Monday, September 24, 2012

Healing Nations and the Lord of Light

Revelation 22: 1-5
Our scripture reading comes deep within my message today so please be patient, humor me if you must.  It will come. 

I am feeling a bit vulnerable these days.  With the recent wave of deadly riots and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi stemming out of religious violence and protest I feel vulnerable as an American and as a cleric.  I feel my nationality is under attack and the ‘religion field’ that I chose to make my living and that I am called to is also under extreme attack.  It does not feel good.  I do not like it. 

But let me tell you how I really feel.

When religious extremism ramps up its fervor and attack, those who rebuke or reject religion, or someone else’s religion, are quick to point out the ways in which religion kills and persecutes.  And that is true, religious extremism has that capacity.  So I feel embarrassed, saddened and disgusted because of someone else’s behavior and I feel defensive because I know that these are acts of fanatics and not well-reasoned people.  What I feel and think inside me thankfully, does not materialize into words and come out of my mouth.  I practice self respect and restraint.

Those who chide religion, or someone else’s religion, do not want to hear all of the positive attributes that the practice of religion offers, about how their lives could be transformed, about how things really could be different, about how there seriously could be peace that is divinely sanctioned and humanly embraced and enacted. 

They don’t want to hear that message.  Minds are closed.  They have bought into the ‘all ‘organized’ religion is bad’ stream of thought. All I can do is model what I know is good about my religion, Christianity, and with a gentle firmness not condone or give into their prejudice, anger and hatred.  Faith traditions have their extremists and all faith traditions have their moderates who are living examples of the beauty of their religion.  And I do believe that each religion has within its core belief a yearning for peace.  I truly believe this.

This is how I really feel.  And I ask God, when will this end?  Where do I find hope and understanding?  How might our nations ever survive in this climate of change and revolution?  From where will come our peace?  And then God speaks.

Our scripture for today is from the Book of Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible.  It’s quite a visual book and a confusing book to read.  It details cosmic wars, visions, seals being opened to reveal apocalyptic revelation, it has blasting trumpets and seven headed beasts.  Sort of Kafkaesque if you think about it.  For our 21st sensibilities it is difficult to get clarity on what the author really meant and scholars viewpoints vary as do the leaves on the trees on crisp autumn day.

Although we can try to put it into context.  It was the end of the first century and Rome was a religious and political force to be reckoned with, probably under the rule of the emperor Domitian.  With Domitian came an enhanced imperial cult mentality in which there was the belief that the emperor was divine and would insure the well being of the inhabitants and the state.  (Wouldn’t some of our political leaders like to return to the days of the imperial cult!!)

Christians and Jews, of course, viewed this ideology as pure idolatry which put them at huge odds with the empire and in turn were viewed as great enemies of the state.  So by the time the author of Revelation puts quill to papyrus, they were in desperate need for a message of healing and a helping of hope.

This passage is one of the more beautiful and peaceful passages of scripture in the entire Bible and it’s entitled the ‘Tree of Life’.  Hear now a reading from Revelation, the 22nd chapter.

Tree of Life by Gustav Klimpt
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Picture a city and through the middle of a street in the city flows a river that is filled with the water of soul refreshing, heart renewing life.  It was as vivid as it could be, bright as crystal that is clean and sparkling.  And the river’s source is the throne of God.

And the river is lined on both of the banks with the trees of life bearing twelve different sorts of fruits.  Imagine an apple tree growing next to an orange tree which thrives next to a pomegranate tree and then a pear and almond tree.  So life giving they are because their leaves provide shade for a weary soul, their trunks a place for the traveler to rest their aching back against, and the fruit is the sustenance of life.  Wisdom abounds.  Nourishment is abundant and life is valued and at peace.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nations then, nations now still are in need of healing.

Friday was International Day of Peace as declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2002.  How’s that working out UN?  Probably none of us even knew about it!  Peace does not make the headlines in our media, it does not sell advertising space like violence and conduct that has gone tragically astray does.  Do not feel bad that you did not know.  The healing of the nations are still in need of these leaves from the tree of life.

From the UN declaration: “Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples…This day will serve as a reminder to all peoples that our organization (the UN), with all its limitations, is a living instrument in the service of peace….”[i]  I suppose we are much better off as a world with the UN then not.

