Mt. Pisgah

July 12th, 2015

Deuteronomy 3:23-29; 34:1-8 Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost July 12, 2015
Glenn Loafmann

“I long ago decided that anything that could be finished in my lifetime was necessarily too small an affair to engross my full interest.” — Ernest DeWitt Burton, President of University of Chicago, 1923-1925

From the founding of the [Chicago Art] Institute [in 1882] to his death in 1924, Charles L. Hutchinson served as its president. On his deathbed, he told a friend, “I love to lie here and think of it — of all it will do for the people in the years to come!”

In the funeral eulogy, President Burton described Hutchinson as a man with the vision “to build for a long future.”
???????

My mother had a vision of a better life – a longing for hopes fulfilled: for adequate money, for good harvest weather, no cattle out of the pasture, and for no packing up to move every time the irresistible ideals of my father’s day-job profession (he was a schoolteacher) met the impenetrable objects perched atop the school boards’ shoulders.

We were not poor – he always got another job, though once it was in the next state over – but each of his two careers (he was also a farmer) was filled with uncertainty. In farming that goes with the territory; in teaching he put himself in the crossfire between his vision and the daily world.

And Mother went with him. That went with the territory, too.

Life in the Dust Bowl had taught everybody not to spend money easily, and not to waste anything ever, so my mother did not expect champagne and caviar, wouldn’t have spent money on such things even if she had it, and even if they suited her taste – which they did not. But she had a vision of a “good life” that was worth hoping for, And she got a taste of it in her upright freezer, her automatic washing machine, and a feeling of the Promise one glorious summer when she had time to refinish her dining room table, advised by her friend, Mrs. Cunningham, who taught sixth grade across the hall from Mother’s classroom. Her vision for “someday” included time to cook without hurry, time to sew, time to travel a bit – to Carlsbad Caverns, maybe, or shopping in Oklahoma City – without bills or a broken tractor hanging over the project.

She got some of those things. In the last few years of her life (I am now six years older than she ever got to be) she retired and moved to be near her doctors; she sipped Folgers coffee, watched “General Hospital” with her sisters-in-law (she had always wished she had had a sister, and a daughter, I think), and she took a few trips to Texas with Aunt Eunice and Uncle Ralph. It was “silly” to spend time and money that way, she said – souvenirs and TV and eating out – but she enjoyed it.

She had a vision of the promise, an appetizer of milk and honey, but not a whole meal in Canaan, and the passage from Hebrews seemed to fit her life, and was included in her funeral: “all these died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it from a long way off.” (Heb.11:13a, my translation)

I feel sad about that, sometimes – the unrealized hopes – but in fact she did not lead a sad life. There was an aura of wistfulness about her, a kind of sigh waiting to be sighed, but she was not unhappy. She appreciated what she had, and she recognized the reality of life – the reality of the lives of those saints, the reality of Moses looking over Jordan: nobody can have everything. We work for things across the river.

She had two sons who had gone to college, and who were successfully married – at least at that time; in the years after my father’s death she managed the farm (with some long distance help from my brother) and made it pay. She managed for the first time to include capital depreciation in the income-tax calculations. She filed amended returns for the previous three years. She faced down an IRS auditor and breast cancer. She died with some promises still at a distance, but she saw and greeted them in the things she had. She died in faith.

I think that faith – the faith in what’s coming – slips away from us sometimes, we lose sight of the promise across the river.

Michelle Obama talked about that in her Oberlin commencement speech:

“We want everything right away, whether it’s an Uber or your favorite TV show – and we want it tailored to our exact preferences and beliefs. We fill our Twitter feed with voices that confirm, rather than challenge, our views. If we dislike someone’s Facebook post, we just un-follow them, we un-friend them.”

“We.”

She wasn’t talking about “consumerism” or “materialists” or “those people” in Washington or South Carolina or someplace else. Like any good prophet, she was talking to and about us and our expectations.

She re-cast our understanding of our place in the coming Reign of God: “of all the [two hundred] women at the Seneca Falls women’s suffrage convention in 1848, just one lived to see women cast their votes.”

Of all the Israelites Moses led out of Egypt, just two crossed into the Promised Land. The life of hope is lived toward goals larger than ourselves, larger than our lifetime.

Those of us in what we are pleased to call the “progressive” church have adopted James 2:17 as a kind of credo: “Faith without works is dead.”

Good for us.

In fact, we have so energetically embraced our responsibility to work for the realm of God that we sometimes regard ourselves as the contractors, if not the architects of the heavenly city. The promise is no longer seen as a gift, but as a blueprint: it’s no longer our promise, it’s our project.

As often happens when preparing a sermon, I noticed something I had never noticed before in a lifetime of familiarity with a passage: it does not say what I thought it said. Hebrews 11:13 does not say, “not having received what was promised to them.” Nobody promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “you will be alive when this happens.” Their blessing was to perceive what their descendants would receive.

My mother never expected all the joys in her vision of “the good life” to be hers. If she had expected that, she would have died in despair. She saw me living out that Promise, saw her grandchildren there, saw the friends and families and stability we enjoy – that was the hope she had, and saw from afar. Her blessing was to see what was promised, and prepare us to receive it.

Mrs. Obama’s observation was that we strive for fulfillment in our lifetime: “What do we Want?” … some of us want Freedom, some want a Mercedes, but we’re all alike in what follows – “When do we want it?” – “NOW!!” We think “faith without works is dead” means “hopes unrealized by me are empty” – “don’t show me the promise, show me the money!”

So we do strive for a just and inclusive world, a world of harmony and reconciliation – good for us; it won’t happen unless we work for it. We strive as Moses strove and drove his motley crew through the desert, cajoling and exhorting and extorting, sometimes – smiting rocks and serving as judge over the people, to get them to the Promised Land.

And where did it get him?

To the brink.

Close, but no cigar.

Moses couldn’t make it happen. It was God’s promise, and God kept it, as Winston Churchill said, “in God’s good time.”

That doesn’t mean we can lay down our picket signs and pocket books and voter registration cards and wait for Jesus to come again to finish the job, but it does mean God is the architect and builder of the City of Promise, and it will be completed when God says so. We can get close enough to keep it in sight, close enough to taste it, to hunger for it, to believe in it; we can lay the foundations and prepare the future, but if we think it’s not true unless we finish it, then we will die thinking we have failed.

The writer of Deuteronomy thought Moses didn’t get to the Promised Land because God was angry at him. I don’t think so – that’s just an attitude that “there’s somebody to blame if things aren’t exactly my way on my schedule.” I think the barrier was not God’s anger or Moses’ weakness – it was not some punishment or some failure – the hindrance is in the nature of life: “Nobody can have everything.” None of us lives long enough to meet every need, balance every injustice, heal every injury. What we can do is follow the vision, and get ourselves close enough to see and know that the dream is true.

We lose faith if we set about our tasks as though success depends solely on us. We’re fond of saying, “God has no hands but our hands.” St. Teresa didn’t mean it this way, but our thirst for instant gratification lets us believe fulfillment rests on our powers, and the promise is within our grasp.

So we earnestly and energetically go about doing what we should do, being letter-perfect and irreproachable and gender-neutral and shade grown, organic, politically-correct Calvinist Pharisees, unrelenting in our work and unforgiving in our righteousness, and that lets us hide from the fact we too depend upon the grace of powers beyond our control, to succeed at tasks we are not strong enough to do, in achieving results we do not live long enough to see. When we focus on our mountain to climb, our desert to cross, our evil to overcome, our election to win, we lose sight of the promise across the river, lose sight of the grace that illuminates the vision.

