Monday, September 30, 2013

Choose Well

Luke 16: 19-31
A man named Louis woke up one day to the screeching of his alarm.  He rolled over to turn it off.  He had thought about hitting the snooze button however he knew that he needed to get up and head off to work. Lou was a hospital administrator.  He jumped in the shower and put on one of his suits; he chose a green tie to go with his white shirt.  Green he figured would have a calming effect on people. 

He poured his coffee, put an English muffin in the toaster and looked in the fridge to decide what jam to put on the muffin; there was strawberry or blueberry so he got the strawberry.  His wife was also getting ready for work and they chatted about dinner that evening, what to have, who would start it.  He finished his muffin, gave her a kiss and went to work.  He would have many important decisions to make that day as The Joint Commission was there doing their accreditation audit, always an intense time in the hospital.

By the time Lou had been awake even for only one hour, he had had to make many decisions.  There were choices that he was making all along the way.  Should he get up or snooze a while.  Should he shower or not, what color tie to wear, what to eat, what type of jam, should he kiss his wife goodbye.  Now some of these things, you might say, aren’t choices but givens especially kissing his wife.  But really, when it comes down to it, almost every act of ours is a decision that is made consciously or not.

Now let’s have a look at a man named Dives, the rich man in Jesus’ parable that we will hear in a minute.  He’s not named but scholars through the ages have called him Dives, which means ‘rich man’ in Latin.  I’ll warn you ahead of time, this has got to be one of the most disturbing parables on so many levels.  If we were to make up a greatest hits list of the parables of Jesus, this would not make the cut.    It’s pretty chilling, especially the part about the chasm which, the parable tells us is difficult to cross in this life and impossible in the next.

Here now the parable of Dives from the Gospel of Luke…..

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

Dives has all the best that life in first century Palestine could offer.  He wore haute couture clothing of exquisite linen in the most luxurious color of purple you’d ever want to see; clothing of the high priests alone.  He ate gourmet food and meals, a feast fit for a king, every single day.  In a country where people were lucky enough to get meat into their diet once a week good old Dives lavishly ate it each day.  And if he was eating like this each day you can rest assured that he wasn’t keeping the Sabbath day and resting.   His household or kitchen was a buzz every day, working and slaving to make Dives’ feast.

And then there was Lazarus, not the Lazarus of Bethany Mary and Martha’s brother, another Lazarus. Poor, sick, covered in oozing sores Lazarus; each morning someone brought him to the gate of Dives estate just so that he could get the scraps of bread that were thrown out.  The text says he longed to satisfy his hunger, so he wasn’t even sure that he would get that day’s scraps.  His only friends, it seems, were the street dogs that came around like blood hounds sniffing to lick his sores.

I can’t imagine that Dives could walk through his gate without even noticing Lazarus and doing something, anything to help him.  I mean, come on, if Dives was as self indulgent as he was you’d think he’d have Lazarus carted off somewhere else to get help.  Why have a sick beggar at your doorstep?

Then they both die.  The angel’s fly Lazarus to his heavenly destination in the company of father Abraham and the likes of the prophets.  Dives is escorted down yonder, to Hades to be tormented in the hot and flaming mass.  And tormented he is.  He calls out to Abraham to remember him and to get Lazarus to bring him just a finger-tips drip of cool water.  From this comment we are sure that at least Dives knew who was sitting at his gate, to his credit.

Poor Dives, still unaware Dives.  He pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers but Abraham says that he’s still being self indulgent and asking poor Lazarus to do his work for him.  But Abraham is on to him, “No such luck, your brothers don’t listen to Moses or the prophets, what makes you think they’ll listen someone who has risen from the dead?  And besides all of this Dives, I’m making a chasm so that no one can cross over, go back.  What’s done is done.  You made your bed, now lie in it. 

Folks, there is just no redemption in this parable, only a stern warning, but there are things we can learn from it.

