Monday, May 21, 2018

The Spirit World Is Where We Are

The Spirit World Is Where We Are
Romans 8:22-27;  Acts 2:1-21 

The first Pentecost was celebrated in “The Upper Room,” the same space that was the location of the Last Supper. Tourists are directed to a space on the hill named Zion, that is west of the Old City of Jerusalem. This “Upper Room” was a base of operations for the disciples who feared that the authorities, might want to wipe out the remnants of the band of followers of the rebel “Jesus of Nazareth.” 
While the scriptures clearly treat the Upper Room as a ‘safe house,’ where access is limited, it is right in a very busy part of town, surrounded by shops and an ancient synagogue celebrating King David, who made Jerusalem into a destination, when it was just a simple village. 
Jerusalem is making news again as a destination. This week the Trump Administration made news by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocating the Embassy from Tel Aviv. This is news because the Israelis occupy both East and West Jerusalem, as a spoils of the 1967 war, displacing the native Palestinians. The American compound sits on the 1948 partition of Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine. 
This is no small shift in American Policy and is regarded by the Palestinians as the end of hope that the USA would broker a peace initiative, that would provide relief for the harsh and dangerous conditions Israel has imposed on the natives. The fact that the Embassy was opened one day before the anniversary of the NAQBAH or The Great Sadness, commemorating the day hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into refugee status, as the United Nations, sacrificed their homes, businesses, and villages to the new State of Israel in 1948. Seventy years later, the disrespect is still being applied in layers. 
At the time of the party at the Consulate, the Israeli Army snipers were shooting protestors at the Gaza border. These protests are a tragic and ongoing attempt by the Palestinians to gain international recognition of their plight. 
I call the Palestinians natives, because Jews were virtually not existent at all in Palestine until after the First World War. Palestine was occupied by the Ottoman Empire or Turks, and they were aligned with the Germans as the “Central Powers.” Britain attacked and occupied Palestine as a staging post for the “Allies” to attack the Central Powers. 
In the aftermath of World War I, the British were called on by the League of Nations to administrate Palestine and the Trans-Jordan. The British were determined to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine. While the text of the Balfour Agreement that invited European Jews to emigrate, and required protection of the native Palestinians, that protection never materialized. There was no small amount of distaste for the poor Arabs in favor of “civilized, European Jews.” There is a very thin veneer over the prevalent racism in the policies of the State of Israel. 
The alignment of nations that engaged in the Second World War could not have been imagined at the close of the “War to End All Wars.” World War II devastated the economy of Great Britain. They were desperate to relieve their budget of any activity for securing Palestine and other colonial outposts, and were relieved when the United Nations declared the State of Israel. 
The history of Western interference in the land, and history of stealing the real estate and sovereign claim of the natives, has empowered the State of Israel in recent years to be very bold in the destructive occupation of the Palestinian community and homeland. The move of the US Administration this week can be seen as another act of support for the Western colonization of the entire territory and de-humanization of the native population. 
So where is God in all of this? What is the will of God for Jerusalem? 
At the first Pentecost, God did not require all people to return to the Temple and accept the harsh administration of the occupying Roman forces and the collaborating clergy. In fact, the God of love used the visitors from essentially the entire known world, to speak words of love to them in words they understood. Pentecost can never be properly understood as a vote for regimentation and colonization. It clearly was not a vote for the designation of Jerusalem Real Estate as a necessity to faithfulness to God. 
In as clear of a demonstration as can be imagined, we see - or hear, the message of God’s love as available to all of the world - in their own languages. It is a language of a set of values that celebrates compassion, and ignores political authority and profit motives. 
The land of Israel is a study in being manipulated by political empires. Some of these empires have been better than others to the local people. By all measures, the Ottoman Empire, stabilized the culture and economy, and preserved thousands of the historical sights for the Christians, Jews and Muslims. The existence of the Old City and it historic walls is a direct testimony to the careful attention paid to the local history and heritage of the land and its people by the Turks. 
But this is not a morning set aside for political history. We noted earlier in the month, that God does not make promises to real estate. Real estate values are based on location, location, location. God makes promises to the hearts of the human family. Value then, is based on the location of God in our very hearts. 
The benefit of recognizing the characteristics of the Holy Spirit as an undeniable aspect of the living God, is to say that God is more like the wind of hope and inspiration than like a rock of stodgy certitude. The Temple Mount is a long recognized piece of valuable Real Estate, but it represents most clearly, hope for a peace that political operatives are barely able to even dream. 
We should be clear, the New Testament does not proclaim God is waiting for any human action to trigger the Second Coming of the Christ. God is never, ever waiting on us. Any claim that the Jews need to complete their genocide of the Palestinians  to bring out the Kingdom of God is a ridiculous claim, and insults the good and generous God of Creation.  
I know some folks who cling to the image of a God who never changes. On days like this I have to laugh. I love a God who is in constant motion. The Creator God, out of wild imagination and the deepest of love, spins off a Creation of maddening complexity and inter-relatedness. 
As an expression of caring, creation is offered a chance at eternal joy through the life and teaching of the Christ, the anointed one, full of compassion. The savior conjures up the Spirit, to dwell with the called, and inspire and fortify them. 
The Spirit, an unending hunger for creative imagination and hopefulness, floats and darts among the children of God, whispering words of love and encouragement. Touched by the hearts of humanity, the Spirit implores the Creator to reconnect, in new ways with the creation. 
Inspired to new levels of involvement and driven by love, the Creator spins new webs of creative connections. On these pathways the savior reaches out to touch and to hold another generation of souls born of nature. And the Spirit engages in ways that reflect the world as it is, and what the children of today can grasp. 
This God is no rock that never changes, but rather better represented by the insatiable current of the deep, the expectation of new life, carried by the very pollen in the air, as fresh as the Spring, and reliable as the decay in Autumn that enriches the soil for the seasons to come. God truly does not change, God remains in contact motion; never still, yet never frantic. Jesus of Nazareth was never the Messiah who desired to claim political and economic power. Jesus spoke with authority from the Kingdom of the Living God. The duh-ciples never understood what he was talking about throughout his lifetime. They kept expecting one day they would change his mind. To this day, those who lust after power and money, fail to understand the Christ, and all of God’s activities. 
Instead, the crucified and resurrected Jesus promised to send his Spirit, to rest on us, and invite us to consider counter-cultural values. When we are in the Spirit, we are drawn to one another, because of the love of God. Our relationships are not dependent on looking same, acting the same, believing the same, or even thinking the same. We share the image of our Creator, and are all encompassed by the love of God. 
As we talked about here last week, we are called to a ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not an easy sell, but it has more lasting value than Real Estate, because you know, you can’t take it with you. 
It has more lasting value than political alignments. We already noticed this morning that the Central Powers and Allied Powers in World War I were completely realigned by World War II. Some alliances have lasting power, but all human alliances are subject to being hastily discarded in moments of hubris and self-indulgence. 
Instead, we seek a spiritual awareness, that permits us to live as a rich human or a poor human, but still a faithful member of the Kingdom of God. We seek the power of the living God to speak the words of forgiveness and compassion, in places where profits and political advantage are the currency of the day. 
We turn then to God to pray for direction. But our prayers seem like weak extensions of our language, and our words are insufficient. And the lack of clarity in our words, betrays the confusion in our hearts. We cannot even imagine what it would take to achieve true peace. So our hope is in God. 

