Wine, Women, and Song/Compassion, Generosity, and Hospitality

March 1st, 2016

Luke 13:1-8
February 28, 2016
Steve Hammond

Jesus tells that story about the apple tree and he really leaves us hanging. What happens the next year? Did the tree begin producing fruit? Did the landowner have it chopped down? There are a variety of ways the story could end, or continue. What do you imagine could have happened a year later?

We may get back to this story before we end. But now I want us to take a look at the beginning of today’s passage and another very familiar story.

Right before this story, Jesus is with a crowd of folk and they got to talking about what CNN and MSNBC would call breaking news. Pilate had executed some revolutionaries, though I am sure he called them terrorists. He had even mixed their spilled blood with the blood of the sacrificial animals being burnt on the altar. That sacrilege was to emphasize that Pilate was going to not only punish individuals for their revolutionary actions, but the whole nation, as well.

Then there was the Tower of Siloam that collapsed. If it had been CNN or MSNBC covering these stories they would have had a variety of commentators and reporters arguing about what Pilate was actually doing. Some of them, for sure, would have reported the speculation that the tower didn’t exactly fall, but that it had been sabotaged by Pilate. That tower was attached to the wall of the first Temple and had become a place of protest by those who were opposed to the Roman occupation.

The discussion between Jesus and the people, though, took a different direction. It was the theological implications of these two tragic events, not the political, that was primary for them, though the political and theological were never much separated in first century Jerusalem. If your belief was that God protects the righteous from harm and punishes the wicked, then were Pilate’s victims somehow to blame for their demise? It’s almost like Pilate’s sin is not the issue, but the victims.

Jesus turned the tragedies from the news of the day to something much more personal. “Do you actually think,” he said, “that the people who died were any worse sinners than anybody else? Of course not.” Instead of speculating about the sins of others, Jesus quickly suggested they spend less time with the headlines and more time thinking about themselves. He told the people that the real issue was that they needed to repent.

What we think of repentance and what the Bible thinks of repentance may well be different things. A bit later in Luke’s gospel, we hear another story. You are probably familiar with the story of the man who has two sons and the younger one decides he doesn’t want to wait until his father shuffles off this mortal coil and demands his share of the inheritance immediately. He takes the money and goes off to lead what in the old days they quite wonderfully called a dissolute life, squandering all the inheritance on wine, women, and song. He ends up broke and becomes a hired hand for some farmer and realizes that he not only has been reduced to taking care of pigs, but the pigs are eating better than he is. Lying there in the mud and manure we are told that, “he comes to his senses.” So he goes crawling, literally and figuratively, back to his father to beg forgiveness and to suggest that he would rather work for his dad as a hired hand than the guy he had been working for.

What he doesn’t know is that his father has been waiting at the end of the driveway every day watching and waiting and hoping for his son to come home. And when the son arrives, and before he is able to ask his father’s forgiveness and propose he be hired on as just another farmhand, the father calls for his workers and servants to stop what they were doing and prepare a welcome home party for his son. And what a party, evidently, it was. The father was so happy and relieved to have his son back. The only one more flabbergasted by this turn of events than the younger son was the older son. He was the good kid. While his younger brother had treated their father with such disrespect and gone off and quickly run through the money the older brother shouldered his responsibilities to their father. When the older brother heard all the noise and laughter and was told about the party for his younger brother, he wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. They could party all they wanted, but he wouldn’t join them. His father came out and tried to help him see that this wasn’t an issue of who was the responsible one and who wasn’t, but that his brother was actually alive and back home.

The younger son had what we would think of nowadays as a great repentance story. He had strayed far, far away from the straight and narrow. He could bring tears to your eyes at the testimony meetings. The only problem is that repentance isn’t really about morality. Max Skinner from Luther Seminary puts it this way. “Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a ‘180-degree turn around.’ Rather, in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.”

So I am not really convinced that what the younger son was doing is what could be understood as repentance in the Bible. You could call it penitence, which interestingly enough, is the topic you are directed to when you look up repentance in the topical index of hymns in our hymnal. And it’s not that penitence isn’t a worthy pursuit. But there is a difference between the two. And, who knows, the younger son might have been repentant as well as penitent. But it could be the older son was being invited by his father to be the one who could show his younger brother what repentance really means by welcoming his brother home.

