Thursday, June 26, 2014

Basic Instructions

Matthew 28:16-20
It is Trinity Sunday and the earliest ‘formula’ if you will, for even thinking about the Trinity is in the Gospel of Matthew.  But rather than focusing on what or how the Trinity really works – that’s waaay too doctrinal for a sunny Sunday morning after a busy Saturday, I want to focus on what is called the ‘Great Commission’ which is also part of this morning’s scripture reading.  Bryan’s music notes in the bulletin does a fine synopsis of the Trinity, which is also important to our faith because that’s what makes us uniquely Christian as opposed to being Unitarian, Buddhist or Jews.  But that’s another discussion for another time.

Today’s scripture comes from the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  The women who followed Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, have come to the empty tomb looking for Jesus and after much rumbling of an earthquake they come to find an angel parked there in his stead.  The angel tells them to run and tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised to life and that he would meet them up in Galilee.  And so following celestial orders they run back but are met by Jesus himself who also lets them know that the disciples are to meet him up in the Galilee region.  Galilee was home to these fisher men and I find it reassuring that Jesus wanted to meet them up in their old familiar place. So let’s pick up the Gospel of Matthew, the 28th chapter.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is not a lot of passage but it packs a punch for its buck.  After the disciples get themselves back up to the Galilee and to the mountain Jesus directed them to…Godly things always happen on mountains in the Bible….they finally saw Jesus and they worshipped him.  This was the first time that they had seen their risen Lord and they were happy to see him and probably fell to their knees and prayed.  Thank goodness, he’s alive, after all they saw him die and be buried. But also scripture says, some doubted.  Funny how Matthew sticks this little bit of information in there.  Some weren’t sure of all this, some, and we don’t know how many, had reservations as to how this could be.  Jesus was dead and now he is alive.

There are probably a few of us who have some uncertainty to as to this resurrection story or any part of Jesus’ story.  Right after college I went to talk with my pastor because I thought that I was sensing a call to missionary work.  Well after much soul searching I realized that I had some doubts of my own about this whole Jesus thing and really didn’t want to tell that ‘old, old story’, or be a witness in the world.  Obviously that has changed, God brought me down few notches and now I love to talk about, to preach and to live that ‘old, old story of Jesus and his love’ because the truths that lie within and the hope for my life and my living are all contained in them. 

So doubt is ok, we can still tell our stories of faith, it may not be as overt as a preacher woman does but any way you manage to live out Christ’s story and then tell about it works.  The key is living it out, not keeping it in which is what Jesus says next to his disciples.  Go. Teach. Baptize. Remember.  These are pretty basic instructions, we need to tell about it. He commissions them for service in the world. If ever you wondered what God wants from you, remember this.  Go. Teach. Baptize.  It is the ‘great commission’ for the disciples and for us too.  

But let’s admit it, fulfilling this great commission go, teach baptize, might seem like just one more thing to do doesn’t it?  Or if not that, it might just make some of us downright uncomfortable to talk about our faith with others or even with those inside of our four walls.  Do we really even know how to begin to share our faith?  And what part of our faith do we share?  The command is to go and immerse the world in the Christian story and your faith.

‘Go’ seems to be the operative word here.  Simply go.  Not stay put and get comfy in your cushioned pews, not stay within these beautiful sanctuary walls and contemplate the deep meaning of life, but go. 

Jesus didn’t say ‘If you build it, they will come.”  Remember that line?  That line was spoken by the character Ray Kinsella played by Kevin Costner in the movie “Field of Dreams” way back in 1989.  He was talking about a vision and a voice he had heard urging him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield in Iowa. He follows that dream and Shoeless Joe Jackson appears as do others for the windup and the pitch.  Hundreds of people stream to the cornfield baseball diamond all because of the voice he heard, “If you build it, they will come”.  But that is the movies where anything can happen and usually does.Well we do not live on a movie set and ‘Jesus didn’t say, if you build it they will come’[i] . 