Faith without works is dead; we are called to work. Works without faith are just as dead – and a lot more depressing. Our works bring us to the brink: the brink of exhaustion; the brink of despair; the brink of the Jordan. The summit of Mount Pisgah.

We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” earlier in the service. All three hymnals I have at home omit verse four of that hymn, but I want to include it in our thinking:

Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”
– William W. Walford, 1845

There is no Mt. Pisgah in modern hymnals; it’s a funny word, an unfamiliar image, and an important loss from our vocabulary of faith. Mt. Pisgah is not the Promised Land; it is not what Moses saw, but it is where Moses was. It was Moses’ destination, and it’s ours.

It’s where Moses looked over Jordan; it’s “the mountaintop” where Martin Luther King saw the Promised Land: “I may not get there with you, but … we as a people will get [there]… Mine eyes have seen the glory.”

It’s the place where my mother saw the promise for her children and grandchildren, and she died there, in the company of those saints, blessed by the promise made for her descendants, which she saw and greeted from a long way off.

0ur works bring us to the brink; but only faithful vision lets us see the glory across the River, in the Long Future.

Amen

The Fruit Falling out the Windows–Pastoral Reflections on the Dedication of a Banner

June 30th, 2015

Banner Dedication
in advance of the sermon
June 28, 2015

E-mail from Virginia Douglas to Mary Hammond:

I don’t remember what year it was that this image [of a large tree rooted in the middle of the sanctuary, with branches wide and fruit falling out the windows of the church] popped into my mind and I shared it with you. I’m thinking it could be 20 years ago now and quite possibly at one of our Bob Evans’ lunches! But it sure has turned out to be a “fruitful” and enduring way to think about the mission of PCC. Some churches are called to “grow big, in place,” while PCC seems to be called to “grow big, all over the place!” It’s nice to realize also that many fruit trees, and notably apple trees, are grafted in order to produce good fruit. That makes me think of the way we are grafted one into the other, as the Church is grafted into the “root of Jesse.” PCC has indeed, “packed up and shipped out” many of its prize fruits. We can all rejoice at the spiritual nourishment that has been so freely shared with the world.

**********

Rooted in love
a poem for the Dedication of the Banner
copyright Don Parker, May 30, 2015

Rooted in love,
nourished in the rich soil of Christ’s community,
a tree grows in the place called Peace Community Church.
Its sturdy trunk has been built cell by cell, layer on layer,
with acts of caring and compassion
and works of peace and justice.
Its branches reach out and flourish,
green, verdant with life,
drawn by concerns beyond these walls
and producing fruit–
fruit that feeds those seeking a new life,
hungry to make a difference in a world gone right:
a world that respects diversity,
that values and works for justice,
that pursues peace,
that equates equality with ending poverty, sharing opportunities,
and realizing the dignity of every person–
in short, that strives for community,
that grows into community,
that does all to preserve community–
communities rooted in love.

**********
The Fruit Falling Out the Windows
Pastoral Reflections on the Dedication of a Banner
Psalm 1, Isaiah 61:1-4, Rev. 22:1-2,5
Mary Hammond
June 28, 2015

I was perusing an old scrapbook given to the church by the family of Mae Chesbro. Her family ties go all the way back to the beginnings of this congregation in 1866. Mae’s uncle, a founding member, hand-crafted the couch in the back of the sanctuary.
A headline of a newspaper article from the 1960’s stopped me in my tracks. First Baptist Church: Small but Significant. The article chronicled two outreach ministries of the church during the years when Bill Sheeley was pastor. Mary Caroniti and Enid Buckland were active members at the time.
Steve and I had the privilege this week of talking to Mary at the Nursing home about those days. Her eyes instantly lit up. “Oh, that was wonderful!” she exclaimed, as she shared about the two-week summer day camp held one year at Finley State Park. Pastor Sheeley had a big van. The church ladies joined him in gathering up the neighborhood kids for a summer adventure. The leaders organized activities and games. The group cooked outside. The kids played, swam, explored, and everyone had a great time.
Mary also shared about the Golden Agers Club. Members of the church picked up nursing home residents once a week and brought them to church for games and snacks. Anyone who knew Enid, knew she loved games! And that Mary Caroniti—she sure loved to cook!
“How did you ever get the visitors downstairs,” I asked, “without handicapped access?”
“I don’t know,” Mary replied, “We just did.”
As we talked, Mary commented, “You know, you couldn’t do either of those things today, with all the rules and regulations. It’s a different time.”
I agreed.
“Small but Significant,” the headline read. That described First Baptist Church very well. There weren’t many folks there in the 1960’s, but those who were there dreamed big, saw needs, got their hands dirty, and met them. The same was true in the 1970’s, the 1980’s, and the 1990’s.
In the year 2000, change was in the air. The name “First Baptist Church” no longer adequately described the congregation’s makeup and ministry to either itself or outsiders. So, the church changed its name to “Peace Community Church” by a remarkable six-month consensus process.
By the time Steve and I had been here fifteen years, 250 people had come and gone through the doors of this building–students who graduated or moved on, townies who discovered a way-station to sort out religious convictions and then return to former traditions, dechurched people who had lost their faith or left the church for years or decades, new residents seeking a friendly welcome, working folks who lost jobs and had to leave Lorain County to find employment, core members who became shut-ins and passed away.
One day, Virginia Douglas and I were having lunch, talking about the constant ebb and flow of hellos and goodbyes, the continuing congregational reality of “small but significant.” She suggested this amazing image: “It’s like a big tree, rooted deep in the sanctuary, branches extending far beyond the open windows, with the fruit falling outside.”
This image bears witness to the truth of who this church is, how this church does ministry, and what God makes of the people in this place.
This past January, the congregation spent a month reflecting again on the vision that comes with the church’s name. I mentioned this image made plain to me long ago. Joyce Parker was captivated by it and recreated it for us so beautifully in a banner. Don Parker added his poetic embodiment of the image.
Our culture prizes numerical growth–more money, more possessions, more success, more of everything. Church culture too easily mirrors popular culture–more members, more baptisms, more programs, more financial security.
Ask any pastor who has been to a denominational meeting. After the initial question, “Where do you serve?” comes the follow-up, “And how big is your congregation?” Then, comes the ‘upward mobility’ question: “How long have you been there?” After 20 years, especially in a small church, that answer usually takes some explaining!
Numerical growth is not bad–some of it is necessary to survive. Steve has often told those around here who prize smallness, “Don’t worry, folks–I’ll tell you when and if this church gets ‘too big!’”
Yet, another kind of growth also exists. It is qualitatively different. The tree provides a good metaphor for this deep, wide fruitful growth, nourished by streams of living water. Roots extend far down into the rich, moist earth. The tree bears fruit in due season, seeding itself and producing more fruit.
The tree of life is an early symbol in many different religious traditions and diverse faiths. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her landmark book, “Saving Paradise,” chronicles her years of deep archaeological research on early Christian art. Images of paradise in its abundance and lushness defined Christianity throughout its first 1000 years. Grapes hanging, trees blossoming, rivers coursing–all of these images were predominant. The focus on the violent death of Jesus and the cross as the primary symbol of Christianity was not prominent until the Crusades when “sacralized violence” overtook images of paradise. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is introduced early in the biblical narrative in Genesis 2. The Tree of Life for the healing of the nations concludes the biblical vision in Revelations 22.
What does it mean, in 2015, for us to see ourselves in this image of the tree planted deep in the soil of this place, bearing fruit that falls out the windows? What does it mean to connect ourselves to this biblical image of paradise restored, the Tree of Life bearing fruit for the healing of the nations?
A final insight about this newspaper headline from the 1960’s came to me recently at the gym, reading through my Prayer Journal. I always bring something to read, meditate on, or pray about when I do elliptical, to make the hour pass quickly. Otherwise, I could never do it!
As I prayed for the church, I stopped on the phrase, “small but significant,” written in my journal. The ‘but’ shouted out to me. Such language insinuates that ‘small’ is bad or defective, but size is compensated for by significance.
When I got home, I crossed out the ‘but’ and changed it to ‘and.’ Small and significant. How does that sound? No judgment on ‘small.’ No elevation of ‘significant.’ Just a pairing that speaks of what is true and has been true for many more decades than the 36 year Hammond tenure at the church.
As we ponder the future of this church, our country, and world, I invite us into continued conversation—and continued revelation—of the meaning of this image now beautifully rendered on this remarkable banner.
Enid Buckland has passed away. Mary Caroniti is in a nursing home, celebrating in 2015 her 50 years as a member of the church. Today, there is a Neighborhood Center on East College Street where Seniors gather. Welcome Nursing Home hosts activities for residents. Visitors come and share their talents. The Boys & Girls Club and the City Department of Recreation offer many summer programs for kids. Yet, there is always more to be done, and unique gifts of grace and welcome for the church to offer.
In every day and age, the church must respond anew to the call of God. Through it all, the Holy One continues to richly bless the small and significant ministry of this church, year after year, decade after decade. May we rejoice in the fact that we are part of this ongoing story. Amen.

