“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved;” Galatians 3:23-29; June 19, 2016, FPC Holt

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved”
Galatians 3:23-29
June 19, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

 

SLIDE 1 - Outside PulseIt was early last Sunday morning that the stories started coming in. There was a shooting in Orlando. 20 people were dead, more were injured. It happened at a gay nightclub. When we got to worship on Sunday these were the things I had heard, but no one really knew what all had happened, how many shooters, what their motivation was, or how high the death toll would climb. As the investigation continued, and still does, the numbers rose. 49 people killed, 53 injured, making it the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The story was horrifying to hear, but for a while all of these facts seemed so abstract to me, numbers and demographics. And even the fact that it was a shooting was abstract, living in a country where there are so, so many shootings.

SLIDE 2 - Dark Blurry CrowdThat’s the frightening thing, these people were numbers and demographics to the shooter as well. How else could someone be capable of such horrors? His connection to ISIS is still being uncovered, but it is clear that this man didn’t know his victims names or their stories. He saw them as other, as a threat to what he saw as good and correct.

Our scripture today says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

In these two simple verses the world’s divisive dichotomies are brought down, and a true and full inclusion is offered, people no longer known by their demographics, but as their role as those whom belong to Christ, who are heirs of God’s goodness. Belonging to Christ changes everything. We are no longer the other at a distance, we are siblings in the household of God. When we belong to Christ, we belong to one another. Each of us is God’s beloved, a label that overwhelms and supersedes every other label this world seeks to assign us.

SLIDE 4 - Love HateIt’s easy to hate in the abstract. It’s hard to love in the abstract.

Many acts of hate are done at a distance through bullets, bombs, and barricades. Actions justified through blanket definitions of “those people,” “enemy,” and “other.” Throughout this week this hate has become manifest in homophobia, Islamophobia, as well as both anti-immigrant and anti-hispanic rhetoric and action. Hatred hidden behind many of the labels that our Galatians text would renounce.

SLIDE 6 - LoveLove, however, necessitates proximity. Love is more than just the absence of hate, it requires action. Stepping out from behind the barriers requires vulnerability. It requires allowing yourself to be known and seeking to know the other. And when fear gets in your way, love requires taking the time to see as God sees. Love in the face of this tragedy looks like listening to the LGBTQ+ people you encounter in your life, donating blood, calling out the evils of bigotry, donating to organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they respond to this tragedy, and reflecting the light of Christ into the dark corners of this world.

SLIDE 7 - VictimsAs happens in the wake of every tragedy, we hear the stories of those who are affected. With such a large number of people killed, the list of victims of the shooting came out gradually, name by name, person by person. Each one a family that would never be the same, a story cut short.

SLIDE 8 - Edward SotomayorThe very first name on that list was Edward Sotomayor. A name I hadn’t heard until a week ago, but one that changed everything about this shooting for me. You see, to my friend Tony Letts, Eddie wasn’t a name on a list, he was a dear friend. I’ve known Tony since I was 15 and met him through a program for high schoolers interested in vocational ministry. SLIDE 9 - Eddie and Tony When Tony posted on Facebook about losing his friend Eddie in the shooting, I was shocked. I knew that each of the people killed had those had loved ones, but now knew someone I cared about was one of those people. Just that quickly the world became much smaller.

Throughout the week Tony has shared stories about his friend. Eddie was 34, worked for a gay travel agency, and was known for the top hats he often wore, as well as his quick wit, energy, and kindness. He was so very loved, by his friends, but also, by God who formed him, created him, and called him “beloved.” “Beloved” is the name by which God knows Eddie, as well as each of those affected by this shooting.

I heard a powerful story this week about a synagogue in Washington DC responding to this tragedy by taking the time to support the LGBTQ+ community in their own area, seeking to make their own world smaller, and their love less abstract. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld shares their experience:

“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah…I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.

I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.

We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.

Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.

…As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”

In 1 John 4, we read, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because God has given us of God’s Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Creator has sent the child as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the child of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us…. We love because God first loved us.”

It is God who teaches us to love, and God’s love that draws us towards one another when the pain, fear, and hatred of this world tries to pull us apart. Our love for one another enables God’s love to be perfected in us, making us instruments of God’s love in this world.

SLIDE 13 - Lin-Manuel MirandaSunday night at the Tony awards Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, accepted an award for Best Original Score and shared a sonnet he wrote for the occasion. Here is part of that sonnet:

We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day

This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.

SLIDE 14 - Love is LoveAnd love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.”

We know from scripture that “love never ends.” May we allow God’s love to live in us, that all may know that each of “us” and each of “them,” is God’s own beloved. May we abandon the labels of this world to know the truth of God’s kingdom, that beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved. Amen.

“Beauty”; Beloved Community: Beauty; Psalm 96; May 29, 2016; FPC Holt

“Beauty”
Beloved Community: Beauty
Psalm 96
May 29, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2016 5 29 SLIDE 1 - BroadwayI’ve always liked musical theatre. To me there’s something freeing about people breaking out into song when their emotion simply can’t be contained in spoken word, and dancing when even song won’t quite capture what they’re feeling. After witnessing me breaking out into song on more than one occasion, a friend of mine in seminary told me that being friends with me was the closest he’d ever get to living in a musical. I decided to take that as a compliment.

2016 5 29 SLIDE 2 - Psalms Our scripture today comes to us from our biblical songbook, the Psalms. Like a scene from a musical, this particular passage is a psalm of thanksgiving, but not only through song and words, but through the gladness of the heavens, the rejoicing of the earth, the roaring of the sea, the exulting of the fields. Everything is uncontainably breaking out into song, and all of creation knows the choreography.

2016 5 29 SLIDE 3 - Palms This litany of all of creation’s praise reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke 19:40  in the context of the parade of palms, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The crowd is shouting praise and joy and excitement. The Pharisees tell Jesus to make the disciples stop, and Jesus says to them,“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

2016 5 29 SLIDE 5 - Sunset WaterfallOur Psalm has all sorts of parts of creation singing out with joy and gratitude for the glory, majesty, and beauty of God. When we look at a sunset, a field of flowers, or a waterfall, it’s easy to attribute beauty to God’s creation. When we see winter bud into spring we can see the creative energy of God, creating life where there had been frost and emptiness. When we hear rain fall and thunder crash we are confronted with the enormity of God’s presence. The beauty of God’s creation is less apparent on the days when the world seems dreary, or when we have snow on Pentecost in May. And It can become even harder to see beauty in the part of creation closest to us, that is our own being. We’re used to these bodies that we inhabit. We’ve seen the good and bad that they can do, and consequently struggle to see what makes them worthy of admiration, much less breaking into song and dance at their beauty.

