Monday, July 27, 2009

How the Mighty Have Fallen––and Gotten Up

Sheepscott Community Church July 26, 2009

2 Samuel 11: 1-15

John 6: 1-21

How the Mighty Have Fallen––and Gotten Up

Our adorable dancing King David trips over his own feet in this morning’s first reading. To employ a cliche, How the mighty have fallen. This great king of Israel, the man after God’s own heart, succumbed to one of the temptations of the powerful. How often have we seen that? Not many days go by that we don’t hear about yet another prominent celebrity, whether politician, movie star, or sports figure, showing off his feet of clay.

The temptations of the flesh are many, and when they are enabled by a position of power, as they were with King David, the outcome can be fairly predictable. Because he could do it, he did it. Have we heard that before? For Bathsheba’s part, there is an acquiescence that could be attributed to the fact that a woman doesn’t say no to the king. The contrast of David’s character with that of the faithful soldier Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, couldn’t be clearer. Or stronger. In deference to his liege, King David, and recognizing that the ark of God was in a tent, as were all his fellow soldiers, Uriah could not in good conscience go down to the comforts of his home and spouse as David had directed him to do. He was a faithful soldier to his core.

How did David feel when he heard Uriah’s explanation about why he couldn’t go home? I hope he had a least a prick of conscience before making the decision to set Uriah up for sure death. It would seem that the same royal arrogance was operant in his second decision: the first decision led him to follow through with his lust and take another man’s wife to his bed. The second, which followed the pregnancy resulting from the first, led him to take the man’s life. First the man’s wife; then the man’s life; and then, the man’s wife again for his own wife. Oh, King David. Our disappointment in you is great.

No greater than our disappointment in Peter, however, who betrayed Jesus by denying him three times. “I don’t know the man!” But it was to this weak and wounded Peter, with whom he shared a lakeside breakfast after his resurrection, it was to that man at that time that Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” He entrusted his people to a weak and sinful man, but whose heart he also knew was good. 

Did Jesus know what he was doing when he did that? Well, think of the five loaves and a few fish of this morning’s gospel. Those five loaves and those few fish fed 5000 people, excluding women and children, who were not considered when calculating the numbers of significant people. So, the fact is that you could probably double that figure to represent how many people were really there––at least 10,000.

Did Jesus know what he was doing when he entrusted the future church to the likes of Peter? Did he know what he was doing when he fed perhaps 10,000 people from five loaves and a few fish? If there was a lesson for the disciples and so, for us in the choice of Peter and in the feeding of all those people, it is to use the resources at hand and make a beginning. Whether or not Jesus as the Christ knew all history before and after that moment is irrelevant. What he is saying, what he is teaching is that what matters is the moment. It is all we have, and we work with what we have in that moment


In that particular moment, he had 5000––maybe 10,000––hungry people in front of him, hungry for teaching, hungry for bread. Jesus’ compassion made him sensitive to all of the hungers he encountered. He fed those hungry for truth with his teaching; his compassion fed the sorrowing; his mercy fed the marginalized. His caring fed the sick, the dying and the lonely. His love fed the hunger of all those yearning to be loved, to belong, to be forgiven and redeemed.

But it is Jesus’ willingness to feed humanity’s endless physical hunger that is the focus of today’s gospel, which challenges us to follow his example and to feed the hungry. In a less dramatic way we have seen the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, metaphorically speaking, on a regular basis at Second Congregational Church on the second Wednesday of every month, when our church is responsible for providing the weekly community supper. Regardless of how many casseroles, salads, and whatever is featured for the month’s menu, no matter how many dishes are delivered––or not delivered, there is always enough. But not just enough. Usually, at least some of those who attend––and that number fluctuates only slightly from month to month––take with them when they leave containers of leftovers. How different is that from the baskets of leftover bread and fish––12!!––which the disciples gathered up after the people had eaten?  

It’s a matter of degree, of sheer numbers, but the principle is the same. Take what you have and make a beginning. It’s important to point out that those whom Jesus and his disciples served needed to be willing to accept the bread offered. Did some say, Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t do rye bread; or did they take what was offered? Yes, the stomach may be hungry but sometimes pride is greater than the hunger and can keep us from receiving that for which our souls are dying. 

Parenthetically, I would note the attendance at the Wednesday night suppers of one person who does not usually eat much of what we have to offer. I think it’s because of her dietary regimen, but she does take what she can. She does receive what she can. But what I want to note about this woman who is a member of the community that patronizes Second Congregational suppers, is that she always brings a little bag of something for the people who are working the supper. Her usual gift is pistachio nuts, but there have been jelly beans in season, and other goodies. That has impressed me and it makes me think of my exhortation in last week’s message not to just feed on the presence of God and what God gives us, but after we are fed and are satisfied to go out and feed others what we have been given. 

There is also a dimension of mutuality in this woman’s gifts to us. In essence, each month we are there, she is saying by her action, Feed one another. Care for one another. No matter how limited the resources, make a beginning. God will multiply those resources and will be the master teacher with the compassionate heart through the whole process. We ourselves are the resources, witness poor Peter, and God will and does multiply our pathetic efforts to the greatest possible advantage. I’m being neither falsely modest nor judgmental in the use of the word pathetic, only realistic in relation to the Divine.