White clabbered sanctuaries didn’t even cross his mind as a carpenter in the first century!  It’s the real unusual person who will just come on a Sunday morning because we have a pretty bucolic footprint here on the Green in Orange.  No, we need to go out and tell the story of our lives that intersects with our faith.  And you can do it without going all doctrinal on people who might roll their eyes at the hint of doctrine.  Tertullian and Athanasius wanted doctrine.  We do not.  And yet our faith and the tenets of it are very important to our lives.  And so is witnessing, remember Go. Teach. Baptize.

So here’s how to witness your faith in public.

Let’s say we had a strawberry festival recently. And after the sweet aroma of strawberry pies wears off from your clothing, after you’ve had a chance to soak your feet, massage your lower back, that realization hits you like a brick on the head that you have to go back to work, or your normal routine.  Monday happens.  And people will inevitably ask about your weekend. 

What will you say?  A generic response….“Oh it was great, lots of funs, really busy, the weather really turned out nice”.  Or might you say with all of the enthusiasm that you can possibly muster, “It was fabulous.  MY CHURCH, the Orange Congregational Church (note the commercial here) had a strawberry festival and I worked it.  It was great, I got to see old friends and work right along side someone that I hadn’t see in ages.  And it was so wonderful to see those millennials (the twenty somethings) working so hard together.  They all came back to help.  But honestly, it wasn’t work, it’s just something we do as a community of faith so that we can help others in the area”!!!  

Now this is witness.  This is Go. Teach. Baptize.  This is where your life’s story interests with Christ’s life story and we must tell it.  If you are not excited about your faith and what your faith community does then chances are others will not be interested and so why bother?  To make money for our coffers?  Everything we do at Orange Congregational whether it is make jam, polish our red cars, hull strawberries ad nauseum, flip burgers is for Christ and others, not ourselves.

This is living faith and witness to the miraculous power of God’s love.  All I can say is go and tell.  Be content.  Be assured.  Be confident that God is with you every step of the way creating opportunity and growth for you, that Jesus the Christ will redeem you from every ill that will consume your life, and that the Holy Spirit will sustain you in God’s love, God’s grace and God’s abiding energy and affirmation of your life.


[i] Idea from Jennifer Copeland, The Living Word from the Christian Century Magazine.  p 20 June 11, 2014 issue.

Compassion in the Desert

Genesis 21:8-21
There is something about summer and reading.  You go on vacation and choose a mystery thriller for the long flight or car ride to your favorite destination, or you pick a romance novel to read as you sit in your beach chair sipping iced tea with sunscreen slathered on your body listening to the waves lap up on the sandy shore. Or maybe you decide to read an autobiography or a biography about some influential person or movie star as you just get home early from work and relax.

The New York Times bestseller list profiles ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Steven King, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt, or ‘Hard Choices’ by Hillary Rodham Clinton as excellent offerings for our summer reading pleasure.  Oprah is not far behind with her list; ‘Mr. Mercedes’ makes her cut also as does ‘Heartburn’ by Nora Ephron and several other books.  Now I haven’t read any of these books nor do I intend to so this is not an endorsement for you to read them. 

This is however to point out that summer reading is different.  It implies that our days are less rushed, less programmed and far more relaxing so that we can loose ourselves in a ‘good and juicy book’.  So it is with summer preaching, or rather summer preaching from the lectionary.  Often the summer lectionary offers some sort of lengthy saga from the Old Testament such as the many stories of David or in the case of this summer the stories of the descendents of Abraham. 

And so this is what I am going to be preaching from this summer, the likes of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebekah, David and his brothers all the down to Moses.  There are many good nuggets of inspiration for our lives from these stories and they are not to be missed.  No doubt these were the stories of the Hebrew faith that Jesus would have heard and loved.  He probably asked Mary to tell him the story of David and the giant Goliath over and over again because it is a delightful and provocative story to the child’s imagination.

So let’s settle in now as we begin our summer reading from the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus.

A man named Abram has been called by God to leave his country, his father’s house and to go to a land that God will show him evenutually.  God tells Abram that a great nation will be made out of his descendents.  And so Abram leaves and takes his wife Sarai and they set off and wind up in Egypt because of a famine.  Many things happen to them during that time but Sarai was barren.  So out of desperation she calls for her slave-girl Hagar to ‘be with’ Abram so that he may have a child and of course Hagar conceives and a son is born to them.  The boy child is named Ishmael.