2016 5 29 SLIDE 6 - IrenaeusSt. Irenaeus, an early theologian who lived around a century after Jesus’ death, wrote this about our created nature:

“The tender flesh itself will be found one day

–quite surprisingly– to be capable of receiving,

and yes, full[y] capable of embracing the searing energies of God.

Go figure. Fear not.

For even at its beginning the humble clay received God’s art,

whereby one part became the eye, another the ear, and yet another this impetuous hand.

Therefore, the flesh is not to be excluded from the wisdom and the power that now and ever animates all things.

His life-giving agency is made perfect, we are told, in weakness– made perfect in the flesh.”

2016 5 29 SLIDE 7 - ClayOur purpose as we know it in scripture, as God animated, created flesh, was assigned from the very beginning of creation: to be made in God’s image. It can be tricky to reconcile that call to our lived out reality. Do we really see ourselves and those around us as created in God’s image? Do we treat one another and ourselves like this is true? Do we seek to bear God’s beauty in our lives and actions, or do we hide behind our insecurities and self-defined imperfections? Do we celebrate the ways that God’s own creative energy and capacity for reason empower our  abilities, or is the beauty of our mind lost in apathy and ignorance?

2016 5 29 SLIDE 8 - A Tree Full of AngelsBenedictine monastic, Macrina Wiederkehr writes this in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” “The most exciting of all calls is the call to be like God… There was a common belief in the Old Testament that if people were to see God face to face they would die. The reasoning behind this thought makes a great deal of sense. Our frailty simply can’t take all of God’s glory in one gaze. It would be too much for us. Our task, then, if we want to see God and live is to start looking like God. We must lessen the difference between us.”

2016 5 29 SLIDE 9 - MichaelangeloWhat would it mean in your life, for you to lessen the difference between you and God? Not so you may be worshipped in your own arrogance, but that you might draw close to the beauty that God has instilled in you by virtue of your very creation. We live in the tension of ever being drawn to seek to be like God, while simultaneously knowing that we are not God and will never achieve God’s greatness. By acknowledging this struggle and still seeking to ever reflect as much as we can of God’s beauty, we live into God’s purpose for us.

The Psalmist explores this tension in Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

2016 5 29 SLIDE 11 - MirrorWhat are we that God is mindful of us? And why do we have such a hard time taking on our role in God’s desires for us? Do we see ourselves as capable of bearing God’s beauty? Have you ever taken the time to gaze into the mirror, not in a spirit of vanity or critique, but rather in gratitude? Do you see in yourself the beauty of God’s creation?

These bodies of ours can be harder to see as beautiful when they are not functioning in the ways we would hope and not allowing us to do the things we would like. 2016 5 29 SLIDE 12 - PregnancyMany of you know that I have had my own experiences with limitations throughout this pregnancy, particularly this last week, when various health complications required me to spend most of the time lying on my side, and even then experiencing quite a bit of pain. It’s a humbling and frustrating thing to be so confronted with our embodiment, at the mercy of our incarnation. And yet, the reality that right now, my son’s heart is beating inside of me and his feet have been kicking me all throughout the day, it is nothing short of miraculous. After witnessing so many friends and family members struggling with fertility and infant loss, I don’t take it for granted for one moment that Calvin’s very existence is possible. But one doesn’t need to go even as far as that to marvel at what our bodies are able to do, and the care with which God created us.

2016 5 29 SLIDE 13 - EarWhittaker Chambers, initially an avowed atheist, started towards conversion in a creator God when when he had his own experience of the divine beauty of creation in examining his daughter’s ear as she was sitting in her high chair eating. He writes, “She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life…My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by an immense design’.”

2016 5 29 SLIDE 14 - StrangerWhen you look for the beauty of God’s creation in others, what do you look for? It’s easier to see the beauty of God in your children or your spouse, but have you ever tried to seek this beauty in a stranger, or in that person at work or school that you just really don’t like?

2016 5 29 SLIDE 15 - CrowdWhen we step back and think of the intricate beauty of creation, of the way each of us are fashioned by God, we can’t help but notice God’s beauty in every single person, the intentional convolutions of each person’s ear, the miracle of hearts beating, the dependability of lungs circulating each breath.

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.  Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples.” May we forever be in awe of God’s beauty in this world, both around us and within us. Amen.

StoryPeople Theology

I realized the other day that I’ve been a fan of Brian Andreas work for ten years now. I first came across his art in a book of his when I was on a family vacation to Mackinaw Island, MI. I picked up the book in a shop and just kept laughing and nodding at all of the stories. They seemed to give context to a lot of emotions that I couldn’t quite figure out how to put into words on my own. Over the years these stories have colored my life with their cleverness, wit, and honesty. While I could share meaningful Story People stories all day long, I figured a good tribute to Brian Andreas would be to share a handful of stories that portray parts of my own theology, that is how I understand God and God’s relationship with us.  Four out of the six of these decorate the walls of my church office. Rather than explain my own understanding of each of these, I welcome you to read them yourself, to let them sit with you for a while and soak in. I pray they will bless you as they have blessed me.

TheWayHome

“The Way Home,” by Brian Andreas

"Remember," by Brian Andreas

“Remember,” by Brian Andreas

"Place to Fly," by Brian Andreas

“Place to Fly,” by Brian Andreas

Beautiful Things

“Beautiful Things,” by Brian Andreas

"Different Plans," by Brian Andreas

“Different Plans,” by Brian Andreas

 

"Connection," by Brian Andreas

“Connection,” by Brian Andreas

Amen.

 

“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Mary Oliver

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right;” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; November 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today we have the incredible blessing of being able to celebrate the two sacraments of the reformed church in one service: baptism and communion. It is an exciting thing to be united in the sacraments, coming to table and font together as the community of Christ.

