Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christ Abides

Sheepscott Community Church December 26, 2010

Isaiah 63: 7-9

Matthew 2: 13-23

Christ Abides

I question whether there is anybody in church today who hasn’t heard of Susan Boyle, the Scottish chanteuse who a little over a year ago wowed the audience and judges on the show “Britain’s Got Talent.” Middle-aged and overweight, dowdy in dress and odd in deportment, Susan Boyle’s dream was to be a professional singer in the mold of the popular UK artist Elaine Page. The audience frowned at the allusion, and the cameras picked up more than one audience member rolling her eyes and sneering. But then, Susan Boyle opened her mouth and sang for all she was worth, and that was a lot. The audience was on its feet cheering. Here was the genuine article.

Within minutes of the show, Susan Boyle’s U-tube video went viral on the internet and within a few days had broken the record for hits with over 300,000,000 viewers from around the world watching the songstress, who in her ordinariness stood in for many people who have a dream. Fittingly her selection was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, and she had the nerve, the guts, the chutzpah to try to make her dream a reality.

The point I want to make out of this story is that the news in today’s world travels in nanoseconds on the internet, and someone in New Dehli can know what someone in New Gloucester, Maine is up to on a Sunday morning, if New Gloucester wants to put it out there on Facebook or a blog or whatever. The internet video that made Susan Boyle an international star literally overnight can be contrasted with the star that the Wise Men, the astrologers, the Kings saw in the sky. It was no instant video that informed them of its meaning. For nearly two years they studied their astrological charts and weighed them against the prophecies of the time concerning an important King to be born, and interpreting the star to mean that there was something worth investigating. So they went on the road to track down this newborn king.

The story of the Three Wise Men is actually next Sunday’s story, when we will celebrate Epiphany, but a bit of it is necessary for background about why Herod got so upset about this birth, as noted in today’s gospel. Whatever really did happen, we can at the very least learn from the story that Jesus’s birth was significant and threatening to the powers that were at the time. No sooner had the Light come into the world than the darkness fixed on it to overcome it.

In this story the darkness took the form of King Herod, who was not so far from Kim Jong Il, the current president of North Korea, or Laurent Gbagbo, the legitimately defeated president of Ivory Coast, who refuses to concede the presidential office. Herod, Kim Jong Il, Gbagbo are and were all paranoid about threats to their power from the outside. Even within the family. Herod, had three of his sons killed because he thought they were plotting against him––which they may have been, with good reason. He also had his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra killed for the same reason. Among the most egregiously cruel and self-serving of Herod’s acts was at the very end of his life. He ordered that the slaughter of the most notable men of Jerusalem take place at the moment of his death, so that there would be weeping in the city when he died. He had no illusions about the way people felt––including family––about him.

So, it isn’t so hard to believe that this despot would have all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to do away with yet another threat to his power. This was the Slaughter of the Innocents, as it was called. It’s also worth noting that we aren’t talking about hundreds of boys here, maybe 20 or 30. Bethlehem was a small town, after all, and who would primarily have been affected by those killings would simply be the children and mothers of the children. In the rest of the area, the event would have caused little more than a ripple. It wasn’t their sons, after all.

So where was God in all this? I would answer with verses Cyndi read this morning from Isaiah: “In all their distress”––and we can imagine the distress of the scene of babies and toddlers being torn from their mothers and slaughtered in front of them, but Matthew spares us the details––”In all their distress, he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” And that’s enough. God is always enough, even when death is involved. Whether we apply the “them” in those verses to the babies themselves or to the frantic parents, or even to the soldiers doing their duty whose Father, whose Mother, God no less is, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.”

God with us. Emmanuel, if you recall from the gospels and the readings from Isaiah and from the hymns and messages of the last four weeks. Emmanuel, God with us. God carrying his people as in days of old.

A powerful image some of you may have seen that goes a long way toward making visible the complexity and perplexing nature of this morning’s gospel––as in How could Herod do that? How could the soldiers do that?––an image that can help illuminate some of the reality behind the text, and the reality even further behind the image itself is a painting by the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century artist Luc Olivier Merson, entitled “Repose in Egypt.” The painter shows Mary and the infant Jesus asleep in the hollow between the body and the right paw of the Sphinx, the halo light from the Child’s head lighting the face of the Sphinx.. The enigma/ that life is/ remains /and it is well captured in the figure of the Sphinx and the cruelty of Herod, which is the cause of the Mother and Child being here at the base of the Sphinx in Egypt in the first place.

The Sphinx can represent the contradictions we know within ourselves, for our human nature sometimes seems a mixture of serpent, winged bird, lion and human. But even as the contradiction the Sphinx represents remains, the Christ Child has been born and sleeps peacefully between the lion’s paws. I repeat what I noted earlier: No sooner had the Light come into the world than evil in the person of Herod began to oppose it. But look: the child asleep between the lion paws of the Sphinx. Contradiction. We ourselves are a web of contradiction, with possibilities and propensities toward both good and evil.

But Christ abides, there between the paws of the Sphinx, as an answer to our yearning for the pardon of our sins, the promise of eternal life written across the top of our own deaths. He awaits only the venture of our faith to prove himself the answer to the mystery. And that is what I am going to leave you with this morning. The word “mystery” seems to be the easy way out of explaining the unexplainable, of not declaring what the Truth with a capital T is, after all is said and done. Nevertheless, that is what I leave you with this morning: the challenge to engage with mystery: the Spirit of the Living God as revealed in this Light born into the world on Christmas, which yes, the darkness immediately rises up to oppose, the darkness in ourselves as well as the darkness outside of ourselves.

But darkness is already defeated because the light has come into the world. The world is no longer in total darkness.

Think of one artist’s rendering of that child between the paws of the lion. We, when we come to know how Jesus is who he is––knowable in prayerful listening––can ourselves be between the paws of the lion and yet sleep with ease, knowing we are lifted up and carried by God as in days of old. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Does Love Do?

Sheepscott Community Church December 19, 2010

Isaiah 7: 10-17

Matthew 1: 18-25

What Does Love Do?

I’m going to talk about two things this morning in relation to the title of the message, “What Does Love Do?” First, I’ll spend a few minutes talking about Mary and Joseph and the significance and meaning of their relationship as revealed in this morning’s gospel, and then I’ll talk about the incarnation again, a kind of part II, following last week’s message in anticipation of this week’s feast of Christmas : God born into the world.

First, Mary and Joseph. The reading from Matthew tells us Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. Betrothed is a word you may have heard before in this connection, like Alex Wajer and Greg Rice of this parish. They are betrothed. There were three distinct steps in the Jewish marriage procedure. First, the engagement. This would have been an agreement entered upon by the parents of the involved parties or a matchmaker, when the parties themselves were still children. Marriage was considered way too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.