When Abram was 99 years old God comes to him and makes a sign of a covenant with Abram.  God says, “I will make of you and your offspring a great nation and I will give you the land of Canaan for a perpetual holding.  Each male child shall bear the mark of my covenant by circumcision and your name now will be Abraham and Sarai’s name shall be Sarah.”

And the blessings continue.  God comes to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre and tells him that he and Sarah will also have a son.  Sarah conceives and has a son and they name him Isaac.  Now things in the tent of Abraham begin to turn a bit sour.

Let us now pick up the story in Genesis, the 21st chapter.
The child (Isaac) grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Not one of Sarah’s better moments, what do you think? But God works with what God has, imperfect humans for a larger, divine purpose in the book of Genesis.  We can figure that Isaac in this scripture reading is between 2and 3 years old because they have just had a festival to celebrate his weaning.  He’s off and running, as they say.  I would assume that Sarah was fairly close to Hagar, especially since she lent Hagar to Abraham for a specific purpose and once that purpose was fulfilled Ishmael became part of the mishpaha, the family.  It seems that at the point when Isaac was old enough to play with Ishmael that her jealous streak reared its ugly head. 

And what about God in the first part of this passage?  Well to understand why God would endorse her actions you need to understand that earlier God makes a clear distinction between Yitzchak or Isaac and Yishmael or Ishmael’s covenants.  Yishmael meaning ‘God will listen’ in Hebrew. 

They would both receive a blessing and someday, as Abraham’s sons, become the father’s of great nations.  It’s just that this Book of Genesis was written by and for the Hebrew people and Isaac would become the progenitor of the Jews and ultimately Christians.  Whereas Ishmael would become the forebearer of the Arab people.  Hence the term “Abrahamic” faiths. 

So Abraham once again, in faith, follows God’s instructions.  Hagar is banished to the desert of Beer-Sheva with her son Ishmael with some rations.  This is where this passage, for me, becomes heart wrenching. 

Hagar wonders about with little Ishmael and just enough food and water to last them a very short time.  The desert is parching and the sun’s rays are relentless and there they are alone.  Left to die Hagar separates herself from her child so that he would not hear her cry out of her pain and sorrow and so that she would not have to look upon her dying child.   It is in this deep and throbbing grief that God hears and listens to her cry.

Then, in one of the most tender and compassionate moments in the Bible God asks, ‘What troubles you Hagar, do not be afraid, I see you, I hear you and I will save you, take little Ishmael’s hand’.  And her eyes were opened to the well of water in front of them.  Not only did God send a drop of water but and entire well to Hagar so that she and Ishmael but be refreshed and live.  

You see God works through complex and very sad situations and that is why Ishmael’s story needs to be told.  We learn that God saves those who are cast out from home and hearth, from the swell of society’s mainstream.  The refugee, the migrant, the other, those of us who feel as if we have been all but forgotten, God sees and hears our cries and saves us.   You might feel as if God is distant and aloof, but God is not.

God sees and hears and sends an angel, a well, someone or something that will redeem us from our suffering.  How will you know?  The proof is all around us.  
Dawn follows a dark night, spring has always managed to appear after a snowy winter, a shower breaks a hot, hazy and unbearably humid summer’s day, the proof is around us that redemption exists and God’s ultimate redemptive act for our lives is just around the corner. 

Be of faith.  Embody hope.  Live into Hagar’s story.  This is also the living gospel for our lives, that where we are Christ is too. 


Monday, June 9, 2014

In Your Voice

Acts 2: 1-21
Each Generation
While I was at Andover Newton Theological School Dr. Carole Fontaine, one of my Hebrew Bible teachers quoted the rabbis who said, “every generation reads the Torah anew”.  What she meant by that was each generation lives in a different time and space then the previous generation.  Therefore how we approach the Torah, or for us Christians the entire Bible, Old and New Testament is different than that of our parents and grandparents.  

Times change.  People change.  Voices change. Women’s voices and stories are now being told which, in previous generations, were all but ignored. For example Shiphrah and Puah, remember them?  They were Egyptian midwives during the time of the Exodus when the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt.  These women were commanded by Pharaoh to kill all of the Israelite male babies.  But they didn’t do that knowing that there was something much greater and stake here. 