This week in study group we read the chapters in the book where the authors wrote about generosity, hospitality, and compassion. Those three words speak to me more about repentance than the younger son turning from wine, women, and song. Now I know there are people who don’t like it when it is suggested that there is something wrong with the older son. It’s true he was the responsible one who didn’t run off and play the prodigal himself. But, he is also unhappy. And his father is giving him the opportunity to adopt the different perspective that repentance brings, including the joy of compassion, hospitality, and generosity. It could truly be life changing for the older son.

Let’s get back to the apple tree. The gardener is so very patient, so willing to seemingly give every tree more nurture and care and time than makes sense. Now, it usually is not a good idea to make allegories out of the stories Jesus tells, trying to figure out which character represents who, or what the apple tree, for example, stands for. In the older translations, this tree is rightly identified as a fig tree. And since the fig tree was seen as a symbol for Israel, lots of commentators make this story all about Israel and how God’s patience with Israel won’t last forever.

I like it, though, that The Message Bible makes it an apple tree because it gets us going in a different direction. When people look at the fig tree as a sign for Israel, that leads them to say the landowner who wants the tree cut down is God, and the gardener is Jesus trying to make a deal with God on Israel’s behalf. Or some people take out the Israel part of the story and say that Jesus is trying his best to keep God’s wrath from being poured down on us. ‘Just give them more time, God. I’ll do my best to convince them. If they don’t repent, then you can destroy them.’

Think, though, about Jesus using this story to simply tell us something about God. Which character do you think Jesus thought was like God? The landowner or the gardener? Whether we see God as the landowner or the gardener makes a big difference to our spirituality and our lives. Jesus was all about God as the gardener.

That doesn’t seem like the way Jesus understood God, though. What makes much more sense to me is that God is the gardener in this story. Kind of like that father Jesus talked about in the other story who was so loving and patient with both of his sons.

Maybe the way Jesus ended the story about the apple tree is exactly the way it should have ended. And we don’t know how that other story he told about the two sons ended either. Did the older son finally attend the party and welcome his brother home? We’re they reconciled? Did the younger brother’s new found appreciation for home and family last or did he take off again? But Jesus was content to end that story, too, right where he did.

Most of our stories don’t really have tidy endings, whether good or bad. Our stories tend to keep on going. Jesus is telling us that the love and mercy and patience of God keeps on going, too. And we have this Gardener who is willing to whatever it takes to help us bear the fruit of righteousness. Bushels and bushels of it.

On The Way to Jerusalem

February 21st, 2016

Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016
Mary Hammond

As long as I can remember, my dad was a man on a mission. During his youth, he came perilously close to participating in an armed robbery with some buddies. When the two guys came knocking on the door that particular evening, my father opted to stay home. He had found a chemistry book in a trash can that day and poured over it all night long. From that point on, there was no turning back. With the help of a mentor named Smitty who recognized my dad’s potential, the rest of the story is history, although not without struggle.

As the sun began to set on my father’s life, he longed to give back what he had received. He hungered to impart his knowledge, wisdom, and hard-earned life lessons to those coming after him.

Many of us don’t have the opportunity to face death slowly, or even with an awareness that it is coming soon. But others do. And those who do may have the opportunity to use that time deliberately and thoughtfully, even if it is filled with increasing pain, limitations, and heartache.

The last year of his life, my dad had a sense that death was coming. One time that year, he was surprised to return home after being hospitalized. The next time, however, he did not. There was an intensity to the way he lived, and an intensity to the way he died.

Jesus comes to us in the Gospel stories as a man on a mission–not just in his life work, which he pursues with fidelity and intensity, but also as he sets his sights on that final trip to Jerusalem. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus skirts death more times than most of us ever notice in the biblical text. He is keenly aware of what awaits him down the road.

Life has a different feel to it, when we are face-to-face with death. Throughout the Gospels, we sense the pounding urgency of Jesus’ ministry; the fervor of the crowds who follow him and their fickleness; the confusion of the male disciples and their many foibles. We see Jesus withdrawing to seek Respite, Silence, and Rest–to the mountains, into the wilderness, at Mary & Martha’s home.

Danger lurks everywhere. Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by King Herod through the cunning manipulation of his wife Herodius and her alluring daughter, Salome (Mark 6:14-29). As time passes, Jesus has more and more conflicts with the Religious Elite.

It is in this context that we come to today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just confronted a group of Pharisees with their spiritual blindness. The time for niceties, if there ever was one, is past. He pulls no punches. Some of the Pharisees warn him that Herod is out to kill him. They tell Jesus that he should just cut and run.