It’s just that peace is much more difficult to define and one’s practice of religion has a great deal to say about what peace is and how peace can be achieved.  As individuals we must be instruments of that peace as it speaks to us as Christians in a pluralistic world.

I heard a very interesting interview on ‘Morning Edition’ on NPR this past week.  Salman Rushdie was being interviewed on his new memoir that has just come out, Joseph Anton. I heard him speak in 2005 at Fairfield University and was quite impressed by his thought process.  The memoir is about his life and experience in hiding for 12 years after the release of his book, The Satanic Verses.  He said,

“My purpose was not to write about Islam; it was to talk about the nature of revelation, and also to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges; One is the challenge of how do you behave when you’re weak?  And the other, how do you behave when you’re strong?” he says.  “When you’re weak, do you bend, do your compromise?  Or are you [unyielding] and firm?  And when you’re strong, when you’re victorious, are you cruel and vengeful, or are you merciful and forgiving?”[ii]

What if peace were the new idea in the world?  I mean a true and everlasting peace, not just the cessation of war.  A peace or shalom that surrounds each and every individual in each and every nation.  A peace that creates a non-threatening existence so that the dignity of each person is maintained, what if?  This new idea peace, if weak, will bend and break and not make it.  But if it is a strong and united peace it will forgive and strive to create tolerance, cohesiveness in our differences, and a truth to love that all people can hear and understand.

For us as Christians we can answer Rushdie’s challenge most emphatically.  When we are weak we look to the Lord of Light who sits at the source of the river, we let the waters flow around us lapping up strength and refreshment to be healed.  And when we are strong we can look also and again to the Lord God of light and be merciful and forgiving like Christ.  There is a challenge and a choice and God is there for it all from the very beginning.
Peace has been around for ages but an everlasting peace, well that is a new idea.  Let us hold this image from Revelation within our hearts and minds so that when bombarded with the world’s violence we can feel inner peace.  And let us be bold enough to speak truth with humility and respect, to look to the source of our being that is God so that we can be the peace that will heal this world.  If the leaves of the trees can be for the healing of the nations, then so can we.

May it be so!

[i] “A Culture of Peace Initiative,
[ii] Salman Rushdie, interview for NPR, ‘Morning Addition’, September 19, 2012.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

We're Going Where?

Mark 8: 27-38
The ‘Fall of Freddie the Leaf’ is a children’s book written by Dr. Leo Buscaglia, a well known author about life and love.  It is one of the most sensitive and beautiful books about dying, death and ultimately life.  Freddie is a leaf on a tree in a park, his best friend is Daniel, another leaf.  Daniel is very wise and explains to Freddie that he is part of a tree and the tree has roots and they are in a park full of trees, just like them.
The story captures, through Daniel’s wise words and instruction, the essence of life throughout the seasons.  The newness of spring, the fullness and abundance of summer, the vibrancy yet the letting go of autumn into the chill of winter.  Freddie is not ready to let go, he’s afraid even though his friends eventually leave the tree because of a gust of wind at just the right time.

Finally a large wind knocks Freddie around and he finds himself gently gliding to the ground.  His death is complete – only to begin the cycle of life once again.  It’s quite a beautiful story.  When I read it to my children, after my mother’s death, hardly a page turned that I didn’t find myself with a very large lump in my throat.  I didn’t want to let go of my mother but I knew that she was free from her human suffering and I was left to put back together my life within the reality of her death.  I learned a lot in the valley of the shadow of death, mostly how to order and live out my life.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Mark to come to terms with our lives and our death and when we do we are saved.  We are free.  When we take up our crosses we are ready to become disciples and live.  Sounds like an oxymoron to me, but understanding that life really is finite gives us abundant opportunity to make the most out of each day, to practice forgiveness, to love and to cherish.  So grab your cross before it is too late.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35) 

Jesus is now back in his own familiar land, not in Gentile territory but in the Northern Galilee in a town called Caesarea Philippi.  Having to travel by foot, or perhaps riding a donkey took time and we see that Jesus uses his travel time wisely as he and his disciples traverse the hilly countryside of the Galil.  There’s lots of time for talk.

