustration with their prideful younger brother, which led to those actions is understandable.  To say the least, Joseph, as a young man did not show finesse when telling his brothers about the future he was perceiving in his dreams.  What sibling likes to hear that one day in the future they are going to be bowing at the feet of their brother?  

If we did not know the outcome of this story, the prevailing tone of the present day world might lead us to expect this story of Joseph and his brothers will end with Joseph exacting revenge and triumphing over his brothers who indeed were now required to bow before him.

But that is not the way this story ends.  Joseph who once was a proud young man has grown into a much humbler older man.  His response to his brothers’ fear that he will take retribution is to say, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”  

This story can encourage us to reflect back on our lives a bit to earlier chapters.  As I think carefully about my younger self I can see with the clarity of hindsight how both my strengths and shortcoming were woven into the fabric of my life and relationships.  Maybe you have had similar moments of self awareness.  Seeing our strengths is edifying, while recognizing our shortcomings can be very humbling.  Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel of Christ is that God loves us fully and unconditionally and has already forgiven us for all our wrongs and shortcomings.  Yet so often it seems we have a hard time accepting and trusting that radical love and forgiveness.  

In a book of meditations I read daily, this entry came up this week – it begins with the well-known quote from Alexander Pope:

“To err is human; to forgive divine.

-Alexander Pope

If I am unable to accept the fact that people make mistakes, am I not rejecting them as human beings? Even more to the point: does my inability to accept my own failings cause me to see myself as not measuring up?

For my own peace of mind, I need to forgive even the most damaging transgressions; but forgiveness of others can only come when I have learned to forgive myself.

For Today: I pray for a forgiving heart and the willingness to let go bitterness.”

If any of that rings true, there are prayerful actions we can take to move us toward greater forgiveness of ourselves and others.  First we can put pen to paper and list anything we feel guilty about or ashamed of, things which we do not feel fully forgiven for. Second, we can be greatly helped by finding a trustworthy person to share this list with, because sometimes, like my friend I spoke of earlier, we are carrying burdens that are not really ours.  A trusted and wise friend can help us tease out what our responsibility is in various complicated situations.  Third, once we have discerned the things on our list that we are truly responsible for, we can intentionally take them to God in prayer, asking God to hold them and help us to experience and relax into the full and absolute divine forgiveness that Jesus assures us of.  Fourth we are ready to make amends for anything that we are responsible for – and there is wonderful wisdom out there about how to pursue such amend making – if you want direction, I would be willing to share what I know.

These are simple, but not easy actions to take, and of course this is an ongoing process.  The more we practice this process the more we will discover about ourselves and about God. As we reach for self-forgiveness, we become more able to be ministers of that same forgiveness for others. Then we are woven more fully into the tapestry of grace and love which God is weaving for nothing less than the redemption of this world. It begins with the personal but can powerfully ripple into our corporate and societal interactions.  What could our world look like if our governing policies were rooted in a sense of forgiveness?  I believe God holds that vision for our world!   May God bless us with all we need to be partners in bringing it to pass!  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

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Sep 222017
 

                          

…for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy…

          Those are apt words for me this week! In the midst of gearing up for another school year with our kids, and program year here at church, the many tasks, details and calls on my time and energy pile up and can feel overwhelming.  But that lasts only as long as I am confiding in my own strength.  When I reach the limit of that strength, I remember that God is the director, not me, and things begin to turn around.  As I depend less on myself, and as the collect so eloquently puts it, make my boast of God’s mercy,   I begin to breathe again.  Then refreshed I again see this ministry we share in this wonderful parish with fresh eyes, and feel excitement for another year starting up. 

It was God who brought each one of us through these doors for the first time and it is God who gathers us back in here together on this our annual homecoming Sunday.  As I stepped back from the frenzy this week, I was once again dazzled by how God brings us each here for God’s own good and grace filled purposes.  And once we are here, when we are willing God partners us with each other in ways that accomplish those  purposes as we become woven together in community.  Not perfectly  – we are still a work in progress – but we are a community woven together with threads of grace. 