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A New Fire Triangle

A New Fire Triangle 
Psalm 1; Luke 24:44 - 50 
One of the basic things taught to fire fighters and first responders is that most fires depend on three things: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you are able to effectively remove any one of the three elements, the fire will go out. This fundamental understanding guides most fire response scenarios. This is what they mean by the “Fire Triangle.” 
We routinely speak of God as a Trinity, three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is not any one presentation, but God is the power - might I say ‘fire’ - of the relationship among the three. The Trinity is often represented as a triangle. This is graphically represented in the stained glass window near the center of the sanctuary on the south side. Pater, is Latin for ‘father’, filio means ‘son’, and spiritus means the ‘spirit.’ 
I have heard it said that the day your realize that all adults, even your own parents, are not perfect, you become an adolescent. The day you can forgive your parents for not being perfect, you become an adult. Then, if you ever reach the point when you can forgive yourself for not being perfect, you are finally mature. 
All of this has been on my mind as we approached Mothers’ Day. We know that Mothers’ Day can be anything but easy for many women, and men too. Not every woman who wants children gets to have children. Not every mother who has children, is able to love and nurture them. There are always issues, some of our own making, and some are imposed by nature or the actions of others. 
The gospel lesson today comes from the scriptures of the Ascension, which was last Thursday. The gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same person. At the heart of the story, Jesus encourages the disciples to stop being anxious about the earthly power and accept their personal role, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

The elements of our witnesses are clear, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” 

This mission statement, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, is Luke’s take on the great commission. The gospel of Matthew said the great commission was, “Go and baptize all nations.” Baptism appears a much easier sell than repentance and forgiveness. Our friend Luke is all about the relationship, and living relationships are messy, and challenging, and often push us into periods of growth, when it does not feel like a convenient time. 

I cared for a woman who told me of her childhood. She talked of the rage she still feels for her mother, who was not able to protect her from abuse. There was no way possible for her to imagine forgiving her mother, who died years ago at an early age. 

As it happens so often, she entered into not one, but two successive abusive marriages of her own. In desperation, she found a job as an over the road trucker. In the long hours of solitude, she was able to find some bits of peace, and some level of trust in her own person. 

But those hours took her away from home. In another familiar pattern, when you find peace on the road, you hesitate to go home. You believe that “distance” has saved you, not trusting in your own growth. Her own daughters grew increasingly dependent on the care and attention of others. They grew to resent their absent mother. 

After many years on the road, her now tired body was ready to settle down. She wanted to rebuild a relationship with her children, especially her daughters, and get to know her grandchildren. This task has been an ugly and difficult challenge. 