Keep in mind a lesson I have offered more than once about the prodigality of God. Our God, manifest in the life of Jesus today feeding the 5000, or possibly 10,000 with women and children, is a God of abundance and not scarcity. For some of us––I dare say for most of us, especially in these tight economic times––we are kissing cousins with scarcity. We understand and expect scarcity, and we budget for it. And that’s a good thing, depending again on degree. We live by the model of scarcity, although credit card companies have done their best to convince us of a false abundance, an unending supply of money to meet our needs. What a corruption of a truth about God, and that corruption in the service of money. It sounds downright sacrilegious. Know that God’s abundance is real and doesn’t come with a jacked-up interest rate or a price tag. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is a price tag of a kind: it’s faith. Faith that there will be enough to survive on, if we are willing to surrender our scarcity view and receive, accept what God has to offer, take the rye bread even though you’d prefer Borealis rosemary bread. 

Isn’t that the way we are? Isn’t that the way we’ve always been, right back to the Israelites in the desert? We’re tired of this manna. I don’t like quail. I’m thirsty. We want what we had back in Egypt. Hold your tongue is what I suggest. Hold your tongue and eat what’s put in front of you. Hmm. I think I hear my mother there.

When we object, coming from the scarcity model, that there are so many who hunger and so little food, Jesus challenges us to talk less and do more, to complain less and trust more. That makes me think of time in relation to the abundance and scarcity model, as well. Not only do we not have enough resources, we complain, but there isn’t enough time to get involved in these things, these church and community projects. I don’t have time to do this and that and then more of this. What’s pushing from behind in this complaint is the delusion that our time, our lives are our own, and we hang on to them for dear life, afraid that God will demand everything of us. Bingo! I do believe what God asks is everything, but God never demands it: God asks again and again. If we spend the early part of our lives forming ourselves for life and its demands, we spend the middle years meeting the demands of family, of relationships, of work and social service, or sports––name the expenditure of your energy. Video games. Television. Movies. Online. All are great consumers of energy, of time. 

We all deal with this, don’t we? Last week, if you recall, I asked you to consider the balance between rest and service and to make sure that you get and do both. Jesus was taking his apostles across the lake after a protracted period of service, when they had been healing, feeding, taking care of the general population, just as Jesus did. Jesus saw  they were exhausted, and he saw their need for rest and renewal. As it worked out, they didn’t get it because there were people at their destination waiting for them with even more needs, today’s need for food, food for the body, which is why the loaves and fishes. Even though the apostles were badly depleted energy-wise, they had to meet the needs of those people waiting for Jesus.

If they were going to meet those needs, if they or we are going to say yes to God, we have to be willing to set aside the idea of our lives and time being our own. Come before God to ask about this, to try to get a true read on what God does want, does expect of us, and then to ask for the desire and strength to respond to the need.

Legitimately you may ask, What’s in it for me? Why would I want to give up my time, even if it is what you call a delusion that the time is mine at all? What’s in it for me? I admit I’m perplexed about how to answer that question. I don’t know what’s in it for you, but God does. I don’t know the secret recesses of your heart, but God does. I don’t know your secret shames and hopes, your deepest regrets and your fondest wishes, but God does. 

This much I do know, and this only because it has been my experience, God reveals Godself to us––sometimes––in those deepest places that nobody knows about, and we recognize what’s going on when it happens. We know who it is. And to know that there is indeed a God who knows us, our deepest lustful, lying, deadly selves, and which God loves us anyway...That’s an ephiphanous moment, a turning moment, when we can begin to believe and to love ourselves because like Peter or like King David, one admonished by the prophet Nathan, the other by Jesus himself, these men who committed regrettable acts could be forgiven, could be raised up and begin to live the resurrected life, which is one of joy and hope and service. And it is not a pie-in-the-sky hope. It’s hope that rises out of a dire past, that rises even as the sun rose over New Orleans, the day after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. A new day. Even with the evidence of chaos all around, yet look: there was the sun.

Even with our lives lying around us in tatters, look. Listen. The Spirit of God is speaking into the midst of it, speaking to your heart and soul. No matter what you have done, no matter what you have not done, you are forgivable and can begin a new life. God knows you fully, every thought, every action, every failing, every triumph. God knows you fully and loves you. But like the bread that Jesus offered, you, I, have to receive that bread, that knowledge that seems too great for us. In our puny minds we think in punitive terms. We think in the scarcity model of a God like us, who couldn’t possibly forgive and forget what we have done. We make our God into our own image in this way and turn away from the table because we cannot believe that we can be forgiven and fed. We know we don’t deserve it.

Allow an abundance model of understanding around this. God has enough love to cover a multitude of sin and history that we can’t even calculate as forgivable and forgettable. Again, we only have to suspend our disbelief in this wonderful possibility and receive the bread of God, which we can feed on in those hidden places of ourselves. If we go exploring with that bread in hand, we can bring the gift of love to our own parched and hungry souls. We are a limited resource, yes, but the Creator will capitalize on that limitedness in ways all unexpected. Remember: five loaves, two fish. 5000, maybe even 10,000 people. What can’t God do? We’re a piece of cake after that.