He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  Looks like he knows that people are talking about him to his disciples.  Often that’s the case.  It’s easier to talk with someone else about a particular person’s issue rather than openly and directly to that person’s face.  He was right. “Well”, the disciples say, ‘some call you John the Baptist, some say Elijah the prophet” who is to usher in the messianic age according to Jewish understanding’. 

Jesus pondered this as they walked further and then he asks more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”  After all, they are his hand-chosen inner circle who dropped their fishing nets and left their families to be with him 24-7.

Peter, quick with an answer Peter, says boldly, “You are the Messiah!  The Christ!  The Anointed One!’  Honestly, I don’t think he had even one clue of what he said and just what Jesus as the Messiah really meant.  At least he had an answer though which was the correct answer. 

And they continue walking.  Jesus delves more deeply into the coming events of his life.  He relays to the disciples his suffering and subsequent rejection by the chief priests and elders.  He talks openly about his death and his resurrection. 

Peter, quick with an answer Peter, really didn’t want to hear any or all of this… ‘TMI’ as they say, too much information.  He rebukes Jesus.  But turnaround is fair play, particularly with Jesus.  Jesus rebukes Peter and one ups him, get back Satan!

Then Jesus gets down to the nitty-gritty of discipleship or following him.  You want to follow me?  Jesus asks.  Deny yourself, rather get out of your own way.    You really want to follow me?  Jesus asks.  Then take up your cross, pick up the instrument that can ultimately kill you, which will bring about your death, embrace it then follow me.  Embracing death will ultimately bring about the true nature of life, your life and you only have one. 

For Peter, death is the question.  For Jesus, death is the answer.

In his sermon Shattered Dreams (Strength to Love), Martin Luther King Jr. says, “The cross, which was willed by wicked men, was woven by God into the tapestry of world redemption.”  When we live into Jesus’ death and resurrection we are given the great gift of forgiveness and liberation from the murky waters of our lives.  We are redeemed for a higher purpose.  It is beyond our own human understanding to know how God loves us unconditionally but that’s what happens, and God does.  Christ’s death gives us life because we see anew the promise of resurrection.  Are you willing to follow Jesus to where he is going? 

No one wants to talk about death yet it is those darkest times in life that are most poignant and harbor the greatest potential for us.  They tell us who we are, and whose we are.  Jesus is not so much talking about the finality of your breathing days but of letting go of things that daily inhibit you from achieving your fullest human potential.

It means to relinquish fear that keeps you immobilized in the sink-holes of life’s desert.  It means to reject the bright lights of distraction that blind you for a simpler, more meaningful existence.  Death, and all of its sad and ugly realities, is what ultimately gives meaning to life.  When we live into death…then we gain everything humanly imaginable.  

We gain life and all of its beautiful possibilities.  We grow and expand our capacity for loving.  We achieve an awareness of the finiteness of our existence and infinite expanse of this universe and our given place in it.  Each day is an opportunity to receive God’s grace in all that we do, with each word that we speak, in each individual that we encounter.  Won’t you follow Jesus to where he is going so that your life is the best that it can be?

For Freddie the Leaf letting go was his greatest fear.  Daniel walked ‘hand in hand’ with Freddie as he opened his eyes to acceptance and the beauty of life around him.  It was when Freddie let go that he got a true glimpse of the abundant life around him and his place in the park.

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:35)  “Come, take up your cross, follow me.” (Mk 8:34).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Who Me?

Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Exodus 4: 1-3, 10-13
Genesis 12: 1-5

I remember my first day at school.  Seminary that is!  I had driven three hours to get to my first class by 9:00 am in Newton Centre, MA.  I had a brand new Bible, paper and pencil to take notes and my class schedule.  I hadn’t been to school in 23 years.  I was to take a course in the Book of Judges from the Old Testament and a survey course in the New Testament.  I already knew who my professors were going to be. 

A group of us new students sat down for lunch to get to know one another.  It was scary and intimidating I have to admit.  Our lunch conversations centered around getting to know one another through our ‘call’ stories.  Or rather, what (or who) made you come to seminary?   

To be ‘called’ is a term that is used a lot in the field of ministry.  You trot off to seminary and are asked to articulate how you were called by God to this ministry.  And believe me there are some pretty UNbelievable stories.  I remember listening to some of them and feeling so inadequate because my story really was unremarkable.