Why this warning? Do some secretly support Jesus, like Nicodemus does in the Gospel of John (John 3:1-13)? Are these religious leaders functioning as “double-agents,” expressing their concern about his safety when their true motives are nefarious? Are these men hoping to avoid a showdown with Jesus in Jerusalem? Are they trying to protect their Temple turf, while simultaneously appeasing the Romans?

We do not know. But we do know that Jesus is neither intimidated nor deterred from his path by their words. He replies deftly and with conviction: “Go tell that fox: ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work’” (Luke 13:32). Foxes are known for their crafty, manipulative behavior. It is quite bold to call the Occupying King of one’s Occupied People a fox. And this man also ordered the execution of his cousin, John. Think about that for a moment.

Time is short for Jesus. The phrase, “today, tomorrow, and the third day” evokes the sense of urgency which he feels.

Jesus is a man on a mission. What prophet comes to his demise anywhere but in Jerusalem? As he speaks, it is as if the entire panorama of God’s work stands before him–timelessly, eternally. In this particular moment, Jesus sees himself as one among many of a long line of fallen prophets, not the One among the many.

Jesus then launches into what feels to me like a melange of proclamation, confession, and lament. It is all jumbled together in a mixture that seems appropriate for this time and hour in his life. He cries out with a depth of agony and love that echoes throughout the ages, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how many times I have wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!” (from Luke 13:34).

When a Mother Hen spreads her wings, her breast is left exposed. Yet, that very self-exposure protects her baby chicks. She is more vulnerable; they are more safe. It is a juxtaposition of two poignant, contrasting images—one for the chicks, another for the mother.

We could spend a long time on this image of Jesus as Mother Hen. Mystics have ruminated on it throughout the ages, reminding us that gender is not a primary category of the one we call Son of God. In fact, the phrase “Son of God” is the Greek is more accurately translated into English, “the Human One.”

Back to the lament itself. This passage strikes me most deeply when I yearn for something with all my heart and yet have no power to make it happen. I felt that so keenly, time and time again, raising our late daughter, Sarah–in her early adolescence, when we fought for her life through eleven hospitalizations followed by a year-long illness; during her first year of college, when she came within a hair’s breath of unraveling; at age thirty-three, when she had a complete breakdown and returned home shattered and weary, with no fight left in her spirit. And all those moments that connected those moments! How many times I cried out with my own prayers of lament, loving Sarah so much, longing to make her whole, yet being utterly incapable of this.

Our stories are all different, and we all have them. And yet the lament we share is the same lament. It is also the lament of Jesus. Even the Human One, the Incarnate One, cries out in stark words of agony, confessing his utter lack of agency. I find a strange comfort in knowing this.

Yet, there is hope at the conclusion of this text. Jesus affirms that the day is coming when the chicks will be gathered, when they will proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35b). For Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, that day remains in the future. Yet, his vision of it offers a testimony for us: what we see here in this moment is not the whole story, nor is it the end of the story.

Jesus remains faithful to God. He makes himself vulnerable for the sake of those he loves. He perseveres in spite of all odds. In a recent Facebook post, beloved PCC’er and Oberlin College alum, John Bergen, encourages his friends to “do something brave” for Lent. Fidelity, vulnerability, perseverance. That’s what I call “brave.” The world is crying out for that kind of brave. Amen.

Hearing Voices

February 18th, 2016

Luke 4:1-14
February 14, 2016
Steve Hammond

It’s a good thing Jesus heard that voice when he was baptized. “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” It wasn’t much later until Jesus was hearing a different voice. Let’s read that story now. It’s a responsive reading in your bulletin.

I am wondering if this season of the church year we call Lent isn’t about the voices we hear. Now I kind of play it pretty loose with the church calendar. I do have an understanding and appreciation for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. But, since I am not rooted in a liturgical tradition, I don’t particularly feel the need to adhere to some, or maybe even many, of the expectations about the appropriate ways to conduct ourselves and our worship during the different seasons of the church year.

Some of you have heard my story about the time years ago when several churches in town decided we were going to end all of our worship services on Palm Sunday of that year by processing to the bandstand area of Tappan Square and doing a short liturgy as we all got ready to move into Holy Week. I was the person who had been charged with the responsibility of creating that liturgy, which, it turned out, was not a decision that had been made with a lot of foresight. Palm Sunday is a high liturgical ground for lots of people. But, liturgically speaking, I am situated much closer to sea level.

