Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where Your Feet Take You

Judith Robbins' Easter Sunday message from the 10 a.m. service.

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Isaiah 25: 6-9
1 Cor, 15: 1-11
Mark 16: 1-8

Where Your Feet Take You

There’s good news today. Because the Christ is risen, to quote the poet Dylan Thomas, Death shall have no dominion. Although he was bruised and beaten and died an ignominious death on a tree, Jesus, the Christ, is alive and among us this morning––in us, I dare say.

I am not going out on a limb saying this. I am speaking from the center of the tree, from the pith, the essential, the vital part, the essence of the tree, which is the spirit, the spirit of Jesus let loose in the world.

Because of this resurrection, Jesus is not relegated to the status of simply an historical figure we read about in a book, or in a thousand books. With the confidence that comes from experience, I tell you that he is a living presence, not a memory, but a presence. There is all the difference in the world between knowing about a person and knowing a person. The latter happens when that person will share, truly share his or her spirit with us, his or her life.

When Pentecost happens, 50 days down the road from now, I will talk about Jesus sharing his spirit, his very person with us, but for today, I’ll only refer to it with the allusion of how it is with a person in our own lives who genuinely shares herself or himself. We feel known and we feel that we know. We begin to understand that level of sharing when we act in love toward another. Imagine this at the divine level, possible because of resurrection. The One who died is alive. Love has resurrected love.

All that said, I would now offer you the source of the idea for the title of today’s message, “Where Your Feet Take You.” (What’s that got to do with Easter?) It’s Frederick Buechner again–– writer, poet and ordained Presbyterian minister, who still lives in the hills of Vermont, and, thanks be to God, still shares his insights and stories with us through his writings. It is he who suggested in response to a woman’s saying to him, “The way I understood it, you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used.”

“I say that feet are very religious too,” he replied. “If you want to know who you are, if you are more than simply academically interested in this or that mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer.”

“When you wake up in the morning,” he continued, “called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because, where your feet take you, that is who you are.”

Wise words, and ones we will consider this morning. I must defuse a possible distraction right off the bat. When I discussed this message with “a friend,” who will remain nameless, that friend said all he could think of was that his feet take him to the bathroom first thing in the morning. Rather than having a third to a half of the congregation possibly stuck in that thought or one like it for the rest of the message, may I say upfront, yes. Yes, indeed. Even to the bathroom our feet take us, when we are called in the morning to be a self again, and that is good. It’s part of the whole human condition, the whole human anatomy created by God, and wonderfully made, isn’t it? Enough of that? Okay.

I titled this message “Where Your Feet Take You” because yes, feet play such a significant role in the Easter Triduum we have just come through. On Thursday we heard about Jesus’s washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, saying “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter objected to Jesus’s washing his feet, but Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me,” after which Peter vigorously assented.

After Jesus finished washing their feet, he said to them, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”––in other words, serve one another. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

So, we have the Lord and Teacher washing the disciples feet with the exhortation to do for others what he, Jesus has done for them.

Feet are also a focus at the time of the crucifixion on Good Friday. We have seen enough images of the crucified Christ to know that the nails of crucifixion would have been driven through the feet, either one in each foot, or one foot placed over the other and a single spike driven through. Enough of that. That is where Jesus’s feet took him. All of his choices culminated in Calvary where he cried out to the one he called Abba, Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But that wasn’t the end. Yes, his choices had included acquiescence to the will of God, even if that included his death, which he did not want, by the way, and which he did not seek, but which he was willing to accept, if that is what was needed to fulfill his life. His life, as God was revealing it in him and to him. He went through death and was raised up. And even that was not the end but a beginning and how we meet, how we encounter him, no less than Mary Magdelene did, not in Mark’s gospel, which I read this morning, but in John’s, which I read at the sunrise service, where he documents the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. She thought he was the gardener, so transformed was he and so distressed was she in finding Jesus’s body removed.

Holy Thursday night, the washing of the feet, and the exhortation for the disciples and us by association to do the same. To serve, as Jesus served. Good Friday, the nailing of feet to the cross. Acquiescence in the extreme, to the point of laying down the life. We too are called to lay down our lives but seldom in such a dramatic fashion. Jesus’s choices had led him from Nazareth along the highways and byways of Palestine until he had come to this point, this seeming end point. He had followed his feet.