Jesus sets up this parable nicely as usual; it’s always easy to expose ‘error’s’ of the rich and the unassuming goodness of the poor.  You might think that this parable is about the evils of being rich.  But it’s not, Jesus already preaches about the dangers of serving wealth and mammon just a few verses earlier in Chapter 16.  Jesus doesn’t have anything against people who have money.  He does have issues with what people do with their wealth (or not) and how they choose to live their lives.

This parable is not about wealth but the choices that we make.  You can be poor as a pauper or rich as a king and make some very bad life choices.  And as we see there are choices to make at every juncture of our lives.  Dives? His fatal error was that he just was clueless, unaware of his surroundings and the people that he alienated or ignored in his lifetime.  He chose to indulge himself and ignore others in need, even those at his doorstep.

Do you know Dives?  It’s people who don’t listen to what you’ve just told them because they have their own agenda to pursue.  Or maybe it’s someone who ignores the ramifications of his or her behavior on others and does whatever they want to do.  Rather than practicing the art of mindful living, as Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk promotes, the person is neglectful and self absorbed, making choices for his or her own benefit and no other.

Had sad and ultimately destructive when living could be so rich and encompass the Gospel of Christ to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself - to live mindfully of those around us in life and intentionally as Jesus wants us to live.

Whether you know it or now, whether you like it or not, almost everything we do has an effect on another human being and there are choices galore.  How will you choose to order your day?  What will be the choices that you make that will edify the kingdom of God, not ignore it?  How will the decisions you make affect your family, your neighbor, your community and ultimately the world?   You can choose to live generously in all ways. 

And we as a church make decision’s all of the time.  How can we make the best choices for the future while remaining faithful to our mission?  How can we include each person who walks through our doors and affirm them as a child of God?  Start living mindfully now for there are so many people that your life, and the life of this church touches.  You can make a difference and not find yourself on the wrong side of the chasm. 

Remember Lou at the beginning of this sermon?  He had many choices to make; some of them were relatively inconsequential and some of them were quite heady. He made the decision to not sleep an extra ten minutes because he wanted to be right ‘on target’ for his job that day and he didn’t want to be late causing his office to panic with The Joint Commission breathing down their necks.  Remember he was a hospital administrator who was responsible for providing quality and affordable health care for people with means and without the means.  Healthcare reform notwithstanding he had to be an ethical representative for all parties involved.  And, bottom line, he cared deeply about people which is why he got a medical degree first and then decided to go into hospital administration.

When he jumped in the shower it was for only a minute or so, five tops because he and his wife have tried to make a very conscious and ‘green’ effort to reduce their energy and water consumption over the past year.  The suit that he put on was made in the United States where fair and equal wages are the norm providing work for people locally. And that great green tie he put on was a gift from his daughter who bought it from ‘A World of Goods’ on eBay which is a fair trade organization helping people globally help themselves in sustainable living.  The coffee that they drink was also fair trade coffee. 

The strawberry jam on his English muffin was made locally and purchased from the farmer’s market.  The strawberries grown right here in Connecticut and the kiss for his wife?   That was a definite and must – no matter what the cost!  And you thought Lou never got out of the boardroom long enough to see who was presenting in the ER.

May God bless your living with grace, generosity, and with mindfulness.  May you see the need around you and resolve with all of your heart to do something, anything about it.  May your living be a harbinger of justice and peace and may you answer God’s call with ‘here I am’, in all that you do and all that you say.  Let us close that unfathomable chasm with love.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Behalf Of

1 Timothy 2: 1-7
I’m sure in the years that you’ve been attending church, and for many of you it's been OCC you’ve heard many a fine sermon or series of sermons on prayer.  How to pray, when to pray, why you should pray, what to pray for, and then there’s the Lord’s Prayer; you could spend months dissecting that prayer that Jesus taught us. 

I have no doubt that you pray especially since it’s built into our order of service three times during worship.  Each week that I read the list of people to be included in our Pastoral prayer, I am reminded of the depth, sincerity and earnestness of your prayers. We are very privileged to lift up to God heartfelt and loving prayers on the behalf of others. 