I thought I put together a pretty good liturgy for the occasion. It was Palm Sunday which is, of course, a highly celebrative event. And, there is a good churchy word that is often used in our celebrations that nobody had told me we weren’t supposed to use during Lent. And I used it several times in the opening reading. It’s the ‘a’ word, or ‘h’ word if you know what I am talking about. I am about to say it, so I hope it’s not offensive to you. But, I am not going to make you to say it, as I did for the folk who were gathered that day because it came up time and time again in their response. That word is ‘alleluia,’ or ‘halleluiah.’ I didn’t know about that before the gathering. But I sure did afterwards. And, actually, I kind of felt worse for those who didn’t say anything than those who did.
I realize that such a liturgical blunder might be disconcerting to people, but that kind of thing is not a real big deal to me. I mentioned at the last Community Meeting is that one thing that is going to happen during Holy Week is that I am going to listen to an entire gospel in one sitting, and invite whoever wants to, to join me. Nobody in this congregation has given me any pushback about that other than some “a whole gospel?” “will there be a bathroom break?” “how long will that take?” kind of stuff. But I know I have friends and colleagues in town and other places that object to things like Christmas and Easter being dragged into Holy Week.

I am going to do it anyway, precisely because I think what Easter and Christmas and Epiphany and Pentecost and Lent are about are all about the whole year not just the various seasons of the church year where we highlight them. That, of course, is not my discovery. The most intense adherents to the traditions that come along with each of the seasons of the church year never claim that Christmas doesn’t matter just because it’s Pentecost. But they like to make sure Pentecost, Christmas, and all the rest get their fair share of attention.

Let’s get back to the voices Jesus was hearing. I think hearing those voices, however we hear them or describe them, the voice of God and the voice of the Devil are a constant in our lives. “You are my child,” we hear God say. “How do we know you aren’t a fraud?” comes from the Devil. And, of course, those devilish words that so often come into our lives at those points where we are weak, or struggling, or exhausted physically, or spiritually, or emotionally, or psychologically or a combination of some or all of the above.

During Lent, of course, there is a big emphasis on giving up something. And there are people who do that who aren’t what I would particularly call committed church folk. Giving up chocolate is particularly popular. Some people give up a TV show, or limit their online time, or texting during supper during Lent. That kind of stuff that leads to better health or better behavior or better habits is all fine. Self-improvement is always a good thing at any time during the year. But people are realizing, of course, that there must be more to Lent than it being some kind of self-improvement strategy, though. That’s why people are starting to figure out what they can add to their lives during Lent; things like helping out at the Food program, visiting their grandparents more, or making positive changes in their lives for the sake of the environment.

Adding something during Lent is all good, too. But in this story of Jesus responding to that voice of the Devil in the wilderness I see something much deeper going on. Maybe what we need to give up at Lent is the need for power, the need to prove ourselves before God and others. Maybe we need to give up the fear we can’t accomplish what we want to accomplish because we don’t have enough resources, however we define those resources. Maybe what we need to do during Lent, and continue all the way to the next Lent, and the Lent after that is to listen more carefully, more intentionally, more methodically for that voice Jesus heard in the river, not in the dry desert. “You are my child, marked and chosen by my love. Pride of my life.”

It was so important for what Jesus was about to do that he listen for that first voice because it would be telling him things so different than the second. And the thing is, that as much as we would like to think differently, it’s that second voice, the Devil in the wilderness that is the default for most of what goes on in this world. Both voices are always there, but Lent reminds us that we have to, more often than not, stop and listen for the first.

That second voice, just like it did for Jesus, always tells us that there is a better way, a way that makes more sense, a way that’s less of a hassle and gets more approval than whatever God is saying to us. It’s a voice that says you can make the system work for you, rather than going to all that effort to come up with a new system. “And you know,” the voice says, “nobody wants God working outside the system. Even if you listen to God’s voice, nobody will ever believe you, anyway. Just do it my way, Jesus. It works for me and everybody else.”

One of Gospel stories that illustrates this so well can be found in Luke 16. That’s where Jesus is talking to the folk about money. It’s the place where he says you can’t serve two masters, you will love the one and hate the other, you can’t serve both God and money. But here’s the response to that. It says it so well in The Message translation. “When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.” Jesus was giving us something from God, that first voice. But the Pharisees immediately gave voice to the second, the Tempter.

Jesus just said no. That voice in the desert wasn’t the one Jesus was going to listen to. It wasn’t the voice of life. Jesus knew that the voice of God was calling us to something better and it had to do with things like loving our enemies, forgiving each other, walking across the borders, tearing down the walls, putting our hope in God not our stuff, treasuring ourselves and each other. I noticed a theme that started with Jesus’ baptism. ‘As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.’ ‘Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild.’ ‘Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit.’ You can’t have Lent without Pentecost. Empowered by God’s Spirit, Jesus was much more enabled to hear that first voice. And the Spirit was with Jesus when that second voice was speaking.