Fed, forgiven, restored, we can then go forth and give, and feed to others what we ourselves have been given, like the woman at the Second Congregational supper gives back. And forgive. Don’t forget forgiveness. In a real way the feeding s the easier part, the forgiving sometimes more difficult. Unforgiveness lurks in the secret place of the heart like a parasite, and can destroy the life of the host who harbors it. With your permission, God can enable you to destroy that parasite and have all of your life’s energy available. Desire and willingness are all. Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mobility of God

Sheepscott Community Church July 19, 2009

2 Samuel 7: 1-14a

Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56

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The Mobility of God

I’d like to begin this morning with a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke, a German poet of the late-nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. “What Will You Do God?” is the title.

What will you do, God, when I am dead?

I am your pitcher (what if I be broken?)

I am your drink (what if I perish?)

I am your robe, I am your craft,

you lose your meaning when I am no more.

When I am gone you have no home

where loving words will greet you warmly.

The velvet slipper that I am

will drop from your weary foot.

Your great cloak will drop from you.

Your gaze, which my cheek receives gently,

so that it rests there as on a couch,

will seek me in vain

til it comes to rest at sunset on alien stones.

What will you do, God? I am afraid..

I remembered that poem when I was reading about David speaking to Nathan the prophet and asking how he could be comfortable in his palace while God was in a tent. He purposed to build God  a temple, and Nathan at first encouraged him to go right ahead and do that because God was with him. Nathan’s subsequent corrective on that––after prayer––was that a descendant of David’s would do that work, would build the temple. As it turned out, it was his son Solomon. In his love for God, David wanted to give God a gift, to build him a temple. I find that endearing in the same way the poet’s implication of love is endearing. Both anthropomorphize God, and in the case of God and the poet, the poet, perhaps naively, perhaps truly––we don’t know––sees himself as indispensable in the life of God, fearful of what might happen to God when he––the poet––dies. It is like David, wanting to build that Temple, so God will have a proper house, as if God is dependent on him for that house and could be confined to a house. While it’s endearing in what could be considered a kind of naivete, it is also a remarkable assertion out of a living faith, a living relationship that we would do well to emulate.

Both David and the poet knew God as available and approachable. That availability and approachability has to do with an understanding of God’s mobility that today’s readings lend themselves to. God accommodated himself to the tent and the ark, which gave the people a feeling of assurance of the presence of God as they traversed the Sinai Desert over those years. They never saw God, but they observed the effect of God in the light of Moses’ face after he had spoken with God, in the abundance of food and water when they cried out for it. They also observed the effect of the absence of God when they disobeyed what had been given them as guidance for their journey, when wasting disease appeared among them. God was not punishing them per se; it was a result of their own choice to behave in a certain way.

So God went before the Israelites symbolically, and they received direction from Moses, his prophet and chosen leader. About 300 years later, the anointed King  David began his reign in approximately 1000 B.C.E. As I mentioned earlier, David wanted to build a permanent home, a Temple palace for God, to bring the ark of God out of the tent, but the answer was, not now, and not you. That comes later through another. We do know that chronologically that other person was King Solomon, David’s son. A further accepted Christian interpretation is that that one who would build the Temple is in fact Jesus, who was himself in the line, the tribe of David, but now we are talking about the temple of Christ’s body, not the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, that was destroyed not once, but twice, the second time in 70 C.E., predicted by Jesus.

Note that the portable tent and the ark that was set up in the tent and accompanied the Israelites represented a mobile God, as I have characterized that One, an available and approachable God, who was right there with the people. Whether or not they could see God, they could see God’s effects in the world.

Fast forward 1000 years to Jesus’ era. Here was another mobile temple, a physical temple killed but raised up, not by human hands but by the breath of God, and that Temple will never be destroyed again. Although we believe that that body, the person who lived on this earth as Jesus, is now with the One he called Father, although we may believe this, he, Jesus, is yet completely with us, as he promised he would be, by and through his Spirit. That is not just good news: It is great news.

We meet this mobile, this walking-about Christ in today’s gospel. After the disciples returned from their work of healing, teaching, raising up, feeding––the same things we are called to do as Christ’s disciples––Jesus invited them to come with him and rest awhile on the other side of the lake. They all got into a boat to cross the lake, which was about four miles across, compared with the 10-mile walk it would have been to traverse around the top of the lake by land. But people saw them leaving and ran on ahead toward the area where Jesus and his disciples were headed. The people arrived before the boat did, possibly because of no wind on the lake to push the boat, or, a contrary wind. The people, the sheep without a shepherd, were waiting for them when they arrived. 

Jesus knew the need the disciples had for rest and renewal, true of any life lived. Without the balance of work and rest, we spin our wheels and make no progress and destroy the lawn in the process. But this wasn’t the day for rest. The people were hungry for bread and for teaching. The need of the people in today’s gospel is for spiritual food, but also for bread, which the gospel from John will focus on for next week, when Jesus feeds the 5000. 