Let us hear now what Paul says to Timothy about prayer in today’s lectionary reading, from the epistle of 1Timothy…

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
 Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
Timothy, one of Paul’s closest co-workers and new pastor of a church in Ephesus is given a lot of instruction in the two succinct books of Timothy 1 & 2.  Paul is usually to the point.  What we have just heard in these short seven verses is: pray often, pray for everybody, prayer is good, prayer pleases God.  With great proclamation this passage calls us out of isolationism and into the fullness of what it means to be a community of believers in the one God in prayer.

This sermon is not so much about prayer per se as it is about Orange being at the crossroads and engaging your prayers for the good of the community during this key juncture in your life as a congregation.   

Being at a crossroad is not bad per se because it anchors you from mindless or aimless wandering.  It gives you an opportunity to stretch your neck a bit without having to keep your ‘eyes’ on the road.

Remember Dorothy Gail from the Wizard of Oz when she meets the Scarecrow?  After she leaves Munchkin land she and Toto are happily following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City when she comes to a crossroad on that yellow-bricked path – four paths all begging for her attention.  She looks around the cornfields and then she hears, “Pardon me, that way is a very nice way.”  And the scarecrow on the pole points her in one direction.  Then he says, “It’s pleasant down that way too!”  And he points in the opposite direction with his straw arms.  She has choices.  Finally you recall he’s released and joins her on the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.  The fact is Dorothy didn’t stay at the crossroad for very long, she moved right ahead with the help of the Scarecrow.  They are happy and skip off into their future. 
You are now where Dorothy was. You can look back at the road that you have traversed for many years, you can even try to go back if you want but it won’t be the same; never is.  We get nostalgic for those good old days right?  There were many good things that happened, wonderful ministry that was performed, great opportunities for fellowship, our Sunday School was bursting at the seams.  Somehow we never think about the down side to those good old days, the days of unequal pay for women, of racial, gender, and religious intolerance.

But it is the downside of the good old days that has jettisoned us off into the here and now.  The world around us has decidedly changed for the better and so we must adapt our ways without compromising our ways, and our way is prayer and discernment.

If you are adventuresome there is excitement that can come with being at a crossroad.  Renewed energy. Vision for your future.  A whole new path to traverse.  A chance to begin again and improve on existing structures.  Maybe, like Dorothy and her team of unlikely friends, you’ll even find OZ, the Emerald City.

So how do we move on as Orange Congregational Church when we are at a crossroads, when what we are doing, that is being ‘church-going’ Christians, is counter intuitive to the rest of the pervading culture?  How do we choose a path to go down with limited resources in time, money and people power?  Church should not be a burden.  Church should be a blessing in your lives.  Church should be more than just a habit or obligation, it should be a place that represents solace from a crazy world, forgiveness in a world that would rather chew you up and spit you out, and it should be a place where ANYONE and everyone is accepted and who will be spiritually nourished. 

First you roll up your sleeves and pray.  That’s what you do first.  Maybe even get down on your knees, it’s so humbling.  You pray, God, who are we?  Who do you want us to be?  Who do you want us to serve?  How do you want us to be your gathered people up here on the Green that is far removed from the hustle and bustle of route 1?  You can’t just leave that discernment up to your next settled pastor, you’ve got to be right there alongside of him or her in a co-ministry of renewal and growth.

And prayer is where it will all begin.  You can’t loose sight that you are a religious institution first offering spiritual growth and refreshment.  Our faith is what guides us; we offer something that no other non-profit or for-profit can offer and that is God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness in a very special way.  If we loose our faith we will not survive.   

These are hard questions, I know they are hard questions and yet someone has to ask them.  They are questions at the crossroad.  You may have even been at that place in your own lives as well, I certainly have been.  You reach a crossroad and just don’t know what to do – you know what you want to do but you just don’t quite know how to get there – the good news - we’re all in this together, we have each other to lean on and to support and to lift up. 

We have each other to begin the dialogue.  What do we want to do?  What legacy do we want to leave?  These are the questions that need to be asked and the dialogue that needs to happen, before your pastor gets here, that way he or she will begin with a clear vision about who you are and which direction you are headed.  There are answers if you work really hard at finding them.  It’ll take compromise, consensus, commitment and a whole lotta love – love being a verb.  And we will do it prayerfully, given as a doxology of thanksgiving.