When we hear that first voice more clearly, more constantly than that will, of course, have an impact on what we say. What comes out of us is likely to sound more like that first voice Jesus heard rather than the second. In Ephesians the Apostle Paul counsels us to “let no corrupt communications come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Now there’s a worthy Lenten discipline.

Some of you read that post from John Bergen that I put on the church’s facebook page about Lent. It’s pretty good. And he says Lent is his favorite season of the church year. I don’t hear that much. I always kind of chuckle to myself when I hear Mary tell somebody that Advent is her favorite season of the church year. And I think, “You and something like 94% of everybody else.” But I get what John is saying. Lent gives us the opportunity to hone our listening skills, and change how we talk. To hear what God is saying that is so contradictory to the voice of the Devil. Lent provides us the time to remember that God is calling us to something that is wonderful and dangerous and life giving. Lent is all about taking risks and moving not toward death, but resurrection.

As I alluded to in my Lenten confession, I think we have to get past the hyper individualism that Lent can seem to encourage. What if this business of Lent, of listening to God’s voice and setting our faces toward life, isn’t simply about me or you or somebody else, but all of us? What if Lent is about this church, about the bigger church, empowered by the Spirit, listening together for the voice of God, the church, not just me or you, rejecting that second voice? What if Lent is that reminder that we take this wonderful and dangerous journey, that God keeps telling us about, together?

Hearing voices? Of course you are. The voices are there all the time, telling us much different things. But Lent reminds us to keep listening for the first voice no matter how loud, or constant, or present or persistent the second is. Listening for that first voice is, I think, a Lenten discipline worthy of pursuit and something worth celebrating. Can I get an amen and alleluia?

[I began the service with this]

Lenten confession

I have to confess, as we gather on this first Sunday of Lent, that I have some reservations about whether the whole idea of Lent is really a good thing. Mary and I have been talking about this.

First of all, I don’t want to dismiss the real value that any of you, and a whole bunch of other people, in all kinds of times and places, have found in pursuing a deeper spiritual life during Lent. Going deeper, exploring confession and repentance, making positive changes in your relationships with God and people and the environment are all worthy things. But here is where my discomfort comes.

Now granted I haven’t done a whole lot of research on this. But I have read that Lent didn’t come along until later in the traditions because there was a feeling that Christians were getting complacent and needed some prodding, or even scolding, that something like Lent could provide. Here is something Ken Sehested wrote. “Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary. There was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.”

Giving people a bit of a spiritual kick in the butt is not a particularly bad idea, but here is where it can get bad. The folk who need to take it seriously, are often, the ones who don’t. But the ones who aren’t particularly among those who have been ho-hum about their faith are the ones who do take it seriously and there can be lot of unnecessary self-flagellation going on because they feel like, as hard as they try, they just aren’t good enough.

It’s kind of like the Good Citizen thing that used to happen in the schools. It was a program designed to encourage the kids whose behavior could use some improving. But the kids who took it most seriously were the ones whose behavior was great, but the message was it was not good enough. I fear that too much of what Lent is about is that you aren’t good enough.

Another concern I have is that in this hyper-individualistic culture of ours, Lent feeds into that whole idea that it’s all about me, and doesn’t have much to do with this being about us. I have to examine myself more rigorously. I have to get my act with God more together. I have to take care of my salvation. To me, that can just reinforce that building community is, at best, a nice option for us, but what really counts is me and God.

And related to that concern is that I don’t understand how the story of Lent, which is essentially Jesus turning his face toward Jerusalem to face what he knew he would face there, became something not about Jesus, but about us. How Jesus lived his life may be something worth examining during Lent, at least, as much as we examine how we live ours.

And finally, I am not sure what giving up candy during Lent, or watching less TV has to do with following Jesus. That kind of thing is good to do, but if that is what captures the essence of Lent for folk, that leaves it all feeling a bit empty for me. And even if there is a bit more to it in our spiritual disciplines like being nicer to our little brother, visiting our grandparents more, or shoveling the next door widow’s walk, I’m still not convinced that we are reaching into the depths of the sacrifice Jesus made, nor the kinds of sacrifices people are making in this world, not because they choose to, but because of what is being imposed on them by our political, economic, social, and religious forces.