Next came the betrothal, which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this time, the engagement could be broken if the girl or woman was unwilling to go through with the marriage. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year, during which time the couple were known as man and wife, although they did not have conjugal rights, which only kicked in at the time of the wedding proper, as I said, a year after the betrothal. The only way to terminate a betrothal was with a divorce, and that is what Joseph planned to do, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, when he was confronted with Mary’s pregnancy, which could apparently only be the result of adultery.

The scripture tells us that Joseph was a just man, and the implication of the word is that he was religiously scrupulous and obedient to the will of God. In this reading this morning, the word can also mean sympathy and kindness, evident in his plan to divorce Mary rather than expose her publicly to legally justified stoning. That is what love would do, isn’t it? Do what was necessary to prevent the stoning. And that’s what he planned to do with the information available to him at the time before the dream of divine visitation with its message to take Mary as his wife, that the pregnancy had a divine source.

It’s worth noting that the word “Father” as an ascription for God had been used only infrequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and it usually implied national and not personal relationships, as in, God as the Father of the Israelite nation. But Jesus used it in intimate ways and taught us to do the same, when he taught us how to pray what is now called the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. That fact may be partially a tribute to Joseph’s care for his household, and it is also fair to assume that Joseph was the channel through which Jesus drew some of his incomparable wisdom. Jesus learned how to be a man from how Joseph was a man. It is also worth noting that Mary was anything but a passive player in this whole human drama. She had set the play in motion with her agreement to do whatever was necessary in order for God’s plan to be carried out. “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Mary’s fiat.

And now, on to another consideration, that of incarnation from a theological rather than sociological standpoint. Thomas Henry Huxley has said, “The highest altar man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” That resonates deeply with me. The importance of allowing God to be God and not containing God in our own forms of idolatry––This is how to worship God! No, this is how to worship God, because this is who God is.––These two arguing at each other is exactly why the highest altar would be built to the unknown and unknowable God.

But such a God strikes me as ultimately cold and distant, the antithesis of the coming of Christ we are going to be celebrating five days hence, right in this sanctuary. If we think about one of the titles of that Christ, by which we just invoked him in the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we were singing of “God with us,” which is what the name means. We are expressing a belief that a particular mortal body, a human soul––Jesus––became for a little while the habitation of the Spirit of God. And because of that Christ, we too can become habitations of that same Spirit of God. What a Christmas gift that is!

If God is personal, we would expect that One would want to make himself, herself, itself known. If that One is indeed Love, then nothing could keep her away from her children. She would find a way to be with them. Christian theology proposes that that is exactly what happened in and through the Incarnation. God with us. Emmanuel.

If God is Love and Jesus, the Emmanuel we are speaking of this morning is the embodiment of that Love, all that Jesus was and is, God was and is. Perhaps more, we don’t know, but we do know, or at least some of us believe that at least that much is true: All of what Jesus is and was, God is. Recall that Jesus is quoted as saying in John 14: 9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

God revealed himself in the person of a human being because human nature, being spiritual as well as bodily, made it possible for God to do so. That very special human being, Jesus, spoke of God as his Father. Whoever has seen Jesus has seen God the Father. Apart from Christ, Huxley’s word is quite true: “The highest altar a man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” But in Christ, God has made himself known.

From William Blake’s “The Divine Image”:

For Mercy has a human heart;

Pity, a human face;

And Love, the human form divine:

And Peace, the human dress.

God is with us and therefore known to us, for who can deny the deep longing of the human soul for connection, through love, with other human beings and with the Source of Love, whom, or which, if you prefer, we call God, revealed in the Emmanuel, Jesus, God with us, soon coming to a stage near you. Friday night at 7.

Emmanuel. God is with us to seek and to save. The fullness of salvation as forgiveness, healing, comfort, moral strength, example cannot be given from afar or in an impersonal fashion. It is the touch, the connection that makes it real and makes it healing. Which is what salvation means: health, wellness. Pain is not removed from the heart by a word of sympathy from one who knows nothing of its anguish. To be the One who brings health and wellness, i.e., salvation, God entered our lives in an utterly human and personal fashion. He faced our temptations, dealt with our sins, and carried our sorrows––the saving length his love would go to that we might have life and have it abundantly. That is what love does.

Emmanuel, God with us. “Unto us is born a Savior! For love of us he came, and for love he still abides. “For lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Do you remember last week I noted that the world is a dark place, and it seems to be getting darker, rather than lighter, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it, constantly renewing our hope.

Emmanuel, God with us. By the light of nature we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel we see him as Emmanuel, God with us in our own nature, and, which is more, in our interest. That is the great gospel that is proclaimed by this title and which is exemplified in the Christ who bore it. God is not against us; he is for us and with us and on our side. Amen.

We have five days left to prepare for Christmas. Believe me when I say I know about the practical preparations that have to be made. But more importantly believe me when I say that those preparations are nothing beside the preparation of our hearts, the readying of our hearts, minds, souls to be opened, healed, laid bare to the eye of the All-Seeing God who loves. What does that Love do? It comes and saves us from our worst selves, full of indolence, indifference, meanness, and walks with us as we choose to be better, spending ourselves for others while finally coming to love ourselves, by the grace of God.

By taking some time apart––5 minutes, an hour, 5 hours––between now and Friday, we can prepare the way of the Lord. We can lift up the portals and open wide the doors and let the King of Glory come in. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Sheepscott Community Church December 12, 2010

Isaiah 35: 1-10

Matthew 11: 2-11

Who Do You Say That I Am?

If you recall, last week’s gospel was about John coming out of the desert, calling those who came out to him at the Jordan River to repent and bear fruits of repentance, that the axe was already laid to the base of the tree, and that every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. His was a powerful message, delivered in a prophetic manner that probably had his listeners shaking in their boots, especially the scribes and pharisees, whom he called a brood of vipers, and they knew he was a prophet of God.

John the Baptist preached the idea of a punishing God of judgment, so you can imagine that he was perplexed when he heard about what Jesus was doing. He had recognized him when he came to him to be baptized, and in fact he said to him that he, Jesus, should be baptizing him, John, not the other way around. But Jesus asked him to acquiesce for the time being so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled.

Subsequently arrested and put in prison for having spoken against Herod’s taking his brother’s wife for his own while his brother was still living, John had plenty of time to think. When he heard what Jesus was doing––the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the the dead raised––he sent his disciples to Jesus with that all important question, Are you the One? That question reflected the perplexity not only of John but of the larger community of Jews who expected a messiah to come with power, political and otherwise. What was he to think of this one who didn’t fit the portrait of what he, John, expected and prophesied? We can see in this case how much John’s own thought and belief colored his expectations. We know in our own lives we often see what we want to see, what will confirm us in our beliefs and enable us to continue going forward in the same direction.