Riders on the Storm

June 28th, 2015

Mark 4
June 21, 2015
Steve Hammond

Here is something that I don’t get about this story we just read. I’m not quite sure why Jesus rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith. They did after all wake him up because they were expecting he could do something about their predicament. That sounds like faith to me. And didn’t Jesus once say that if you had just a tiny bit of faith, no bigger than the smallest seed, that that was enough? It seems like waking Jesus up so he could do something about it, even if they didn’t know exactly what, gets them over that faith threshold.

So what was wrong here? Why did Jesus have such a strong response to the disciples after he calmed the waters? Any ideas? They may have had a little bit of faith, or even more faith than we realize, but perhaps the problem was that it was rooted in fear. And that fear, I think, was there before the storm because of where they were going. If you keep reading into chapter 5, you discover that Jesus was headed for the land of the Gerasines, Gentile territory. That was a huge step for Jesus and the disciples. And the disciples had to wonder if he had lost his mind.

Did you notice in the story that it just wasn’t Jesus and the disciples who went through that storm? Jesus had spent the whole day in that boat using it as a platform because so many people had come out to hear him. He had to get away from the shore because of the crowd. And when Jesus decided it was time to leave, people got in their boats and came with him. What was going to happen, the disciples had to wonder, when the folk in the other boats figured out where Jesus was going? He had them eating out of his hands. But now, not only would they turn back, but they would let everyone know what Jesus was doing. Jesus and the crew were having a hard enough time with the religious authorities and others who portrayed them as heretics. What would happen when they found out that Jesus was cavorting with and even healing Gentiles, so blatantly committing this outrage against piety?

Jesus kept going, though. He was figuring out that the good news wasn’t limited to just his own folk, even though such a thought had not ever occurred to even the disciples, much less all the people of Israel. Their faith was all about their exceptionalism. They believed not only that they were number one in God’s eyes, but no nation or culture or religion was number two.

Jesus wasn’t just taking the disciples on a journey across the lake to where the Gentiles lived, but he was taking them to a whole new way to view God, themselves, and the world. As Kate Huey puts it, “this night, the disciples find themselves on the risky way to encountering ‘otherness,’ and it’s no wonder they feel threatened. We are all afraid of those who are ‘other,’ but Jesus calls us to get out of our comfort zones and move out into unfamiliar territory, confident that he will be with us all the way.” And this is before the storm.

Do you remember the story of Jonah who made his own miraculous nautical journey? And he didn’t like his destination to the land of the Gentiles of his day any more than the disciples wanted to go with Jesus. In fact, the thing that upset Jonah the most about that whole experience was not the ship wreck or the three days in the belly of the whale. Instead, what really got him mad was that the folk in Nineveh avoided the wrath of God by responding to Jonah’s message. The thing that he feared most happened. God’s favor was poured out on them. Jonah’s response was to go off and pout. What kind of world was it where God blessed the Ninevites? It was scary because it undermined everything Jonah understood about this world.

These stories are as current as today’s headlines. Nine folk shot and killed in a Black church simply because they were Black. They were killed by a young white man who couldn’t imagine a world where Black and White folk were regarded as equals. He was afraid of that world. How many times and in how many places do we continue to treat others with suspicion and fear simply because we’ve been told we are supposed to be suspicious and afraid because they are different than us?

So all of this is going on and then the storm comes. That boat in the storm becomes such an obvious metaphor for the fear that must have gripped the disciples as they were beginning to realize that Jesus was turning everything upside down and they were there on ground zero with him. They were sailing into dangerous waters with him.

It was after he calmed the storm, the story says, that Jesus asked the disciples about their faith, or lack thereof. But, as Mary and I keep mentioning, the word that’s usually translated as faith in the Bible is probably usually more appropriately translated as trust. So maybe they were waking up Jesus out of their fear rather than their trust. And being in a crisis situation, it became quickly clear that the disciples weren’t at that point where they could trust Jesus. Then there’s that question, “Teacher, is it nothing to you that we are going to drown?” I know that this was early in the time that Jesus was with the disciples. And I know it was a pretty tense and frightening situation. But did they really think that Jesus didn’t care if they all drowned? Hadn’t they had enough time with Jesus to see that he was willing to put a lot on the line for them? And so he asked them, ‘don’t you have any trust at all?’

There is plenty to fear in this ocean that sometimes rages around us. Illness, job loss, broken relationships with family and others, worries over children and parents, to mention a few. Sometimes it feels like Jesus is asleep in the boat. And like the disciples, we can even begin to imagine that he doesn’t even care about what happens to us, those we love, or anybody else. How do we find the trust? That trust is, I think, found out of remembering, out of the prayer that undergirds our lives, in that community of Jesus followers who surround us, and realizing that Jesus is either going to calm the storm or ride it out with us.

We keep talking about the transitions the church in this country, including us, is experiencing. Numbers of people in church and levels of commitment are dropping. There seems less and less interest in the experience that means so much to us. There are numerous competing commitments. The church used to be at the center of society and so many lives, now it is largely irrelevant for so many. At best it seems like the church is adrift. At worst, it feels like we are in the midst of a raging storm that is going to swamp us. But Jesus seems plenty calm because he knows, I think, that the church is going to make it to that shore that is still such a mystery to us. And there will, most likely, be choppy waters and calm seas as we make our way there.

Jesus knew that the future of the God movement, as it is with the future of the church, meant going to places we never imagined we would go. Jesus took the disciples to that other shore, risking that storm, because the people who lived there needed to hear the story. And the reaction was decidedly mixed. He healed this guy who had a legion of demons in him. That’s the story where Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. The man was so grateful that he wanted to go back with Jesus. Others, though, told Jesus to leave and never come back. The story says after they saw the man who was now healed, they were afraid. They weren’t any more pleased to have a Jew in their midst than the Jews were for Jesus to be there. The man didn’t go back with Jesus, but the story concludes, “He went away and began to proclaim how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”

As the church follows Jesus to its future, I think we are going to have to trust Jesus enough to go to some very scary places with him. Some people are going to hear our story and come with us, others will send us away. But we can’t get to the other side without climbing into the boat.