There are times when she gets along with one or more of them. They begin to talk on the phone, there are some shared meals. Then one day, she does something caring for a grandchild, and the old hatred and disgust in the daughters flares up uncontrollably. In a flurry of cruel words and accusations, both parties retreat. 

After listening to her describe a couple of the painful cycles, I tried to explain that - she herself had taught her daughters how to hate their mother. The key to making progress with this generation, is to find a way to make peace with the memory of her own mother. Until she understood the cost of forgiveness, it was inappropriate to expect it of others. 

We have control of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not dependent on an apology, it is not dependent on any action of the perpetrator. Forgiveness is born in our own move toward maturity. I am reminded of the generous forgiveness of the Amish community in Pennsylvania, to the family of a gunman who murdered their school children - in West Nickel Mines in 2006. 

Not a one of us is perfect. We are made up of the genetic material our parents contributed. I physically resemble my father more now than I ever expected to. I was very proud of myself to graduate college at 48, and seminary at 52. It was only then explained that my paternal grandfather, who died when I was very young, joined the IRS as a bookkeeper, earned an accounting degree at night school, then earned his CPA, and then finished law school, all while working full time. Our stuff comes from somewhere else. 

As I opened this talk, it seemed as if there was a simple checklist to maturity that we could work our way through. In truth, we have to live through each step, be alive in each step, before the possibility exists to move on to the next. 

It is important to remember that growth of a plant does not happen over night. The roots have to develop. There needs to be enough sun and water, and then finally there may be a blossom. Growth in our emotional and spiritual lives needs time and nurture to develop. 

I believe that to be our best selves, we must stay connected to our families. It might be necessary to get some temporary distance, to avoid injury, to hear ourselves think. But we cannot push into the next level of maturity without being our best selves in the midst of our families of origin. True growth depends on us going home, and demonstrating our growth, where we confront the pushback.   

Reconciliation is really finding peace with our past and past imperfections, including and especially our own. Forgiveness does not mean that everything is suddenly all better. Forgiveness means that we have decided to put down the burden of feeding our anger or hatred. Those fires are not from God. For the fires of anger or hatred to burn continuously they must be attended to and fed fresh fuel. When we choose to starve the fires of anger and hatred, then we begin to make our heads and hearts a better place to live and grow.  

So make a kind of external peace with our agitators, but within ourselves we accept that we did the best we were able - with what we knew - and what we could do at the time. We are not perfect, and do not expect to be perfect anytime soon. Our peace comes from the love of God, and we follow the model of forgiveness that Jesus offers us. 

Forgiveness is rooted in accountability. Those who have hurt us are held accountable, and must earn any trust that is to come. Still we decide to treat them with hope for their future, and not bind them forever in the pain of the past. 

And we are accountable to ourselves for seeking our own peace. In evaluating our own reaction being hurt, we extend ourselves grace. Forgiveness is hard work. It is not too hard to teach children to hate. But to teach children to forgive, begins with forgiving those who have hurt us - stop feeding those fires - and then forgiving ourselves - for living through the righteous anger of the victim. Then, with time and prayer, the fires begin to taper off, we can feel the peace of Christ which reaches out to us.   

On Mothers’ Day, we celebrate the life we have, to which our mothers made a lasting contribution. We go on to celebrate all of those - who have been a mother to us when we have needed care and attention. We recognize that the predominantly female characteristics that we call “motherly” are present in both women and men, who are able to support us as we live through the stages of our lives. 

On Mothers’ Day, we rededicate ourselves to the spiritual and emotional growth it takes to be a child of God, and all of us are children. An essential part of being in a faith community, is that we have friends from different generations. Having multiple examples of how to be faithful at different ages, gives us a wider range of models to aspire to and better ways to be.  

We turn our faces upward, weathered by the storms of life, but with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Jesus whose Spirit we are anxiously awaiting. We are waiting for the power, and the courage, and the enthusiasm that comes when God, the new fire triangle: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; comes to fill our hearts with the maturity that comes from love and forgiveness, and snuffs out the fires of anger and pain, Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A New Song, Love One Another

A New Song, Love One Another
Psalm 98; Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8 

I know several churches that have left the denomination of the United Church of Christ based on pronouncements from one or another biennial meeting of the church called the General Synod. The General Synod gathers representatives from all of the UCC Conferences for worship and celebration, and conducting the business of the church. 

While General Synod does the work of electing the national officers, and making the final decision on major aspects of our life together, the focal point of much of the energy concerns the review of Resolutions,  asking the church to take a stand on issues of the day. 

There is a formal process for submitting Resolutions for discernment at General Synod. In the Illinois Conference, delegates are elected from each of the Associations, and each delegate is assigned one of more resolutions to review and be a member of the committee. 

Once arriving at General Synod, there are public hearings conducted for each of the Resolutions, where the case is laid out by the advocates. Those who oppose the Resolution can apply in advance to both be a part of the Hearing, and present at the working session of the committee. 