The Directory for Worship the Presbyterian Church USA’s affirms that we celebrate both baptism and communion as sacraments because they were “instituted by God and commended by Christ.” and it says that “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” We affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service.

How does that impact you? Are you daunted by such a lofty connection and responsibility? Are you overwhelmed by the incredible scope of God’s goodness? Or once you’re brought into these sacraments do you feel like you’re off the hook? If your sins are forgiven and your life is redeemed through Christ, what do you have left to worry about in your own living?

The Thessalonians in our passage today were just beginning to learn how Christ’s promises played out in their lives, and what their response to God’s redemptive action should be.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Slide3Our scripture today can be a controversial one, it’s message having been distorted throughout time in political arenas. This passage has been misconstrued to lift up a puritanical work ethic and to question social services such as welfare. But in the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonian community, that was not at all the case. Paul was not confronting people crushed by their socio-economic situation or those unable to find a job.

He was confronting people who, in response to God’s message of Christ’s second coming decided to stop working all together, and simply wait for Christ’s coming. They thought if Jesus is coming soon, any work that they were doing was pointless.

Paul is quick to correct them, pointing to work as a way to lessen the burdens of the community, a way that they can be fed to do the kingdom work they have been called to do.

Slide4Victor Pentz, a Presbyterian Pastor in Georgia related a story about a woman who was joining a church. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” she said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ secretly disguised as a legal secretary.” [2]

We are all called to await the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime, we are called to work. Working towards God’s kingdom in whatever way we make our living. Our calling in our baptism and through the communion feast is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job provides a mission field and a way to be fed on earth even as we await the heavenly feast.

In verse thirteen we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Living with faithfulness even in the mundane aspects of our lives can be tiring, but it is part of our call as followers of Christ. Our day-to-day work can glorify God if we approach it with a right spirit.

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer who once wrote,

“And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”[3]

Through prayerful attention to the work of our lives, we demonstrate our love for God and the blessings of God’s work and provision. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and then work alongside God to make that happen.

Slide7Today we will witness the baptism of Aria, Karsidee, and Amanda. They will take vows as followers of Christ, but this call is not for them alone. We are not to stand idly by, but we will also be called to make vows, “to help them know all that Christ commands, and by [our] fellowship, to strengthen their family ties with the household of God.” There is work for us to do in their lives as this community, as children of God. You are called to uplift these newly baptized as they navigate Christ’s plan for them. You are called to support and uplift them whether they be your family by blood or by being fellow members of the household of God.

May we embrace the call and the promises of our sacraments, being strengthened by this renewal and recommissioned to do the work to which you have been called. Amen.

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Things Hoped For”; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; August 11, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Things Hoped For”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”[1]

These words by Emily Dickinson speak of hope as a birdlike creature in our soul, singing a song of improvisation, a song that begins without knowing where it will go, that sings wordlessly, unceasingly.

SLIDE 2 - Hebrews 11 1Our scripture today says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

To many faith can seem like a strange or elusive thing, it is, by definition, a trust in a promise without concrete evidence.

Favorite artist of mine, and Decorah native Brian Andreas is known for his “StoryPeople,” art that carries anecdotal stories with playful drawings. One such story speaks to the intangibility of faith, it says,Slide03 “Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.”

Slide04The Bible has quite a bit to say about hope. Hope appears in the Bible 167 times, 15 of which occur in Job. Job is a man who has lost everything he had and all of his immediate family. He wrestles with hope, whether or not hope his hope is warranted. His friends try and talk him out of hoping. Slide05Hope is in the Psalms 26 times, as the Psalms provide poetic accounts of interaction with God over time, in good and in bad. Proverbs 10:28 says: “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In Paul’s letters he often refers to the Gospel promise of redemption as “hope.”

SLIDE 6 - AbrahamThe story of Abraham and Sarah is held up several times throughout scripture as a model of faithfulness, a lived out hope. In our scripture today we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.””

SLIDE 7 - AbrahamIn Romans chapter 4 Paul shares this reflection on the faith of Abraham, beginning with verses 3-5: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

SLIDE 8 - AbrahamContinuing in verses 13-25 Paul writes, “For the promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world…depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  SLIDE 9 - Father AbrahamHoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Slide10It says that Abraham “hoped against hope.” Abraham had hope in that which was deemed impossible, that which seemed ungraspable. The “thing with feathers” inside of him sang a tune that he couldn’t know the words to. He hoped for the impossible.

I’ve always been a big fan of musical theatre, which is known for it’s infectious tunes. Sometimes when I’m reading scripture or working on a sermon certain songs will get stuck in my head on repeat. Slide11This week it was the song “Impossible,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The song begins by listing all the impossibilities of Cinderella’s predicament, as she’s standing distraught with no way to get to the ball. Her Godmother sings to her, “the world is full of zanies and fools, Who don’t believe in sensible rules And won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Slide12What are the impossible things that you hope for? The things that might seem foolish. The things that might even hurt to hope for? The places in our life where to ask God for a yes risks possibly receiving an unfathomable “no.” How might we trust God in these circumstances?

How might we begin to see these things as possible? How might we hope unceasingly? How might we hope beyond hope?

Slide13Our passage today says in Hebrews 11:13, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Can we really take comfort in hopes that our not answered in our own lifetimes?

Slide14

How can we be anything but disappointed by unanswered prayers? How can we continue to trust God when things don’t work out the way we want them to? The only way is by having a kingdom mindset, by having faith that God’s willing is being worked out in the way it needs to. That God’s plan for us is much larger than us, and with a much longer timeline than any we will experience firsthand. This is not an easy thing, but it is part of what faith calls us to. God is not in the business of wish fulfillment

Slide15Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

The unceasing song of hope, does not end when we are no longer the ones singing it. To have faith is to trust in the promise that just as the blessings of our lives came from that which was only promised to those before us.

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou speaks of this slow to come hope in her poem, “I Rise.” This comes from the conclusion of the poem:

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”[2]

That line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” haunts me. Though I do not have ancestral roots in 19th century American slavery, we as children of God, come from a people enslaved. Our faith’s origins are found among those slaves in Egypt, those aching for freedom, aching for the Promised Land they would never live to see. We are their dream and their hope. We are the harvest of that deep grief, of that desert wandering.