When John’s disciples returned to him, they confirmed what he had heard. Indeed Jesus himself instructed them to tell John what they heard and saw: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” His concluding comment seems directed right at John: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me,” who finds no stumbling block in me, i.e., don’t let your own unfulfilled messianic expectations divert you from the Way of God’s Messiah. Unfortunately scripture doesn’t record any more about what John or his disciples thought of all this. We only hear about his death.

John’s doubts are possibly our doubts. Is this the Christ or not? Jesus’s answer may seem too undefinitive for some, but it was as much of an affirmative as his honoring of our freedom to choose could allow. He evoked the prophet Isaiah in his response to John, which passage you heard Alex read this morning: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” John would have recognized this messianic reference from Isaiah and understood what Jesus was saying, but he would still have to decide whether he could accommodate a messiah who singularly did not fulfill his expectations. John had a better eye for the flames of judgment than for the quiet dawn of good will. To him God was Judge rather than Father, which he was to Jesus.

John’s is a question and burden we all face when considering this singular man of history. Are you the Christ, the one who is to come, or do we look for another who will wield temporal power and be a guarantee of what we think is important and what we want in this life, individually, as a people, as a nation? Jesus as messiah came with healing love, comes with healing love, and not with violence. He was, however, not ready at the time of this morning’s gospel to make that announcement of messiahship. Maybe existentially speaking, he was discovering it as he went along. In any event, the time was not full, and he would not force the issue. There needed to be room for the individual soul to choose freely. Otherwise, of what value would a compelled choice be?

An important new piece of information that Jesus communicated at that time, and which remains a key identifier to his life is about his preaching the good news to the poor. For the poor, the common folk whom he addressed at length in the beatitudes––Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God, and so on––Jesus’s taking their part and incorporating them into the kingdom of God was not just good news, it was the best news. They, the poor, the disenfranchised in whatever manner, mattered to someone. The prophets of old had declared that God was a God of the poor, but the lived reality looked very different, as they suffered and then they suffered some more, on all fronts.

Here was one who spoke their language, who hung out with them, whose family members they knew. He was after all a tradesman, a carpenter, not the son of a powerful and influential man. And look at what he’s doing––Can’t you imagine the excitement of these poor, these common folk?––he’s giving sight to the blind among them and restoring hearing. He’s healing the lame and the lepers. He’s among us, with us, one of us. Can this be what the Messiah looks like? No doubt there were a lot of conversations around supper tables in those days, and Jesus would have been the subject. But isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter and isn’t Mary his mother? And aren’t his brothers and sisters our neighbors? They didn’t know what to make of him, not just the bearer but the embodiment of the Good News, viz., he himself was the Good News. It seemed too good to be true.

Jesus acted out the prophetic dream of Isaiah. The prophet’s vision had become a reality. I’m stating that, but obviously it’s up to each of us individually to decide how we will think about what Jesus did, whether indeed he was the fulfillment of messianic prophecy or simply a good man, a very good man, who did enough good things in his lifetime to give everyone pause to consider who he might be.

After touting John’s virtues to the crowd, Jesus then notes that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, than John. Here Jesus is speaking of the revelation of his ministry as the kingdom come, and his own disciples are those “least” in the kingdom. They are named as greater than John, not in moral character or achievements, but in their privileges. This is an important saying, which indicates that the kingdom, as being revealed in Christ, was already present.

There is a dividing line here, a great act of God, a new creation, that fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard this morning. There is a blank page which God writes on, and his instrument is Jesus as the Christ. He is the Living Word, spoken by the Spirit and written down by limited human beings. We catch something of who he was and is, but way more eludes us and we have to put on our boots and trek out on our own to find out what is true for us and what is not, guided by the wisdom of the past encoded in the scripture, by the writings and records of human beings and their civilizations, and especially guided by the Spirit of God who will lead us into all truth, with the all-important check of community, so we don’t go off the deep end..

It’s a dark way we walk toward the fullness of truth, and indeed our understanding is darkened by our own expectations, like John the Baptist. As Emily Dickinson wrote,

Tell the Truth, but tell it slant

Success in circuit lies.

Too bright for our infirm delight

The Truth’s superb surprise.

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind,

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind.

“The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” We with our darkened understanding continue to walk through Advent, the light gradually increasing as we approach Christmas, as is symbolically evident with the three candles this week on the Advent wreath. We in our humanity can only take so much divine truth at a time. Our constitutions aren’t made for big doses. But that doesn’t dispense with our responsibility to seek out and satisfy the deep longing of our souls toward greater and greater truth––and light.

As Frederick Buechner has written of this journey toward Christmas, “This story that faith tells in the fairy tale language of faith is not just that God is, which God knows is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. ‘In great humility.’ There’s nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread, yet girt with righteousness and faithfulness. And to us came. For us came. Is it true––not just the way fairy tales are true but as the truest of all truths? Almighty God, are you true?" Are you for real?

“When you’re standing up to your neck in darkness, how do you say yes to that question? You say yes the only way faith can ever say it if it is honest with itself. You say yes with your fingers crossed. You say it with your heart in your mouth. Maybe that way we can say yes. He visited us. The world has not been quite the same since. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it. The threat of holocaust. The threat of poisoning the earth, sea and air. The threat of our own deaths. The broken marriage. The child in pain. The lost chance.” Fears of financial disaster. “Anyone who has ever known him has perhaps known him better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark that he seems to visit most often.”

He is walking with us up out of the dark toward the crib, waiting patiently along the way as we question ourselves and him––again. Are you the One or do we look for another? Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

8 The King's Highway

Sheepscott Community Church December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11: 1-10

Matthew 3: 1-12

8 The King’s Highway

In biblical times, when a person was setting out on a journey, he was expected to tie up any loose business ends, make sure his will, with the disposition of his estate was in order, and finally to bid goodbye to his family and friends with the expectation of possibly not returning. The reason for that dire preparation was largely the condition of the roads and the thieves who lived among the rocks and crannies of the bleak desert wilderness through which those roads wended. In relation to the gospel of the Good Samaritan, we have previously considered the dangers of those roads, and the additional shine they gave to the credentials of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help another human being who had been set upon by the storied thieves, and thus had endangered himself.

The roads themselves were nothing more than narrow animal trails, and it was the donkeys, which we meet again and again in the scripture, who could ably pick their way along those trails in more surefooted fashion than their human masters. I expect the situation can be compared to descending the Grand Canyon on horse- or mule-back, the only way to approach that precarious descent/ascent.

So, you have a picture of this inhospitable wilderness with its even less hospitable roads. By contrast, in the time of King Solomon, 10th century B.C.E., the King ordered the roads approaching Jerusalem covered with basalt, a dark, dense igneous rock from lava flow that gave a smoother surface and black appearance to the road. The King’s purpose in putting down the basalt was to demonstrate his riches and his largesse, but also to make it easier for pilgrims to reach Jerusalem, and to facilitate his own travels. All such surfaced and artificially made roads were originally built and maintained for the use of the King, and so, they were called The King’s Highway. The ancient historian Josephus included that in his history of the period.