Can you remember what was happening in your life when you walked through the doors St. Paul’s for the first time?  Maybe it was 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 or more years ago.  Or maybe it was 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, or 2 years ago, or just last week, or maybe even today.  Take a moment and think back to that first time you entered here.  When you think about it, do you have a sense of having been led here?  It may be only in hindsight that some of us may be able to detect God’s imprint in our arrival to this holy ground.  Others of us may have had the strong sense at the time we came of literally having been pushed through these doors by an unseen, insistent hand.  Others still where brought by parents or other family members, or we came at the invitation of a friend.  Each of us has our own arrival story – each as individual as we are.  

Through my 20+ years in ordained ministry, I have heard countless such stories from people in the 4 very different parishes I have served.  What strikes me as a common thread running through all those stories of how people come to be part of a worshiping community is the feeling that each person expresses that there was something important they needed in their life that they could not find alone.  

I have found it also true in my own life.  There is a real grace that flows in my life as a result of being part of Christ’s body in the church.  Week after week, as I am fed on the mystery of the sacraments, and exposed time and again to the words of scripture, and blessed by the bonds of fellowship that grow up among us in the body of Christ,  I receive something that helps me live my life with a  palpable strength and hope.  And though I cannot exactly explain how that works, I can say that in those few chapters of my life where I absented myself from the community of Christ’s body, I found that sense of strength and hope to be absent too.  

I know that I need spiritual community, and your presence here today tells me you do too.  And I believe that healthy spiritual communities remain open and ready to receive new life and health continually through the graceful way God guides new members into their midst.

In the 12 step fellowships which have all sprung from the original AA, there is a saying:

“The newcomer is the most important person in the room, because to keep our recovery from addiction, we have to be constantly giving it away.” 

I find these words to be very wise and I have recently translated for myself for use in church:

“The newcomer is the most important person in church, because to keep our faith in Christ we have to constantly be giving it away.”

I have shared this translation with our newly formed newcomer welcome committee, as a slogan we can use to direct our approach to welcoming and incorporating visitors and new members whom God in Christ draws in among us.  And we all have a part in embodying these words.  The amazing thing about living into this slogan is that as we turn our focus to the newcomer and engage our curiosity about who they are and how they have come to be among us, we are reminded of our own first coming into this community – of those moments when God’s grace moved us not to confide in our strength, but rather to enter into a community that makes a boast of God’s mercy.

In our Gospel passage from Matthew this morning, Jesus says, ”Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  This homecoming Sunday, let’s celebrate that amazing truth once again!  Let’s take some time at the passing of the peace, to pause to see Christ looking back at us through the eyes of those we greet in his name.  And let’s joyfully trust that they will meet Christ in us as well.  And after our worship together is complete and we gather for our homecoming picnic, let’s seek out those we don’t know well and get acquainted.  Let’s take some time to share a bit about what brought us here to St. Paul’s, and how it makes a difference in our lives.  Let’s each dare ourselves to greet and get to know someone we don’t know well – someone who is a newcomer to us, even if we have seen them around here for years, but have just never had the chance, or the nerve (speaking for those of us who are on the shy side) to get to know them.  When we reach out to each other in community this way – even when it feels awkward – we literally weave the threads of our community closer and strengthen the pathways of light through which the love of Christ can flow!

Of course none of this begins today – hospitality is a charism of this parish- but it is a charism that needs constant refreshing, and deepening, so that we don’t just welcome, we welcome and weave in all who have been brought here to find spiritual abode – whether for the short term or the long run!  And may this curiosity about, and care for each other go viral among us whenever we meet!

I want to close with some words I read this week in a commentary about this Gospel passage – the commentator writes this:

Two or three met with Christ, are not merely added: they multiply each other’s faith, and are multiplied in power by him who is most surely in their midst.” (From The Interpreter’s Bible (1951) vol.7, p. 474)

May Christ powerful presence among us multiply our faith and our ability to serve him in whose name we are gathered!  Amen+

 

 

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Aug 232017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, August 20, 2017 The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

 

This gospel passage can provoke unease and speculation. The preacher’s website visit quite often had more posts on this passage than any other I remember. I’m guessing that is because on first glance this exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman reveals a side of Jesus that is not very familiar to us who experience Christ Jesus as a compassionate Lord. The aloofness he exhibits in the passage and his rather rude treatment to this woman comes begging for healing for her daughter seems uncharacteristic of him.