As I noted, Jesus recognized his disciples’ need to rest and recover, which is why he invited them to come away to the lonely place where the people had already made an end run and arrived. That the disciples could not avail themselves of the rest does not diminish the importance of the message about rest, only that Jesus places even more importance on feeding the hungry, whether bread for the body or bread for the spirit or both. It seems that service, giving of oneself, trumps pretty much everything in God’s book, read as the life of Jesus. That said, let me underline yet again the importance of the balanced life.

There is a rhythm to the Christian life, a continuous going into the presence of God from the presence of human beings, and going back from the presence of God to be among human beings. In this frame of reference there are two dangers: the danger of too much activity without rest, and the flip side, the danger of too much withdrawal from life. The first danger is fairly self-evident, and which is why we take vacations. The second wants some elaboration. Devotion that does not result in action of some sort is not real devotion. Prayer that does not issue in work is not real prayer. We ought not to seek the fellowship of God to avoid the fellowship of human beings, but in order to fit ourselves better for the latter. In the nineteenth century there was a movement called Quietism, which was characterized by an extreme form of sitting and listening to and for God in prayer––good in its place, but the value or non-value lies in a matter of degree and its translation into the world. Also, noteworthy is that Quietism does not represent the depth, quality and importance of intercessory prayer that goes on constantly in monasteries of different religions around the world. I am not ready to say that that kind of prayer is not what keeps us all from blowing ourselves up, or something along that line. We don’t know the ultimate value, but I for one appreciate that some among us do devote their lives to praying for the rest of us.

For most of us, however, the rhythm of the Christian life can be summed up in a few words: alternately meeting with God in the secret place and serving human beings in the marketplace. And the marketplace can be as close as home, where we are called to serve––for some of us, our growing families; for others of us, our departing families; for more of us, members of our families who are ailing in one way of another. This is the domestic marketplace.

As the young mother of four little ones, I remember getting totally squirrely at times with the daily demands that ranged from diapers, to unexpected illnesses, to feeding, feeding, feeding. When I would get really squirrely, I would often realize that I hadn’t begun the day with prayer, even a few minutes’ worth. Centering in God at the beginning of any day is the best insurance against squirelly-ness, whatever the cause at whatever point in life we find ourselves. “O, but I don’t have time!” we protest. Ah, but that’s the only way we will find and have time to do with any grace at all what needs to be done, and the only way we will have balance.

Approach the available, mobile God. We don’t have to go looking for that One far and abroad. As with poet Emily Dickinson finding the world in her back yard, or poet Francis Thompson trying to outrun the “Hound of Heaven” who was always at his heels, God is with us. We can’t outrun God; we can’t escape God, as the psalmist discovered and conveys in these words,  “Where can I go from your Spirit?/Where can I flee from your presence?/If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there./ If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

This omnipresent God whom the psalmist marvels at, who has hemmed him in behind and before, who has laid his hand upon him, this is the same God who accompanied the Israelites in their trek across the desert, who made Moses’ face to shine, who loved King David to distraction, to the point of promising it would be his descendant who would build the Temple of Jerusalem, and indeed whose descendant in his line built the permanent, everlasting temple of the Spirit that is the body of Christ, first realized on earth in the physical Jesus. That one now is present with that God who searched the psalmist and knew him, knew when he sat and when he rose, perceived his thoughts from afar, and which God––the God of Moses, David, Jesus––is our God as well, available and approachable no less to us and for us than for those towering figures. That God is the one we meet in secret to talk with, to be strengthened by, to be fed, that we in turn may go out to feed and strengthen others. 

If it helps to think of God in an RV, traversing the country, the world, the universe, a good shepherd on the move in a different kind of tent, an ark of different dimensions, going where his sheep are feeding––in Wal*Mart parking lots maybe?––then think that way about God. Go ahead. If your God is by the Sheepscot River at dusk or in the woods at dawn, all well and good. If you are moved by your God’s presence in the soft perfect skin of a new baby in your family, wonderful. All of these are ways of knowing the creative presence of an everywhere God in the world, hungering for us as much as we––whether or not we know it––are hungering for God.

Satisfy that hunger with prayer, with conscious companionship with another, whose presence feeds your soul, as Jesus’ presence fed the soul––and as we’ll hear next week, the body––of those with whom he interacted. But don’t just eat. After you’ve eaten of the presence, after you are filled and satisfied, go out. Feed someone else whether it’s with one of the recipes from the Sheepscott Community Church cookbook, whether it’s with a shoulder for someone to cry on, a listening ear, a trustworthy spirit that can keep a secret where it needs to. 

As has become clear in this sermon,I was struck by the mobility aspect of God when I read today’s scripture readings. The presence of God, symbolically carried in the ark accompanied the Israelites through the Exodus. In the New Testament reading, Jesus is himself the ark of God, the embodied Spirit of God, moving on his own steam––not carried––from place to place. He was a new expression of God-with-us. Jesus represents an evolution in human understanding of how God is with us, how we are living temples insofar as we house the Spirit of God, as Jesus did, and act out of that reality.


