Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jesus: A Revolutionary?

Sheepscott Community Church August 29, 2010

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Jesus: A Revolutionary?

I almost never read the sports section of the newspaper, except to check the Red Sox standings, and occasionally a feature will catch my eye, as one did last weekend. A two-sport athlete for Villanova University donated his bone marrow to save the life of a very young girl stricken by leukemia. His marrow was a perfect match.

The athlete is Matt Szczur [See-zer], and the sports are baseball and football. His coach Andy Talley established the marrow donor program in connection with the university’s football team 20 years ago after hearing a radio program that publicized the need for donors for all types of deadly diseases. Talley makes participation as much a routine part of the football program as helmets and knee pads.

Nearly 20,000 potential donors have been tested and entered into the national registry because of Coach Talley’s effort. Two previous Villanova players were matches, and Szczur makes three. A simple swab on the inside of his cheek in freshman year with the statistic of there being a one in 80,000 chance he would be a match, and Matt Szczur turned out to be a toddler’s best chance for a normal life span. As Szczur said, “Just to experience something like that to help save a life––I’d do it every day of the week.”

When Talley found out that the timing of the donation might interfere with the football playoffs for which Szczur was quarterbacking, his comment was, “Saving someone’s life is a lot more important than a football game.” In this context, if a person had only one prayer to pray, he or she might well ask for a sense of proportion––think a life vs. a football game––even a small measure of that sense of proportion which both Coach Talley and his star quarterback Matt Szczyr exhibited.

Rabbis have always had a saying that the best kind of giving was when the giver did not know to whom he was giving, and when the receiver did not know from whom he was receiving. That is the case with marrow donation, and most organ donations as well. After a period of a year or more, there could be exchange of information if the involved parties so desire. It’s also true of donations we make to the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, the Salvation Army, CHIP––whatever your charity of choice. We don’t know what individual persons particularly benefit, but God does, and God knows it is for good that we do this.

I am not so subtly leading into one of the messages in today’s gospel, which is not to invite to your party or your dinner those whom you know will respond in kind. The best kind of invitation is that which expects no response, which is done without self-interest. All well and good for the saints among us, we might say, but get real. Who among us is going to go out into the fields and hedgerows to bring in the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind of today’s gospel, knowing they can never return the favor? Who among us, indeed? Before I try to answer that question, let me clarify that Jesus is not saying don’t invite friends and family, but rather, don’t invite them exclusively. He often used hyperbole to make a point.

Not to beat a dead horse, but we do invite the larger family of God to dine when we host the community supper once a month. I’ve said it a hundred times, if I’ve said it once, that the rewards for that work are not monetary or tangible but of the kind that give the greatest satisfaction and last forever. But in our everyday lives, how can that happen more often? I think that we all probably have good instincts about this. When we recognize a need, if we have the mind of Christ about it, we will know how and when to fill that need. We won’t have to think about the end of whether to relieve the need, but only about the means, the how to do it.

What do I mean, “the mind of Christ,” and how do we go about getting such a mind? This is actually a pretty simple concept, but I’m going to ask you to focus as I try to explain. You often hear the term, deciding for Christ, I’ve decided for Christ. I would offer a different term: yielding to Christ. That dispenses with the fiction that we are in control and have anything to offer, and it raises up the specter of our own poverty when we stand before God. When we are willing to recognize that we are nothing and have nothing that is worth offering, when we have internalized that sense of true poverty of spirit, which is in essence repentance, and are willing to admit it before God, then do we begin to have everything, to be potentially useful in every way, to be available to joy we have not known heretofore, when we were striving to be good and to carry the world on our shoulders like Atlas. It’s a heavy load, let me tell you.

The true character of the person who is renewed in the sense of having yielded to Christ, of having the mind of Christ, shines forth, and the glory is not to the person, but of and to the Creator, to the Spirit of the One who is the Motivator, Savior, call it what you will. This is becoming one with the mind of Christ, by desiring it and letting go of our plans of how our world will be saved, or our corner of the world. Don’t misunderstand me. It is necessary and important to do good, to try to live a good life, including in each other’s company as we are this morning, but know, remember that the greater good, indeed the greatest good is possible through us as we allow the Spirit of God in us to have that One’s way.

To yield to the Spirit of God. I can almost hear the protests: No! No! Anything but that! It isn’t just two-year-olds who have tantrums. What will it look like if I do this? Will I have to stop drinking? Smoking? Dancing? Other things? We don’t give up our individuality or expressions of it. Along the way to the milestone of a yielded spirit, we may think that cigarettes, or some other thing, things that aren’t necessarily good for us define us. Of course they really don’t. They are simply distractions from or pleasures in this life, depending on how we look at them. But they are merely the poorest of reflections of what the good life really is.

A yielded spirit, that place where we exercise our free will, is a God-consciousness that becomes unconscious the longer we live in it and with it. When we turn away toward our own agenda after being in that kind of consciousness for a time, we have an immediate check in the Spirit, I call it, that lets us know we are heading off track. We can also call it conscience, for that is what it is, and we all have it. I note that we can also make callous our conscience by not paying attention to those checks in the spirit.