You were called into being by God who loves you dearly.  God is your partner in this and will not let you fail at the decisions that you will make.  You’ll make them together and with God and we will pray!  Remember the words of Jeremiah?  I tend to use them a lot, perhaps because I need to hear them!  God says to Jeremiah, tell the people, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me and I will restore your fortunes.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

So we will pray to the one true God and to our mediator, Christ Jesus.  Let our future be filled with laughter and love, yearning and hope for a world that can be based in human kindness and love.  Let us grow into what God wants, and perhaps more importantly, needs us to be.  Let this be our prayer.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When Mercy Happens

1 Timothy 1: 12-17
It’s now two or three generations after Jesus has been resurrected and ascended.  The apostles are gone, Paul is gone, and the expectation that Jesus was going to come again was beginning to waver if not vanish altogether.  Somehow the remaining faithful had to figure out how to move on and keep the faith alive and organize their community of faith.  This was the context in which today’s scripture was written.

What scholar’s call the “Pastoral Letters”, 1&2 Timothy and Titus, probably were written in the style of Paul but not by Paul himself.  They read much like a leadership manual for new churches of the day.  What to do, who’s to do it, what should be worn or not worn, and how to worship.  We could compare it to the first original constitution and by-laws that were written by Orange’s founding members. 

Paul, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a devout follower of Christ who journeyed throughout the Roman Empire telling his story about the mercy of God who picked him up out of the bowels of bad living and the tenements of torment and turned his heart and life around.  One of the places we know that Paul planted a church in his mission field was in Ephesus.  Here we find a new pastor, Timothy, hard at work.

The epistle begins with Paul’s greeting and a strong warning about false teachers who have deviated from the divine message of ‘love from a pure heart’ (1:5).  Then Paul shows great gratitude for the mercy that he has received, I like particularly Eugene Peterson’s telling from “The Message” for 1 Timothy….

 I'm so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work. He went out on a limb, you know, in trusting me with this ministry. The only credentials I brought to it were invective and witch hunts and arrogance. But I was treated mercifully because I didn't know what I was doing—didn't know Who I was doing it against! Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.

 Here's a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I'm proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.

Deep honor and bright glory to the King of All Time, One God, Immortal, Invisible ever and always. Oh, yes!

Effusive, overenthusiastic, hyperbolic Paul.  One of the greatest of evangelists, he was granted mercy and couldn’t keep quiet about it.  I think that’s the way in which true mercy works, as one scholar puts it, “Mercy is a verb of God’s activity that is conjugated in Paul’s own experience.”  Paul’s confession of faith is what motivates the early church to get up and moving.  If God can grant mercy to someone like Paul, ‘public enemy number one’, then God can grant mercy to anyone. 
Have you ever been granted mercy?  Do Tell!  That’s what Paul does.  He talks about that defining moment in his life the rest of his life to whomever he meets.  He becomes God’s number one witness of the day.   

We know that the mercy of God extends way beyond our own comprehension. It’s there when you need it most, but deserve it the least.  It’s those kind and compassionate acts and treatment, which are endowed with forgiveness all of which - is not deserved.  You’re on death row walking that lonely route to the executioner’s chamber and the phone rings from the governor’s office, commuting your sentence.  That’s mercy!  You ignored the signs on the road and entered an area of sinkholes.  Now you are up to your neck in quicksand slowly being pulled down.  By some mysterious luck (luck as some would call it) a passerby sees you and throws a rope to you.  That’s mercy!