The King’s Highway. You did know I was going somewhere with that, didn’t you? Our address here is 8 The King’s Highway, Newcastle, Maine. We have three weeks to repair the highway before the King arrives at # 8. Considering the gospel this morning, John the Baptist has given us a formula to get that highway ready for the King, to prepare the way, and repentance is the watchword. ”Prepare the way of the Lord,” John declares to his listeners. “Make straight paths for him.” Make ready the road by which the Lord is coming.

How do we do that? How do we make straight those paths? By asking before God, What do I need to repent of? How many times did I not say the kind thing, but rather the easy sarcastic remark? How many times did I make a joke at someone else’s expense? To guide us we can simply lift the series of commandments right out of the first chapter of Isaiah: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

John the Baptist was probably originally dedicated at the Temple by his observant parents. If you recall, his father Zachariah was a priest. This is not unlike our being baptized, christened or dedicated by our parents as infants. But it was John’s own resolve, the product of brooding and prayer, that led him to the understanding that life for him was more than acceptance of what the days might bring, of letting life happen to him. A life was given for a God-ordained task, and John disciplined himself toward this holy end. He chose a desert as his place to draw close to God. He was ascetic in his dress and in his eating habits and dwelt in solitude. Unlike ourselves, he was a stern realist in matters of right and wrong. We debate relativities; John would argue to err on the side of scruple rather than laxity. He was the embodiment of integrity in daily life, and although we might not even want to strive for the level of holiness that was his way of life, it’s good to have such a model to inspire and translate as we can into our lives in the twenty-first century.

A bit more asceticism, self-denial wouldn’t hurt any of us, and the more difficult it is, the more opportunity we have to think about the value of sacrificing a measure of our own comfort or leisure for the sake of another. Here, you have the last piece of chicken. I’ve already had enough. Something as simple as that is what Jesus did to the max, and what John practiced before him. Each of these men accepted a life lived in and for God, and for others, as God directed.

Indeed John, who was purified by his experience in the desert, came not with some opinion of his own, but with a message from God. He pointed beyond himself. He showed evil for what it was. He spoke the truth and wasn’t afraid of offending anyone. He also rebuked sin and was a signpost to God, pointing the way to those who were willing to repent, and were convicted of their own sin. He not only rebuked sin but challenged those who came out to hear him to be what they could be. He called people to higher things and did not appeal to their baser nature, the lowest common denominator of what it means to be human, characteristic of so much of the discourse we hear today.

This conversion to higher things, to higher ideas and ideals, is possible not because of the spiritual capital of the past. “We are sons of Abraham!” the Jews said to John, a claim that any Jew believed would be enough to save him or her. Abraham’s status was unique because of his goodness and his favor with God, his merits sufficing not only for himself but for all his descendants as well. And here is this prophet come in from the desert dressed in animal skins, living on locusts and honey for his food, he comes along and announces that the Jews cannot count on that historical spiritual capital, as God can raise up children for Abraham from stones on the ground. Outrageous! No one had ever talked that way.

He pointed the way to the One who came after him, whose sandals, as he says in the gospel, he was not fit to carry. John is making it clear to his listeners that he is not the bottom line, the final answer, that in fact another would come after him who would baptize not with water, as he did, but with the Spirit and with fire. It was he who would be the answer. John’s whole attitude was one of self-obliteration, not self-importance. That’s what happens when you spend years in a desert being purified, whatever form that desert might take: loneliness, ridicule, sickness, rejection, all of which can constitute a kind of desert of purification, suffering, that makes a way for the King, prepares a way, a straight road, an open door at number 8 The King’s Highway.

But what of this Spirit John talked about, this Holy Spirit who would baptize with fire? Before we can receive that Spirit, we have to produce fruits of repentance, as John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he called a brood of vipers. He wasn’t much of a sweet-talker. The fruit of our repentance is not merely a sentimental sorrow, but a real change of life. And in this area we need to go in fear of trading on the mercy of God when it comes to going halfway with repentance, as in, a little bit of this sin, a little bit of that, there’s time enough to repent when I’m older. Remember the message from last week: You know not the hour or the day when the Son of Man will come.

Do I mean to put the fear of God in you? I guess I do, and in myself. But more to the point is to instill a fear or dread of not fulfilling the call on our lives, the call on the gift our lives are. What we really need to walk in fear of is our own habits of indolence and self-indulgence that interfere with fulfilling that call on our lives, that interfere with our relationship with God, whose Spirit longs to show us the way to greater and greater life.

It isn’t so much God’s judgment on us, it’s our own judgment on ourselves which we project on God. God is all-forgiving, all-loving. Not so, us. Not so, us. We are more inclined toward judgment and vengeance. In any case, the instrument of mediation between God cast as judge, and ourselves cast as the accused is that repentance, genuine, life-changing repentance. No matter what we have done or haven’t done, no matter the depth of shame we may feel over something hidden in our past, which we’ve consigned to the deepest of our inner rooms, no matter that we have sealed that room shut, when we express to God our sincere sorrow for what we have done, whatever the full reality of the spriitual dynamics involved is, the seal on that door is immediately broken, and the light floods in on that shriveled, unloved part of ourselves that has been under wraps, hiding for so long.

The light that floods in is that shed by the King, who has arrived at number 8 The King’s Highway, our house of worship. No entourage, just himself. If God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, how much more will he raise us up as flesh and blood beings who are bent on being God’s people, whatever it takes, demonstrated by our willingness to repent?

When we repent, we make a way for the Spirit of God to enter into our life situations, that our own weakness may be clad with the power of God so we can do those acts that are the fruits of repentance without self-consciousness and with joy. And we, like John the Baptist, can live as God’s message, reflecting the image of the Creator, our own personalities fully developed in the truth of who we are.

As we contemplate our lives before God in these weeks of Advent pilgrimage not to the Jerusalem of Eastertime, but to the Bethlehem of Christmastime, let us prepare ourselves with prayer, and that right now, before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hope and Readiness in the Dark

Sheepscott Community Church November 28, 2010

Isaiah 2: 1-5

Romans 13: 11-14

Matthew 24: 36-44

Hope and Readiness in the Dark

There are some stories and some things that I think are important enough to repeat from the pulpit from year to year. One of those things is the need to cover the windgate when the weather changes from summer to fall, a lesson we learned from Karin Swanson.You recall that the windgate is this valley between the bony ridges at the back of the neck, which the Chinese believe needs to be covered to protect the individual from cold. Covering our windgate not only protects us from the cold and wind, but is a reminder in the wider sense of how God protects us. A habit of prayer is like a scarf that protects the windgate of the soul. We are not so vulnerable when we are in the habit of daily prayer.