Contrasted with the unselfconscious way of life we can experience when we are one with Christ, is the self-consciousness that characterizes the man of Jesus’s parable in today’s gospel, who takes the first seat at table and thereby makes it clear what he thinks about his own importance or at least of how he wants to be perceived as important. He opens himself to humiliation, for if a more important person comes to the dinner, the first man would be asked to move to a lower place.

Jesus suggests to his hearers that they take the lower place from the get-go, and then the host may invite them up higher. In a way, that seems no less jockeying for one’s importance, but perhaps Jesus is offering a practice of humility. What we practice can become a virtue as it becomes internalized, and so, an unconscious way of being. We can actually reach the point in our own spiritual development whereby we automatically go to the lowest place because we know what and who we are before God. We don’t even have to think about it.

All of that isn’t meant to make you feel bad. It’s an exercise in the proportion I was talking about earlier. In fact, rather than making you feel bad, it is like putting down the weight of the world, as I also indicated earlier. We are what we are: human beings, which is to say, sinners, people who make mistakes; people who are clumsy, greedy and self-seeking, and God loves us just as we are, before we have changed, before we act differently.

It is that unconditional love that makes everything possible. If we think of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as an expression of the punitive God of justice whom the Israelites needed as they pushed other tribes aside on their way into the Promised Land, if that is the punitive God of justice, we recognize the God of love and mercy in the New Testament as revealed in the life of Jesus. For those who profess Christianity, Jesus fulfills and also supersedes the earlier revelations of the Old Testament. When we can take in, when we can receive that unconditional love, can actually accept the truth of what I am saying here, there lies freedom. There comes the power to become what and who we are capable of being, not acting out of fear of punishment, but out of love for ourselves and others that enables God’s will in the world. How can we do that? By watching and listening to Jesus, a model of the loving life. Then can we enjoy partying down at the end of the table, whether or not we ever get invited to go higher up. The love of God releases us from our own Babylonian captivities, whatever form they may take, so that we can return to the Promised Land to fulfill the promise of our lives.

Then we don’t simply tolerate but actually enjoy the company of those who are considered less than, because, thanks be to God, we have come to the understanding of our own poverty. That understanding makes true relating across all lines of race, class, religion, gender, abilities, wellness or sickness––makes relating across all those lines possible, and fun. We are all part of the same family of God, no one more imporatnt than another, and hospitality to all members of that family, which Jesus recommends to us, can fill the earth with love and be a foretaste of heavenly joy. It brings us into a deeper friendship with God––not a bad place to be and excellent company.

I would also call your attention to Jesus himself, who never refused anyone’s invitation of hospitality. We often see him at a dinner, a banquet, a wedding feast. In today’s gospel he is at a Pharisee's house for dinner, where the gospel tells us they were watching him, a hostile group that wanted him to make a mistake, to break the Law perhaps by one more of those healings on the Sabbath. Jesus knew how the Pharisee felt about him, but he accepted the invitation anyway. To the very end of his life––think about “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”––from the cross––to the very end he never abandoned hope for human beings that they might change. He was ready to go the extra mile by accepting the invitation that would put him directly in the line of fire. One thing that Jesus teaches us by that example is that we will never make our enemies our friends if we refuse to meet and talk with them, maybe even break bread with them.

I am reminded of Senator George Mitchell as the State Department’s special envoy to the Mideast at this time, who has apparently been instrumental in getting Israel and Palestine to agree to sit down at the negotiating table this week. We probably all know that Senator Mitchell’s quiet diplomacy and sheer doggedness, his refusal to throw in the towel, enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to go forward so that now there is shared government there after centuries of dissension and killing. Yes, the resistance has reared its head a few times, but peace, which is what the majority of the people want, seems to be holding.

It remains to be seen whether Senator Mitchell will be able to see the same kind of success with the two Middle Eastern parties, but like Jesus, he is willing to try to bring them together to talk, to sit at the same table and get to know each other, if not as friends, at least as enemies who respect each other’s right to coexist on this planet we all call home, in this family where most of us recognize God as the parent of our spirits, by whatever name we address that One.

Coach Andy Talley and his quarterback Matt Szczur stepped forward in their roles to contribute to making life better for one little girl suffering from cancer. George Mitchell has worked toward the same goal of making life better for many, by bringing a measure of peace on earth, and potentially saving lives by saying yes to the time and to the call on his gifts for diplomacy. If we yield––not decide for, but yield to the guidance of Christ, to the invitation to be one with the heart of God––in the same way, what good might we not be capable of enabling on this needy, turning planet we all share?

In case it isn’t completely clear to you yet, I would note that Jesus is revolutionary in his thinking and teachings. He was so in his time; he is so now, and I do speak of him in the present tense, because he is alive in the spirit. The body did die, but the spirit lives and is present to us at all times. Here and now. Call out. He will answer. Recall the line from Deuteronomy, which is quoted in the reading today from Hebrews: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” And from Psalm 118: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Amen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Repair and Restore, Breach and Foundation

Sheepscott Community Church August 22, 2010

Isaiah 58: 9b-14

Luke 13: 10-17

Repair and Restore, Breach and Foundation

I know of two paid professional counselors in our congregation, and it may be there are more. In fact all of us, paid or not, are de facto counselors when we listen attentively to another human being and give the best solicited advice or counsel we can in any given situation. It may not be the best informed , and we may not be able to offer multiple options or strategies, but if it comes from a concerned, disinterested heart––that’s dis-interested, not uninterested––it will be of value. Sometimes all of us just need to be heard.