Mercy comes in all sorts of packages from grand gestures of unmerited forgiveness to those smaller moments in life when you know that somehow, someway you’ve been given a second chance.  When you are on your last thread of hope, your life begins to change.  You can see a pin dot of light shining in the darkness and you can feel the air that begins to permeate your stagnate existence.  That’s mercy!  And we’ve all been there.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, tells us parables of mercy over and over again.  If you have one hundred sheep and one gets lost, won’t you go out to find the poor sheep that has lost his way?  Of course you would.  If you had ten very valuable coins and one of them gets lost in a crack in the floor, wouldn’t you sweep and vacuum until you find it?  Of course you would.  When you’ve lost your way to drunkenness or gambling or any sort of indecent living, doesn’t God come out looking for you?  Of course God does.  When you just feel as if you’ve lost your faith in our common lot or worse yet, in God, don’t you think that God comes to us in so many ways both seen and unseen, heard and unheard?  OF COURSE God does.  And that’s mercy!

Where have you experienced God’s mercy in your life? When were you on your metaphorical or maybe literal ‘way out’ but were picked up and granted mercy?  I’m sure you have, at least one time in your life, been granted God’s ultimate mercy and grace.   I have!  We’re in this humanity thing together.  It’s being saved and revived from the last shred of strength that we have, and then been given a fresh start to get things right.  But it can’t stop there after you’ve said a polite ‘Thank you God’.

We all have our favorite authors and books, one of mine is Anne Lamott.  In her book ‘Traveling Mercies’ she says “I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe…..we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations and our hearts get broken….I do not understand the mystery of Grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”  Lamott’s books are her testimony to her life lived and her life saved.

Do you have a story to tell?  A story where God reached into your life and saved you?  I challenge to tell one person this week.  You don’t have to use eloquent words,  they just need to be sincere and from the heart.  One of the most powerful stories of redemption was from a man I met in Wooster Square sitting on a park bench.  A homeless man who just could not help but tell me his story.  And it was powerful, from the heart.  He had been saved, granted God’s mercy and lived to tell other’s all about God’s great act. 

The call of the Gospel is for us to seek, understand, and accept God’s mercy and then to tell others, like Paul, like Lamott, like the shepherd who finds his lost sheep and calls together his friends to party, like the woman finding her lost coin, we are to tell others.  It is our testimony and witness that perpetuates our Christian faith.  It is our ancient tradition that must not get lost.  In the weeks to come we will hear personal testimony and witness as we begin ‘Pay it Forward’ as part of our Season of Generosity.  Listen carefully, be inspired and then tell your story.

That’s what we do in our community of faith.  Once you’ve known mercy and grace, and you will, it’s hard to keep silent.  Got Mercy?  Do Tell!

Amen, may it be so!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Potter

Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Of all of the final examinations that I’ve taken in my life, at university or seminary, the hardest was a final for an advanced pottery class.

I had to throw, on the potter’s wheel, a set of four identical mugs that looked alike, were weighted equally, and were glazed in the same way.  If you think this is easy, it’s not.  Any number of things can and did go wrong.  You can throw a misshapen vessel by applying too much or too little pressure or by adding a little too much water to keep the clay malleable.  You have to watch that you don’t lift up the walls of the vessel to quickly as it’s spinning on the potter’s wheel or linger too long in one spot otherwise the walls get way too thin.  If something happens in any part of the process the potter just has to collapse the vessel and begin again. 

So night after night I would go to the ceramics studio in my blue work shirt and jeans covered with dried clay and I would bend over the potter’s wheel and work as I listened to the spinning of the wheel.  One mug.  Two mugs. Then three and eventually I had thrown four mugs but not without collapsing many mugs in the process that just needed to be tossed out for one reason or another or collapsed on its own from overwork.

I labored very hard on that final and learned about patience, perseverance and a steady hand.  I learned about clay too. They weren’t identical but the were unified in their look and that was good enough.  (Good enough- the two best words in the dictionary) I did well on the exam and no, I do not still have the set.  Somewhere along the way they just disappeared like childhood toys, I don’t know where they went.  But the experience has never left me.

The image of the potter is used quite often in the Bible and in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah because the author used examples from life that would resonate with his listener’s. Jeremiah’s call and his prophecies were rooted in Israel’s purpose, not in the development of just one person.  And it was the prophet’s job to tell the community of faith things they didn’t want to hear and about how God wanted to shape their life together.
Let us now hear the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah….