So I want to offer you my best estimation of what is going on in this passage. To do that we need to start by looking at the larger context of the passage. In the verses of this chapter that immediately precede this passage, we find that Jesus has made significant breaks with Jewish religious traditions of his day, especially with regard to purity codes and this has angered and offended the Pharisees.  Jesus has done what he felt called to do, and it has caused conflict. This seems to drain him of some energy. He feels the need to get away, to regroup and think things through. So as the first verse of our gospel tells us, Jesus crossed the border between Israel into the regions Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon. Here in the Gentile territory one might assume that he would enjoy some anonymity, and so could take the needed time out to regenerate his energy and refresh his spirit.

But instead of finding rest in anonymity, he is almost immediately confronted with a request for healing from the Canaanite woman of that land, whose child is gravely ill. The Canaanites were the people that live to closely with the Jews of that day but who were held in great contempt by many in Israel. At first Jesus ignores this woman. But there is something in her approach to him that catches his attention. She refers to him as “Lord” and “Son of David”. These are messianic titles she is using, indicating that she has recognized the divinity clothed within his humanity.

          Perhaps this was like salt in a wound to Jesus. The leaders of Israel have just roundly rejected him. His words to the disciples who asked that he send this persistent woman away reveal I think the struggle that is going on within him as he remembers the lack of faith among some of the leaders of his own people, and yet here sees one full of faith among those who are outside the covenant God holds with Israel. He answers his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That was the boundary he had assumed up until this moment. His mission was inside Israel. But what is that really true? He had not found an opening in the established hierarchy of his beloved Israel. Yet here was a Canaanite woman, who was hailing him as Messiah – the ground was shifting under his feet and it was agonizing.

And then this persistent woman got past the disciples and came and knelt before him.  Looking him full in the face, she makes her request again- “Lord, help me”. His response to her is harsh-harsher than we thought possible, but harshness I would bet was born of his agony. I imagine him in that moment turning his eyes from hers and then retorting with some venom that perhaps is not really meant for her- “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She is not put off. She is confident about who she is and what she’s asking. She responds with the quickness that startles him- “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that have fallen from their masters’ tables.” 

          A commentator writing for the synthesis Bible commentary series says the following about this interaction:

“With one hand of her faith the Canaanite woman had lead hold of him and whom all healing Grace was stored; with her other hand she laid hold of her suffering daughter-she, new herself to be a living conductor by which the power of Christ might run, like an electric current from him to the object of her love.” (Synthesis CE, August 18, 1996).

I am guessing that it was this woman’s fully alive and energized faith that drew Jesus attention fully back to her. Her words pull him out of his agony and make his heart leap with hope. “Woman great is your faith!  If we take a moment to look at this exchange of words between Jesus and this woman of Canna, we notice this is the only statement made by Jesus that is followed by an exclamation point. This indicates to me that he is speaking with a certainty and a conviction that did not accompany his earlier statements to her.

It appears to me that this Canaanite woman was a messenger to Jesus, and both Jesus and this woman taught each other something on that day. In a sense they were both rabbis in God’s incredible plan of salvation. He personifies to her God’s amazing, merciful, healing power, while she stretches him past a boundary that he had set on God’s boundless love and grace. Through her, God is showing a way forward to Jesus where Jesus was not expecting it. His vision of his mission is enlarged in this moment, and the instrument God chose to accomplish this is perhaps not what he expected – a foreign woman whose eyes of faith were wide open. And the disciples – we are they- are fed with a radical new truth-that God is no respecter of human boundaries and divisions.

If we look at the other two lessons and the psalm for today we will notice that this theme dominates these scriptures. In the first lesson we are told that God’s holy mountain will be home at all those whose hearts are set on God. And in the second lesson we find Paul struggling with the same truth. What we know is that Paul the former pharisaic persecutor of the followers of Jesus, after he’s Damascus Road conversion spent the rest of his life as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles. But never did Paul let this amazing twist in his personal life story cut him off from his fellow Jews. As we hear in this passage from the Letter to the Romans, Paul was certain that God was working, out behind the scenes, in ways that we cannot even imagine, the salvation of all people, Jews and Gentiles, and that those earth and time bound categories and divisions counted for nothing in the light of Christ.