Their story and many others have enriched our understanding of just how gently or mightily the spirit of God can move through peoples lives in each and every generation and how redemption is possible and real. It is a good thing that each generation reads the Torah truths anew because our voices change and the context of our living changes, which adds immeasurable richness to the tapestry of God’s word.

Radiant Light
Elizabeth Wang

Pentecost Story
Today we celebrate the Christian Festival of Pentecost.  The church recalls this great story of when the breath of God, the wind, the Holy Spirit came rushing through the room where the apostles were gathered.  Tongues of fire rested on their heads and they began to speak in other languages because the Spirit had given them such ability.  They were powered by the Holy Spirit like a battery powers your computer or transistor radio! 

Without the help of Rosetta Stone or Berlitz the apostles spoke in other languages and it wasn’t jibberish; they didn’t speak in glossalalia or in tongues. NO. They spoke in intelligible languages so that all of the tribes and people who were gathered at that time could understand what they were trying to say. 

The Medes who happened to be in Jerusalem that day could understand the message because one of the disciples was speaking their native dialect of Persian.  The Mesopotamian folks could understand the message because other disciples were speaking in Sumerian and Acadian.  Each one unique voice was an individual expression of what they had witnessed about the life and death of Jesus Christ. 

And although people thought they had been hitting the bottle a little too much, this was the way in which the Spirit of God expressed itself.  You see, each apostle was given a voice, and each voice was heard and understood.  They were, in effect, reading the Torah anew divinely sanctioned through the Holy Spirit.

Today we also celebrate Confirmation and the affirmation of faith that was expressed at baptism.  What an exciting time for all of us on because we all have the opportunity to confirm and affirm once again the story of God’s love come down to us.  These youth have certainly given voice to their faith; they’ve broken bread together several times, they’ve worked side by side and individually in service to God for the global community, the surrounding communities and the Orange Community. 

Let me read a thank you from the Orange Community Services, “On behalf of the Town of Orange…I would like to thank Orange Congregational Church for the most generous donation….to the Community Assistance Food Pantry.  I would also like to thank the Church Confirmation Class and their families for the numerous bags of….groceries donated to the Food Pantry.  These thoughtful gifts are so greatly appreciated and will provide assistance to Orange residents.  We are privileged to have you in our community,” signed Joan Cretella, the Director.  Now that is making your voice for compassion and justice heard.

Let me tell you that these kids have voices!  They were not afraid to talk (some incessantly)! We talked about silly things, about faith, about God, about the Holocaust and injustice.  We talked about death and life and where God is in all that.  They even got to sit in the God seat and be God and try to answer our questions.  That conversation took on a life of it’s own.  They found out that being God is not so easy and that everyone thinks that they are God. 

And yet they believe.  They believe that God created and creates and that God can and will always forgive them, no. matter. what.  They believe that God accepts everyone completely for who they are and what may happen in life to them.  They also know and believe that God doesn’t do everything for us that we have choice in every matter under heaven.     

To the Confirmands.
Confirmands, the Holy Spirit is no small thing and neither is your faith.  Each generation (YOU) reads the Torah anew-each generation gives voice to the awesome power of God.  I believe the Spirit has grabbed each one of you and has taken up residence in your heart.  You may not feel it or acknowledge it now, but you will perhaps when you least expect it.  You now too add your unique voices to the harmony of witnesses and like the apostles of that first Pentecost you will go out and tell your story imbued with God’s story, just like the rest of us old timers. 

So be at peace with yourself and know that you are right where you are supposed to be.   So relax.  Know also that OCC is a home for you. In the words that you will offer us later, ‘Settle down, it'll all be clear.
Don't pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear….trouble it might drag you down,
If you get lost, you can always be found.  Just know you're not alone because OCC is your home.’   


Wisdom Listens

2 Chronicles 1: 7-13
As far as kings go in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, King David is known as one of the greats, if not the greatest or at least the one that’s gotten the most press time since 970 BCE.  He’s got quite an impressive Curriculum Vitae: he conquered the City of Jerusalem from the Philistines, he brought the ark of the covenant also to Jerusalem thus consolidating worship, he set up a striking dynasty again through covenant, he whipped enemies, you know those pesky Amalekites, Moabites, Ammonites and so on and so forth.  Most probably his most noted accomplishment was that he untied the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel.  Not an easy task but something that the people cried out for.   And, in his spare time he composed and wrote a few Psalms.  It’s pretty remarkable what one person can do in their lifetime.