The group dynamic at General Synod is very upbeat. While ministers are notoriously introverts who need to pump themselves up to get through an average Sunday morning, there are a surprising number of ministers who actually are extroverts. The joy of the extroverts in the national assembly of the church is infectious. First-time visitors to Synod will often get so excited, they will want to be everywhere and try to do everything. 

So you need to know that the next General Synod is in 2019, and will take place in Milwaukee. If you have never had a taste of General Synod I highly recommend you attend. A typical schedule would have plenty of events available to the general public. This includes Resolution hearings on Friday afternoon. Saturday there will be ministry opportunities, performances, speakers, and lots of events to participate and/or witness. The Sunday Worship is large and festive, with great music and a dynamic preacher. Then they do committee and plenary session work for several days. 

Among the most controversial General Synod Resolutions was taken up at GS 25 in 2005 regarding Marriage Equality for gay couples. That Synod was held in 2005 in Atlanta, GA. The Resolution passed with a large majority of affirming votes. 

In the years immediately following the vote, many congregations expressed shock and distress. They did not understand how our church works, and how such a significant shift in the faith community could occur at a church meeting they did not personally attend. Quite a few congregations withdrew their membership in the UCC in the next year or two after the decision. 

On the one hand, it is disappointing to think that many of the members of the UCC do not understand that in our polity, the General Synod is the ruling body of the church. The national officers and the various church instruments, work for the church and answer to the General Synod. There are no lifetime representatives to GS. In the Illinois Conference folks are elected to terms of 4 years, or two Synods. 

The other thing you need to understand is that these conventions, develop a unique buoyancy, that lifts the spirits of those who participate, and generate a lot of care and concern for the world, and especially for those who are hurt by the world as it is. Resolutions that demonstrate compassion for the oppressed have a high likelihood of being embraced by the UCC General Synod. 

I say all of this as we are at the gateway to Pentecost, the Birthday of the church. Pentecost is a celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I need to be frank with you here, this Holy Spirit is a complete and authentic way to know and celebrate God. The Holy Spirit is a not so subtle reminder that God is God - and God does not answer to us, or follow our guidelines. The more structured and organized we get our thoughts and theories about God - the more likely it is that the Holy Spirit will come and upset the apple cart. 

To live in a loving relationship with the Holy Spirit is to engage in a wild ride. You will be called and taken to places you have never been. You will have your heart broken open at unpredictable times, in order to be touched with tenderness and beauty you never knew existed. The word for spirit, is the same word for breath. When you love this adventurous God, you are liable to have your breath taken away at moments you least expect it. 

Each time I have attended General Synod, I have returned home wishing I could help others experience the sense of being lifted up from our own moorings, and being touched by the Spirit of God, that Genesis describes as hovering over the waters of Creation. An undeniable sense overwhelms me such that my overweight body moves weightlessly in prayer, and song, and poetry. I wish that I could share the power of the experience of being in that select company of saints, gathered in a geographic location, if only briefly. 

More importantly, I wish I could make every Sunday morning, an encounter with the divine, that would touch and enthuse each person present, and make you so disappointed when you have to miss a Sunday. Just to present you with a sense of the wonder that is creation, the gift of an amazing and present God. We describe God as the Trinity, because one expression would be too confining, too limiting, and would by necessity cause us to more grossly misunderstand the glory that is God. 

So while the church has historically used the expression of the Trinity to sort out people who do not believe “the right thing” about God, we blithely skip over the fact that the Trinity is at its very core, a handle we place on a divine mystery. We toss the name around to avoid admitting we are over awed at the concept. 

The concept is that God by definition is a relationship. In short, God is: The Father/Creator in relationship with the Christ/Savior in relationship with the Holy Wind of Inspiration and Wisdom. We are made in the image of that God, a whirlwind of virtue and commitment and community. What I treasure most at General Synod, and the best of worship services anywhere, is the sense, that we have been lifted off of terra firma for a moment, and drawn closer to the spirit of the living God. 

It is difficult to understand for those who cannot fathom “what came over those at General Synod,” and who carefully stay a safe distance from Association, and Conference meetings, and never dreamed of attending Synod. So many folks expect the larger church to be a longer and more dreary version of the Church Council Meeting from Hell. 

While there are moments like that, especially in committee, and occasionally on the floor during plenary sessions. But there will be more times when our hearts are touched, and the fire of our faith will find the gas flow turned up, and we feel the surge of power within our hearts. 

Today the Psalm tells us to sing a new song to the God of Creation. For me a new song is one with the distinctive markings of my own growing faith in God, questions proclaimed as boldly as the affirmations. 

In Acts, Peter who so often represents the original 12 apostles and the hesitates to see the faith in Jesus as being more than a personal memory, gets confronted by the presence of the Holy Spirit, in gentiles no less. The Spirit goes where it will, and inflames hearts beyond what any preacher can say or do. The Spirit selects whomever it chooses, by unfathomable criteria. 

And finally, the gospel of John records for us the voice of Jesus, telling us that we are chosen to share his love. The simple command is, “Love One Another.” 