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings…..

While we might think about God shaping our individual lives, bent lovingly over a potter’s wheel molding us like a potter, Jeremiah here is addressing the life of the community, called together.  God is molding a society and nation to be a model of ethical monotheism in a critical time in the political history of Judah, the southern kingdom. 

The people of Israel were having a difficult time remaining true to the covenant God made with them on Sinai. One God, one people, no other god’s.  That was difficult for them.  With all of the outside political factors and cultural influences encroaching upon their nationhood they questioned this ‘one god’ theology, maybe even rebelled and often went back to their old ways.  Peer pressure is not a new concept!  You see God was forming them to be a better nation and had great plans for them, plans for their welfare and not for harm, to give them a future with hope. (Jer: 29)  If only they would trust in their future and have faith that God would bring them through and show them the way.
In our scripture we see God is deeply invested in the future of Israel as a people, as a community of faith.  God wants to shape a vessel of hope out of them that will contain the foundational tenets of a people of faith living together in covenant.  That is to love each other, and to love God, to walk in God’s ways and no other.

Yet like dried clay or too wet clay we see them actively resist the hand of the potter and form themselves for their own purposes.  They did have a choice, there is a relationship between the clay and the potter.  Or, they could embrace God’s way, be attentive to the manner in which God wanted to form them congruent with God’s law. God was not indifferent to the way their collective life was to take shape.  God was aggressively involved in it.  God cared.  God loved.  And this is why we detect a sense of judgment or dissatisfaction in our scripture.

God wants to continue to shape us as a community of believers too for purposes that we cannot even envision yet.  God shaped us into existence over two hundred years ago and is shaping us now for ultimately God’s purpose and plan far beyond what we can even imagine.  How will we be attentive to who God is calling us to be?

I’m sure there are turning points in the life of this congregation that were seminal to who you are today.  There are decisions that were made by your bold ancestors that were precedent-setting and that made all the difference as to how you gather yourselves and carry out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They were faithful people wanting to worship God and bear witness to just how great and wonderful God had been to them.  You are their legacy.  What legacy will you leave?  What type of vessel will this church become for others to be a part of?  God is continuing to mold us.

In a couple of weeks we will examine in the visioning sessions after church, those turning points where faithful people like yourselves made brave decisions. The decisions made for our future will take on new import when we look at them in light of the past. Knowing from we came from is the foundation for our future.  When were you at your best?  When were you so in sync with God and one another that you soared?  When was the Spirit so tangible that the air tingled?  This is what I want to know.  This is what we will take with us to build upon.  It is our foundation just as Christ is our steady foundation who issues that same call as long ago to follow, to trust, to believe in a future that promises hope and redemption for all people.  Think about it.

We know now that God is a God of love, not revenge, and that God will not turn against us or exact danger upon us.  God is merely asking for a deepened commitment to the covenant that God has given us.  God has molded us, shaped us, searched us and knit us together unified as a worshipping people like a foursome of mugs.


Monday, September 2, 2013

A Sermon on Syria

The threat of violence is a reality of living in the Middle East.  It’s always present.  I had just moved into my apartment in Jerusalem. I had just come back from a long walk on a blustery, as far as Jerusalem goes, afternoon and it was getting dark.  My lights were on and I heard a knock on my door.  I thought it was unusual since I knew all of three people in Jerusalem.  So I carefully opened the door, just a crack.  A young man dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans with a very official looking clip board looked at me and said “Shalom.”

The he rattled something off to me in Hebrew, “וֹטּמּמּסעתף, שרּצּגּאָלּלּלּבֿ, בֿסּהּ”.  “Uhh, Englit, English??” I asked.  “Ahh, OK.” he said.  We both looked at one another.  Then he said, “I’ve come to take your gas mask.”  Now, I heard him as plain as could be but transcribed it very quickly in my mind to, I’ve come to read your gas meter.  Then I realized, rega (wait a minute), my apartment is electric, not gas and there was no meter for him to read.   I thought he was mistaken and asked him again what he said.