One of the stories that I think important enough to repeat every year is the story of my descent into the Ailwie Cave in the Burren, in County Clare, Ireland. I like to tell this story on the first Sunday of Advent because it parallels so well the reality of the four-week spiritual journey we as a church and as a people of God, embark on today.Brie has lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, a sign of hope for us, a reassurance that even as we descend toward the winter solstice on December 21, the longest night of the year, past experience tells us that there will be a re-ascension into light. The sun will return to give us more light than darkness, and the world will go on after all.

And we have heard Jan read words of hope, written in the book of the prophet Isaiah over 2500 years ago. We are poised to believe realistically that in this world of war and rumors of war, of nation pitted against nation, person against person, of cholera, hunger and HIV AIDS: with all of that, still we are poised to believe that there is reason for hope. Hear what the prophet says: “[God] shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples;/ and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,/ and their spears into pruning hooks;/ nation shall not lift up sword against nation,/ neither shall they learn war any more.”

That may sound unrealistic and overly idealistic to some, considering what we have seen over the centuries, over the millennia, and just in our lifetimes. But the truth is that the faith uttered in this prophecy is indispensable for the hope of the world. It embodies a conviction that there shall be a day when all people shall live together and walk together in faith and righteousness. Without the inspiration of such words and their power to sustain our search for a way of peace, we are condemned to the prospect of wars upon wars. Thank God for the likes of George Mitchell and his kind. He is willing to sit at the table between sworn enemies––Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Palestine and Israel––and not go under to the enmity between them. Rather, he keeps talking and bringing them back to talk again and again. How else does change happen, except that we keep talking together? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Way back there I promised to take you down into the Ailwie Cave in County Clare. Here we go. It is an excavated descending entrance into the womb of the earth itself. At the time I was there, in ‘94, the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites, and the receptive stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights, and we all were plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had told us that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply predisposed because of her words; that’s the way it really felt. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering its seemingly haphazard construction. With the addition of the aforementioned anxiety, you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has always been a metaphor for me for this season of Advent we begin today, which is really an ascent toward Christmas. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown, whatever form that might take––terrorist attacks, an uncertain economy, advancing age with its increasing health risks, and so on. For the most part we are willing to have faith and not despair, to wait for the coming of the light. And, as we believe, that light is the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ.

No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what or who is sustaining us moment by moment. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual lives, which now include preparations for the season, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying; from cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to re-baptism into shoveling, which some of us experienced Friday, to wider service in the community.

All of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day Christmas season, which by the way runs from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, regardless of what the retail outlets would have you believe. The most important preparation of this penitential season before Christmas is that of the individual heart. Once we get past our primal fear of the darkness associated with the season, we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas in the same way we focus on the season of Lent before Easter, as a time of penitential reflection. That is why the altar cloths, the paraments are changed today. They have been green since the first Sunday after Pentecost, with the season of so-called ordinary time, but now the purple of penitence is in place.

So, we agree that the season of Advent with this first Sunday of a new liturgical year, begins today; that it is a penitential time to get the heart as well as the house ready for Christmas. We can also agree that there is hope in the darkness, as we wait in faith to see the promised coming of Christ. In addition to hope, let us then consider the second leg of this morning’s readings: readiness.

Get ready, Paul exhorts his readers in the epistle to the Romans, which we heard this morning. Paul speaks about that “present time,” not so different from our present time because people do not change in the larger sense.”The hour has come,” he writes, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”

Wake up! he is saying, which is reminiscent of what Jesus himself said in this morning’s gospel: Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. “Watch” is an often-repeated word on the lips of Jesus. A person must live with eyes open, watching. It’s easy to become absorbed in one’s career, or in one’s daily chores and responsibilities and forget the life-and-death issues of the soul, what finally matters. A person has to stop, look and listen at more than railroad crossings. That awareness should be a way of life, and the practice of prayer is crucial to that way of life, whether it’s five minutes or 55 minutes a day; or whether it’s standing on the edge of a field at dusk and simply being consciously before God. Prayer takes many forms and God receives them, is on the other side of them all, listening and answering.

To watch does not mean to forsake our daily round of tasks. If we’re always looking at the sky for signs, we’re never going to reap any harvest. If we’re always wondering and saying, “Tomorrow may be the day,” we’ll never feel at home fully in this life. So how do we do it? How do we find the balance? Consider the farmer at the plow. He keeps his eye on the furrow, because that is how a plowman plows, but he also looks up at the horizon from time to time to make sure that the furrow is straight. He might also pause to greet his friend or neighbor who comes by, and also take some moments of prayer during the workday. That is an example of a balanced approach. Watch. Keep it all in mind without anxiety, but with trust in God for the outcome. Again, as our friends in AA wisely say in this regard, Keep it simple; One day at a time; and, Help me to change the things I can change, to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Cultivate hope even in this deepest darkness of the year, watch and be ready. Remember this candle during the week. See the flame and the light it gives in your mind’s eye and remember: Jesus is on the way. Jesus is the Way. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

Sheepscott Community Church November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Luke 23: 33-43

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

As I have mentioned before, Jon’s father was a Unitarian minister. On the top of the parish’s order of service each week were the words, “We gather for the worship of God and the service of man.” I think we here at the Sheepscott Community Church gather for the same reasons, with only a nod to gender correctness, which would make it, for the worship of God and the service of humankind.

These are our unifying principles, as we come from a number of different traditions, as I pointed out at the beginning of the service. When I look around the church, I see Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians––displaced from New Jersey––Unitarians, displaced from the Midwest. There are those who were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, Episcopalians, maybe a Lutheran or two, and the group of so-called “unchurched.” But they’re not really unchurched, are they, because here they are with us, we with them, one worshiping body. And most welcome you all are; if you’ll look at the mission statement on the front of today’s bulletin, where it appears every Sunday, you can read for yourself that we open wide the doors for anyone and everyone to worship here freely.

How can any worship, that potentially comes from so many different directions be unified and how can it have any depth of transforming meaning if it tries to be all things to all people? And does it? Federated in 1947 by the union of the First Congregational Church of Newcastle and the Sheepscot Methodist Church, the Sheepscott Community Church self-identifies as being in the Christian tradition. I believe we can answer the question of unity in diversity by recalling the line from this morning’s gospel––the seemingly ironically placed gospel of the crucifixion of Jesus on this Feast of Christ the King.

The line that suggests unity in diversity is what was written on the placard and affixed to the crosspiece of Jesus’s cross. The Roman custom was to write the crime of which the crucified was accused and either drape it around the presumed criminal’s neck, or, as in Jesus’ case, attach it to the crosspiece. What it said on his placard was “This is the King of the Jews,” in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as I read from the pulpit bible. That it was written in the three languages spoken in that area at that time was an eloquent expression of Jesus as a King for all the peoples, not the message the Romans were trying to convey, but one that can be construed theologically after the fact.