Today we are not pointing fingers at others. Today we are not bickering over doctrine. Today we celebrate the awesome mystery of the divine. These three expressions of the almighty God, in music, and inspiration, and command, are all pointing us towards relationship. “It’s all about the relationship.” 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Love Allows Us to Let Go

Love Allows Us to Let Go
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8 

Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam.  Oooh, oooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew, ‘bout your plans to make me blue. Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind. 
I admit it. I cannot get through the scriptures on grapes without thinking of Marvin Gaye’s recording of this Motown classic. So now I have shared the ear worm that has been my companion all week long. I scarcely remember anyone else doing it. I was surprised that his version was not the first, and even more surprised to learn he did not write it. 
I bring it up because the song not only talks about grapevines, on a Sunday when we recall John’s illustration of the vine and the branch, but the song speaks to the truth about being faithful to our promises, and the way we are always connected to the community. The power of God’s love to sustain and bring fruit to maturity through the vine, is an image of our life within the faith community. God’s love passes through us and among us. 
One of the things I try to discern when I meet with a couple preparing for marriage is; does this relationship seem like it is based on a real world understanding of each person’s humanity and respect for each person’s dreams and life goals? A lack of reality, or lack of respect for one or the other’s dreams and goals are indicators the relationship lacks good roots. 
It is not uncommon to find ourselves thrown together in life with another soul whose presence and tenderness are a great comfort. As we negotiate our way into a meaningful relationship, it can be such a relief from the pain of recent past experiences, that we do not ask the hard questions about, “Where are you going? and, Do I even want to go there with you? and, What do I need to give up to do that?” 
I am not saying that we should not value those whose love has caught us from falling, and restored our sense of self and sense of self-worth. Thank God for love. Still, not every human relationship is destined to last forever. That is a genuine truth in this “real” world. This reframing of relationships is one of the ways that we acknowledge the full humanity of both partners in a relationship. We really ought not offer to commit to a lifelong relationship, if we have not determined to stay faithful. 
Phillip got into the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, and through his witness, took a man already interested in faith, into the faith of Jesus the Christ. The church that was established in Ethiopia has some of the deepest roots of our Christianity, though it looks and feels more African than European. My dear friends, Bob and JoAnn Avers, served with those Christians for years as missionaries and shared with Martha and I an  awareness of that faith and culture. 
Identified as a eunuch, we know that the Ethiopian would be limited by his deformity to less than full membership in the courts of the Jerusalem Temple. No amount of prayer or study could ever change that. In the good news of Jesus, he was welcomed into full communion in the faith of Jesus Christ. A deacon, dedicated by the original apostles, was whisked miraculously to provide this invitation, and baptism. 
Throughout recent years, this story has become a hallmark of the welcome offered to people of color, and especially those whose sexuality varies from the presumed norm.  When we proclaim, “All are welcome,” this text is one that underscores the availability of the faith to those who are outside of the constraints of looking like everybody else. 
But Phillip does not stay in the carriage and go on to Ethiopia to make a new life and new church with the eunuch. That fact does not in any way diminish the value of the time they spent together. Love then, needs to respect both the here and now, and what the actual trajectory of our lives, based on the gifts and dreams that are a part of our personhood, and that we were made by God to express. 
Phillip is offered in the book of Acts, as an example of bearing fruit, just as the gospel of John commands us to bear fruit. Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Whether destined for the bottle of Welches that supplies our communion table, or the bottle of wine intended to make a romantic dinner more memorable, we know that the intention of the vine is to produce grapes. 
Phillip is viewed as a success; even though he did not increase church attendance, let alone improve the size of the offering in the collection plate. This success was identified with sharing the good news of the gospel in a way that touched a soul, and provided the seed for further spiritual growth. 
This is one of those hard and painful lessons in ministry. When we become too invested in doing what we have always done, and doing it the same way as we have always done it, our ministry becomes a temptation to serve our memory and our own institution, and not serve the gospel. I was thinking of this as I read the announcement of the closing of the UCC church in Stark, north and west of Chillicothe. 
Many rural churches are closing. This is due in part to the sharp reduction in the number of people employed on the “family farm” and living in the country. It also demonstrates the preference for more up to date programming, missions, and facilities, than isolated small churches can provide. At its closing in 2018, the Stark church is still served by a one-seat outhouse. Change is hard, and we know that. Resisting all change denies the invitation of the Holy Spirit.    
Churches that no longer bear fruit are removed and discarded. Those folks who were hanging on to the end, will continue to be faithful witnesses, but perhaps in a more productive community. Their gifts may be better appreciated and utilized in a setting where they can specialize, and not need to be clerk, treasurer, deacon and sexton all at once. We lose a piece of our hearts when the church doors close for the last time as the home of a faith community. Remember though, God’s promises are not tied to real estate. 
Considering promises and real estate made the news just this past week. In a public speech, Benjamin Netanyahu the Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed that God has been faithful to the promises made to the land of Israel. Biblical scholars lifted an eyebrow and shook their heads. This is another case of political misuse of theology. 
God’s promises are made very real within the context of community. Beginning next week I will impose on you, The Pastor Chuck Them Song, that makes the claim. “It is all about the relationship.” I firmly believe that within the relationship I have with this community, God has blessed and increased my faith and spiritual life. 
Grapes do not grow and ripen in isolation. Sweet white or concord, cabernet or pinot noir, grapes grow in bunches. They hang together on the grapevine.The share the nutrients of the grapevine. They only know what the grapevine knows. 
There are some couples, whose love for each other was a saving grace, but lacks the fundamentals to make a strong and long lasting marriage. That does not make the relationship bad. That does not diminish the memory of the power the relationship had in the moment to save damaged souls from hopelessness. But it does not need to turn into a battleground in an attempt to force it to be something it could never be. 
The love of God is so good, that it gives us the power to love each other, even though we are imperfect. The love of God is good enough to  share. And like Phillip and the Ethiopian, or the congregation and the Interim Minister, we change and grow, and then we move on to deliver more of God’s love in that future where we are headed. 
We all know people who are very kind and generous, and who do not attend church. It is good to invite them, but I tell you it is better to encourage the value of what they do. When we embark on mission projects that touch on their interests, we should remember to invite them to participate. 
There are other folks who live in a kind of self-imposed isolation. We should reach out to those folks, inviting them into fellowship. The love of God is so much easier to name and honor in communal situations where faith can be proclaimed, and not hidden in the subtext. 
In all of your walking about this week, I invite you to think about being a branch on a grape vine. I invite you to think about how you share the word of God that sustains your efforts to be kind and generous, with those you work with, with your friends and neighbors. 
Be attentive to the church calendar. Invite people with children to Vacation Bible School. Invite people who care about music to share in the wonderful opportunities to attend and participate. Bring a friend to Bible Study on Tuesday, or Prayer and Study on Thursday. Brag a little on the welcome of our CORE Wednesday nights, though we have only 3 left for the season. 
And finally, during your prayer time this week, invite God to lift your own faith up a notch. Permit yourself to consider what it might mean for you, to grow in faith and action. Ask God what you might do, that will bring you closer. The key to success in a faith community, is to change lives. And change, like all acts of charity, begins at home. 

Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam.  Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind. Honey, honey Yeah. (I heard through the grapevine not much longer would you be my baby, yeah, yeah yeah.) 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Let Us Love In Truth and Action

Let Us Love In Truth and Action
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 

The image of the Good Shepherd endures as an idyllic pastoral scene in many of the churches I have visited throughout the years. Just this week, I attended Boundary Training as required every three years for UCC ministers, at Good Shepherd Community Church in El Paso, where our friend Rev. Paul Kirker is pastor. They have a framed picture of the Good Shepherd in the entryway, a familiar graphic I have seen thousands of times since my youth. 
When I was a kid in the 1950s, the US was a nearly unbearably upbeat place to live. The entire culture was so positive, so sure that things were getting better, so confident that life was good. Preachers had no chance of preaching repentance, beyond a focus on our private and personal missteps. Life represented what we now call “Modern Thought” – where we theorized all humans were basically the same, we were optimistic, we believed science will save the day, we can make everything better, we care about the common good, reason is our greatest ally, tomorrow will be so great, I can hardly wait. 
The kind of Christianity that was so easy and attractive in the “Modern” world of the 1950’s was dusted in confectioner’s sugar, if and only if, you were a white, middle class person, who fit into the stereotypes. It was especially good for straight, white men. The world was yours when you were, “Free, white and twenty-one.” 
Today; where cultural icons are being torn from their thrones by credible accusations of sexual abuse and harassment, where government leaders are held in contempt for elaborate coverups for their financial and sexual misdeeds; where public monies are being employed in pay-offs and buy-outs; cynicism is having a hey-day, and optimism is hard to trust. In our “Post Modern” world, – every one has to look out for themselves, we know the whole thing could easily blow up, science does as much harm as good, things might get better – but probably won’t, it is not clear that there is a common good to protect, and we don’t trust what comes from the heart - but learn from bitter experience.
We need a much more nuanced faith than the faith of the 1950’s in order to be effective and be intelligible to the world today. We need a more grounded and compelling way to support young people who are growing up in this emotionally violent world. What does the Good Shepherd have to say about public trust and the emotional stability of a community? I think the Good Shepherd represents our first vision of stability. 
The Good Shepherd cannot accomplish anything of value until the shepherd has earned the trust of the flock as a whole. There will always be skeptics and poor-mouthers. When times are good, they are considered as eccentric parts of the community, welcome and understood as lovable oddballs. Think of Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. When times are bad, their pessimism is treated as a bell-weather of tough times ahead, and their sour worldview seems to have greater significance. 
The shepherd then, begins by doing the right thing, and representing goodness and confidence. Confidence says that it is right to be good and generous, whether the culture reflects optimism or not. It is always true, it is right to be good and generous. One courageous voice, sets the tone for others.  
There are several shepherd stories in the Bible, there are several in the gospels. It is a well-used metaphor. We love the image of the shepherd. The image works best, when kept in the frame by the front door. It is especially heart warming if you do not have experience with the blatant stupidity of sheep. When we regard them as little lambs, posing for pictures in a pastoral setting, it is a lot easier to deal with. 
We have been investigating the theological concept of “the scandal of the particular.” We realize that the theory is rooted in the unlikely particulars of Jesus of Nazareth - regarded as the incarnation of God’s good love. It is a scandal when we consider the specifics of his birth and the very ordinariness of the circumstances surrounding the human Jesus. 
The scandal plays out in the image of the shepherd, who in biblical times was often the youngest in the family, or the one who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The closer we get to the particulars, the romanticism wears thin. 
I for one consider this good news. I do not need to be a preacher like Billy Graham - filling stadiums and consulting with presidents - to be regarded as faithful to my calling. The integrity of my faith and vocation is not measured by the size of the congregation, or the number of readers of my blog. I am not called to represent the faith in heroic situations. 