Kate Huey writes that “Frederick Buechner preached a beautiful sermon on this text that points us outward and onward, as Jesus commanded his followers long ago: ‘Go….Go for God’s sake, and for your own sake, too, and for the world’s sake. Climb into your little tub of a boat and keep going.’ Buechner reassures us that Jesus will be with us: “Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and…in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we’re done, so that even in their midst we may find peace, find him” (Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). (Huey)

Remember how this story on the troubled sea ends. The waters are calmed. And this time the question doesn’t come from their fear, ‘Don’t you care Jesus,’ but out of their awe. ‘Who is this man?’ Maybe you have heard that prayer ‘Be with me, God, for my boat is so small and the ocean is so big.’ Maybe we could just change it a little bit an offer this prayer that moves us from fear to awe. ‘Be with us, God, for our boat is so small and your ocean is so big.’

Where Grace Rules

June 28th, 2015

1 Samuel 16
June 14, 2015
Steve Hammond

Samuel tried to tell them. This need to have a king just like all the other nations did was, he believed, an insult to God. They had managed well enough with God raising up a Judge, like Samuel, when the need arose. And Samuel was sure God would do the same thing once Samuel either died, or the need wasn’t there. But the people insisted. So God told Samuel to let them have their king. Before finding that new king for them, though, Samuel said this is what they should expect.

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

So after that warning Samuel went in search for Israel’s new king, and he found the one God had anointed to be Israel’s first king. His name was Saul. And it didn’t work out. The story even says that God regretted ever allowing Saul to be a king. That’s where we pick up in today’s story. God told Samuel to get over his regrets about Saul and to find a new king for Israel. The people wanted a king and now there was no turning back, even if Saul, the one originally anointed by God, had been a big mistake. And there were plenty of more bad kings to come. But God already had someone in mind to replace Saul, though Saul still considered himself to be the King. That, of course, does make it a bit tricky when you are the newly anointed one.

David was chosen as the new king. It’s a very typical Biblical story. When Jesse’s sons were all lined up before Samuel, no one even thought to include David. But here we are, the last becoming first. It’s a great motif. The most unexpected of people can become the ones that are used by God. It’s not the outside appearance that count but what God sees on the inside of us. It is interesting to note the narrator of the story did just happen to mention, as the Revised Standard Version that David ‘was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was quite handsome.’

That thing about the last becoming first only works, though, when the person who is now first doesn’t forget about what it was like to be the last. David seems to kind of have forgotten that. Does anyone else see this whole story about David being a man after God’s own heart a bit problematic? Sure he started out as the runt of the family. He was so unnoticed by his family that when Samuel came around it didn’t even occur to any of them to include David among the brothers. That is pretty humble beginnings for a king.

It seems, though, that David pretty quickly left the humble part behind. Power, money, and sex seemed to have a lot more to offer. Most of us are pretty familiar with the story of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite who was an officer in King David’s Army. They lived next to the palace. David was up on the roof one night looking into their window and saw Bathsheba taking a bath. He started asking around about her and decided he just couldn’t live without her. So he sent for her.

She got pregnant. And the fact that Uriah was fulfilling the soldierly vow of those days to abstain from sex while at battle was a big problem for David. After trying some less lethal approaches to resolving this, the only way David figured he wouldn’t get caught was to make sure Uriah was killed in battle. That happened and David very quickly married Bathsheba. Nevertheless, he was found out. But that’s another story.

Some things never change. Ever since this story of David’s adultery and related homicide made it into the Bible, people have been trying to put the blame on Bathsheba. It seems to me though that when the king’s soldiers deliver you to his bed chamber, that ‘no means no’ doesn’t have a chance.

I’ve got a Bible quiz for you. Who can tell me who Paltiel was? David’s first wife was Michel, Saul’s daughter. By the time they were married, Saul was figuring out that David was wanting his Job. So one night when Michel herd that Saul had arranged to have David killed by his soldiers, she helped David escape. She waited, but David didn’t come back. He did marry several other women, though, and began collecting several concubines. So after several years Michel was married to Paltiel, and that marriage worked out. When David finally defeated Saul, he decided he wanted Michel back. He did remind his staff that he had, after all, paid the now dead Saul, 100 hundred Philistine foreskins for her. So he told one of his generals to get her back. Even though Michel begged to stay with her husband, we read that Ishbaal[f] sent and took her from her husband Paltiel the son of Laish. 16 But her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. Not only were Michel and Paltiel heartbroken by what David did, David never got what he was hoping would happen once he was reunited with Michel. It all culminated with this dispute about David doing cartwheels in the streets while wearing a tunic. After that we never hear about Michel again except that she lived out days in the Harem and never had children. That probably means she was never again summoned to the royal bedroom. And Paltiel, of course, never got to see her again either.

King David seems to have pretty much fulfilled the warning Samuel initially issued when the people of Israel were determined to have a king. He did amass great wealth and property, either through military means or the simple theft kings are allowed. Though he was able to spend lavish amounts on a palace, he never got to build the Temple because, as God told David’s son and successor Solomon, David was a man of war. This mighty nation that David had built didn’t last past his son and successor Solomon’s reign.

Still, by the time of Jesus 1,000 years later, David was revered as a man after God’s own heart, and the one whose throne the messiah would reestablish. Jesus, it turns out, wasn’t looking to replicate those glory days. There is a story in John 6 where Jesus fed the crowd and they wanted to make him king. When he refused to become the new king, they walked away. And at the beginning of the book of Acts we read of the hopes of the disciples that the kingdom of Israel would shortly be restored. After all, hadn’t Jesus shown his kingly chops. They killed him, but here he was alive again. And that thing he had about being able to walk through walls. What would happen when he just suddenly appeared in Herod’s court? How did Jesus respond to all of that? He left. I mean he really left. He ascended, never even considering the option of reestablishing the kingdom of Israel, just like it was in David’s day, the kingdome that people had been longing for and imagining for a millennium.

Even though Jesus rejected the idea, till this day we insist that he be a king, like David. Really? It kind of feels like it was back with Samuel. We don’t know how to live without a strong man in charge, someone who will take care of us and take care of our enemies and the forces of godlessness.

At that kangaroo court Pilate held that condemned Jesus, Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. Jesus response was ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ I don’t think that meant Jesus was saying he was going to set up a realm that was in that different world of heaven, where he gets to sit on a heavenly throne. Instead, he was saying that in this realm things were going to be way different than what is currently done in this world. “In this God movement, in the commonwealth of God, we don’t run things the way you are used to Pilate. We’re not so concerned about kings and who is in charge. It’s not of this world. It’s not anything this world has ever experienced. We are going to create something very different. When you get the chance, Pilate, read the beatitudes. That’s what my realm is about. It has nothing to do with your understanding of the world.”

Despite our efforts to coronate him, Jesus had no more appreciation for kings than Samuel did. But we still have King David as one of the heroes of the Bible, in spite of his very significant flaws. But that’s another theme you see running through the Bible. Some of the great figures of the Bible that the church looks to are actually NSFC, not suitable for church. Yet they are good enough for God in spite of their violence, corruption, sexual indiscretions, and spiritual cluelessness. The accusations often hurled against Jesus by his opponents included that he was a friend to drunks and whores, and that his followers weren’t very religious. Yet Jesus let people know these were his kind of folk.

It wasn’t just those folk, though, that Jesus loved and honored. He was open to everybody. Rich and poor, men and women, the devout and the irreligious. But he knew something happens to us. We can call it sin. We can call it structures, but something happens. David the marginalized shepherd seems like a better guy than David the king. He was a man after God’s own heart, but something got hold of him when he became king.