No flashes of lightening for me.  No scales falling off of the lenses of my eyes.  Just here I am Lord, here I am – I get it now.  It was merely a feeling that became more and more pronounced as the years wore on until I could no longer ignore it and all seemed to be in place, more or less.  I had three young kids in tow as a single mom when I trotted off to seminary. 

The theme of call is articulated throughout your years as a seminarian.  First by fellow seminarians, then by probing professors and ecclesiastical committees, by curious congregants, and by those who, too, think they hear ‘the call’. 

We are all called.  Like Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, we are all called to a higher purpose in our lives.  We will explore these three servants of God in scriptures today, all ‘call narratives’. What they have in common is that they really are somewhat of a ‘rag-tag’ and ordinary group of individuals who finally, in the end, give in!

The Call of Jeremiah from the Book of Jeremiah
The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

To make a long story short – God knew way before Jeremiah was born that he was to be called.  When the opportunity is presented to Jeremiah, he argues with God, ‘I’m way too young.”  God argues back, “Don’t say that, don’t worry, I’ll be with you, I’ll rescue you if needs be.”  The rest, they say, is history!  Jeremiah, of course, prophecized at a raucous time in the history of Israel and he heralded a new understanding of Yahwah to the people.

The Call of Moses from the Book of Exodus
Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say,
‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”
Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied.
The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”
Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it.
Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

To make a long story short – Moses doubts that people would believe him as a prophet but God demonstrates to Moses how he’ll be able to do it.  That didn’t work so Moses argues that his speech is not so great.  God argues back, “Who gave you that mouth anyway?”  Then God reassures, “Now go, don’t worry, I’ll be with you.”  The rest, they say, is history!  Moses, of course, leads the people Israel out of Egyptian bondage, through the Red Sea waters toward the land of milk and honey.

The Call of Abram from the Book of Genesis
Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

To make a long story short – God comes to Abram and his wife Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) and tells them when they were up in their golden years to literally pull up stakes and move on.  While it is not recorded that Abram k’vetched and argued, I certainly would!  You know when you get older you just want to stay put.  But Abram followed God’s command, he moved and wandered and eventually was made the father of many nations.  The rest, they say, is history.

Moses was slow of speech, Abram was just a plain old geezer, Jeremiah just a happy go lucky, uneducated kid - all of them had something going against them.  Unlike the candidates that we have just seen in the Republican and Democratic conventions who can’t say enough good about themselves, the candidates that God calls are quick to point out all of their faults and argue with God about their qualifications.

But guess who wins?  God of course!  It was once said that, ‘the task does not depend on the leaders ability, but on the leader depending upon God.’  No matter how inadequate you might feel about yourself, the truth is with trust and faith in God, you can accomplish a lot.

Which is true in all of these narratives, what God wanted was someone who would rely on him, to depend on God with all their heart that what they were being asked to do was within God’s realm of glory and plan, and that they would be able to handle it or at least stick with it.  God wanted someone who trusted that their life was going to be used to the benefit of others.  It didn’t matter their ability.  That was secondary.  What mattered was their faith.

And as the beautiful hymn from the Iona community says,  ‘Take me as I am, summon out what I shall be’.  That is, take me just exactly as I am today and call forth from me what you need, that is what I will become and that is how I will live my life. 

Being called by God doesn’t necessarily mean a life to ministry.  But it does mean awakening others to God’s love by the life you lead. 

Brother Roger of the Taize community in France asks, “Will you, for your part, be one of those who open up the ways of the Risen Christ?  Or will you hesitate and say, “Why do you ask me to prepare ways of the Gospel for others?  Can’t you see that I am quite helpless, like a child?”  He later says, “You awaken others to Christ above all by the life you lead…..You communicate the life of the Risen Christ through a profound personal unselfishness, by forgetting about yourself.”[i]

I do believe that if we are to call ourselves Christians it means then that all of us are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Because when you say, “Who Me?”  God says, “Yeah!  YOU!”