Slide17After the familiar narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the continuation of kingdom through the harvest of believers that they themselves did not cultivate:

In John 4:34-38 we read, “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.””

Slide19The hopes of our hearts may not always come into fruition before us, but as heirs of salvation, workers in God’s kingdom harvest, our acts done in faith bring life to the hopes of those who come before us. We reap a harvest for which we did not labor, and we hope for a promise that we may not witness.

Romans 8:24-25 says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 2 Corinthians 3:12 after speaking of confidence in the promises of Christ says, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.”

How may your hope spur you to action? When something seems impossible, our fear can paralyze us. May we be bold in our hope, allowing ourselves to hope for what seems impossible, to invest in the promises of God’s goodness. May we be bold to invest in the future we may not see.

Slide22One of the hardest prayers to pray is one we echo week after week in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” This short and simple phrase can seem an easy one to pray when we are thinking of the circumstances of another, but in our own circumstances it can seem callous or like an act of retreat. Though “thy will be done” is a prayer of surrender, it is not one of retreat. It is faith in allowing our hopes to rest in God’s hands.

May we have faith in the promises of God’s kingdom. May we sing the tune of hope even while God is still revealing the words. Amen.


[1] ““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619

Happy Birthday Wendell Berry

In honor of Wendell Berry’s 79th birthday today, here is a poem of his:

“A Homecoming”

by Wendell Berry

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distances of our faith,
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

Which makes me think of this:

"The Way Home" by Brian Andreas "I'm not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you're ready, I'm here to remind you of the way home."

“The Way Home” by Brian Andreas
“I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

“Who the Meek Are Not,” by Mary Karr

A thought provoking poem featured on the Writer’s Almanac for today:

Who the Meek Are Not
by Mary Karr

Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
in the rice paddy muck,
nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
make the wheat fall in waves
they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
nun says we misread
that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. © Harper Collins, 2006.

Healing Space: Prompted by RevGalBlogPals Friday Five

RevGalBlogPals, a webring that I belong to, is “a supportive community for clergywomen and their friends since 2005.” For me they have been a great resource to ask advice on ministry ideas and to share inspiration in each of our respective ministries.
Throughout each week they have prompts of different things to which the webring members can respond. I haven’t been good about actually following the prompts yet, but today’s felt necessary for my own healing, and I hope will help in yours.

Here is the prompt from Deb: “I am an enthusiastic newspaper reader. Lately, however, world events have made it hard to read and process the pain in the world around me. Perhaps you have struggled with this, too.
So, with the events of the violence and tragedy from the Boston Marathon fresh in our memories, I thought it would be good for us to focus on where as RevGalBlogPals, we find healing, peace and strengthening. As a chaplain, there are days where I never seem to catch my breath, and invariably, those are the days that I need it the most! So with all this in mind, share with us these healing things.”

1. A piece of music

A beautiful setting of this Sunday’s lectionary text, Psalm 23:

This song is my happy place and I just love James Taylor:

2. A place

North Adams, MA: A place of deep family roots, beautiful mountains, and a dynamic arts community. For me it has always been enough of a home to be a comfortable and enough of a vacation destination for it to be a break from the usual.

19-DSCN4272

3. A favorite food

Pad Thai

4. A recreational pastime

Bicycling, especially on beautiful trails like this one I love in Massachusetts, the Ashtuwilticook Rail Trail

5. A poem, Scripture passage or other literature that speaks to comfort you.

“You Begin,” by Margret Atwood

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
this is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
you are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.

The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

BONUS: People, animals, friends, family – share a picture of one or many of these who warm your heart.

SLIDE 19 - Family

Bailey

Bonus-bonus, this is the silly song that pops into my head with Bailey:

“Primavera”

Today I received this poem from The Writer’s Almanac. Tonight I will be going to a dinner for the university where my mother teachers called the “Primavera Gala,” at the Toledo Museum of Art. So, today this poem is triply fitting with it’s descriptions of Spring, it’s discussion of the role of an artist, and the title “Primavera.”

Primavera
by Louise Gluck

Spring comes quickly: overnight
the plum tree blossoms,
the warm air fills with bird calls.

In the plowed dirt, someone has drawn a picture of the sun
with rays coming out all around
but because the background is dirt, the sun is black.
There is no signature.

Alas, very soon everything will disappear:
the bird calls, the delicate blossoms. In the end,
even the earth itself will follow the artist’s name into oblivion.

Nevertheless, the artist intends
a mood of celebration.

How beautiful the blossoms are—emblems of the resilience of life.
The birds approach eagerly.

“Primavera” by Louise Glück, from Poems: 1962-2012. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

“String Quartet,” by Carl Dennis

This was in today’s Writer’s Almanac and I just had to pass it along:

“String Quartet,”
by Carl Dennis

Art and life, I wouldn’t want to confuse them.
But it’s hard to hear this quartet
Without comparing it to a conversation
Of the quiet kind, where no one tries to outtalk
The other participants, where each is eager instead
To share in the task of moving the theme along
From the opening statement to the final bar.

A conversation that isn’t likely to flourish
When sales technicians come trolling for customers,
Office-holders for votes, preachers for converts.
Many good people among such talkers,
But none engaged like the voices of the quartet
In resisting the plots time hatches to make them unequal,
To set them at odds, to pull them asunder.

I love the movement where the cello is occupied
With repeating a single phrase while the others
Strike out on their own, three separate journeys
That seem to suggest each prefers, after all,
The pain and pleasure of playing solo. But no.
Each near the end swerves back to the path
Their friend has been plodding, and he receives them
As if he never once suspected their loyalty.

Would I be moved if I thought the music
Belonged to a world remote from this one,
If it didn’t seem instead to be making the point
That conversation like this is available
At moments sufficiently free and self-forgetful?

And at other moments, maybe there’s still a chance
To participate in the silence of listeners
Who are glad for what they manage to bring to the music
And for what they manage to take away.

“String Quartet” by Carl Dennis, from Unknown Friends. © Penguin, 2007.

“Water Into Wine;” Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34; January 13, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Water Into Wine”
Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34
January 13, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Have you ever read the Bible and felt like this? Like you’re being pointed in all sorts of directions and you’re not sure where to go? Or maybe you felt that it might mean something for your life, but your not sure which? And when you read more about scripture it you might hear even more of a confusing message?