I prefer the latter model of the living Temple, but I realize that we come to this stationary model of the Temple in Jerusalem, this church, week by week, where we worship God together as a body. Then we leave the stationary model and take that Spirit of God we experience in worship and fellowship, the mobile model, and hit the streets. As many of us as there are, there are that many ways to be loved of God, by God, and then to pass that on to our fellow travelers in this world. Amen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Linda Blomquist, Guest Soloist

Visiting soloist on Sunday, July 19, 2009, was Linda Blomquist. Ms. Blomquist is a member of Second Congregational Church, Newcastle, and sings with the Sheepscot Valley Chorus, Coastal Chorale, and the Lincoln Festival Chorus.

Listen to her selection, James Brighton's "Trust in the Lord," accompanied by Carroll Smith, organist and choir director for the church, by clicking on the podcast for 19July2009 directly above this post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Joy in the Nitty Gritty

2 Corinthians 8: 7-15
Mark 5:21-43

The Rev. Ed Wynne offered his wisdom on joy on June 28. (Posted out of date order.)

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Possessed of God?

Sheepscott Community Church July 12, 2009

2 Samuel 6: 1-5; 12b-19

Ephesians 1: 3-14

Mark 6: 14-29

Possessed of God?

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The last line in this morning’s reading from Ephesians goes like this: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession––to the praise of his glory.” How do you feel about that phrase “God’s possession”? Does it rankle or does it give comfort?

If you are not God’s possession, whose or what’s possession are you? As Americans, who traditionally value self-reliance and independence of thought and action, I expect most would draw themselves up as tall as they could and reply something like, “I am my own man,” or “I am my own woman, my own self, not the possession of any one or any thing. I’ve worked hard to get here.” Fair enough. But now, let me illustrate from today’s readings how we may be possessed by an ideology or spirit without our knowing it, without our thinking of it in that way.

I saw a remarkable contrast between the figures in today’s readings. In the reading from the Hebrew bible we once again meet King David, and the New Testament reading is a slice of the life of Herod Antipas, most famous for his ordering the beheading of John the Baptist.

Before I talk about the contrast between these two and how that contrast relates to being possessed, I want to briefly share with you something I learned about the family of Herod as I was preparing for today. I had not known there were so many Herods; nor had I even imagined the carryings-on that went on in that extended family, murder, mayhem and incest, for openers. Just as a thumbnail sketch, however, to enable you to better appreciate today’s gospel, Herod the Great, the paterfamilias, was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent male children under two years of age in Bethlehem, following the deception by the Wise Men. That Herod married five times. The first marriage was to Cleopatra of Jerusalem produced Philip the Tetrarch, who later married Salome. Marriages to Doris and Mariamne the Hasmonean produced three sons, all of whom their father murdered. The last son, Aristobulus left a daughter, the infamous Herodias. Herod the Great then married another Mariamne who gave birth to Herod Philip, who later married his half-sister Herodias, who became the mother of Salome. The fifth wife, Malthake had two sons, one of whom was Herod Antipas, today’s gospel’s antihero, who seduced that same Herodias from his half-brother Philip and married her. How’s that for a family tree? As if the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have a corner on the market of family dysfunction. How would you like to have Thanksgiving at their house?!

I hope now you have a better idea of who Herod Antipas of today’s gospel is. That in place, let’s return to the contrasts among the figures in today’s readings. Consider King David, accompanying the ark of the covenant from Balaah of Judah up toward Jerusalem. “David, wearing an ephod”––an embroidered linen apron worn in ancient Hebrew rites––”David danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.” A few weeks ago I alluded to this dance of David’s before the Lord, comparing it to Farmer Hoggitt’s dance in the movie, Babe. Babe the pig, whom the farmer loved, was ailing. Farmer Hoggitt’s dance was the same type of ecstatic dance, appearing odd or extreme perhaps to an onlooker, but to the dancer, wrapt in the expression of love and caring for the one for whom he or she is dancing, there is no self-consciousness at all because the dance is for the beloved.

In the movie Billy Elliott, now a Tony-winning Broadway show, the eleven-year-old Billy tries to describe to the admissions panel at the London School of Ballet for which he is auditioning for admittance, what dance is to him, what it feels like. “It sort of feels good. [I’m] sort of stiff, but once I get going, I sort of forget everything and sort of disappear. Sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body. I’m just there. Fire. Bird. Like electricity. Yeah, electricity.”

King David tries to describe the same feeling to Michal, his wife, daughter of Saul, who despised him in her heart when she saw him leaping and dancing before the Lord. In verses further on, she says to him, in a voice no doubt dripping with sarcasm, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants, as any vulgar fellow would do!” 

He replied to her, “...I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes, but by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” It was for God he danced, and he didn’t give a fig for what Michal thought about him and how she judged him.

The unselfconsciousness with which King David danced before the Lord was entirely different from the way Herodias’s daughter Salome danced before Herod and his important guests. If David danced with purity of intention to worship God, Salome, under her mother’s tutelage and direction, danced wth an agenda, with anything but purity of intention. In a moment of wine-soaked braggadocio following the dance, which pleased him and his guests mightily, Herod promised anything to Salome up to half his kingdom. Mother Herodias seized the moment and instructed her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Unlike King David, who didn’t think about or care what anyone thought of him as he poured out his love for God in the dance, Herod was completely conscious of his guests’ opinions about him and feared their judgment on him if he didn’t fulfill his promise to Salome. He feared their opinion more than he feared God and God’s messenger, John the Baptist.