“Your gas mask,” he repeated, “from the war.”  I just looked at him.  Then I said that I had only lived in the apartment for a week.  I’m not sure what that had to do with the situation but it was the only thing that I could think of…in English!  He then asked me how long I had been in Israel to which I replied, “only a month.”  We surmised together that I didn’t have a gas mask to turn over to him.  I shut the door and then realized, this is ISRAEL and this is the reality of living in the Middle East. 

I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry, feel comfort or fear.  I was alarmed to realize that a government needed to give out gas masks to its residents in case of nuclear or chemical attacks.  Then, I was comforted that, if in fact there was a war, I’d have a gas mask.  Then, I was panicked that, the gas mask, which I didn’t possess, had to be given back.  What if I needed it, what if another war breaks out tomorrow or while I was there?  Will they bring me a gas mask in time?  How do you work those things anyway?  Do they have instructions? English? 

I am not making light of having a gas mask for each person because as we have seen this past week a gas mask for each citizen in Syria would have prevented many unwarranted, unethical deaths.  But it goes much deeper than that.  These inhumane acts and the impending decision of Obama, in the name of the United States (read-your name) brings up the question what does this all mean for us as a nation, for the Syrians, and for us as Christians.

Unless there is a good reason to stray from the lectionary, I usually don’t do so.  And while the scriptures that we just heard are lectionary readings for this week my sermon is no longer based on them.  It’s time to stray.  Not since I stood on line at Peoples Bank and watched, with horror, the footage of chemically scarred bodies of adults and children that were being brought to make shift triage centers and morgues, can I ignore our current situation.

A child gasping for air, screaming with fear, writhing in pain is not an image that I want to keep in my mind.  But there it is, the absolute worst of human behavior sits at our doorstep.  And while we might be tempted just to turn off the television sets or some electronic device thereof because we would rather not see those images, we cannot.  Or at least, I cannot.  To do so would be to turn a blind eye towards my fellow humans in the struggle that we call life and to deny my own feelings of fear, anger, and extreme sadness.  And so this sermon is about Syria and beating our swords into plowshares.  

It was Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant Pastor who had quite an inner journey himself through another tyrannical force, Nazism, who once said,  

"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

We are called to speak out where injustice is happening, we are called by Jesus out of our complacency and silence to strive for a better world.  I heard on one CNN news clip a man cry out “Only God can bring justice”.  While I believe that that is true there is much that we can do and it can begin with acknowledging our own discomfort, discontent, and perhaps confusion of what is the right course of action, the moral thing to do.  We all probably agree that there should be consequences for such heinous acts, but what and at what cost?  And can there be another way?

As a people of faith we need to ask ourselves what are the ethical and moral dimensions of the use of force?  Will it bring a lasting peace or and emboldened government?  Will it embody the gospel of peacemaking that we called to embrace?

As a people who are commanded to love God and one another are we diligently and collaboratively searching for solutions to Syria’s disregard and destruction of life?  I think there is more that we can do as a nation.  We cannot ‘go rouge’ at this critical juncture but seek out those partners once again who also want peace and this violence to end.

It is the prophet Isaiah who said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.  And their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall they learn war any more.”

Beating our swords, implements of destruction into plowshares, the equipment that sows the seeds of life giving energy is hard, and time consuming, but worth every stroke on the anvil.  Wouldn’t it be a staggering sound for peace if each nation beat together, at once, our swords into plowshares?

And what can you do in the here and now?  How can you find hope when you might be feeling helpless?  How can you think boldly while being scared on the inside?  You can continue to be a people of prayer.  The God of love, of justice and of mercy will receive your prayer.  And you can be a people with a voice that begs to be heard in this world because the world, and most especially the Syrian people need a visible witness to God’s incredible love, forgiveness, mercy and peace.   You can, in your own life, seek relationship with people who also search for peace and in doing so you will be comforted and not alone.

May the God of life sustaining grace guide us, protect us, and awaken our most imaginative brains for solution finding in this time of uncertainty and may we create plowshares, not swords, so that we can spread the seeds of long awaited for peace.