Signs are really only helpful if we’re able to read them, and able to understand what the mean, and what we’re supposed to do in response.

This is also true when it comes to Jesus’ actions in the gospels. His miracles, including this one in Cana, are called “signs.” A sign points to something beyond itself. There needs to be a certain sort of understanding to be able to interpret a sign.SLIDE 4 - Arrow right

The thing about a sign is that it points to something beyond itself.  If you’re driving along and you see this sign you know that this line with the triangle at the end means that the road is curving right.

SLIDE 5 - ConstructionIf you see this one, you know there’s construction up ahead and you know to watch out for workers in the road.

 When Jesus does a miracle, more is going on that just what we can take in at first glance. Which is important to know, especially when we see a sign like his miracle in Cana. In a first read through it seems like all Jesus is doing is making some people happy at a party. The signs of Jesus tell us about who Jesus is, His mission on earth, and the new age He brings about by his coming. Slide06The signs of Jesus are truly “significant.” They point to who Jesus is and what he came to do. So, let’s unpack this story a bit and figure out what making wine at a party has to do with the mission of Jesus Christ and what it has to do with us.

Slide07When we first start out this story it’s a bit strange: when told by his mother, Mary, that there was no wine his initial response is “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Any parent or teacher who has asked a child to do a chore, go to sleep at bedtime, or learn a math problem might hear a familiar voice here: “Why me?” “Why should I care about this?” “Can’t I do it later?” “Ten more minutes?” When we know that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, it’s a strange thing to hear that he seemed reluctant, and even a bit petulant at his mother’s request.

Mary’s appeal brings images of a proud mother. She had confidence that in this situation Jesus could do something to turn it around. But really, making wine at a party? This is Jesus’s first act of ministry? This is what gets the ball rolling on a career as savior of the world? Winemaking?

SLIDE 8 - Water Into WineHowever, when we look at this one strange seeming inconsequential act in the scope of Jesus’ entire ministry, it makes a great deal of sense. Jesus is the bringer of living water and that water is transformed by His death, which we remember by sharing in the wine of communion. This one act, at the beginning of His ministry provides bookends to his life’s ministry. Christ gives living water and is transformed into wine.

Slide09Scripture is filled with imagery of water as challenging, saving, confronting, and life giving. As our students learned in WOW this past Fall, water is woven throughout the Moses narrative: carrying Moses to a new life, saving the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and flowing from a rock as a sign of God’s provision to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Old Testament passage today we hear the claim God places on us, which we commemorate in baptism: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

Slide11In John 1:29-34 we hear of Jesus’ baptism:  “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

SLIDE 12 - Jesus BaptismThis passage of Christ’s baptism comes right before the story of his first miracle. This is no accident. When Christ is turning water into wine, He Himself has already taken his place as the living water. In His baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism it says that, God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[1] Though always connected, the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all cited a specifically present during Christ’s baptism. Though Jesus was claiming God as father as early as when he was twelve in the temple, this claim by God that Jesus is God’s own son was the first public action by God that set Jesus apart as God’s son. And in this ministry Jesus does not go it alone, but goes in the company of the Holy Spirit, who is in and through all things.

On Christmas we celebrated Jesus’ birth, last week on Epiphany Sunday we celebrated Christ’s manifestation. These two scriptures Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ miracle at Cana, bring us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A time when the living water came to life, living a ministry that would give live to all people.

SLIDE 14 - Water to WineThough this first miracle happens in the context of a party, this transformation from water into wine points to a future much more bitter than that of living water. Christ did not come simply to wash the world clean, but to transform the world through His life.

Though we use grape juice in our communion as we remember Jesus, there are reasons why Jesus’s death is remembered through wine and not grape juice. Sure there’s the cultural context of a community of disciples that would’ve been more likely to dine with wine than with water, but there are also chemical reasons. While both are bitter and sweet, wine can be abused. Wine can lift the spirits, but too much can cause personal harm and ruin relationships. Wine is in remembrance of Jesus’ death, in remembrance of the pain of crucifixion, and the horrors of Christ’s descent into Hell. We sample just a taste of this bitterness in communion, but we are not meant to intoxicate ourselves with the grief of Christ’s death.

Slide16This is not to say that we are powerless in this transformation as Christ moves the world from living water to eternal life giving wine. We have a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, a role demonstrated by Mary in this story. Jesus is reluctant, but Mary prods Jesus towards this new ministry. Divine action and human initiative are linked. God does not need us to point to what is wrong with the world, but when we pray we are lifting up the concerns of God, making them manifest in our own lives, and we await an answer. We open ourselves to God’s action in the world. When we hear “my time has not yet come,” we are frustrated, we are annoyed, but we are also attentive to what will come next Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us an example of her own prodding at God, but also an example of how God’s will is to be enacted. “They have no wine,” Mary says. Jesus replies, “my time has not yet come.” She does not say, “ oh yes it does!” She does not rail against her literally holier than thou son,  but she leaves space for divinity to be enacted, instructing the servants of the house, “do whatever He asks of you.”

Slide18Here is the blueprint to divine transformation: When God’s concerns become our own, and we lift them up to God, faithful obedience leads to the transformation of our hearts and the world. God’s will can be enacted through us, but only if we are open to be changed by asking for that change, and discovering our role in transforming God’s Kingdom.

In our baptism Christ claims us as His own, as children of the Kingdom of God. We drink of the living water. We are cleansed of our sins and given new life. In Christ’s death Christ claims our sins as His own, giving us the ability to live eternally in God’s Kingdom and God’s grace. The good news is as Jesus transforms water into wine, Christ also transforms our lives through claiming us in baptism and redeeming us through his crucifixion.

 Raised arms womanThis is a message of hope that poet, Tom Lane writes of this in his poem, “If Jesus Could”: If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine spit and dirt into new sight troubled sea into a pathway well water into living water Could Christ transform the waters of my life? shallow murky polluted stagnant sour into a shower of blessing?

May we be open to Christ’s transforming power in our lives and in this world, and open to how God is calling us to help transform the world for His kingdom. Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:17

“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver

“The Journey”

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

“First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.

“Every Land,” by Ursula Le Guin

A hymn today from Ursula Le Guin:

Every Land
by Ursula Le Guin

The holy land is everywhere. —Black Elk

Watch where the branches of the willows bend
See where the waters of the rivers tend
Graves in the rock, cradles in the sand
Every land is the holy land.