It didn’t have to go that way. Herod liked John and was compelled by the truth of his message, even though John was indicting him for seducing and marrying his brother’s wife. Herod knew the Baptist to be a holy and just man and his appeal was, well, not quite irresistible. Herod’s fear of his guests’ judgment was greater than his love or respect for John’s teaching, and so he acquiesced to his lesser nature and had the prophet beheaded to fulfill his promise to his stepdaughter, in order not to be shamed before his guests.

In his sympathy for the Baptist and his fear of his guests’ opinions, Herod is an interesting mixture as a human being. In his London Diary, Boswell notes that even as he sat in church enjoying the worship of God, he was at the same time entertaining thoughts of picking up a prostitute on the streets of London that same night. Human beings are haunted by both sin and goodness, that fact harkening back to my opening question about whom or what you would rather be possessed by: God, or, fill in the blank. Herod could fear John and love him, could hate his message and yet not be able to free himself from its fascination. Herod was simply a human being, and we have to ask ourselves if we are finally so different from him. 

As I pointed out when I was discussing Herod’s family tree and the dysfuctionality of that family, things don’t change much because people don’t change much. As Qoheleth says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The contexts for, and consequently the expressions of human nature are different through the centuries, but human nature itself doesn’t change. Consider David’s exuberance in the dance, his wife’s bitterness and disgust at the sight of that dance, as she couldn’t understand what was motivating him. Consider Herod’s fear of what others thought about him, and his cowardice in using his powerful position against John the Baptist. Consider Salome, the seductive ingenue, who carries out her mother’s wishes. These are all true types through history, which is why we can still relate to the stories they tell.

Let’s consider John the Baptist and Jesus, at a bit more length, in relation to the idea of being possessed by God and whether that might be a desirable thing for us in our time. If we are not possessed by God, by whom or what are we possessed? The struggles apparent in Herod’s own family partly answer that question––his fear of his guests’ opinion of him, his wife Herodias’s vindictiveness toward John the Baptist and the high cost that could exact, and the seductive dance of Salome as the mediator between those two. As I pointed out, human beings are a mixture of sin and goodness, and as a life goes on, we make choices one by one, day by day. Each of those choices moves us in a given direction. If we find ourselves way down a road we don’t want to be on, we can halt our trajectory and can make a choice for life, if we have been making a choice against life up to that point. That halt in the trajectory can be called repentance.

That’s the opportunity Herod had with John the Baptist. I imagine him visiting the Baptist’s cell and listening to him, compelled as he was by what John  said to him. But finally his fear of men was greater than his love for truth and he made his choice and silenced that source of truth for the moment. Herod could have repented. He was invited to repent, but he refused the invitation. There was too much at stake, as far as he was concerned––in other words, his reputation, with his pride at the root.

And really, who can blame him? Here’s this guy who comes in from years of living in the desert, dressed in a camel’s hide, having lived on locusts and honey for God knows how long––he must have been fairly emaciated looking––this is the guy who is declaiming against Herod’s flouting of the laws of decency, not to mention the law of God, which in Leviticus specifically legislated against a man marrying his brother’s wife.  John cut a memorable figure on the landscape. His type was certainly not unknown––the prophet of God, abstemious, appearing mad with the truth, the spirit of God that possessed him.

How different was Jesus? In two of the gospels in the last month, Jesus has been named as out of his mind by his family, and then last week, as offensive to his neighbors in his presumption to the role of teacher. Who does he think he is? Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same because human nature does not change. And humans in their natures have to decide whom or what they will serve, by whom or what they will be possessed. Will it be this or will it be that? There is no middle ground in the matters of God. Recall the saying in the Book of Revelation 3: 16, attributed to the one John called “one like a son of man,” i.e., Jesus the Christ, whom he saw in vision: “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” In earlier translations, “I will vomit [or spew] you out of my mouth.” Strong language.

Insofar as you are imaginatively able, I’d ask you to try to strip away the myth and creed and lore that have accumulated over the centuries around and about Jesus. Try to imagine what it was like to be a person of Jesus’s time hearing him, seeing him, watching those healings that he was doing in Galilee. And some of those who were watching would have been followers of John the Baptist and would have heard what he said about Jesus, identifying him, as the story goes, as the one who was to come after him, the strap of whose sandal he was not worthy to loose. He, Jesus, was the reason that John had come. What might you think about this? Would you be like Herod hearing John’s words and being convinced and compelled by them, and yet finally unable to overcome your own baser nature because you are a person of your time? Would you be like Michal watching  with a judgment of annoyance and disgust as David danced before the Lord? Or would you be one of the common folk who flocked to John for a baptism of repentance? Who raised up arms in praise of God at the sight of the cure of the man born blind? 