None of us will ever get the chance to have the kind of power that David had and see how we would do with it. Quite likely, not much better than he did. But you don’t have to be a king to have your intentions, your desire to be a person after God’s own heart, corrupted. Sin does not have to be original to find itself into our lives. Nobody knew that more than the Apostle Paul who was among the elite when it came to devotion to God. He realized that what he wanted to be, though, was always out of reach. But he was able to articulate something that King David, or Moses, or the disciples experienced in spite of all their flaws. He called it grace. The band U-2 sings about grace. “Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame, she removes the stain, it could be her name. Grace, it’s the name for a girl, it’s also a thought that changed the world. And when she walks on the street, you can hear the strings, Grace finds beauty in everything… What once was hurt, what once was friction, what left a mark no longer stings because grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”

The realms of this world can get ugly, including those many realms that are trying to rule our lives. But the realm of Jesus is not of this world. It’s the world of grace that calls things like goodness, compassion, kindness, love, peace, joy and mercy out of us; all those things that David found it so hard to come by when he became king. The commonwealth of God is not looking to put anybody on a throne, just to help folk walk together in the way of Jesus as equals in God’s and our own eyes.

Samuel was right in his warnings about kings. What David and all rulers need to realize is that it is not only the grace we receive that changes our lives, but also the grace we offer. And it probably is much better to serve in the world where grace rules, than rule in a graceless world. (Thanks to Don Parker for helping with that last line).

When Seeing and Being Seen is Enough

June 10th, 2015

Matthew 19:13-15, Luke 8:42b-48
June 7, 2015
Mary Hammond

[Congregational Reflection Question before the sermon: When have you felt invisible when you really needed to be seen, and how was that for you? When have you felt visible when you really needed to be seen, and how was that for you?]

Grief hung like a shroud over his life. My dad’s parents both immigrated from Finland, met in the United States, and married. A daughter was born around 1917, my Dad in 1920. His parents ran a jewelry store specializing in watches and clocks, in Willoughby, Ohio. An aunt also made the voyage across the ocean and helped care for the kids as mom and dad tended the store.

But tragedy struck early and hard. Between the ages of five and nine, my dad consecutively lost his entire family–his mother, aunt, little sister, and finally his father.

Thankfully, his father remarried before he died. In spite of all the advice she received to the contrary, step-mom Aina adopted my dad. Also a Finnish immigrant, Aina cleaned houses to support the two of them. Dad used to say he was a “latch-key kid” before the phrase was even in parlance.

During the last years of his life, my father and I got to talking about his childhood. With tears in his eyes, he recounted missing the funerals of his parents. “Children were supposed to be seen and not heard in those days,” he said. “No one thought we had feelings. We were invisible.”

One day, some people bring their children to Jesus for a blessing. Given the extended family systems of ancient society, it would not be unexpected for grandparents, aunts, or uncles to be part of the mix along with parents.

The disciples attempt to shoo these adults away. Who thinks children have needs? Less hardy adults might have slunk off after being roundly rebuked for bothering Jesus. But not these folks. Jesus ignores the naysayers, welcoming the children into his arms. They are not just noticed; they are seen. They are touched, held, and blessed. Further, Jesus lifts them up among those same naysaying disciples as messengers and signs of the Reign of God.

In another story, a woman with “an issue of blood,” or perpetual menstruation, comes to Jesus. She has been ill for years and years, traveling to doctor after doctor for an elusive cure and some kind of relief. No answers have come.

Her condition renders her continually unclean. She physically experiences a lot of discomfort. She socially faces a lot of isolation. She psychologically endures a lot of shame. We know today that any or all of these things can easily provoke depression. The text speaks of her in desperate terms.

This unnamed woman reaches through the crowd and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. He senses power going out from him and asks who has touched him. Peter makes light of his observation, noting that the whole crowd is pressing in on him. No one comes forward to admit to that intentional touch.

But Jesus persists. Finally this isolated, shamed, chronically ill woman faces Jesus, blurting out her story in the midst of the crowd. He looks at her in love, calls her “Daughter,” and sends her forth, healed and in peace. Like the children in the other Gospel story, she is finally seen–seen by Jesus, seen by the crowd, seen by herself in a new way. Her courage to come out of the shadows and give voice to her story becomes part of her healing process.

When my dad was a young boy, what if he had been truly seen in the midst of his cumulative, devastating childhood losses? What if the children Jesus held in his arms, and those who were never brought to him by loved ones, were blessed every day by those responsible for them? What if the bleeding woman had been received by others as “daughter” throughout all her desperate years, searching for healing? As we prepare to celebrate Communion, we come together as people who long to be seen and known. We come as a community of faith, seeking to be among those who see with the heart of Jesus. May this celebration connect us deeply to God, to one another, to this earth which is our home, and to our most authentic selves. In Jesus’ name, I offer this prayer. Amen.

Fired Up

May 26th, 2015

Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015
Steve Hammond

I want to begin with this Pentecost blessing.
What the Fire Gives
A Blessing for Pentecost Day—Jan Richardson
You had thought that fire
only consumed,
only devoured,
only took for itself,
leaving merely ash
and memory
of something
you had thought,
if not permanent,
would be long enough,
enduring enough,
to be nearly
eternal.
So when you felt
the scorch on your lips,
the searing in your heart,
you could not
at first believe
that flame could be
so generous,
that when it came to you —
you, in your sackcloth
and sorrow —
it did not come
to consume,
to take still more
than everything.
What surprised you most
were not the syllables
that spilled from
your scalded,
astonished mouth —
though that was miracle
enough,
to have words
burn through
what had been numb,
to find your tongue
aflame with a language
you did not know
you knew —
no, what came
as greatest gift
was to be so heard
in the place
of your deepest
silence,
to be so seen
within the blazing,
to be met
with such completeness
by what the fire
gives.
See more at: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2015/05/17/pentecost-what-the-fire-gives/#sthash.K8n1kXfX.dpuf

We are used to fire consuming, taking, destroying, but the fire of Pentecost is a gift, a gift, it turns out, to all. The miracles of Pentecost were not sounds like wind, or divided tongues, as of fire, but that sounds like wind filled the whole room. And the tongues, as of fire, rested on each of them. All touched by the wind and fired-up they went running from their hideout into the streets. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. They were included, too, on that Day of Pentecost. They heard, they understood. They, too, imagined something as if fire.

Frank Couch, a person whose writing I keep coming across, is becoming my Moravian bestie. Here are his thoughts on the Pentecost story, on what happened that day in Jerusalem. English translations underplay the fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil of that experience. Those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the room are described as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12). The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending. It’s important to release this story, he continues, from its 2,000 year-long domestication. Its connections to some of scripture’s most primal, disorderly, prophetic roots open doors into a liberating, open-ended array of possibilities made possible by the unconstrained Spirit of God.

Since that first Pentecost we have been living, the Apostle Peter declares, in the last days. His evidence? The Spirit is poured out on everyone. Not just a few of the folk hiding away in a room somewhere. Not just all the folk in that room. Not just the Jews and the proselytes. Not just the Romans or the Arabs.
“Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Slave and free. Men and women.”

Much to the consternation of the institutionally settled, this fire is burning out of control. It’s swept along by the wind. Or is it Spirit? Or is it breath? Funny how that word can mean any of those things. And, anyway, who said that just anybody could proclaim God’s deeds and power? And who said that just anybody was allowed in on what was our secret, our special relationship to God. These must be the last days for sure.

What happens when everybody, every boy and girl, every woman and man, every one enslaved, and everyone who is free, can have their mouths, their lives touched by something like tongues of fire? Well one thing is that the dry bones begin to rattle. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Even they begin to hear the word of the Lord. They take on sinew and muscle and nerves and flesh and breath and spirit. That boneyard valley suddenly becomes a place of life. And they aren’t like animated corpses, the walking dead, Zombies who only see human beings as prey. These once dry bones become a community of the living, an inclusive community of these last days where we recognize that something like tongues of fire, something like breath, something like wind can land on all of us. Everyone and everything can proclaim the deeds and power of God and everyone and everything can hear it, and understand it in their own language.