And because needing to be heard doesn’t always limit itself to office hours, sometimes we have to reach out in the middle of a workday for a word from someone else, an indication that we are not alone in our trouble. Or we ourselves are called on to respond to someone else who reaches out. I recently saw a member of this congregation, who was at her workplace, standing outside the building and talking intently on her cellphone. A friend had called her to share her anxiousness about a member of her family who was threatening to harm himself. The friend was on her way to the site where the family member was, when she called to share her fear and receive even a word of understanding from someone else in the human community whom she trusted. And she got it.

The woman in today’s gospel had been under it for so long––18 years–– that she no longer realized there was a way out. As the years succeeded each other, she was just more and more bent over. Extreme case of osteoporosis, maybe? When Jesus saw her in the synagogue on the Sabbath, he called her forward and said simply, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” And she was. Almost needless to say, the ruler of the synagogue rebuked Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath indirectly by saying to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The healing constituted a “work.”

Jesus’s retort was, “You hypocrites!” You may recall that in last week’s gospel he used that epithet a number of times to chastise his listeners for not being able to interpret the signs of the times, the principle one being himself, the embodied kingdom of God among them. And he goes on to detail the situation whereby they would take their donkey out of the stall to give it a drink on the Sabbath, but they would not be willing to heal this daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath? I like the last line: “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.” I can easily imagine the buzz in the synagogue that morning. When the Spirit of God is at work, there’s absolutely nothing like it because there is no doubt who is the originator of the work going on. People who aren’t invested in opposing the good, know the work of God when they see it because they can feel it. It’s a response of the spirit, our spirit, to the work of the Spirit of God. The people in the synagogue recognized that kinship with Jesus and rejoiced in it.

We too recognize a family member sometimes by what he or she does. For instance, Jan Kilburn’s art work. Her style is unmistakable, and it’s a little thrill to see her work out in the community, whether in a public area used as an exhibition space, or in a private home. She’s a member of our church family; we recognize her work when we see it.

Another example, I may have already told you this, but it fits here, and besides, Mary and Tom wouldn’t have heard this before. When we “do” the Wednesday night community supper in Newcastle once a month, one of our regular visitors, Lisa, always brings some treat for those who are working the supper. Treats may range from specialty jelly beans at Easter time, to chocolate-covered espresso coffee beans a few weeks back. A few months ago, she brought in a pie, a raspberry pie, and when I saw it, I thought, Hey! That’s an Eliza pie. Eliza is my daughter-in-law, who is a baker and whose mother Robin sells her pies at farmers’ markets in the area. Her pies have a certain look, and I knew it had to be one of hers, and so I asked Lisa, and sure enough, she had bought it at the Farmers’ Market in Damariscotta.

I know Eliza’s pies when I see them. She’s family; I know her work. We all know Jan’s work when we see it, because it’s church family. Reproductions of her paintings made every Sheepscott Community Church cookbook a collector’s item, as Sonnie, Lily and Sylvia were fond of saying as part of their sales pitch for the cookbooks; and believe me, those women can pitch. Everybody in that synagogue who did not oppose Jesus, recognized the work he was doing and was delighted. The Spirit of God who motivated Jesus, also lived and moved in these delighted people, who rejoiced that God was among men. They recognized the sign of the time in their spirit, whether or not they could name it.

What does God among men and stooped over women do? Sets aside protocol and heals, frees, reminiscent of our congregation’s counselors who in their lives have seen the importance of setting people free and decided to give their lives over to this important work. Not just within the church family, but making themselves available to the larger family of God, as did and does the woman who listened to her fearful and frantic friend outside her workplace.

We don’t need to push down doors, to break into the private houses of people’s souls. They invite us in when they recognize that the work we do, the way we are in this life is of God. That may not be at the level of the intellect that people understand that, but again, at that same level where the people in the synagogue delighted in Jesus. They recognized someone who had the same parent of the spirit that they did, i.e., God.

I also think of teachers who raise up those stooped over, if not in the misery of physical, mental or emotional infirmity, then in ignorance, sharing knowledge with them and encouraging them in developing their own thought processes. And I know from watching Jon over the many years of his career that the teacher is never far from the classroom in his or her head, even during the summer. Always planning, always reading one more book of literary criticism, always mining for deeper, wider ties with other disciplines to make the path of knowledge more accessible and more rewarding for the students.

All of these people, the artist, the teacher, the counselor, the listener to another, the baker who feeds and the consumer who cares to share what the baker prepares, all of these are in their own way fulfilling what is translated in our New International Version of Isaiah as “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

I prefer the translation of this passage in The New American Bible, which reads, “The ancient ruins will be rebuilt for your sake, and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up; ‘Repairer of the breach,’ they shall call you, ‘Restorer of ruined homesteads.”