We are called to choose by whom or what we will be possessed. That’s a heavy-duty word, isn’t it? Possessed. It carries a lot of freight. We do want to be masters, mistresses of our own fate, and that is the desirable stance for the most part. We have to make our lives. But the foundations of those lives are built of, are constituted of that which we are possessed by. That is what informs our lives. We do the housebuilding, the lifebuilding from the ground level up, but what is beneath the ground keeps the house firm and steady––or not; that determines whether we will be able to weather the trials of this life––or whether we will succumb to external pressures that leave us at the mercy of every wind and wave of public opinion or fad, and will collapse the house into its foundation.

We have opportunities to choose God’s way or not in our everday life again and again, and we know each time what that way is. But at some unexpected moment in time, we have our last opportunity to decide, to choose one way over another. We may have gone so far down the road of our choices that we do not wish to choose something new––God’s way. And God honors that choice because we have free will. Mind you, it is not God, but we ourselves who make that free choice for or against a life with God, a life as possessed of God. Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Fortress by Any Other Name

Sheepscott Community Church July 5, 2009

2 Samuel 5: 1-5; 9-10

Mark 6: 1-13

A Fortress by Any Other Name

Three things are on my mind this morning: the idea of “fortress” as it is recorded in this morning’s first reading from Second Samuel; how that idea of fortress figures in our life with Christ, especially as related to repentance, which the disciples were sent out to preach according to this morning’s gospel; and finally, after considering fortress, after considering repentance, how can the communion we will share this morning bring it all together on this holiday weekend.

So, let us first consider this morning’s reading about the anointing of David as king. He covenanted with the elders of Israel, then reigned over Judah in Hebron for 7-1/2 years and over all of Israel from Jerusalem for 33 years. That latter, wider reign came about when David wisely sought out a place for his capital that was in neither the northern nor southern kingdom per se. Instead he located the kingship in Jerusalem, choosing a neutral site right on the boundary of the northern and southern tribes. He thereby revealed his intention to elevate his throne above all tribal claims and jealousies. It was a strategic and consolidating move.

In order to capture Jerusalem and make this so-called Fortress of Zion his capital,  David had to overcome the Jebusites, who were stunned when he and his men gained access to what the Jebusites thought was an impregnable fortress. How they did that was by climbing up and  through the underground water shaft that supplied the city’s water. David was nothing if not a brilliant military strategist, but I must note that he never made a move without first seeking divine guidance. While he knew the political and military importance of securing that capital, that fortress, he knew that––as we sang in unison this morning––the “mighty fortress” is our God, was his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That mighty fortress predated and would postdate Jerusalem forever. He had his ducks in order, his priorities straight. His faith was intact. 

When the human fortress of the Philistine Goliath, whose story we heard again two weeks ago, when that man  stood before David , he was no match for the faith that David had in his God, the mighty fortress. Five small stones and a slingshot, wielded by a faith-filled teenager dropped that fortress of a human being to the ground.

Consider the body as fortress, a fortress that can break down, whose walls can be breached at any point, but increasingly with advancing age. I suggest that we ourselves, following the example of David, take control over this fortress that is the body, where we have allowed that control to pass to the power of others, whether that be people or habits and do what we can under the guidance of the Spirit with our own good minds and self-discipline to ease the body’s burdens by simply taking care of ourselves insofar as we are able. I am not denying the reality of disease and debility but simply making a plea for good choices.

We don’t have to do this work on our own, but hand in hand with the Spirit of God in the Christ, Jesus, whose love is absolutely restorative; whose love can raise us up in ways we haven’t yet imagined. A promise from the Book of Joel, 2:25, that I have seen fulfilled in my life and others again and again: “I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten.” As I said, Christ’s love is absolutely restorative. Superman got in trouble when he tried to turn back time, but the Lord of time and space can do this. If you remember nothing else from this sermon today, remember “I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten.” Everything is possible with God. Is there a ticket for admission? I’m afraid so. We have to want restoration, resurrection and allow it. That famous picture of Jesus knocking at the door––there it is right there––speaks volumes about the sacredness of our own own lives and free wills. God never forces anything on us, but the invitation is always there, that knock on the castle door that can only be Christ’s, and we know it. We know it when we hear it.

To open or not to open? We’re all pretty comfortable in our inner chambers where we live out our perceptions of reality. Didn’t he see the Do Not Disturb sign on the door? We know if we let him in there’s going to be trouble. As I was just saying, restoration of the fortress of our bodies, of our lives comes with a price tag, and the price tag is surrender. Dang! Didn’t you know it? Okay, what’s the deal, you might be willing to ask.

What Jesus’s knock at the door represents is a radical call to respond. Radix, radicis, Latin for root. A radical change is a change at the root. We may be called to let go of things we look to as fortifiers of our fortresses, things that mediate our life experience, put the experience enough out of focus so that we don’t have to deal with the full impact of what a life is. Habits or addictions, or people, who can be both to us, family, church, material things for survival, creeds, all of these things, things that are good for the most part in and of themselves, can function as mediators or modifiers of direct experience that keep us in  illusion and from the fullness of the lives that are our own to live, hidden but discoverable in God. Think of Jesus––in this morning’s gospel and in the gospel of two weeks ago––singularly separating himself from his family, refusing the neighborhood’s or his family’s definition of who he was. These are hard words to hear, I know. Radix, radicis––radical.