The followers of Jesus came alive, they were suddenly on fire. Those three years with Jesus where they seemed so clueless, more of an obstacle to the Jesus Movement than moving it forward were, in an instant, a thing of the past. Something like fire settled on tongues that beforehand only seemed able to speak of confusion and disbelief. Or just kept quiet.

Jesus knew all along, though, that those dry bones could live. And they ran out of that room like cats with their tails on fire and they began speaking to the valleys of dry bones. And the bones came alive. And this living, breathing, wind and spirit filled community called the church is still coming alive. And we continue to be touched with tongues like fire. It’s a fire, though, that doesn’t consume, but like the fire that fires a kiln and burns us into our purpose. And it all started in that little room in Jerusalem where everybody thought the fire had gone out.

So here’s a word for those graduating. You’re getting lots of those these days. But, of course, they aren’t just for you. Lots of those things you are hearing are things we all need to hear, maybe just in our own languages. Howard Thurman, the great American preacher and theologian, who sojourned for a bit in Oberlin, wrote this. Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

This day before commencement is always so hard. Too many good-byes have to be said. But we have been building a church with each other these past few years. What a gift of the Spirit that is. And what I want for all of you who are leaving is to find a place, a community of faith, where you can come alive, and also where they will gratefully receive the life you are bringing with you. What I want for you is to have those folk who will stand with you over the dry bones and prophecy life to them. “Hey come alive with us. There is breath. There is wind. There is fire. There is Spirit. Jesus is leading the way. We can find our way out of this valley.”

Everyone in that room was touched by the wind and the fire. Everyone in that town heard the glories of God in their own languages. Every man and woman, every son and daughter has been called to dream dreams and proclaim God’s word. The Spirit of Pentecost blows down all our barriers and burns down all our assumptions. Even the church can seem no more than a valley of dry bones, but as long as we are prophesying life, those bones can live again.

I began with a Pentecost blessing by Jan Richardson and want to end with something else from her, something for those graduating, something for those not graduating, something for all of us to hear no matter what language we are speaking right now.

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
about this;
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
wait.
Watch.
Listen.
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.
– See more at: http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/06/01/pentecost-this-grace-that-scorches-us/#sthash.R7WjZA17.dpuf

The First Ever Church Business Meeting. What Could Possible Go Wrong?

May 26th, 2015

Acts 1:13-26
May 17, 2015
Steve Hammond

I love the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. There are so many interesting stories in Acts, including the one we just read this morning. Now this has been one of those read by stories, you just read it and don’t stop to think too much about it. That’s why I’ve never preached on it before. But this time, it finally struck me. This is story about the very first church business meeting. Now that’s worth some attention!

Jesus had just ascended to heaven and the disciples all went back to the place where they had been hiding out, having no idea of what they were supposed to do next. So when you’ve got a bunch of church folk together, or those who are soon to become church folk, and you have no idea of what you are supposed to do, somebody calls a meeting. For some reason it seemed important to them that they replace the fallen apostle, Judas.

What I also noticed when this passage came up in the lectionary is that they wanted us to leave out the part of the story about how Judas died, which any eight year old boy could tell you is the best part. “And falling headlong, he burst in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Now why would the lectionary elders leave that part out? Not because it’s gross, I think, but because it’s a much different story than what we read in Matthew 27.

In the story of the Book of Acts it says that with the wicked proceeds he got from turning Jesus over to the authorities, he went out and purchased a field right before his much deserved awful death. But this is what we read in Matthew’s gospel. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, Judas departed; and he went and hanged himself. That’s a much different, and much more sympathetic portrayal of Judas than what we get in the Book of Acts.

It’s interesting what happens to Judas in the gospels. Do you remember the story of the woman who poured out the perfume on Jesus when he was eating dinner with at the home of Simon the Pharisee? Frank Crouch from the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, PA points this out about what happens with this story. All four [gospels] report an objection being raised that the perfume was not sold for the poor — raised by “some of those present” in Mark, by the disciples in Matthew, by Simon the Pharisee in Luke, and in John, by “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him).” Only John adds further commentary, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (v. 6). (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456}

Now you can understand the anger and feelings of betrayal they were all feeling toward Judas. How did Peter say it in today’s story? “…for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Sure Judas did an awful thing, but none of the other male disciples won the steadfastness and courage trophy during Holy Week. It was easy enough for Judas to become a scapegoat that they could pin this on.

So they have this first church business meeting where the main agenda item was to find someone to fill the office of Apostle left vacant by the untimely and, and in their minds, seemingly, well deserved death of Judas. They were freestyling here. There is no book of order or a set of by-laws they can turn to. There is nothing that said there had to be 12 surviving Apostles. It just seemed like a good idea to them that Judas be replaced and that they draw lots to find his successor.

Now just because something is in the Bible it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the way we are supposed to do things. And there are more issues here worth pondering than the casting of lots to determine new leadership, which the Hutterite’s apparently do, based on this passage.

Look at the process in this story. Before he ascends to heaven Jesus tells the disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait, wait for the Holy Spirit before they do anything. “Don’t just do something, stand there!” But they needed to do something, so they called that business meeting. They came up with their criteria for candidates for the Apostleship, and then prayed for God to pick a successor to Judas, as long as it was one of the two candidates that had made the finals. And it’s interesting that the prayer came after the process. They cast lots and Matthias was chosen as the replacement for Judas. This story makes the preacher Ralph Milton really mad because it was so obvious that if they were going to replace Judas, the choice was Mary Magdalene.

Who here can tell me what important mark the Apostle Matthias left on the early church? You never hear about him again. There are some vague and seemingly late traditions about him, but they all seem to be along the lines of he was an Apostle so he must have done something.

Matthias may well have done good and significant things, but his story just got lost. On the other hand, have you ever heard of a guy named the Apostle Paul? It was no business meeting or lot casting, or even a consensus vote that named him apostle. But, obviously, God had plans for him that went way beyond whatever Matthias brought to the church. And there were other Apostles that came along, including Junias, a woman’s name that got changed to Junia, a man’s name, in manuscripts along the way. God was never limited to just twelve, or even men, it appears.

Things, important things, can get done at church business meetings. Fortunately, though, we don’t have to always get it right. God can get things done because of us, or in spite of us. Grace abounds and so do our opportunities to grow and listen to the Spirit. Just because Matthias didn’t rise to the stature that the Apostle Paul did, it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have been set aside for service like he was. The Spirit may well have gotten Matthias to the place he needed to be, it may not just have been what people at first assumed.

That’s why I like the stories in Acts. The thing is that, in spite of a shaky start, the disciples and earlier followers came through. We get to see a bit of their lives and read about their stories and we do see the Spirit at work in their lives.

And here is what I would like to think possibly happened with these two stories of the death of Judas. You can understand the grief, anger, and fear that the disciples felt as they spent those days hiding out in Jerusalem. You can see how that all got turned to Judas, that creep who not only did Jesus in, but put all of them in jeopardy. You can imagine in that fear and uncertainty they were experiencing that they could easily latch on to that story of what they saw as his gruesome and deserved death.

As things went along, though, and the apostles and all the followers of Jesus began to put the gospel on, maybe when it got time to the writing of Matthew’s gospel, the author remembered he had heard another story about Judas and how grief stricken he was by what he had done. Maybe, at least, we ought to keep that in the record, he thought. Life is complicated. Maybe by the time of Matthew’s Gospel the early church was ready to imagine Judas in a different way.