It is a fact that the reference the prophet Isaiah is making is to the post-exilic destruction and ruins the Israelites would encounter on their return home from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE. There would need to be a physical restoration, and that restoration is clearly in the writer’s mind, but spiritual regeneration significantly precedes it and empowers the people to undertake such a large-scale restoration, or even to imagine it after their long period of involuntary servitude.

Consider the Pakistanis, who survived the initial decimation of their villages inundated by the floodwaters of the Indus River. They need just the sort of encouraging words that Isaiah gave to the Israelites, individually and as a people. They too will need to repair the walls breached by water, and restore the ruined homesteads the best they can. Closer to home, this village of Sheepscot has a number of eighteenth-century houses and a history that goes much further back than that. Some of you may have restored one of these old houses, whether as a living or for your own family. Whatever may have been the cause of these houses’ breached walls or collapsed roofs, and crumbled foundations––weather, animals in residence, or abandonment to the elements by some who because of death or disease gave up the struggle to stay––whatever the cause that called for restoration, you and others repaired those breaches, restored those ruined homesteads. Resurrected them, one might say.

I remind you of the woman Jesus healed whom he characterized as bound by Satan for 18 years in this indeed involuntary servitude to infirmity. I am suggesting to you that our counselors, our artists, our teachers, parents, those who raise our food and make it available to us, our rebuilding carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians––indeed all of us who take seriously our responsibility to fulfill our place, our calling in the human community, which is ultimately about us all helping one another to live and make meaning of this life, all of us who do that are repairers of the breach, restorers of ruined homesteads. We repair and restore each other in whatever way we can.

The breach in the human soul between what we are called to and what happens to us along the way to interfere with fulfilling that calling, we hear God saying here through his prophet that that breach can be repaired, that the homesteads of lives that have been ruined for whatever reason, those homesteads can be rebuilt. And we, we are the repairers, we are the restorers. God will empower us with his Spirit, but it is we ourselves who are the workers. Let us say yes with the delight that the townsfolk in the synagogue that morning had in Jesus, who was restoring the ruined homestead of a woman bent over ––we have all seen such women, and occasionally a man, but more often women. I trust you know it would be the height of chutzpah to walk up to such a person, lay a hand on the person, and announce yourself as his or her healer and restorer. No. We wait on God, who opens doors gently and quietly. And we, who are watching and listening, like the people in the synagogue, we recognize the action of that One whom we are related to. Then we move. Then we act.

Jesus, our teacher, our healer, our way-shower. He was his own man and was not done or undone by the ruler of the synagogue, by the powerful scribes and pharisees, by the know-it-alls in the religious community. He knew who he was. He continued to discern that in his nights of prayer with his Abba, his Father, on mountain, in garden and in desert place, how he was to carry out what he understood to be the call on his life. Once he stepped over the line, crossed the Shannon, as they say in Ireland, once he had finished his time of preparation in the desert, he never looked back, and God accomplished in him and through him everything that was needed. Consistent as he was along the whole way of his life, he fulfilled the call on his life, just as we––you and I––are invited to do, indeed, we no less than he. The invitation is there. As I did last week, I dare you to R.S.V.P. in the positive. Amen.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Sheepscott Community Church August 15, 2010

Hebrews 11: 29- 12: 2

Luke 12: 49-56

Hypocrites! You hypocrites! How does that make you feel? Not good, if you take it in. Being accused and challenged that way can make us defensive, as in, “I’m not a hypocrite. Do you know what I do for the church?” And there we might begin to recite a litany similar to the parabled litany the pharisee recited in the temple: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men––robbers, evildoers, adulterers––or even like this tax collector,” referring to the publican at the back of the room. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” he continued, while the publican or tax collector didn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” One the picture of smugness, the other of true humility.

What did Jesus say about this pair from the parable? “This man,” referring to the tax collector, “rather than the other, went home justified before God.” God knows the hearts of men––and women, and children. Only God knows the heart.

Hypocrites! Jesus is not what we would consider now a “nice guy,” is he? A compassionate man who alleviated suffering whenever and wherever he saw it, yes, but not a nice guy. By that I mean one who tries to make others feel better ultimately for his or her own gain or purposes, and not for God’s purposes.

You hypocrites! Jesus said to his listeners on the occasion of this morning’s gospel that while they were able to interpret the signs in the sky as predictors of the weather––Red skies at morning, sailors take warning; red skies at night, sailors delight––they could not interpret the sign of God, whom they had in their midst––himself. They could not interpret the meaning of the present time.

No less than the people of Israel had the sign of God in their midst through the presence of Jesus, do we have that same sign in our midst, available in the word of God, and in and through each other insofar as we are available to the Spirit of God. The more we are surrendered, as in, Okay God, I give up. Do your thing. I can’t do it anymore. Insofar as we surrender increasingly in that way, just that far can the the will and purposes of God be realized in and through us in the world, most immediately in the world of our own neighborhoods. We can change history by being fully our selves when those selves are surrendered to God. That is no exaggeration.

Think of Mother Teresa, who was not a particularly “nice” person, the way we think of nice now. She had an edge. She alleviated suffering of the dying on the streets of Calcutta, giving them the dignity of a clean and peaceful death in an enclosure instead of on the streets. She alleviated suffering when she saw it––like Jesus––but had little patience with hypocrisy or a sentimental view of what she was doing.