What kind of a king was Jesus? Apparently, in the world’s view, a powerless king, a weak king, a king for fools, who was mocked with a crown of thorns and a reed for a scepter. The writer Frederick Buechner considers the kingdom of such a king. “If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

And I think that is why we gather here by the river on a Sunday morning, and why generations before us have also gathered here in the vicinity of the Sheepscott Bridge. Out of homesickness we come together from different directions on the theological as well as geographical compass, to be that kingdom, one of unity in diversity. For my money there is only one ticket for full admission to this kingdom of God Buechner speaks of, and that is forgiveness––asking forgiveness for ourselves and offering it to others. Ooh, that last one is a tough one, but Jesus showed us how to do it when he said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” The prayer he taught to his disciples, which we ourselves just prayed, includes the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Listen to what you’re saying there. We need to forgive others, no matter how deep the hurt, no matter the reasons for the hurt, and God will forgive us in just the same way.

That kind of forgiveness is creative and has nothing to do with the worthiness or unworthiness of the one forgiven. It is creative in the sense that it gives itself to human need, that out of chaos can come order, out of evil good, no matter how much one might get hurt in the process. That is what creative forgiveness does and what we need most of in our community church, what all groups need the most of in order to continue as effective agents for good. It is the Christ kind of creative forgiveness. Father, forgive them. They don’t have a clue.

If the purpose of our coming together is the worship of God and the service of humankind, we also build up our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings as a result of the worship and service. This community church is not simply a place we go to, it is something we are part of, and have an important part in, a kingdom of God in miniature, if you will. As Buechner proposed. “The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know.” That happens in fellowship in our community church, whre we need to keep forgiving each other.

We become better people because from week to week we acknowledge that there is someone and something more important than we are, and we act out of that. Our model is Jesus, whose teachings we hear about in scripture and whose selflessness we can imitate. Nothing namby-pamby about that selflessness. Jesus knew who he was. He was a man among men, and he spoke right at and through hypocrisy and self-importance. He lived among sinners as a model of forgiveness and empowerment of others, who though broken by life, were transformed through his nonjudgmental love. We can choose to follow that same model in our worship, and in each other’s company both in service and over coffee and cookies on Sunday morning.

For some people, this talk of Christ as King, and of throne and cross has no meaning. And yet a church where people can come together to acknowledge that we have common concerns, common weaknesses and the opportunity to join together to support and help one another, that does have meaning. Both groups are welcome here, and neither group is more loved of God than the other. God meets us where we are, in and on the ground of our being. There, in time, He will reveal Himself as we can best understand because what God is after is relationship with you, with me. For some of us, happily, Jesus is the facilitator of that relationship.

The God whose very habit is to stand up in the midst of the ruins of sacred things, of ancient and timeless precedents, and call them newly into quickened being is in our midst, doing just that. No less than God was with the Ladies in the area of the Sheepscott Bridge when they raised that $16.00 to buy this bible in November 1864; no less than God was with the committee of people who had a vision of reorganization of this church and put together the mission statement seven years ago; no less than God was with Rev. Mary Harrington, who left this earth on October 26, this year, but not before telling stories that inspired. As we appreciate yet again this Sunday these flowers from Mary’s memorial service, which her family asked be used in the church in commemoration of her life, I’d like to share in conclusion a story Mary told me.

She enrolled in Starr King Theological School on the West coast in mid-life to prepare for ministry in the Unitarian Church, of which she was a lifelong member. But she wanted a safety school, so to speak, and was at an open house at another seminary to hear and see what she would need to make the best decision when the time came. She was waiting in line to gather information and the woman in front of her struck up a conversation, (Mary was very easy to talk to.) which conversation quickly turned to the woman’s son, who had serious substance abuse problems with all the thorns that go with those problems.

The mother had bailed him out of jail again and again, and nothing changed. She had seen him through drug rehab programs, but nothing changed. She concluded her lament with, “Well, I guess I can always pray for him.” Mary wondered aloud why prayer is always the last resort. “Why would it not be the first thing we do?” she asked. “What if prayer is all we have?”

What if prayer is all we have? Prayer is what we do and give and have here at Sheepscott Community Church. It is what we can offer each other. Whatever we believe or don’t believe, we as caring human beings can come together in this place consecrated for worship to be in each other’s presence and so, in the presence of God. There is no hierarchy here of thought or idea or person. There is only humility and gratitude for the great gift of life we all share and the challenge of what we will do with that life, no matter what stage we are at. By God’s grace we help each other to learn how to give, whether out of our lack or out of our abundance.

Keep in mind that as a community church, we are here for and do represent the larger community before God. We take seriously the responsibility to care prayerfully and practically for all those in the community of Sheepscott and towns in the area, as we are able, and to care as God leads for flood and now cholera victims in Haiti, political refugees around the world, the hungry in North Korea. We are one family of God, who act as we are led, individually and as a group, gathering strength and inspiration to do that from our Sundays and service days together.

What do we do next? We love each other, forgive each other, pray for each other, and serve each other, always keeping the model of Jesus in view. We are the Sheepscott Community Church. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let's Get Our Priorities Straight

Sheepscott Community Church November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65: 17-25

Luke 21: 5-19

Let’s Get Our Priorities Straight

As a child I was always thrilled by the readings of the last Sundays of the liturgical year. Why? Because they were scary. Earthquakes, famines, pestilences. Heavy stuff for eight- or nine-year-old ears to hear. Without explication and explanation of the text, a child’s imagination takes sometimes unfortunate flight, as in, well, if there are earthquakes and famines and pestilence, my family will be in danger. We might die.

Ever one to make deals with God, at that time I wrote a promise on a piece of paper: “If you will not destroy the world, I will give you my life.” Nothing big, you understand, just my life. Then I pricked my finger with the pointed end of a safety pin and signed my name in blood. Isn’t that the way it was supposed to be done? After that, I buried my note to God in a field. Apparently God read it, for here I still am all these years later, having just read one of the those same eschatological readings.

The word eschatology means the science of last things, and religiously speaking, as we are here, those last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell. Signs of the end times Jesus was speaking of in the gospel were famine and pestilence, wars and rumors of wars. The apostles wondered, as we ourselves do, especially at this time of the year as we sink towards winter, if that time, if that season was in the far or near future. Jesus was never particularly concerned with the hours of the clock. What he focused on was fulfilling God’s will and intent, and the time for that fulfillment, which is always now.

You may have heard the Shaker admonition to live each day as if it were your first and as if it were your last, consciously, with gratitude, and with a heart after service. For his part, God is always bent on rescuing his own from misery, and planning to do it with the gospel concerning Jesus, and by means of every life that will give itself away to him. That life may be in the form of a note signed in blood, or in a less dramatic way––the opening of the door of the heart a crack to take a chance that the promises of God may be true and that Jesus may be who we are afraid he is.