Here was the battle to the bitter end
Here’s where the enemy killed the friend
Blood on the rock, tears on the sand
Every land is the holy land.

Willow by the water bending in the wind
Bent till it’s broken and it cannot stand
Listen to the word the messengers send
Life from the living rock, death in the sand
Every land is the holy land.

“Every Land” by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday;” Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5; November 11, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday”
Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

A few days ago I was walking my dog Bailey outside late at night. With the absence of traffic, I could hear the faint humming of the grain silo and the scratching of tree branches in the wind. The air felt electric. Perhaps it was my imagination but Bailey seemed to sense it too. He sniffed at the air, looking around expectantly. I looked up and the stars were brighter than what I could experience back in my hometown in Ohio, and then all of a sudden a shooting star blazed across the sky. I looked around, had anyone else seen it? Had anyone else witnessed this quick and bright moment of beauty?[1] Standing there in the midst of God’s amazing creation, I remember thinking, “surely God is present.”

In Genesis 28 we are given the story of Jacob having such a moment with God. Jacob was traveling in the wilderness and stopped to rest, using a rock as a pillow.That night he had a dream where God came to him and said,

“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”Jacob then takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar, pours oil on it and names it Bethel, House of God. In Hebrew Beth means house and El is short for “Elohim,” a name of God.

The space where this dream happened was not particularly exceptional. It was merely a patch of land with a stone. By any outside observation Jacob’s remarkable evening would’ve seemed like a rather mundane occurrence. A man, falls asleep outside with his head on a rock, and then wakes up and pours oil on it and keeps on walking. All in all, it was not a very remarkable experience. It became remarkable through God’s presence, and Jacob’s acknowledgement of that presence. God did not need Jacob’s monument to be present in that space. God was already there. But by drawing attention to that space, Jacob left a reminder of God’s presence and called it the “house of God.”

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor explains her own encounter with God’s presence in her book “An Altar in the World.” After explaining a particularly beautiful scene during a visit to Hawaii she writes, “I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God…I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” She continues, saying:

“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God? The people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God, after all, There are also wolves and seals. There are also wild geese and humpback whales. According to the Bible, even trees can clap their hands.”[2]

Barbara Brown Taylor’s redefinition of the House of God as the whole world opens up the worship of God to all parts of creation and speaks to God’s inability to be contained in a single building or community. Our uncontainable God is spoken of in this way in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Before God came to earth in Jesus Christ, God was perpetually being described as One who is unknowable, unnameable, and far beyond the bounds of human convention. This view of God is described in the poetic devices of the Hebrew texts.

Our Psalm today speaks in merisms. Merisms are phrases that list two extremes with the implied, “and everything in between.” Merisms are not foreign to our culture, we still use phrases like, “searched high and low,” “through thick and thin,” and “in sickness and in health.” Merisms are used quite a bit in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. I’m going to read through a few of them and just to help all of us to be aware of what is really being said, I’d like you to say with me, “and everything in between” after each one.

Our passage today says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And say it with me, “and everything in between”Later in the passage it says, “The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 139:2 says, “You know when I sit down and when I get up.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.” And… “and everything in between.” I particularly enjoy this verse because the rising and setting of the sun can be interpreted both in terms of geography and in terms of time. God is to be praised in all places at all times.

God is present in shooting stars, rocky wilderness, Hawaiian vistas, and everything in between. God is present in this building, in the other churches of Jesup, in my home church in Ohio, in the temples of Jerusalem, the cathedrals of Rome, and everything in between.  God is there when we take notice, and there when we don’t. God is there in the exceptional circumstances of our lives and there in the mundane. God is in the everything in between. Our experiences are made holy by God’s presence. And God’s presence is made known to us when we praise God with thanksgiving.

This is what we acknowledge in our sacraments of baptism and communion. Sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible actions of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Sacraments change our experience, making sacred meaning out of secular elements.

Just as with the seemingly everyday actions of Jacob in the wilderness, if an outside observer was watching us today without an explanation of what was going on, they would think that later on in the service as we share bread and grape juice that we are simply having a snack together. It might seem a bit odd, everyone lining up and ripping off bread. But while we outwardly receive bread and juice, “by the work of the Holy Spirit [we] also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal.”[3]

This is what Jesus did too. He was born in an ordinary stable into an ordinary body. He was beyond exceptional, but also lived an everyday sort of life. He is immortal and beyond time, yet He also lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, and died, all in a very real way. He was the shooting star surrounded by the dark night.

John 1:1-5 tells us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was in the beginning, He will be with us in the end. And in everything in between.

With gratitude towards God’s presence in all of creation and all of our experience, I’d like to close today with a poem by e.e. cummings:

thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May the ears of your ears and eyes of your eyes be open to God’s presence in every in between of your life. Amen.


[1] I discovered later that this was the North Taurid Meteor Shower.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 9.

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196

“A Thousand Mornings,” by Mary Oliver

A lovely poem that almost makes me want to work to become a morning person.

A Thousand Mornings
by Mary Oliver

All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties, but only until night
meets and then is overwhelmed by
morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I
too wait (and when have I ever been
disappointed?) for redbird to sing.

“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”[1]

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”[5]

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[6]

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. After our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32

“i am a little church” by E. E. Cummings for his birthday

In honor of E.E. Cummings birthday today:
i am a little church by E. E. Cummings
i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
-i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

“A Request,” by Ursula Le Guin

 

This poem was featured in The Writer’s Almanac today. It seems a fitting a thoughtful reflection on pastoral care and visitation to those who have lost the ability to communicate.

A Request
by Ursula Le Guin

Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke

and said to you, “My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;

my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,

and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.

Or let our conversation be
a mute and patient amity,

sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.

It takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock.”
“A Request” by Ursula K. Le Guin, from Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

 

“A Vagabond Song,” by Bliss Carman

“A Vagabond Song,” by Bliss Carman

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills
To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

“Practice Resurrection,” by Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry,

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3

“M,” by Katrina Vandenberg

A poem that came to me from The Writer’s Almanac. If you enjoy poetry as I do, I would highly recommend subscribing to the daily email they offer.