The people of Jesus’s time occasionally did acclaim him as a prophet in their midst. And I remind you of what a prophet is, i.e., not necessarily one who predicts the future but one who speaks for God. Many times Jesus said, in one way or another, when you hear me, when you see me, you hear and see God. These are the words of a prophet who is entirely surrendered to God. That prophet does not tickle his or her hearers’ ears: he or she tells the truth. Hypocrites! You can tell the meaning of the weather signs, but you cannot interpret the meaning of God in your midst. Is that addressed to us?

Jesus was a complete contrast to the false prophets, about whom it was written in Jeremiah 23, “They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says. “You will have peace,” and to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, “No harm will come to you.”’” By contrast, Jesus said, “I have not come for peace but division,” and then the particular divisions within families were itemized in this morning’s gospel. Some of us may have experienced those divisions ourselves, whether for religious or other reasons, and those divisions can be painful and have long-lasting reverberations.

In this context it’s significant to remember some scriptural references to Jesus’s family, when he often seemed to slight them, as in, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers,” he said, pointing to his disciples. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Harsh. Perhaps. But it’s coming from the same place as, “Hypocrites!” from the life and mouth of a surrendered soul, an entirely surrendered soul who came to teach us how to live. Consequently we would do well to pay attention to what he is saying. Jesus didn’t come to make nice. He came to tell the truth, and that truth might mean divisions in families. And finally he was killed because he told the truth.

I don’t know about you, but “Who needs it?” is my first response. It doesn’t take much more reflection than listening to the evening news to have a second response: We need it. We all need it. “It” being the compassionate teachings, the model of the life of Jesus. How else can we make meaning out of our lives and continue to strive after the good in the face of acknowledged evil, in the face of what we do to one another, which we hear and read about almost every day in the news and which we experience in our own lives? How can we make meaning out of our place in the world and choose to act and not be overcome by anguish, despair, and consequent inertia?

We can fully accept membership in another family, with Jesus as brother and God as Father and Mother. If we surrender all other credentials of constructed connection for redefinition on God’s terms, we can truly become agents of change, prophets in our own lives, which is to say, bearers of God’s news, which is truly good news. Something to think about anyway.

Yeah, okay, but what about that part about what happens to prophets, as in Jesus’s life? What about it? If you are ready to surrender your life to God, you take your chances. I don’t doubt that your internal response to that is, yeah, right, or, as mine was, who needs it. If you still don’t buy into what I have said, viz., that we all need to house the Living Word of God, who is Jesus, if we are to be able to continue to bear living and serving in this world, and not be overcome by inertia, then let’s talk a little more about what happens to God’s prophets.

One of my favorite artists is Meinrad Craighead, whom I believe I have mentioned before. She had been a cloistered Carmelite in Glastonbury, England, for 15 years when, following her mother’s death, she felt called back out into the world, to America her home, to continue as a developing artist. For the past 30 years she has lived and painted in the desert of New Mexico, where she maintains her studio which has multiple altars honoring the feminine aspects of God. She also prays sometimes in a kiva, which is a hole dug in the ground. This is a common practice among some Native American tribes, and she herself is Native American through her grandmother.

It was her praying in a kiva that brought her to mind in this context of the lifestyle of the prophets that is laid out in a detailed way in the reading from Hebrews, which C.J. read this morning. “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated––the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in desert and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” The kiva. Meinrad Craighead.

What she who has listened to the Spirit of God and that One revealing that One’s self in her life has led to is an art that has lifted the minds and hearts of how many people to God. To seeing God in a new way. To allowing God to be more than our little creeds and practices can imagine or hope for. That seems like a worthwhile goal, a reason to put up with, a reason to take a chance on. The rewards are built into the surrendered life, and the only way we can find out what those rewards translated into our individual lives are is to surrender to God––entirely. Take a chance. What do we have to lose besides lives that we have constructed, which are little better than stage sets compared to the real thing.

One more note about Meinrad Craighead: One of her work practices over the many years of her painting had been to briskly rub the painting to achieve a certain surface that was one of the recognizable features of her work. After decades of that rubbing, she had to have surgery in the ‘90s on her shoulder, which was simply worn out. She no longer had the strength or the cartilage to do what she had done for so long. Did she give up? Go down into the kiva to lick her wounds? Heck no. She worked out a new technique which is startlingly bare and much more colorful and undetailed than her earlier works. The new work is almost frightening, but in these days, that is what she is seeing, and perhaps that’s the prophet’s brush held in the other hand.

I think of this wonderful line in Jeremiah 23: “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Where are you feeling that hammer? What is the hard place in you, the rock that needs to be smashed into submission? remember what I began with: Jesus is not a nice guy. Jesus will do what is necessary to bring about the fullest realization of the purposes of God in our lives, as he did in his own life. And what is it to be baptized into Christ if not to fully share his life? If you don’t want to be part of that, if you say, “Hey, I was an infant, a toddler, when I was baptized. My parents made that decision for me.” Okay. Tell God that. That you want out. That you never really made that decision yourself. I expect God would honor that, as God honors every person’s free will. However, if you as a reasonable and reasoning adult do want to decide for God, you can as well do that. But for Pete’s sake, get off the fence. Fall one way or the other, but fall.