Mary Magdala, and Mary, the mother of James and Salome, had been at the deep end of the slough of despond, as they were on their way to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. There had not been time to do that following the crucifixion because of the setting of the sun and the beginning of Passover when no “work” could be done, even that work of mercy. So, they had come at the first opportunity very early in the morning after the Sabbath to render this last service to the body of their teacher, their rabbi. Their main concern was how they would move the stone that covered the opening of the tomb. In front of the opening was a groove, and in the groove ran a circular stone as big as a cartwheel, and the women knew it was beyond their strength to move a stone that size, but when they reached the tomb, the stone whad been rolled away, and inside was a young man sitting on the right side of the tomb in a white robe telling the unbelievable news of the resurrection. The gospel tells us that they fled from the tomb for fear, and astonishment gripped them. Their feet carried them away from the unbearable news.

In the case of these women friends of Jesus, the suddenness of the change from profound sorrow and grief to the incomprehensible news of the resurrection was more information than they could fully process in the moment, which is why they ran from it.

And Jesus? He had always been on the move. Famously he had said, “The birds of the air have nests, and the foxes have lairs, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was a man with a mission on the move, and he fulfilled that mission, and on the third day after his death, today, what we celebrate as Easter Sunday, he was raised up. And now he walks a different road, not Nazareth but the highways of our souls as we allow.

Indeed as we allow, our feet will be, our feet are his feet in the world. And we walk this way once dear friends, so let us look at where those feet come down. Think: All of the unkept promises, if they ever are to be kept, have to be kept today. All the unspoken words if you do not speak them today will never be spoken. The people, the ones you love and the ones who annoy or bore you, all the life you have in you to live with them, if you do not live it with them today will never be lived.

It is the first day because it has never been before, and the last day because it will never be again. Be as alive as you can be all through this day, like a risen Christ yourself. Follow your feet. Start the coffee or tea when you get home. Put on the ham, or if you’re an eggs-on-Easter kind of family, start the eggs. Look at each person around the table today. Make yourself know how important and good each of them is. Impress on your own mind that this is what you have: today. This resurrection day. This holiest of days you have them, and God be praised, you have the life of Christ in you to share with them.

In conclusion I would like to quote another poet, John Donne. He exhorts death,

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

And quoting again Dylan Thomas, who is quoting from Romans 6:

“And death shall have no dominion.” Death has no dominion over him or over us. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dearly Beloved...

Judith Robbins' message for Membership Sunday:

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Community Happens

As often as not, those who marry these days have a nontraditional service, including writing their own wedding vows. But you must have been present at some time in your life at a wedding ceremony where the more traditional wedding service and vows were spoken. It usually starts off, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and woman in holy matrimony.”

In the old Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church, the service for the public baptism of infants begins with the same words: “Dearly Beloved.” And so will our brief service of welcome to our new members begin today: “Dearly Beloved.” At first I thought the expression quaint and perhaps outdated and considered updating it. I wisely abandoned that plan and will follow the form as it has been done in this church, at least from the beginning of the federation of the First Congregational Church of Newcastle and the Methodist Church of Sheepscott.

“Dearly Beloved,” I will say, addressing those who have chosen to join us as the worshipping community of the Sheepscott Community Church, “do you now then, in the presence of the church community, unite with us in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of others?” As I address that question to those seated here in the front, I would ask all of us to consider whether that is indeed part and parcel of our purpose in coming together here each Sunday.

This is a solemn occasion––an occasion for joyful celebration, yes, and we will mark that downstairs after the service, but the choice to commit to worshipping with a group of others seeking wider and deeper understanding of spiritual truths is a solemn business. While all are welcome to worship in this church , whether members of not, with this willingness to join the church there is a deeper level of commitment. It is nothing less than a move from attending to joining your future to the future of the church.

The search for spiritual truth is a communal affair, and part of the joy of partaking of that communal affair is discovering how that search has been experienced and lived by others in the past and present. As circumstance would have it, in our little community we have many different traditions, different lived expressions of religious faith––most of the Protestant denominations: the founding Congregationalists and Methodists, Anglican or Episcopalian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Presbyterian, and the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions are also represented among us. There may be others I don’t know about. I used to think––because I was so taught––that the rupture of Christianity at the time of the Reformation was a bad thing. I have come to believe that the various expressions of Christianity, and other religions as well, can be seen as expressing the multifaceted being of God, which, whom, we finally can only wait on for revelation about that One’s self.