Why do I say that we sometimes use our habits or addictions to mediate rather than directly experience a focused life? Well, what follows is nothing you haven’t heard before, but it is most immediately in this morning’s gospel: “They––the apostles––went out and preached that people should repent.” Jesus sent them out to deliver that disturbing message, disturbing because repentance means a change of heart and a change of action. It is bound to hurt because it involves the bitter realization that the way we are following is wrong. It is bound to disturb because it can mean a radical, a complete reversal of life, which is precisely why so few people do repent, because the last thing they want is to be disturbed, to radically change.

Repentance is no sentimental feeling sorry; repentance is a revolutionary, a radical act, precipitated by the grace of God that leads to profound life changes, and that is why so few repent. 

Before the apostles could go out and preach repentance, Jesus told them they should take nothing for the journey but a staff––no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; sandals but not an extra tunic. What Jesus is saying is that they must take no supplies for the road but must trust God––the mighty fortress––for everything.

That assignment of emptiness, perceived vulnerability and weakness in its dependence on others, reminds me of the story of a remarkable young woman named Maura O’Hallorhan, a Christian Zen monk who died in 1982 at the age of 27, having achieved enlightenment. Born of Irish parents in Boston and raised Catholic, Maura grew up  with a concern for social justice and a strong attraction to the spiritual life.  She studied Eastern religion and became convinced that its wisdom would amplify her own Catholic Christianity. She applied for admission to a traditional Buddhist monastery in Tokyo, one of only a few Western women ever to be admitted to the very male world of the Zen monastery.

As part of her training, she joined the other monks on an annual begging expedition in the North during the cold of winter. With her shaved head and monk’s robe, wearing only straw sandals in the snow and sleet, she would pass through the streets, holding out her bowl and begging for alms and donations of food. Not so different from Jesus’s disciples, and no less radical in character. She was dependent on others’ hospitality, as were the disciples, who could to a degree count on hospitality as a sacred duty in the Near East. When a stranger came to town at that time, it was not the stranger’s duty to search for hospitality, but the village’s duty to offer it. Which, in a way, is what we did for the busload of folks who came from Massachusetts to the W.W. & F. Railroad on Thursday. 

As a post script, Maura O’Hallorhan finished her Dogen’s thousand-day training and left the monastery. She was killed in a bus accident in Thailand on her way home.

Will we be asked to deny ourselves at the level of the disciples, or of Maura O’Hallorhan? Probably not, but I wouldn’t discount it. I think our willingness is all. Our personal surrender in repentance, acceptance of our responsibility for the state of our spiritual life before God, as well as our bodies. In essence we deposit all of our valuables in God’s bank. Unlike valuables entrusted to Bernie Madoff, we can trust God with our valuables, our meaning, what matters to us––all of it is safe with our trustworthy God, with our mighty fortress. And God can draw on that principle of what we have deposited as God wills. Can we handle that? Can we acquiesce to that level of surrender? Of trust in God? God doesn’t make us, but we can choose it, although we don’t know the outcome of our choice, what it will look like, how it will translate into action in the world, whether we will appear as fools to others. Why would anyone in his or her right mind do that? Why leave the comfort zone of popular or social acceptability, illusion or not?

I have spoken before of levels of surrender in my own life––and it does seem to be a lifelong process, doesn’t it? When we think we’ve given it all over, wait six months, and see what surfaces next. As we let go of those habits, things, people, illusion of control over anything but our own life––and that in a measured way––when we, like Maura, are left with nothing, then do we have breakthrough. Then do we experience the simultaneous tears and laughter of enlightenment, which then only wants to play out in service to others. 

You may not want that level of radical repentance involved in really taking responsibility for your life and what it is before God and in God, but you may be willing to think about it. Good. I don’t ask any more. I do guarantee––and this is the piece from experience––that God never fails. You will not be left high and dry.  As psalm 48, which we read earlier says, “For this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end,” We are ever safe in the fortress of God’s body, knowable in the Christ, and that knowable in each other and most quickly, if you will, in the communion we share this morning. 

We do become one in the sharing in some lovely and mysterious way. We are open and opened with each other because of the presence of the Spirit of the living God who makes us one. Because we have chosen to be here this morning, God is here this morning and will honor our choice by letting us taste the good life that He is, that we are for each other. 

Let me add this of Paul’s from Romans: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus  our Lord.” And I would add: if we want it. We can begin to appropriate this promise in Paul that proceeds from a repentant heart by consciously praying the prayer of repentance before the communion this morning. Let us be conscious of each other when we do that, knowing that some of us are suffering from a  profound sense of loneliness and isolation, and helplessness in overcoming that sense. Amen.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Neighborhood News

On July 2, 2009, Sheepscott Community Church hosted a tour bus that was stopping at the W., W., & F. Railroad site on the Cross Road in Alna.

Members of the church, under the leadership of Alex Wajer with the assistance of Cindy Leavitt and Joan Yeaton––aunt and grandmother–– served supper to the touring visitors at the Sheepscott Clubhouse. Just in case you might have been wondering what that bus was doing there!