“M,” by Katrina Vandenberg

The Berkshire hills the book that opens
again with each curve where the woods take back
what they just said ditch lilies ditch lilies
open orange eager in the Berkshires the mills
are no longer milling paper milling wool
they’re milling memories of themselves
as useful they mill this skein of highway clumps
of lilies woolly thoughts the letter M its hieroglyph
a set of Mediterranean waves and the Phoenicians
who drew M first ship-makers wave-walkers
consider them first looking out then in          the mills
are milling the Housatonic river it skims
a thousand rocks is almost close enough to touch all
landscape here is intimate hemmed in a book
close to the face not an open book as we say
more the way a baby sees from its mother’s breast
to her face and that is all an open book is
one small room its talk a little talk its form
a reinforcement of five hundred years of private
thought along with the invention of the separate
room a sudden set of separate fires the ancient
Berkshire hills their mills are milling spotted
dairy cows and wooly sheep alphabet of camels
oxen fish if my northern tribe had drawn M first
M would have been a hieroglyph for milk the cows
goats sheep they learned to drink from or starve
la mer, la mère the sound of M for mother
in nearly every language the early sounds a baby
makes M for delicious
drowsing off the shape of these worn-down hills the mills
mill poems walls of stone tonight they mill the stars
M for ma, the Japanese idea of space
and silence as a thing not absence on the radio
today they talk about the death of books
of spacious thought the book a footnote
a single clump of lilies one river thread
I think of books as milk from other animals

As I drive through the Berkshire I too can sense this “mmmm” in the slope of the hills and the mills throughout the landscape. I love the lyrical alliteration throughout this poem.

“The Art of Drowning,” by Billy Collins

A poem by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins:

“The Art of Drowning,” by Billy Collins

I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.

After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn’t you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs-
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography-
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.

Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,

a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.

I love the simplicity of the language and the complexity of the ways that we all seek to anticipate death. This poem also captures how we as human beings would like to have control over how things might happen to us, even in death. The resignation at the end seems to me as an acceptance of our purpose in the overall landscape of creation, a creation which only God truly understands because God was the one who made and ordered the universe.

A Letter to the Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

A seminary classmate of mine posted part of this poem today, hoping for people to speak “in an octave [their] kindness can reach.” The beauty of that line drew me to this poem. The clever and poignant words in this poem drew me to share it here. I hope that you will be blessed by it as I was.

A Letter to the Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

maybe there are cartwheels in your mouth
maybe your words will grow up to be a gymnasts
maybe you have been kicking people with them by accident

I know some people get a whole lot of rocking in the rocking chair
and the ones who don’t sometimes get rocks in their voice boxes,
and their voice boxes become slingshots.
maybe you think my heart looks like a baby squirrel.

but you absolutely missed when you told the class I have head lice
‘cause I one hundred percent absolutely do not have head lice
and even if I do
it is a fact that head lice prefer clean heads over dirty ones
so I am clean as a whistle on a tea pot.
my mother says it is totally fine if I blow off steam
as long as i speak in an octave my kindness can still reach.

my kindness knows mermaids never ever miss their legs in the water
‘cause there are better ways to move through the ocean than kicking.

so guess what,
if I ever have my own team
I am picking everyone first

even the worst kid
and the kid with the stutter like a skipping record
‘cause I know all of us are scratched,
even if you can’t hear it when we speak.
my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
‘cause I can never keep anything frozen.

so no, I am not “always crying.”
I am just thawing outside of the lines.
and even if I am “always crying”
it is a fact
that salt is the only reason
everything floats so good in the dead sea.
and just ‘cause no one ever passes notes to me
doesn’t mean I am not super duper.
in fact, my super duper might be a buoy or a paper boat
the next time your nose gets stuck up the river
‘cause it is a fact
that our hearts stop every for a mili-second every time we sneeze
and some people’s houses have too much dust.
.

some people’s fathers are like attics
I’ve heard attics have monsters in their walls and shaky stares.
I think if I lived in a house with attic
I’d nightmare a burglar in my safety chest
and maybe I’d look for rest in the sticks and stones
‘cause my mother says a person can only swallow so much punch
before he’s drunk on his own fist

but the only drunk I ever knew
was sleeping in the alley behind our church
and jesus turned water into his wine
so even god has his bad days

but on your bad days couldn’t you just say
“hey I’m having a bad day,”
instead of telling me I’m stupid or poor,
or telling me I dress like a boy
‘cause maybe I am a boy AND a girl
maybe my name is Andrea Andrew.
so what.
it is a fact that bumblebees have hair on their eyes
and humans, also, should comb though everything they see.

like
an anchorman is not a sailor.
like the clouds might be a pillow fight.
like my mother says,
“every bird perched on a telephone wire
will listen to the conversations running through its feet
to decide the direction of its flight.”

so I know every word we speak
can make hurricanes in people’s weather veins
or shine their shiny shine

so maybe sometime you could sit beside me on the bus
and I could say,
“guess what, it is a fact that manatees have vocal chords
but do not have ears.
and Beethoven made music
even when he could no longer hear.

and I know every belt that has hit someone’s back
is still a belt that was built to hold something up.

and it is fact that Egyptians slept on pillows made of stone
but it’s not hard for me to dream
that maybe one day you’ll write me back
like the day I wrote the lightening bug to say,
I smashed my mason jar and I threw away the lid.
I didn’t want to take a chance that I’d grow up to be a war.

I want to be a belly dance or an accordion or a pogo stick
or the fingerprints the mason left
in the mortar between the bricks
to prove that he was here,
that he built a roof over someone’s head
to keep the storm from their faith,
my mother says that’s why we all were born.

and I think she’s right.
so write back soon.
sincerely yours.

Halfway

Sitting here in Williamstown, Massachusetts I am in a very unique place in time and space. I moved here last past weekend and will begin my work at First Congregational in a few days, but for this week I am a bit suspended between my life in Maumee and my life here.

My favorite poem when I was younger was “Halfway Down,” by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh)

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn’t any
other stair
quite like
it.
i’m not at the bottom,
i’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
where
I always
stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

There’s something very exciting about being in between things. There’s a sense of newness, a novelty to being unknown. As in Milne’s poem, when you’re in the in between there’s no real assigned task for this place other than being present and thinking. This independence in space, relationship, and occupation provides for a deep sense of sabbath.