If you fall for God, i.e., jump off the precipice into the abyss, you will be caught. I can promise you that. But you don’t know me, really, so that promise is meaningless. Nope, you have to go on your own faith. That’s your problem, your journey, your risk-taking adventure, not mine. I’ve got my own to work out. But y’ know? We can work this out together. In this community that can become increasingly a prophetic community in the sense of embodying God, we can help each other to try to live the life we are all called to. What do you say? Can we take a chance on each other?

The OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines a hypocrite as one who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to be better or other than he is, hence a dissembler , a pretender. The word is from the Greek meaning an actor or pretender. Is that what we are? Persons pretending to be God’s people? Do we feel accused when Jesus exclaims, “Hypocrites!” If so, let us go down into our own kivas and meet the living God, that hungry lover of souls who pursues and pursues, but always at a distance that denies and defies certainty to make way for the faith that is the ground of decision. Amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ready, Get Set ...

Sheepscott Community Church August 8, 2010

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Luke 12: 32-40

I Want to Be Ready

There’s an old Spanish saying, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” That’s a little more colorful than what we Americans usually say, i.e., “You can’t take it with you.” I’m talking about money, and I am talking about money because so was Jesus in the first part of this morning’s gospel.

It’s interesting that that introductory paragraph is usually read with the preceding verses in which Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about what they will eat, what they will drink, and what clothes they will wear, because God will take care of them, even as he clothes the grass of the field and the birds of the air. All that is followed by the searching question, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Who indeed?

That the passage introduces the reading of Jesus’ admonition toward watchfulness, as we do not know when the parabled Master will return from the wedding banquet, that unexpected introduction has to give us pause. Rather than being tacked on to the end of considerations of how God will take care of us in this life and not to worry about where the next meal is coming from, it introduces the idea of preparation for the next life, and consequently, its content takes on a more ominous and compelling ring.

To wit: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” So far, so good. “for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” So far, even better. But now, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Ouch. I didn’t see that coming. “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Interestingly, in this week’s news, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two of the richest men in the world, announced the Giving Pledge, which asks the nation's 100 billionaires to publicly commit to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropic and charitable groups within their lifetimes or after their deaths. The pronouncement by Buffett and Gates stems from a series of dinners the two men held over the past year to discuss the effects of the recession on philanthropy with some of the nation's richest people. Thus far, 40 of the hundred billionaires have bought in to this idea of spreading the wealth around. Their goal is to help create an expectation in society that the rich should give away their wealth, and also to create a peer group of wealthy people that can offer advice on philanthropy. The pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal obligation.

Brother and sister philanthropist billionaires from Maine, Marion Sandler and Bernard Osher, are among the 49 who have pledged to give. Besides Buffett and Gates and these two Mainers, I thought of at least two other people who gave up their wealth. The legendary St. Francis of Assissi, who when he had discovered the pearl of great price, gave up all his possessions and his soldier/playboy lifestyle to possess that pearl. He acted out by stripping himself in the village square of the beautiful raiment he had from his father, a cloth merchant, and placing his naked self under the protective cloak of the local bishop. Francis knew how to make a dramatic point, when he embraced Lady Poverty.

The other person I actually knew many years ago was a Jewish convert to Christianity. He too, when he felt God’s call on his life, took the admonition from this morning’s gospel literally and sold his considerable holdings and gave all the money away. With the passage of time he married and had children and often had need of what he had given away. I don’t know how he came to peace about all that, or whether he did, but I think his initial act of faith in the words of Jesus can only ultimately be for good. Like Francis, who happily called himself God’s fool, this man often felt the same way. But more often than not, what the world considers foolishness is wisdom in the sight of God.

The realization of ideals, spiritual and otherwise, is not always as simple as it seems. Practically and realistically speaking, I think we can all acknowledge that we have to keep for ourselves enough to live on and not be a burden to the State or our children or the community. While it’s important for all of us as community to continue to provide a safety net for those––including the poor––who are not able to provide for themselves, it is also true that we need to continue to provide for our selves the best we can. But we must be honest with ourselves and answer the question before God, how much does that take? As billionaire Marian Sandler noted in her letter of commitment to the Giving Pledge, “There’s no way to spend a fortune. How may residences, automobiles, aireplanes, and other luxury items can one acquire and use?”

If we are reasonable about tithing, however you do that––through the church, through personal charities, even in our own families where there is always another need cropping up, as in, Charity begins at home––I think that can fulfill what Jesus is asking here. More important is that last line, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What do we value more? Accumulating wealth that enables bigger, better purchases? Or accumulating the other wealth, that Jesus is suggesting, the wealth that is actually divestiture of money and goods and redistribution, thereby providing a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys?

Considering the recent economic collapse, and the effects of which I’m sure even some in this congregation experienced sharply, we know the reality of the thief and the moth, and it should give us pause about what we value more, and where and how we want to invest our wealth and to consider what kinds of dividends we want that wealth to generate. Temporal or eternal? Also, it should be becoming clearer to all of us as time and the years go by, just what true wealth is, viz., what Jesus is teaching about this morning.