The time to focus on is now, not some unknown future, when in our own little cosmologies we perceive the signs lining up. Ah, this must be it! You know what the Bible says. No. Get your eye off speculative interpretations of Revelation and other writings, and onto the matter at hand. Who needs some supper? Who needs a visit but doesn’t know how to ask for it? What young mother is pulling her hair out with frustration in her sense of isolation and is becoming afraid of what she is capable of doing? Look around. The time is now and the needs are all around us, challenging us to see with the eyes of love.

In that vein, I want to tell you a story I heard last Sunday. As you may know, Rick Newell, who was pastor of this church for a year or two, and who has been the ongoing pastor of the Alna-Newcastle Baptist Church for the last 20 years, was ordained in that church last Sunday by the people of the church.

A good friend and mentor of Rick’s, Rev. Darryl Lavway, originally of this area, but now of Santa Clara County, CA, came East for the occasion. His responsibility was to give the charge to the minister, which he did, but not before making it clear to Rick and all those gathered just what he thought Rick and we ought to know about what is important versus what is not important. What do we need to remember?

He then went on to narrate an experience he had had a few weeks before. Eighty ministers of that county where he has his church, were invited to listen to 10 judges from the county courts, each of whom had a different jurisdiction, as in one for criminal court, one for traffic court, one for family court, and so on. The testimony he wanted to share with us was that of the judge from the court of domestic violence. All day, every day, that judge hears and adjudicates in cases of domestic violence.

The judge played a 9-1-1 tape for the ministers and those other judges. All listened raptly as a 6-year-old boy spoke with the dispatcher about what was going on in the next room. His mother’s ex-boyfriend was hurting her, he said. She had put the boy in another room to keep him safe. “But,” he told the dispatcher, “I have to go and check on my mommy now.” So he carried the phone out into the next room where his mother was and cried into the phone to the dispatcher, “My mommy is dead,” which she was.

In that same week, Reverend Lavway noted that he heard the head of the largest Protestant denomination in the world holding forth on the dangers of yoga, calling it evil. Reverend Lavway was aghast at this declaration, still recovering as he was from the story the judge told about the boy and his mother. That this significant person was using precious time and air space to name as evil something that Lavway thought unimportant in this context, while what mattered, what was important was the death of the boy’s mother and the consequent impact on the life of the boy. That went unaddressed at that level. Mr. Lavway was obviously scandalized by the what he considered the inappropriate declaration about yoga as evil, about who is inside the circle and who is outside the circle, about who belongs and who does not belong. All that when people are suffering and dying for want of human understanding and involvement.

I suspect this was the first time Darryl Lavway had heard a firsthand account of a real case of domestic violence, and it had been when he was ready to hear it. He was not filled with judgment about the mother, about the boyfriend, but filled with Christ’s loving concern for that child, and also Christ’s outraged sense of justice at the unnecessary suffering and death involved.

Darryl Lavway was convicted about this issue because someone had taken the time and trouble to arrange the meeting between judges and clergy, and he had taken the time to attend. He heard something new and passed it on to us, and so Christ’s loving concern for that child became our concern and inherently challengedus to explore the issue in our area. What he said to Rick Newell, and to all of us gathered there, including Lucy, who is the church’s music director, is that he and we need to learn from that story what is important and what is not important, what matters and what does not matter. We need to get our priorities straight. What is important is love, loving the suffering one enough to serve in the way and in the hour as God leads. Incidentally, I don’t think Reverend Lavway was saying yoga itself is unimportant. It has its its place as a tool for physical and spiritual health for some practitioners. What he was saying was the temporal juxtaposition of the 9-1-1 call with the statement about yoga from a denominational leader in a pulpit that could have been used to say something infinitely more important, about suffering in the world and the need for us to address it and be involved––all of that was a scandal to him.

When we are busy judging whether this person or this thing is good or evil, and whether to include or exclude that person or thing on the basis of our judgment, we may miss the task or situation that is right in front of us needing to be addressed. It was a big teaching that had obviously converted Darryl Lavway, and he used it to illustrate to this man being newly ordained what should be important and what should not be important in his ongoing, post-ordination ministry. We would all do well to pay attention.

I’d like to finish with yet another story that I heard last week, a true story from the daughter who lived it. This adult daughter’s mother was the apple of her daughter’s eye. When the mother in her increasing age developed Parkinson’s, her daughter invited her to live with her, wanting to take care of her. The mother moved in, time passed and the Parkinson’s got worse and worse, and so did the circumstances of living together, as they will when people are in close quarters out of necessity. It was hard for the daughter to see her mother failing.

Finally the mother died, and yes, the daughter was devastated because she loved her deeply. Perhaps there was relief as well, as happens when a huge burden is sadly lifted.

Several years later, the woman, who is a psychologist, was called to a nursing home because a patient there was out of control, and the treatment team didn’t know what to do with her. The woman met with the team, and as soon as she saw the diagnosis––Parkinson’s––and the medications that the patient was on, she was immediately able to understand the woman’s behavior and explain it to the team, while suggesting modifications to medications and as a result, to behaviors as well.

As she was leaving the building, the woman said she heard a voice that clearly said to her, “See? This is why your mother had to come and live with you.” The woman was able to bring the knowledge and wisdom from her own and especially her mother’s suffering to bear for the sake of this other member of the family of God. She was listening, she cared, she wasn’t focusing on the big questions of who and what was good or evil. That wasn’t her business. She was focused on dealing with what was right in front of her face: helping to relieve the suffering of another human being. For her the time is always ow; she learned that with her mother, and she has her priorities straight. For Darryl Lavway, the time has become now in a new way for him, and he has his priorities straight.

You may see it differently. That’s fine, but for me that sharing of stories––the judges with the ministers; the minister with the minister and the congregation; and the woman who had a story to tell over coffee––the willingness to share the stories, with those who have ears to hear them, and then act, this is a way to be fully in the moment, in the now, not worrying about or fearing a possible future time. It is recognizing the gift of Jesus, the Christ to the world, and what that means: new heavens and a new earth, where we care for one another, where God can bring good out of suffering, when we surrender to him our idea of the meaning of that suffering and make ourselves available for God’s purposes. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Time for Poetry, A Time for Prose

Sheepscott Community Church November 7, 2010

Haggai 2: 1-9

Luke 20: 27-38

A Time for Poetry, a Time for Prose

The message this morning will be right out of the Book of Haggai the prophet. His timing, God’s timing, shall we say, couldn’t be better on this reading out of this minor prophet of the Hebrew Bible, from which book Jon read this morning.

Our treasurer Bill Robb sent out pledge letters this past week. Pledges and weekly offerings, bean suppers, lawn sales, other special events and occasional bequests are what keep our church afloat financially. We don’t have the luxury of an endowment. This message is not going to be a complaint, or a harangue, I promise; only an illumination of our situation through the writing of a sixth-century lesser Hebrew prophet.