This week as news stories of human division and hatred have swirled around me from within our own nation and around the world, I have held onto the scripture passages, and been moved to ask myself “Who are the outcasts of my life? With whom do I have the hardest time living on God’s holy mountain?” Perhaps those are the ones to whom I should go and share the bread of healing that has been so graciously shared with me. By so doing I would be following in the footsteps our Lord has laid down in this gospel. And perhaps it is in those places that great and amazing faith might be revealed.

In times like these we all need such experiences to kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we can make a difference is a world beset with small minded bigotries and hatreds that sometime can bubble up in our own hearts. Stories of people who have pushed past these barriers are sometimes too few and far between in our shared histories and our daily newscasts  which seem over populated with stories of people doing just the opposite. We have too much News of hatred and violence and terror. So whenever I run across a story of boundary busting love in action, I like to share it. So I will end with this story that echoes what was going on between the Canaanite woman and Jesus.  It comes from the autobiography of Yevtushenko, the great Russian poet. It is about a moment in 1944 the world seemed bleak but self-spending love broke out among enemies:

“It was a day when 20,000 German war prisoners were marched through the streets of Moscow, wearing bloodstained bandages, hobbling on crutches, leaning on comrades. At one point an elderly Russian woman, herself ill-clad, pushed through a police line, went up to the column of ragged German soldiers, and pushed a crust of bread into the pocket of a soldier so exhausted that he was tottering. And then suddenly from all sides women were running to these enemy soldiers pushing bread, cigarettes, whatever they had, into their hands. It was a reminder that human compassion has sources that transcend powerful hatreds. It suggests that the roots of reconciliation are not alien feelings to the human spirit, but a residue of our origin in the timeless being of the Creator, The Eternal One.” (“Peacemaking: the Christians Vocation”, by Calvin DeVry’s) 

In Christ’s name and for his sake.  Amen+

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Aug 152017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 – The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

          Don’t you just love Peter’s confidence in our Gospel this morning – getting out of that boat and walking toward Jesus across the top of those waves?  It is the confidence of one who wants to follow Jesus, but many have over-estimated their own abilities. 

          I was a bit like that the summer after my second year in seminary.  I had the opportunity to work as an intern with a chaplain who was doing street ministry in Downtown Albany, NY on behalf of the ecumenical community of churches there.  I had lived in Albany and worked as a probation officer there for 4 years before going to seminary, so I was no stranger to the struggles of the urban poor there.  And I was grateful for a chance to approach life in that city not as a member of the law enforcement community, but rather as a pastor in training.

As I anticipated that internship during the last month of the academic year, I envisioned the sorts of ministry encounters I might have – connecting with people who needed hope and spiritual sustenance.  I could be the one to bring the good news! I was ready to do what it would take to really making a difference in their lives.  It all had a “Touched by an Angel” sort of sheen to it. 

          I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that is not what I experienced that summer.  What I experienced was something very different.  First of all, my “job” was not as well defined as I had expected.  Other than sitting in the ecumenical outreach office for a couple of hours a day in case someone came in seeking help- which rarely happened, I was sent out to the food pantries and soup kitchens, and to walk around the city streets to meet and get to know people in need.  This was really pretty much outside of my comfort zone. I felt clumsy in my interactions in the soup kitchen.  I felt like sobbing at the food pantry as I witnessed people of all ages coming in hungry and desperate.  I felt awkward speaking to homeless people on the street – what could I say to them? Anything I could think of to say about God or Jesus just came off sounding condescending when I rehearsed it in my head.  And I was left speechless when I was wolf-whistled at or became the object of a drunk man’s irrational ranting and raving.  I may have been confident in the safe boat of seminary, and even felt a bit of confidence as I started out across the waters of this new work, but these initial experiences made my heart sink like a rock.

          Two weeks into the 8 week internship the street ministry chaplain found me weeping in the office.  To my amazement he did not seem at all surprised by my tears.  He smiled and said to me, “OK, now we are getting somewhere.” That jolted me out of my sobbing!  Seeing the incredulous look on my face he told me to relax, that I was right where I needed to be – where he himself had been just a year before.  As he recounted his own initial high hopes and how he too had experienced that same sinking feeling after a week or so on the job, I felt at ease.