I came across these thoughts about conversion in my reading this week by James Alison that seem an appropriate way to think about what this story of the of the Apostles, and want to share it to close our time this morning. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me…though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held as a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy. (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter7b.htm}

In The Valley of the Shadow of Goodness and Mercy

May 26th, 2015

Psalm 23 and Matthew 5:1-11
Steve Hammond
May 10, 2015

We’really not talking about the Beatitudes this morning. It just seemed like it would be good to have them in mind as we look a bit more at the 23rd Psalm, which John Bergen used for his text a couple of weeks back. I’m not going to say much about sheep or sheoherds, though. By I think there is still a lot to that Psalm even without the sheep and shepherds,

John talked about Psalm 23 in response to his thoughts about when resurrection isn’t enough. We’ve been doing all the yay, Jesus is alive stuff during Easter, but what do you do when that’s not enough? Sure there has been resurrection but the depression isn’t ending, the cancer isn’t getting better, the relationships aren’t improving, the pain isn’t going away. There are those valleys of the shadow of death we still traverse even when there is Easter and resurrection.

John talked about how we need folk walking with us when we find ourselves in those valleys of death. And with his time in Hebron in the West Bank of Palestine he did some very literal walking in those valleys by walking with children on the way to school. They have to negotiate Israel soldiers and checkpoints. There is tear gas to try to avoid, settlers and soldiers who want to do the kids harm. He asked us to imagine what it is like for a six or seven year old child to have to decide if they are going to walk through the tear gas on the way to school, take the extra time, maybe hours, to get to another checkpoint where there is no tear gas. Or just go back home. At the Peace Potluck he told the story about the family who can only turn left when they go out their door because there is a checkpoint to their right that is just outside their door.

Having someone like John or other Christian Team Peacemakers or other folk walk with you makes a big difference, even if they can’t put an end to the Israeli occupation, or really do much about the tear gas.

That got me thinking about those children and how important it is to have John and others walk with them through those valleys of death. And that got me thinking about all kinds of other people and all kinds of other valleys that are much closer to home, though we can’t forget about those valleys in places far away like Palestine, or Iraq, or Pakistan, or Nigeria, or Guatemala, or Nepal, or Israel or any of a multitude of places where children are the victims of war, violence, corruption, racism, terrorism, and disasters natural and of human origin..

There are kids in this church that need us to walk with them. It’s not tear gas or angry settlers they face, or terrorists, but they are walking through their own valleys of death. And we get to walk with them and with those who walk more closely with them.

It’s not just the kids, though. Many of us know those hard valleys where resurrection just hasn’t been enough. I remember how many walked with Mary and me through that literal valley of death when our daughter Sarah died. As I was telling Bob Cothran during one of those sharing times that John had us do that morning, it wasn’t that people were just walking with us, but sometimes they carried us, and still do sometimes.

That’s not just a unique experience to Mary and me, most of you know from your own experiences. There are all kinds of valleys of death that many of us are trying to pass through. And we need people to walk with us.

The writer of the Psalm said that not only was God walking along with him in that valley, but following close behind was goodness and mercy. It’s not enough to feel like God is with us in those valleys, we have to find that presence with each other as they walk with us. And, as hard as those valleys are, can you imagine if goodness and mercy weren’t following behind?

One of the podcasts I listen to is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I was listening to one this week about World War 1. He talked about the experience of a British soldier who had been near the front lines when the Germans launched a four hour long artillery barrage. It was awful. And the British knew that when the artillery stopped the German ground troops would be coming. The bombardment had been so horrific, that instead of demoralizing, at least, this one British soldier before the ground troops came, all he wanted to do was kill someone.

And suddenly out of the fog there came a German soldier who had been wounded, stumbling along. The British soldier pulled out his gun and ran up to the German and pointed the barrel of the gun at the German’s temple. The German soldier just looked at him with fear in his eyes and pulled a picture of him with his family out of his pocket and showed it to the British soldier. Though, Dan Carlin said, “mercy is a dangerous commodity on the battlefield,” the British soldier let the German go. And the one thing from the war that British soldier really continued to think about was whether that German soldier ever got home. Those two soldiers has seen enough death to know that the only way out of that valley was through goodness and mercy.

Goodness and mercy is lots of stuff like compassion, forgiveness, grace, love, kindness (or that really wonderful phrase from the old days, loving kindness). That’s what we get to bring people when they are walking through those valleys. That path of righteousness that we read about in this Psalm must have something, I imagine, to do with goodness and mercy.

And it’s in those valleys where God prepares a banquet in the presence of our enemies. But those banquets don’t happen by magic. We get to do God’s work by preparing times of feasting and renewal and respite for folk even in the hard places of their lives. And that all happens because walk with each other.

And that’s the point. We are walking with each other. We are helping each other traverse our own valleys of death. John talked about how they all walk with each other in Palestine. How many times have you walked with someone through hard times to discover they have helped lay a spread before your enemies?

And what those kids in Palestine know, as well as the rest of us, is that it’s not all valleys of death. There are green pastures and still waters. And, again, they don’t just pop up. We lead each other to those places that God wants for all of us. We get to help pour those cups that overflow, simply because we are walking with each other. That’s how souls get restored.

One of the organizations that has come to be in the midst of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is one that brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents whose children have been killed in the violence there. They walk with each other in that valley they all inhabit. If those folk can do that, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

I may be becoming a bit obsessed by this transition business that all churches are facing these days. But things are rapidly changing in this world and all churches have to figure out how they are going to create a new future for themselves. Surely, finding ways to walk with others near and far, in places of death or green pastures is key to the church continuing to mean something for this world. And we get to try to figure out how to walk with people along the way of Jesus, or as it was simply called in early church days, The Way. The Way is a path, a trail, a road, a journey where we walk with each other and seek with Jesus the Realm of God, which takes us to valleys of death and still waters, and all kinds of stops along the way. But we keep walking with each other. And the churches whose folk are willing and able to discern how they can help folk along that journey are the ones that will have something to offer.

I think it is unfortunate that the 23rd Psalm has been too often relegated to funeral duty. Sure it’s comforting in those literal valleys of death, but when you really pay attention to it, it offers us a lot of challenge. How do we walk with others and allow them to walk with us? Is God the only one who leads us to green pastures and still waters? How do we help restore souls? How do we prepare a feast for those who don’t feel like eating or make sure we bring what they want to eat rather than what tastes good to us? And as churches make the transitions we must make, can we remember that it’s goodness and mercy that people need?

The title for John’s sermon was When Resurrection Isn’t Enough. John and I talked afterwards about how Easter was never meant to be the end of the story where everybody lived happily ever after. Like the 23rd Psalm, I see Easter and the resurrection as much of a challenge as a comfort.

I think the response to the Easter morning proclamation He is Risen! is not Risen, indeed! but Now what? And the 23rd Psalm suggests that we keep walking with each other and bring all the goodness and mercy we can muster.