[i] Brother Roger of Taize, “The Sources of Taize”. GIA Publications, Chicago, 2000. P. 30.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Gift Worth Accepting

“Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father who created all the
lights in the heavens.”  v. 17

Many years ago I dated a man for a short time.  For Valentines Day that year he gave me a little stuffed bear with a white round belly and red ears.  Now some women would think that is cute but stuffed animals have never done it for me, not even when I was little did I like stuffed animals.  Dolls yes, but not stuffed animals.  So when I received his gift my innards said, UGH but the words out of my mouth of course were gracious.  We didn’t know one another very well.

After he left that evening I looked at the bear more closely. I opened the tag that was stapled to his ear, the tag that identified the ‘To’ and the ‘From’.  Next to the ‘To’, in feminine handwriting, was this man’s name.  And, next to the ‘From’ was the name Sheila with a small x and o, a kiss and a hug! 

That was the last time I saw him…and the bear.  This gift revealed his absentmindedness and to me it was worthless on several levels.  My advice is that if you are a regifter, check twice the item to be regifted for any signs of previous ownership.  Regifting can be a tricky business not to mention the ethical levels of giving to cut through before actually passing the gift off to someone else. 

But who doesn’t like a gift?  Unless you are some sort of curmudgeon, most of us love to receive gifts.  I do!  Mostly! Some of the best and most perfect gifts that I have received have been unexpected and random, nothing that I ever thought I would want or need.  A salad spinner.  Rocks from Lake Louise and Banff in Canada.  Even oil for my car.  And yet these gifts made me happy as a clam buried in the sand in salty Long Island Sound.

Today I want to focus on one small part of our scripture passage because it seems to fit perfectly for our final beach service at end of the summer. The rest of the passage we will deal with on another day because it gives us a bunch of advice or rather encouragements, which no doubt are good and needed, but not on a summer’s day at Compo. 

You see the Epistle of James sounds more like ‘life’s little instruction book’ telling us how to live and treat others rather than giving us an accounting of Jesus life or beautiful passages of Christology like we find in the Gospel of John.  Some scholars have coined James as ‘Christian wisdom literature’ like the book of Proverbs with ethical teaching and admonitions.    Faith, for the author of James, means action!  “Obey God’s message, don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it….God will bless you if you listen and obey, not listen and forget.”  Faith, if taken to heart, can transform lives. 

Yet before all of that the author of James claims that, “Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father who created all the lights in the heavens.”  James knew all to well that carving out a Christian life for people who were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution would be extremely difficult.  His words are a reminder that all good gifts come from God even in a time of deep distress when your faith will be tested beyond its limits, there are still gifts to accept that have come our way.  It is in the recognition of that gift that we find grace. 

God’s gifts just aren’t as tangible as we may recognize, want, or need.  God’s gifts come to us in unexpected ways and in unpredicted means sometimes.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a book entitled ‘Gift from the Sea’, first published in 1955.  As a way to understand her life she wrote essays that corresponded to different types of seashells that she had found.  These shells she thought of as gifts because they brought her insight and understanding about her life.  In the recognition of these shells as gifts from above she found solitude and simplicity.

I can’t help but think that coming to Compo Beach for worship is a gift in itself.  We breathe in the sea air, we dig our toes into the warm sand perhaps you’ve even stayed afterwards to walk and pick up some seashells yourself.  Is this not truly a gift from God to feel the spirit brushing across your face with the breeze?   

Have you not gained some extra insight into your life that maybe you wouldn’t ordinarily have sitting in a sanctuary? What gifts has the summer brought you that you have recognized?  What will you take with you into the fall as a reminder that God’s grace and peace is the only gift worth accepting fully and unconditionally?    

And of course the greatest gift from God for us is the gift of Christ Jesus.  Because of his birth we are assured that life is good and it holds all of the potential in the world for us.  That’s what any birth does for us.  It creates hope, joy and affirmation that the world really is good and that God really does care for us and the world around us.  Creator God, creating God.

Because of Jesus’ living we have been shown a way to negotiate this troubled world.  We have been shown that to love one’s neighbor and God and in doing for others will enhance your own living and appreciation for the other.  His living embraces the fundamental work of Christian living, hearing and doing the work of God. 

And in Christ’s death we are given the opportunity to see life anew.  Loss does not have the final say, we can envision possibilities and see anew life that can emerge.  That is what resurrection is all about.  Yes, Christ is a gift that God has given us.  He is a gift worth accepting.