All of that is by way of introducing the rest of this morning’s gospel, which speaks about readiness––being ready to meet God. If you recall, last week’s gospel dealt with the rich man who didn’t have enough room to store all his worldly goods, and so he happily hit on the idea that he could build bigger barns to hold the stuff. Do you ever wonder about the recent proliferation of storage units on our roadsides? I wonder if those aren’t the bigger barns of our present day, and also a corruption of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” viz., “I have, therefore I am.” What does God say to all that? “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” Are we ready? Have we prepared the way?

In the narrower sense, what we’re talking about here is the Second Coming of Christ, but in the wider sense, it is God’s call on each individual life, the eventuality of death that comes to us all. The Grim Reaper reaps without regard for what’s growing in the field and how good it looks. How do we prepare? First, sell our possessions and give the money to the poor, whether you want to hear that literally, metaphorically or somewhere in between. We have considered ways of thinking about that.

Next, like the menin the gospel waiting for their master’s return from the wedding banquet, we should be dressed and ready for service, with our lamps burning. Our translation is “dressed and ready;” an older translation is “With girt loins,” which is to say, let the long robes worn in the East be gathered up at the waist with a belt to make work possible. We wait as workers ready for service, with our lamps burning ready.

One understanding of being dressed and ready is having completed the work we came to do. In John 17: 4, Jesus says to the Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” Wouldn’t it be a sweet relief to be at the end of our lives and able to say that? All of us need to give that long thought and prepare, where we are not prepared. Life for many of us is filled with loose ends, and a simultaneous sense of unfulfillment. Pay attention to that feeling. There are things done, and things undone; things said and things as yet unsaid; some things we have put off, and other things never undertaken. We need to make an inventory of these important matters.

I think many of us could tell stories about those close to us who have passed on, who needed to attend to unfinished business. So often that attending is an indication of the mercy of God at the last, with members of families being reconciled. Others refuse the grace of the moment, which is an act of the free will.

In the last month of my mother’s life, while she lay in the hospital suffering the aftereffects of a massive stroke, her overarching worry was who would harvest her garden. She was a good and faithful gardener, and nothing ever went to waste that the earth produced in her garden. It was canned, frozen, pickled, or dried, but not wasted. She was realistic enough to know, as August bent toward September, that she would not be able to harvest her garden that year, and it was clearly a source of distress. My younger sister had the time and was in the right place in her life that she was able to step in to can and preserve enough of the garden’s bounty to set my mother’s mind at ease. Now my mother’s husband, our stepfather, would have plenty to eat through the winter. My mother finished her work before she died, with a little help from her friends, and that included a full month of life following her first stroke. She had time to settle more serious accounts than the garden.May we all be so blessed.

Sell all our possessions, i.e., search out in prayer before God where our heart’s treasure lies, and depending on what we understand, act accordingly. Then we need to see to the completing of our several works, whatever forms those works might take.

Next are the admonitions to be at peace with others and also with God. Ephesians 4: 26 reminds us not to let the sun set on our anger. Before we sleep each night, it is always a good and smart thing to review the day before God, forgiving where we need to forgive and asking forgiveness for ourselves in turn. Thereby can we come to be at peace with God.

We don’t have to wait until we know we’re dying to do these things. They should be a regular practice of anyone who is trying to live the Christian life, who is trying to follow Jesus’s example. He had no possessions except the seamless garment he wore. As I quoted earlier, he completed on earth the work he came to do. From our recent consideration of the Lord’s Prayer, we know that he was at peace with God and with his fellow human beings because of what he included in the prayer, which he left behind for us to follow as a road map: Father, holy be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our debts to one another. And lead us not into temptation. Amen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Blessed Community

Sheepscott Community Church August 1, 2010

Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12-14; 2: 18-23

Luke 12: 13-21

The Blessed Community

The following is a quotation from Apology, published in 1678, and being a partial testimony of Quaker Robert Barclay. “... for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed.”

While I don’t think anyone would ever call our assembly a silent one, I did recognize our gathering in the description, and I recognized as well as an invitation and challenge, which, if answered, would be how we could draw others in. Nothing draws others in as do joy and love, evident in forgiveness, concord, and healed lives. That is the “secret power” Barclay refers to: the Spirit who gives life.

The title of today’s sermon, The Blessed Community, is also a Quaker term. As Marty Walton wrote in his book of the same name, “Living in Blessed Community requires a shift in our thinking as the Light shows us our interdependence, and increases our empathy with all Creation. We come to understand that building compassionate and healthy relationships with others and with all creation is what God asks us to do. Our spiritual growth depends on it. Because of this emphasis on interconnectedness and compassion, living in Blessed Community can be a vital part of our witness for peace, social justice and care for the earth.”

Are we in the Sheepscott Community Church a Blesssed Community? Consider this. Last Sunday after the service Chrissy Wajer was soliciting contributions of salads, desserts, and whatever else was needed for the supper last night. She asked Lily the familiar question, “What would you like to bring?” At first Lily demurred, mentioning that she wouldn’t be able to be at the supper or probably at church today because their sons and all of their grandchildren would be visiting. But Lily’s inevitable generosity and work ethic prevailed and she noted that she or Ernie could drop something off Saturday afternoon, regardless. She expanded on this to me and Jon, saying, “We have such a small church, how can we say, ‘I won’t have time,’ or ‘I won’t bring anything; I can’t’”––shades of the cranky householder with the shut door in last Sunday’s gospel, who didn’t want to be disturbed, didn’t want to get up out of bed to share what he had with his neighbor.