This is likely a good thing. My sarcastic sense of humor might slip out at an unfortunate time, and social media trolls would denounce my very ordination as suspect. In this way I envy Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tall, tattooed, female Lutheran pastor who was first a stand-up comedian. Her entire public, pastoral persona is a celebration of her unlikely emergence as a preacher of note. The congregation she founded and pastors, “The House for All Sinners and Saints,” represents the most unlikely communion of fellowship. 
The Good Shepherd, when we take the picture frame off and consider the smelly reality, becomes a model that we can appreciate, and even imitate. We give people our word, and consider that more binding than a contract. A contract in this age, is only as good as your lawyer. For people of integrity, a promise has fewer weasel words, is backed by the integrity of your position in the family, and the family’s position in the community. 
It is very hard for me to consider the integrity of the biblical image of the Good Shepherd, and entertain the thought that Jesus would renege on a promise. In very simple terms, the promise made by any Christian should have the same expectation. If I make you a promise, I will do everything in my power to honor my word. 
Are there black sheep in the flock? In a church that welcomes everyone, our pews should be filled with characters that would find it hard to slip in unnoticed in other places. The “House for All Sinners and Saints” is a fitting destination for those who have a speckled past, attempting to make peace with the particulars of lives lived short of perfection, drawn by the promise of compassion and not even interested in the drive for perfection. 
The Good Shepherd might be presented today as the Kind Nurse’s Aid or CNA. My mother has become increasingly dependent on the attention of these over-worked and low paid assistants. The individuals who are kind, make a personal contact, look for ways to encourage mom as a person and more than the patient in the “B” bed are the best. Some of these folks are absolutely outstanding, and their care is often the difference between a good day and a bad day for my mother. 
What then is the message of the Good Shepherd in a Post-Modern, Post-Christendom world? Live your everyday life as though it were being presented as a model for faithful living. Be kind. Be fair, heck, be more than fair. Trust that God loves the world that you live in, and has planted blessings for you to discover, ahead of you every step of the way. 
Realize that like the Good Shepherd, or the kind CNA, or the cheerful retiree, you can be the sighting of God’s love to everyone, or at least to one someone today. It is scandalously smelly work sometimes. There might be exalted, public moments worthy of mention, but invariably it is simply every day living where we maintain an awareness of our connectedness to God and neighbor. 
Here is where the image comes to play. Like the shepherd, who is not chosen because they are brilliant or hold a position of honor, we represent care and compassion on the ground. As we confront the realities of this post-modern world, we bring our faith grounded in the love of God in action - that we know best through Jesus Christ, into the lives of those we encounter. We bless people when they are troubled. We deliver God’s blessings to those who may not even know they crave blessings.  

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We put our integrity as a child of God and follower of Jesus on the line, as we live in our troubled world. Our identity as people of faith is not credited to our ability to believe high and ascending thoughts. Our identity is rooted in the truth of God’s love for the world, and the steps we take to put that love into action. This call is not reserved for the rich, or even the most visible. In deed, the work is pretty humble. Even a humble shepherd can represent the love of God and the power of compassion, and so can you, Amen.   

Monday, April 16, 2018

Is It So Hard to Do What Is Right?

Is It So Hard to Do What is Right? 
1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48 

We spend our lives, pretty sure of who we are and what we are about. But over time, the line between our work or vocation and our private identity may become blurred. We can lose our self in our relationship to God. We pray for what we want, but stay in the practical. Annie Dillard wrote in her Pulitzer Prize book the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

So much of the scriptures seems to be simple stories, until we reach the great and miraculous ones, where the characters in the story seem  bewilderingly human, and you and I, aided by centuries of interpretation and preparation, marvel at the player’s inability to recognize what is going on. And then, we put our own names in those stories, we face the reality of living the faith. 

Last week we considered the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the doubting Thomas in the gospel of John. That episode - singling out Thomas for his lack of faith - only occurs in John’s gospel. Today, we have a vaguely similar episode from the gospel of Luke. This episode does not have any parallel in the other gospels. 