And yet David had equally as many flaws.  I think he acted on impulse most of the time.  He was filled with pride, which caused all sorts of difficulties for him.  He was always on the brink of despair causing tremendous anxiety, not to mention the very vengeful acts he performed and his incredible lust and love of women.  In fact that is how our main King for consideration today King Solomon was conceived. 

Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba.  The apple does not fall far from the tree.  Solomon too was flawed even though he also had an outstanding CV.   He built the very first Temple on Mount Moriah thus bringing together Jerusalem as the religious and political capital of the united kingdom.  He built many other buildings too and installed advanced water systems throughout.  But unfortunately, he was a murderer, a lust filled man with over 700 wives and he loved worldly riches.  He could probably be compared to Donald Trump, sans murder, when it comes to brokering deals and amassing wealth.  Of course, in the end he falls away from Yahweh (God) because he meets the Queen of Sheba and she brings all of her foreign gods with her.

And yet, God loved both David and Solomon and was willing to give each one anything that they asked for. 

God appeared to Solomon that night in a dream and said, “Solomon, ask for anything you want, and I will give it to you.”

Solomon answered:
Lord God, you were always loyal to my father David, and now you have made me king of Israel. I am supposed to rule these people, but there are as many of them as there are specks of dust on the ground. So keep the promise you made to my father and make me wise. Give me the knowledge I’ll need to be the king of this great nation of yours.

God replied:
Solomon, you could have asked me to make you rich or famous or to let you live a long time. Or you could have asked for your enemies to be destroyed. Instead, you asked for wisdom and knowledge to rule my people. So I will make you wise and intelligent. But I will also make you richer and more famous than any king before or after you.

Solomon then left Gibeon and returned to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.

Solomon didn’t ask for money, or to be famous, or to have power, or to be the most educated man in the Ancient Near East.  No.  He asked God for wisdom.  He asked God to give him wisdom so that he would be able to handle whatever task being ‘the King’ could possibly need.  And that, is remarkable because he really did make some wise decisions that were recorded in the Bible. 

Oh that we all had the wisdom of Solomon to make the best choices possible for our lives at all times.  Oh that we could foresee into the future our current day actions so that our lives and those around us would be lifted up to our highest and greatest potential.  Oh, if only we knew when to speak and when to keep silent there would be a whole lot loss broken hearts and hatred in this world, if we only knew.  But alas, we, like Solomon and his father king before him, are flawed.

But that doesn’t mean, by any brushstroke of our wildest and most imaginative dreams, that we should not try.  God has given us incredible minds to think with, to explore, to solve problems, to wonder, to compute with, to make value and jugement statements with, all with the intention of making this world and your surroundings a better place.  So it behooves us to give it ‘the old college try’ that is, our very best most fervent effort.  And that brings me to you graduates today.

We love you, and although reluctantly, it’s time to let you go to further your education.  And this you will certainly do, some of it will even come from books!  But all of the education that you will garner will not be useful unless you use it wisely.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”, or, more plainly adapted ‘they’ say by Jimi Hendrix, ‘Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens’.  Who knew? 

You see you need education and knowledge to get along in this world and to accomplish the wonderful things and attain the ideals that you hold today.  Hopefully, some day then you’ll be able to impart that knowledge to others.  But more importantly you need the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to listen because there is a whole lot that can be gained by listening.  In the listening comes discernment and discernment sets your course for action.
Barbara Brown Taylor says in her book, ‘An Altar in the World’, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right.  Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.”  That is wise discernment, it’s knowledge, reflection and doing with all intentionality so that understanding will come.

They say wisdom comes with age but it doesn’t have to because wisdom also comes by inviting God into the process, and onto your path of life.  That’s what Solomon did.  He invited God to be a very active part and partner in his life and that’s what we must do as well.

God won’t ‘make’ everything go right, but if God is present in your mind wise decisions and actions should follow.  With God in your heart you have everything you need as you start this new chapter in your life.