Then we reflected together about the largely unrealistic expectations we had brought to our street ministry and how those expectations had taken a real beating.  We wondered together about what our goals in this ministry should really be.  Toward the end of that conversation the chaplain said that after a year in the job he had become convinced that God had brought him there, not so much to have an amazing impact on others, but rather to be changed himself.   He said that like Peter walking on water and then sinking, he had to jettison his over-confidence in his abilities to bring massive change to needy people’s lives, and instead daily call on Christ to hold him up and make his way in this work he had been given.  He said that when he started each day that way his expectations about this work began to shift.  It was true that over the year he had been in this ministry he had been able to befriend some folk who had no other friends, and that he had been able to help in small ways with material needs.  But he said he had become convicted that the only way he could really help the people he was there to serve was to get to know their life from the inside and then use that knowledge to work for substantive change in society.  Substantive changes that would mean the people we were seeking to serve and their children would not be trapped in cycles of poverty and violence endlessly.  Those cycles of poverty and violence were winds that sometimes could make him sink in fear, but if he remembered to call out to Christ, Christ would draw him up out of the waters again, to find a way to take what he was observing and use it to witness for change in societal systems that perpetuated those cycles of suffering. 

This strikes me now as a wonderful image for baptism.  When the sacred waters of the font pour over us, we die to the idea that we can change ourselves or our world on our own power alone.  And when Christ raises us up again from those waters, he begins to empower us to move where he would have us go for his good ends and purposes.  And the life of faith is a challenging, sometimes perilous, and always wondrous journey with Christ when we stay close to him.

          That day all those years ago in Albany, as I felt immersed in waters of uncertainty, I asked my colleague for advice on how to join him in this work of being changed so that I too could work for positive change.  He said that the best advice he could give me was “don’t just do something, stand there.”  He counseled that a ministry of presence would go a lot farther than a ministry of words with the people we were trying to get to know.  He also counseled that if I made being present my goal, God would have a lot easier time getting through to me with what I needed to receive to change and grow in my vocation.  That God could be heard in the silence of presence, easier than in the noise of self-propelled activity, well intentioned as it might be. Years later that advice has not worn thin!  Listening for the still small voice of God to guide me is always better than my best self- manufactured ideas.

          I will never forget one person I met that summer who I do feel spoke the word of God to me.  After sharing several meals with me in the soup kitchen, a man who was a Vietnam vet and who was struggling with PTSD and lack of employment said to me, “Just remember, some of us wear our need on the outside and some of us wear our need on the inside.” In that moment the tables turned and I was hearing God speak through this man

          The more I listened that summer the more I heard God speaking to me about compassion and justice. The more I looked around, dared to look into faces across the table or on the street, the more I recognized Christ looking back at me, present in the very ones I had mistakenly thought I was supposed to bring him to.  They gave me a new facet of truth – the truth that we are all one and that there is not distinction between any of us in God’s eyes.  The truth that when any are in need we all are in more need than we want to admit or talk about.

          So often we who wear our wealth on the outside, avoid the truth of how large the gap between rich and poor has become. I suspect at least part of the reason for that avoidance is the shame we feel at that disparity, and the uncertainty about how to do anything lasting about it.  At least that is the lesson I began to learn all those summers ago, on the streets of Albany.  But I find there is an incredible freedom that comes when we affirm that this is not the way that the God we know in Jesus Christ would have it for his beloved children.  There is a freedom and a joy in affirming that.  A freedom and a joy that can spur us time and again to become more vocal witnesses of that truth in the places of status and power that we have access to.  Witnesses who emphatically trust that the Word that we need to speak is very near us – He is on our lips and in our hearts. He has drawn us up out of the waters that threatened to sink us, and has gotten into the boat of our lives with us, and that makes all the difference and gives us the power to be witnesses to his incredible love for all people. 

Amalie, this is the good news of the life of faith that you are entering into formally with us this morning through the waters of baptism. Remember that whenever you feel overwhelmed by life or have a sinking feeling in your heart, all you need do is call on Jesus, and he will come and raise you up. We are so glad you will be joining us in this body of Christ as we follow his lead in ushering in his reign on earth.  In Christ’s name and for his sake.  Amen+

 

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