“No,” Lily continued, “we have to contribute. We have to be involved. If we don’t all help out, then we leave Chrissy––or someone else––to do the work.

“That’s the price of being part of a small congregation,” she said, and she is willing to pay that price and to show the rest of us how it’s done. Her comments really gave me pause because, of course, she was exactly right. But I think if people are going to be as involved as we all need to be, if we are going to survive as a church, there has to be joy in the work, joy in the community, not just the fulfilling of a duty. That’s a good thing on its face, but it’s not fun. And that’s where Robert Barclay’s comment enters in. When he came into the meeting, the assembly of God’s people, he felt a secret power among them, which touched his heart, and he gave way unto it. He felt the joy and love in the assembly.

It is that kind of joy that attracts others and is found only in the midst of those who are working for God, whether or not they realize and name it as the work of God. It is only with God’s spirit that a diverse group of individuals such as ourselves can realize and embody the kind of unity, belonging, and community that answers to that of God within us and calls out to the Spirit in others as well. That happens as they work for the church, whether it’s at a bean supper, singing for the Lord, cooking for and serving at a community supper, supplying the needs of the food pantries of the area, assembling and sending health kits to Haiti, teaching the illiterate to read and write, whatever form it takes.

No one denies the importance of the fundraising efforts we have, to maintain the buildings where we meet. Even the bean supper last night was primarily to raise money for a fund to redo the floor of the vestry in the Valley Church. Just look at the rug down there, and you won’t have any questions about the need for a new floor treatment.

While fundraising is important, it is even more important to keep front and center that we are the church. We could meet in any one of our houses that are all probably big enough to accommodate our usual Sunday gathering. It is all of us coming together as a people to make church, to do church, to be church that gives glory to our Maker. We remember that One with rejoicing in the love of His Spirit, whom he gives to us so generously, again harking back to last Sunday’s gospel: “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

The Spirit who makes us one, who makes us aware of how we are church, who makes us willing to do our part to maintain our small congregation, that Spirit is free for the asking. No fundraising involved, but it is that One’s divine presence that makes the tasks of fundraising for church maintenance fun. Puts the fun back in fundraising. You’ve heard this from Tony and Jan, Lily and Clara, others who have helped at the community supper. We don’t get anything from that by way of monetary reward and are not looking for that; however, what we do get from it is priceless: a sense of belonging to the Blessed Community, the larger family of God, the body of Christ. “What you do for the least of these my brethren, you do for me.”

From my perspective, more important than fundraising per se is the nurturing of the blessed community we already have. How can we grow as a people of God who delight in service with each other, to each other and to the larger community? How can that happen? I think the lesson Jon brought back from Bristol Congregational Church, when we visited in April, the weekly coffee and cookie fellowship, has done a lot to foster community here at Sheepscott Church. Again, if you don’t have a people who, though few in number are willing to serve, to go above and beyond, this church will not survive as the Blessed Community we can be. People like Lily saying––and Lily is only one; I have used her as an example because I didn’t think she would be here today––people like Lily saying, well yes, I have this and this and this to do, but I can also do this because if I don’t, how are we going to make it as a small congregation?

A willingness like Lily’s can come about when we learn to love each other. She seems to come by it as part of her nature, but even she cultivates it in service. How can we cultivate our better natures and foster interpersonal growth in this community? Time

needs to be set aside for open fellowship, group discussion and education, and fun; for community-building activities such as shared meals, workdays, committee work, and community service projects. We as church are responsible for seeing that the work of the group is shared, and that members are not unduly or unnecessarily burdened. As I have already said, we can spend time together so we can get to know each other and maybe come to care more about this community that worships together, ad so be readier to serve.

Coffee and cookies and the community supper are also kinds of communion. While some lament that we don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, rather than just once a month, which is the tradition of this church, I would encourage all of us to think of all our times together when we share, perhaps especially the fellowship after the service and the community supper, as expressions of the Lord’s Supper, different in form but not in kind. As surely as Jesus is present to us as we share communion in remembrance of him later in the service today, he is present by his Spirit in coffee and cookies, in the meal of the month at Second Congregational, both activities of our Blessed Community.

The fact is that whenever we Christ-consciously come to the sharing of a meal, whether it’s a picnic in the back yard with your family, or a handful of blackberries picked off the bush and shared with a fellow picker––how this is what it is, who it is, depends on the thought or consciousness we bring to the act, to the fact. When we say grace before a meal, that is a perfect opportunity to be attuned to what God can be doing through the humble and beautiful gift of food shared.

Understand what Lily is saying. Understand what I am saying. As we read in today’s call to worship, from psalm 95, “Harden not your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day in Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.” Our small congregation, which may or may not grow, needs to embrace the vision of the Blessed Community in order to survive even as we are; needs to be willing to set aside old disagreements to make room for this vision, which is God’s vision for his people, and we are his people.

As it is says in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Amen.