But, as a favorite artist of mine, Brian Andreas puts it in “Outsider,”: “I’m an outsider by choice, she said, but I’m hoping that won’t be my choice forever.”

Right now I’m sitting in the middle of a courtyard on the main street in Williamstown. It’s great people watching, seeing who is walking by and hearing snippets on conversations. Right now, I don’t know a single one of them. But, as my time here passes, I hope that I will gradually get to know people. Later, sitting in this courtyard will likely take on a different feel, occasionally catching the eye of someone I know, stopping to have a conversation.

Last night I volunteered for a special event at MASS MoCA. I decided being a volunteer would be a great way to make connections with people outside of the church. I met a few people and enjoyed being at the event. And as it turned out, one of the very first people I met, is a member of First Congregational. It’s funny how those things work out sometimes!

Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Gilmore Girls, but I’m excited to see how this small town will begin to be more and more familiar to me. I’m looking forward to getting know this town and for it to know me. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying being “halfway.”

“Repotting,” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This gem arrived in my e-mail box today from, “The Writer’s Almanac, by Garrison Keiler.” It seems very fitting for this week as I am about to move to Massachusetts:

Repotting

by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

The healthy plant outgrows its pot
the way a healthy child outgrows its clothes.
Don’t let it suffer constriction. Spread the Sports
or Business section of the New York Times
on the dining room table. Find a clay pot
big enough for fresh growth. In the bottom
place pebbles and shards from a broken pot for drainage.
Add handfuls of moist black potting soil,
digging your hands deep in the bag, rooting
so the soil gets under your fingernails.
Using a small spade or butter knife,
ease the plant out of its old pot with extreme
care so as not to disturb its wiry roots.

The plant is naked, suspended from your hand
like a newborn, roots and clinging soil
exposed. Treat it gently. Settle it
into the center of the new pot, adding soil
on the sides for support—who isn’t shaky,
moving into a new home ?
Pack more soil around the plant,
tapping it down till you almost reach the rim.
Flounce the leaves as you would a skirt. Then water.
Place the pot back on the shelf in the sunlight.
Gather the Sports section around the spilled soil
and discard. Watch your plant flourish.
You have done a good and necessary deed.

“Repotting” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, from See You in the Dark. © Curbstone Books, 2012

“Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” by Denise Levertov

A poem for Holy Saturday:

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
by Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
Much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
In those small heads that seem in fact
Portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clinched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
Cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
Like any mortal hero out of his depth,
Like anyone who has taken a step too far,
And wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
In the midnight Garden,
Or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
To simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
Not the hideous betrayals humans commit
Nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
Not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
Was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
But this sickened desire to renege,
To step back from what He, Who was God,
Had promised Himself, and had entered
Time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
Up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.

“In Memory of Her,” A Poem for Holy Week by Susan Windley-Daoust

This is a poem I came across this week and it helped me to see the story of the woman anointing Jesus (as told in Mark 14) with new eyes.

In Memory Of Her

“Leave her alone.”
And for the rest of my life, they do.
They are not supposed to look at me, but
Sidelong glances and traitorous sounds tell them
I am crying,
And words I want to say are choked, stillborn.
I can’t tell them how I knew
unless you, too, see it was obvious
that he was not meant to stay with us forever.
He seemed to know it that day,
the way he ate so slowly, deliberately,
staring at people, boring into their eyes,
the occasional pause, blink,
seeing something we could, or would, not.
He was with us and not,
and I knew: it was time.
So I rushed to get the jar of spikenard,
my dowry,
and stepped over reclining men,
to his mat.
With a pleading glance, I knelt down,
Cracked the seal,
And poured out a portion, then the whole, of my hope
on his head, and then his feet.
Kneeling at those calloused feet, I wept
with the knowledge of what this means:
I have given my future
To this man, who will die.
As that perfume filled the room,
He smiled, lifting my chin, and addressed me:
“…you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told….”

So I was left alone by men.
No one understood, then;
truth, I barely understood myself.
But in that gift, my center shifted
And I knew– despite his coming death–that I was meant to be alone, for him, somehow.

The day after the catastrophe,
I looked at the broken jar
I remembered the fragrance
And I hoped.

“i thank You God,” e. e. cummings

A word of prayer tonight from the imaginatively brilliant e. e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

A recording of e. e. cummings reciting this poem:

A beautiful choral arrangement of this poem by Eric Whitacre:

“Litany,” by Billy Collins

A favorite poem of mine, “Litany,” by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
—Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet
and—somehow—the wine.

I love the way that this poem reframes ideas of self-importance, the way we try to explain ourselves with metaphors. It challenges the idea of “you are my everything,” placing a very specific vision on how the speaker in the poem sees the person they are addressing, while giving themselves a grandiose picture. Of course, watching a three year old recite this poem only adds to the mock self importance of the poem.

This poem also makes me think about the many metaphors that show up all throughout the Bible, and the confusion that they can bring in a contemporary context, or even in the confusion they brought to the disciples. At the same time, I appreciate the fact that though Billy Collins doesn’t quite describe the emotions present between the speaker and the subject, the use of (albeit sarcastic) metaphors allows him to convey a very specific love and playfulness of relationship. And, I appreciate the fact that though Jesus doesn’t give us a completely clear picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, or give us an exact date of His return, he does describe the Kingdom of Heaven through metaphor, conveying a very specific love and intention for the world.

Springtime with Wendell Berry

As I write this I am sitting on my porch looking out at an astoundingly beautiful Spring day. Since the trees have not yet filled in I can still see the Maumee river sparkling a bit in the distance. I’d like to offer up a Wendell Berry Poem to celebrate this beginning of Spring:

The winter world of loss
And grief is gone. The night
Is past. Along the whole
Length of the river, birds
Are singing in the trees.

Again, hope dreams itself
Awake. The year’s first lambs
Cry in the morning dark.
And, after all, we have
A garden in our minds.

We living know the worth
Of all the dead have done
Or hoped to do. We know
That hearts, against their doom,
Must plight an ancient troth.

Now come the bride and groom,
Now come the man and woman
Who must begin again
The work divine and human
By which we live on earth.

– Wendell Berry, “A Timbered Choir,” 1992