A reality that I cannot ignore in this context is that historically there has been enmity between and among denominations and religious expressions––extreme enmity that most of us don’t need to have drawn out because it’s a sad history we are well acquainted with, a history that is marked by the blood of martyrs for whichever cause depending on your sympathies, not to mention heated discussions with slammed down forks at holiday dinner tables that continue even in our own time.

I noted that the search for spiritual truth is a communal affair, and Christianity, like all great religions, is explicitly communal in its theology, but part of the damage that has been done to Christianity and to so many who have been disillusioned by it, has arisen from interpreting community as a matter of walls, like a ghetto. Everyone inside the wall is part of the community, and everyone outside of it is not. By virtue of our having come from so many points on the religious map individually and as a group, I believe we are a model of mutuality and acceptance, perhaps prophetic of what Christianity can look like when the focus is where Jesus directed it in John 13: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.”

If some are disillusioned by what are interpreted as walls that keep out and separate, conversely, one of the attractions of religion, for many people, is the existence of a supporting community, for which walls can function as a different metaphor. I think all of us in this church could give testimony about that. Jon and I have only been members of the church for less that two years, and yet, we have experienced the church’s support personally again and again, most recently when Jon badly cut his hand. I had no compunction or hesitation about reaching out to the prayer chain to ask for prayer for him while he was in surgery. I myself was carried up on wings of prayer by this church when I was knocked off my horse by Lyme disease last fall. In that pinch, Chuck Reinhardt responded to a Saturday night message I left and filled the pulpit the next day, when I was too sick to get out of bed. I would mention that he had been out late that Saturday night and yet got up at 6 to prepare for a 10 o’clock service. That level of commitment and professionalism and kindness has earmarked our association with this church again and again.

But it’s really the fellowship /at the time of worship/and before and after services/when the ties that bind are established and strengthened. For many, the attraction of becoming part of the friendships and energy of such a group is tempered by the implicit demand that people who do these things together must also be part of a total religious system to which assent must be given. But in reality, in this community, we are free to choose the strength and truth of a community without automatically choosing its total creed. This does not rule out any particular aspect of religious systems that we may, in time, come to understand, and appreciate, and choose.

Choosing to follow an insight we might have coming out of worship or fellowship in the community is a level of commitment. That insight may link up with other scarcely seen realities, and soon, in some way or other, we experience the fact of community, seen or unseen. Community happens.

Today you all are making a choice to become more fully a part of Sheepscott Community Church. Bruce and Dot Ullrich have been coming for years but simply have not signed the book of membership. We also welcome choir member Karin Swanson; Sylvia Martin, Eli Miller, our youngest new member at 7, almost 8––on April 27; his mother Lee Roberts; Barbara Meyer, whose son Damon with his children Sophie and Jack, whom we have all met before, and who are here to mark the day with Barbara; Linda Zollers; Ernie and Lily Mayer; and Carroll and Ted Smith.

You’ve all made a choice to build on a moment of spiritual awareness or just liking this church and what you’ve experienced here, to value it, to rejoice in it, and now today to officially join us as we unite in the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus for the worship of God and the service of others.

We all have a sense of being part of something large, yet intimate; seen and unseen; explicit and yet quite vague. If we don’t have that sense, we want it, and the importance of this awareness cannot be overstated because it corresponds to the nature of human being, which is interdependent down to the last molecule, whether or not we admit it or like it. There is comfort in a sense of solidarity, in a sense of being part of something beyond ourselves. Just the knowledge that other people haven’t given up can make a difference.

May you know yourselves, indeed, dearly beloved. Amen.

Membership Sunday 5.April.09

Today Judith Robbins and Board President Cyndi Leavitt officially welcomed a dozen new members as part of Sheepscott Community Church Membership Sunday-Palm Sunday-Communion Service.

Ted and Carroll Smith of Bristol, Lily and Ernie Mayer of Walpole, Barbara Meyer of Whitefield, Karin Swanson of Sheepscott, Linda Zollers of Wiscasset, Eli Miller of Tenants Harbor and Alna, Lee Roberts of Alna, Sylvia Martin of Alna and Bruce and Dot Ullrich of Amherst,N.H. all joined the SCC today. Mike Colbert of Lacunae Productions took the photos.