The Earth’s Holy Ground

May 7th, 2015

Joyce Parker
May 3,2015

Here are the notes from what Joyce Parker shared for the “Soil Blessing: service.
“Train your children to choose the right path, and when they are older they will remain on it.” Prov. 22 :6
“The moment that a child can walk
Like that it which it first can talk,
Is a precious start of exploration into landscapes of creation.
Walking, walking, walking walking, walking on the earth.” –FD Hole … walking on holy ground….
We are designed to connect with nature with body, mind, and spirit. Emotions weave with understanding over time. There are several pathways that we adults can nurture:
1) Experience—Variety of experience helps us be adaptable (trait for human success), tolerant (rain, heat, cold), also to handle fears, become comfortable in situation
2)Mentoring- “Go with me”, show me, collaboration is a second trait that makes humans successful.
3) Understanding –Knowldege (trait for human success)–starting with big ideas such as awesome world, cycles of life, stewardship of creation, doing our part to take care of this gift! But spice it up with interesting details that they may discover—and you may discover with them!
Our spirit and attitude are what is caught by the children around us. So, our first questions for ourselves might be, “Do I feel glad about the soil under my feet? When did I last give thanks for the dirt that literally keeps me alive? Have I recently done anything that would pay respect to nature’s gift to which we are all connected?
So getting hold of those feelings and gathering a round of enthusiasm and curiosity, NOW you and I can share with the generations that follow us.
Last year, I watched with wonder as our 5 year old grandson called out to us as we arrived at their home, Grandma come see the garden! It was just a 10 x 12’ space alongside their garage. With his running (which is what he does most of!) to his little gate, he entered along one row of peas and began picking and eating as he went. His mama said for the children to have access was important and she is also big on vegetables. We got a little sand bucket and he started in on the cherry tomatoes. Plunk into the bucket and chomp into the mouth. Growing right up in the center of it all were two giant sunflowers. We recalled that in the spring for at least 2 years, our son and family had bought little peat pots and sunflower seeds for 2 and 3 year olds to handle and watch grow. It wasn’t the perfect system, but it was done with enthusiasm and some real results. Pride and a sense of ownership had been instilled. I was seeing the benefit for those kids. They buy produce and eat it on the way home. (I cringe because it is not washed, but there is freedom of access and encouragement to enjoy!!)
Teach your children well. And turn their questions back to them to encourage curiosity.
Cultivate a sense of wonder in the natural world. Be curious, explore, let the kids find new things and then look up the details (even on the computer where there are wonderful pictures and videos). I brought exhibit #1 a long piece of string. Have you ever roped off a section of the yard (2X2) with string and then started naming all the things you can find in that area. Dig for worms and insects? Try the woods. Nature is full of mysteries to be solved and when we enjoy the out of doors, we can share time asking questions and finding answers. Plan a walk taking a magnifying glass or camera, go barefoot and play with the stones.
And listen with delight when they tell you of their encounters with nature. Put their findings on a special table for display.
There is a book, How to raise a Wild Child. (Meaning a child in love with nature.) Time in the out of doors can have many benefits.. It is especially important in today’s world so full of technology, screen-time, games, and scheduled time. Children in connection and comfortable with nature are often more relaxed and have a greater love for it —and will likely to want to care for it.
Take a winter walk and view the ice on the trees and look for animal tracks. A lot of “bad” weather can be tolerated if we dress appropriately. It teaches adaptability. Being out of doors can help energize us and inspire us. Play for the youngest ones is most important– “splashing in puddles” is a must in my experience. When I was young I loved to turn our little turtle loose in a big puddle and then worry about finding it again! And now as a Grandma I love to wade in a stream and listen to the water.
One parent has a worm bin and the kids enjoy feeding the worms their food scraps. Vermicomposting has taught them about the circle of life and made them more aware of protection and sustainability
Read a book on the back steps or under a tree. Take a picnic to the park. Lay on your back and watch the clouds go by, feel the wind pick up before a rain. Watch the storm. You know what I mean. Get in touch with the natural world.
It can be a part of their life that they will not forget. Put down the phone. Talk to the Creator about life on this planet. Teach the children for joy and for healthy survival on this earth.

What We (and they) Couldn’t See

April 25th, 2015

April 19, 2015
Luke 24:33-49, Acts 1:1-4
Mary Hammond

We are going to begin with a guided meditation. I don’t want to assume anything about your very personal journey, your hidden questions and doubts, or your deepest convictions. It may be that this meditation does not speak to you. In which case, I invite you into a time of silence. It may elicit strong emotion. That is OK, too. I promise you, this journey I am taking you on is deeply related to our scripture story as it continues to live in and through us.

Make yourself as comfortable as you can (on a wooden pew), and take a deep breath. Slowly release that breath.

Remember a time when you believed something very strongly, or hoped for something very deeply (maybe even prayed for it a lot), and things didn’t turn out the way you expected them to. Experience that time in your body, in your being. Feel what you feel. Be conscious, and gentle with yourself (Silence).

The foundations of your beliefs may have been shaken. Maybe any prayers felt shattered, too. You wondered how to make sense of what really happened, maybe even how to trust, or how to trust God, again. Sit for a moment in this space. Experience that disorientation in your body, in your being (Silence).

Maybe you are still in this space about that particular reality. If so, stay where you are, and let that be what it is for now, as uncomfortable as it may be. And be gentle with yourself (Silence).

For others–maybe you have wrestled with your beliefs and expectations and come out to a new place. Maybe this experience has changed you prayer life, moving it in new directions. Maybe you understand yourself, the situation, or God differently because of this journey. Maybe mystery makes more sense now. Maybe some semblance of wisdom–with or without understanding–has come.

If you are in this new place, feel that in your body and spirit. What is it like? How hard won has it been?

Whichever space you are in, notice that space within you (Silence).

Now let’s come back to our gathering with one another. Take a moment or two to just re-enter this gathering of one another (Pause).

Our lives are filled with inner stories such as these. They continually call us from one understanding to another, from “what we could not see, to what we come to see.” In his book, “The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary,” Walter Brueggemann speaks of this process as one of disorientation, reorientation, and integration or transformation.

I believe we could also describe that final step as ‘resurrection.’ At first, something dies in us. Disorientation feels much like being lost. Deep within the cavern of the soul, new life slowly recreates itself. Over time, reorientation brings us home to ourselves once again, but in a new way. What is seeded in us, at long last, yields to transformation or resurrection. We are out, on the other side!

Today we continue to celebrate the liturgical season of Eastertide—this mysterious, mystical 40 day period after the Resurrection, when Jesus appears alive to many of his followers. According to the first verses of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-14), Jesus is not just popping in to say hello. He is meeting and eating with his disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom or Realm of God.

Yet the disciples are still doggedly holding onto their exclusive view of the Realm of God. As Jesus gets ready to ascend into heaven, they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:5). When new information comes, they doggedly feed it back into their familiar belief systems.

The 40 days between the resurrection and ascension mirror the 40 years of the Israelites in the wilderness, wandering toward a new home–skeptical, faithless, doubting, over-confident, fearful, confused. We all know those wilderness periods of our own lives, times where we must confront the fact that life turns out differently than we anticipated, and we have a lot of soul work to do to make the necessary transitions of heart.

Could this be what is going on during and after those meals with Jesus throughout that period between the resurrection and ascension? Does he expect the disciples to get what he is saying then? I doubt it.

Yet, does Jesus hope for their future–for the time when the Spirit will blow fiercely upon them–fresh conflicts with political and religious authorities will erupt, and the disciples will stand up strong; questions about including Gentiles in God’s project will arise, and inclusion will ultimately happen; issues of law vs. grace will fester, and grace will triumph? Does he hope for a time when the seeds he has planted in their souls will break forth from the moist, dark earth of their beings, and bear astonishing, abundant fruit? I think so.

The disciples are witnesses to resurrection. They also become bearers of that story in their own beings. So do we. You and I become unfolding stories of resurrection.

There’s no side-stepping the fact that it can be a hard road to get there. Once we move through disorientation into reorientation and sow the seeds of transformation, then the next leg of the journey begins. That, too, offers its challenges, as the accounts of the disciples in the early church demonstrate so clearly.

Most of the time, we are at all stages of this process. As we continue to open ourselves to see what we cannot see, something old is dying in us, and new life is rising. Amen.