There are great diversity and differences in the gospel stories of the post-resurrection Jesus. There are plenty of theories about why these stories are so diverse. The most likely of course, is that Matthew and Luke were written following the outline of Mark, and the original ending of Mark left us with the disciples stunned and silent at the announcement of the resurrection. Since the master framework was left incomplete, the faith communities were free (or forced) to save their own traditions in their own words and memories.

I usually call the gospel of Luke, the Pot Luck gospel. It seems every time you turn the page in your Bible reading Luke’s gospel, Jesus is having dinner with someone else or some other group. Community, and the extraordinary welcome of Jesus, are core themes in Luke’s gospel. 

So then it makes sense that in Luke’s community Jesus would appear and ask, “Hey, what have you got to eat?” The intention is to prove that the resurrected Jesus has a real body, and he is not just a ghost. How better to prove it than eating with friends? How better to prove that he is “their” Jesus, than to ask for a snack? How better to prove he is the same today, though resurrected, as he was before?  

For Luke, faith and faith community are inseparable. The Christian who finds their identity most closely related to Luke’s gospel will be drawn to the church in public worship, in community action, and of course, the never ending string of Pot Luck meals. 

When we intentionally sit together in community, we create the opportunity to break through the barriers of isolation. We still need to do the work. On a Sunday coffee hour, we need to survey the room and talk with whoever might be on the sidelines, too shy to initiate a conversation, but wanting company enough to stick around and create the possibility. We prove we are real by eating half of a donut, and sipping some coffee or juice, and then building the community.  

The resurrected Jesus brings his battered and scarred body with him to be in the community. Have you ever noticed that none of the New Testament writings, especially the gospels, ever mention what Jesus looks like? Nowhere does it say Jesus is tall or short. We do not know if he was light or dark skinned, although it is very likely he was dark skinned. They never say if he looks too thin, or has a bit of a belly. I suppose the picture of Jesus in Luke’s gospel he would have at least the beginning of a belly, and full cheeks, since he was always eating and hanging out with friends and the curious. 

Today he is in the company of the closest disciples. Again the announcement “Peace be with you,” terrifies those who should be overjoyed to see Jesus. Last week we noted just how terrifying the appearance of the resurrected Jesus was to the disciples in John’s gospel. 

Today’s gospel is still another story today about doubting disciples after Jesus arose from the dead. Here Jesus is present, in the flesh. The same body, damaged by nails and a spear during his execution is present with them. This was just a room full of frightened people, but now, they have the presence of risen Christ. 
Can you feel how Jesus is trying to help these people he loves, make peace with this crazy idea of life after death? He is more the same as he was - than he is different. He seems to pass through locked doors or walls, and he did not used to be like that, but otherwise he is the same. This is a cause for celebration, but it is hard to recognize, because the divine script is not like our human imaginations design. Jesus is calling a dance in direct opposition to ‘le danse macabre,’ where the spirits of the dead lead the haughty into death. In this complete turnabout, the resurrected Jesus leads the humble faithful to a life of abundance. Wouldn’t you love to get in line and get a hug from the risen Jesus? 
Jesus is preparing them to go into the world, aware of his spirit being present, even when his bodily presence has gone on to heaven. Jesus is right there amongst them, asking them to acknowledge the truth of his presence, and live as he lived! 
Today we hear that repentance and forgiveness of sins is made clear in the resurrection. And Jesus said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 

We have wrestled with repentance before. We know that repentance means to change our ways. We know, change is hard. We do not usually choose to change, until it becomes so painful to hang on to the old ways that in desperation we agree to try something different. 

I have seen institutions deal with structured change by offering rewards for achieving new milestones, in an attempt to overcome resistance by providing positive feedback and incentives for changed behavior. 

Like the disciples in Luke’s gospel, we are being encouraged to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, even when we cannot explain how it works. We are encouraged to trust that because Jesus lives, he is able to offer eternal life to us. We are encouraged to celebrate these promises when we are ecstatic - when we are terrified - and when we are calm; we behave like believers; when we are in a church full of believers - or at the Secretary of State’s office. 
So I hope that you will try to be aware of the presence of Jesus all of the ordinary places you go this week. Fully in touch with the wonders of the resurrection. At peace with the way that God does things we cannot explain, like raising Jesus from the dead, and sending his Holy Spirit to be our guide and companion - as we bring hope into very ordinary places, where hope so often seems out of place.  The epistle of First John tells us, “3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” We know we can do this, we simply behave like Jesus behaves. 
The gospel may as well tell us, that Jesus is now, just as he ever has been. He is among the faithful, and making what is good, blessed. Jesus is  now, just as he has always been, delivering the peace of God to the places where confidence is wearing thin. Jesus is among us now, encouraging us to follow his model, and be a blessing, be the Kingdom, bring the ringing sound of the truth of the ages into ordinary places. 

You were made for this, to be like Jesus, in life and in the resurrection. You were made to resonate with truth of Creation. You were made to be like the Christ, in life and in the world to come. “I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”