The pledge letter notes the reorganization of this church seven years ago under the leadership of Joan Yeaton, a lifelong member of the church. We have had at least three or four ministers during this period and perhaps as many organists and choir directors––those figures usually seem to go hand-in-hand––and a Board comprised of long-term and repeating members, with a few newer members, including Lee Roberts and Cyndi Brinkler. While people have continued to come in greater and lesser numbers, we have continuously worshiped God in this Sheepscott Community Church.

This message I will deliver today is at some level distasteful to me because I perceive the church as the people, the living Body of Christ in the world, interdependent, as in, what happens to you affects me and vice versa. A friend made the analogy between the people of God and a spider web. When you pull on one thread of that web, the whole web trembles. Probably that’s as true for the entire web of creation as well.

My topic this morning is considerably more modest than the interdependence of the whole of the web of creation. You can be grateful for that. I only want to talk about this building, this temple, this church, and the need to rebuild it, physically and metaphysically, which for us means maintenance, because, unlike the Temple of Jerusalem in Haggai’s time, our temple has not burnt down with only stone foundations remaining, but is just a little rough around the edges and needing, as I said last week, care and feeding.

A little background on the reading from Haggai. His brief prosaic prophetic utterances, which were recorded by someone other than the prophet himself, were delivered to the returned post exilic Jewish community. The Jews had been led into exile in Babylon in 586 BCE,, according to the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar. In 539 BCE,, 47 years later, the Persian leader Cyrus conquered Babylon, and in keeping with his policy of conciliation with conquered peoples, he encouraged the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, which they did, and Palestine then became a province of the Persian Empire under Cyrus.

It was not, however, until 520 BCE that the Temple of Jerusalem began to be rebuilt. There were several reasons for this delay. One was that the people had become accustomed to the sight of the burnt out hulk of the old Temple of Solomon. The sorry condition of the building did not deter those who had not been taken into exile from bringing offerings to the Temple. It’s like living in an uncompleted house. When Jon and I moved into our 18th-century Cape on the Old Sheepscot Road in 1969, it was anything but complete. A cautionary note, if you’re young and starting out: don’t do that. Get as much done as you can before you move in because it gets more and more unlikely that it will be done as the years pass. For example, one of our observations about our kids was that the first sentence they were able to read was, “This Side Toward Living Space,” which is what was written on the silver side of the insulation between the roof beams upstairs where they slept.

Anyway, the point is that the people in Palestine had gotten used to the burnt out ark of the Temple, destroyed when the Babylonians conquered, even as we get used to our circumstances and situations when they are not optimal. For example, we had needed a paint job on the outside of this building for a long time before we were able to get it done, and anyone can see that Dale Hunt did a beautiful job.

Another reason for the delay in rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem was that the Samaritans had thrown up roadblocks to the reconstruction, and the people were too dispirited by their post exilic inertia to oppose the Samaritans. More significantly, however, it was the wretched state of the people generally that discouraged them from undertaking the religious duty of rebuilding the Temple. That they would have a roof over their own heads was their particular focus––and we understand that. Harvests had been bad, food and drink were in short supply, warm clothes were scarce and money had little value. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The people’s energy was going to providing for themselves and their families, and frankly, they didn’t give a hoo-ha that Yahweh’s house had no roof on it, as long as their roof was in place.

It was to a people in this state of deprivation and discouragement that Haggai had to deliver the message of rebuilding the Temple. Not an easy task in a hard time, and who cannot see the parallels between that time and ours? History can be seen through the economic lens of recessions and depressions, with only an occasional blip of prosperity on the radar screen for the average household. We know where those Jews were coming from when they heard Haggai make his earnest appeal for rebuilding God’s house. I suspect they were saying under their breaths whatever would have been comparable in that time to our, “Yeah, and good luck to you, fella.”

But Haggai had his commission and he had to keep at the people about it. Where the people found a reason for their indifference to rebuilding in the difficult conditions of their lives, Haggai saw in those same conditions, a consequence of the indifference. He told the people that as long as the righteous claims of religion remained unhonored among the people, and that not honoring especially manifest in the sorry state of the languishing Temple, as long as those claims remained unmet, just so long would their misfortunes continue.

I have to say that while I have been moving in the direction of parallels between our church and the Temple of Jerusalem, I don’t step over the line as Haggai did and say that the misfortunes in your lives, in our lives, whatever form they may take, are a result of applied indifference to the just claims of religion. But that’s my take. Who knows what God’s take is? I don’t pretend to.

Back to Haggai. He appealed to the people to shake off their indifference, and if they would, if they would build, there would be an end of the hard life. Instead, the people would know what it meant to be blessed of Yahweh; life would be better. Haggai’s words were first addressed to Zerubbabel, the civic head of the community, and Joshua, the religious head of the community. His words had their effect, and under the leadership of these two men, the building of the Temple began in 520 BCE. In 516, four years after Haggai first made his appeal, the Temple was completed. It occurred to me that Haggai would have made a great fundraiser, or politician, having the power to move a people from one position to a radically different one, in a relatively short period of time.

A month or so ago, I referred in a sermon to Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, who went to Africa in the early 20th century, where he founded a hospital in Lamberene, in Gabon. When he returned to his hospital after his first furlough, he found the buildings in disrepair and set about rebuilding them with his own hands. As he said, he realized that the poetry of his African adventure was over; he had entered on its prose period. But he was a mature soul and equal to the occasion.

The prose periods of the religious life are our opportunity to make good the truth of their earlier poetry. Without them, without the prose periods, our insights, inspirations and visions lack substantial and enduring reality. The prophet Haggai challenged his contemporaries to make good the glory of the first Temple in the terms of the reconstructed Temple. He was not deterred by the sentimental mood of his listeners who remembered the first Temple and compared any reconstruction unfavorably. That is the perfect scenario for the indifference that the people felt. Finally the moral earnestness of the prophet prevailed over the sentimental inertia of his listeners.

I consider the vision and inspiration and insights of Joan Yeaton, Chuck Reinhardt, Cindy and Chrissy, Bonnie Gerard, and all the others who were involved in the reorganization of this church through their outreach to the community to have been the poetry phase of rebuilding this church. They had a vision Now have we entered the prose phase, the real work of building. And we have made a really good start. I encourage you, as I have done again and again, to be part of the rebuilding, the reconstruction of this Community Temple in Sheepscot, both financially and n service.

Consider the closing words of the reading from Haggai: “’The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” In another translation, “’The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former,‘and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” Glory and splendor. Peace and prosperity.

I think God has for us that peace and spiritual prosperity, but we are in the prose time when we have to work for what we want our church to be. Part of that work can be in responding to the pledge appeal, mailed to your houses this week. If anyone doesn’t receive a letter and wants to, please let me or Bill Robb know. Thank you Joan, thank you all who have continued to hold the vision and do the work of the Sheepscott Community Church. Amen.