This is something I found in the Huffington Post by ecotheologian Jacob Erikson. “Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of people who are surprised and grateful for the strange sacrifices they take up during Lent. But there are moments when some Lenten practices feel like vaguely pious, individualistic, New Year’s resolutions. They begin to fall by the wayside quickly, and don’t really open up our imaginations to thinking life differently.
“Lent, for me, is not about (and has never been about) sacrifice or penance or appeasing some unexamined heritage. It’s about interrogative love, passionate justice, and learning how to wonder again in the midst of all the awful, awful sadness. It’s about asking how beauty might occur in the midst of our fragile, decaying lives. It’s about creating new songs, stories, images scribbled in dust and ash that reexamine what human beings can be for the life of each other and the life of the planet. The short-shrift harmonies we sometimes manage to sing never are pure or clear, and the words and questions often grate against our ears with their grittiness. But Lent is about the questioning, the ambiguity of grit and glory.”

So that’s my Lenten confession. I go into Lent hoping that I will keep my ears attentive to hear the voice of God in all the ways it comes. And that, I hope, will have an impact on what people hear coming out of me. At the same time, though, I am going to approach Lent with my eyes a bit more widely open because, in spite of so many good intentions, there might be some unintended consequences.

Epiphanies in Light and Shadow

February 16th, 2016

John 12:35-36
February 7, 2016
Mary Hammond

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate the season of Epiphany more and more. It is a Season of Light, Revealing, Manifestation. This theme of “Light” is elemental to scripture from the first verses in the Book of Genesis, “Let there be light,” (see Genesis 1:1-3) to the final chapter of the Book of Revelation, “…they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (see Rev. 22:1-5).

John’s Gospel speaks deeply and often about Light. We read one such passage in unison today. Hear it once again, as I read it slowly: “For a brief time, the light is among you. Walk by the light you have, so darkness doesn’t destroy you. If you walk in darkness, you don’t know where you’re going. As you have the light, believe in [trust] the light. Then the light will be within you, and shining through your lives. You’ll be children of light” (John 12:35-36).

I recently spent about two weeks contemplating these verses over and over, letting them wash over me and get inside me. Let me share today a little of what I have seen.

“For a brief time,” Jesus begins, “the light is among you.” What powerful words!

Can you imagine, being there with Jesus, interacting daily with his startling, radiant light? We can get all warm and fuzzy about this possibility, but most of the time, it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy experience at all. His disciples were slow to understand and quick to compete with one another. They were ready to dismiss all sorts of people–a group of children, a Gentile woman, a blind beggar, even a whole town! Furthermore, nearly all our understanding of Jesus’ relationships with his disciples is based on his interactions with the twelve men who, with Jesus, take center stage in the ongoing Gospel stories. Yet, there were those moments of wonder and awe when the twelve sensed the luminous reality that they were truly in Holy Presence. We have those moments, too.

Each of us encounter people who are so full of light, we simply just love being around them. I worked as a Nurse’s Aide at a Nursing Home during the summers when I was in college. There were lots of crotchety elderly people who lived there and complained about everything. There were also severely physically disabled younger men whose behaved badly around the female aides. There were folks in all states of misery, loneliness, physical and emotional pain.

Then there was Mrs. Bussee. All the aides wanted to be assigned to her. She appreciated us; she was delighted to see us and grateful for every bit of care she received. She just radiated.

There was something else unique about this woman. She talked about Jesus like he was her best friend, with her all the time. I had grown up in the church, yet I had never heard anyone talk about Jesus the way she did.

Mrs. Bussee was tall, frail, and thin. One day, I was transferring her from her room chair to a wheelchair. In an instant, the transfer went terribly wrong. She fell flat on the floor, face-up. I was terrified. I had no idea how badly she was injured. Yet with her radiant smile, she looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Jesus is taking care of me.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Bussee was OK. Once again, I saw her shine. That changed me, just a little bit, every time I took care of her. It had a cumulative effect on my searching, 18-year old self.

Jesus continues, “Walk by the light you have, so darkness doesn’t destroy you. If you walk in darkness, you don’t know where you’re going.”

The truth of our lives is that sometimes we do walk in darkness, and sometimes it does seek to swallow us whole Who hasn’t known that experience? Sometimes we absolutely don’t know where we are going. Ken Medema has a song that begins, “What am I doing here? I don’t seem to recognize the words they’re saying.” He’s singing about sitting at church, going through the motions, but feeling like nothing is making sense. Who has never had that experience?

Sometimes darkness is pregnant and full, slowly gestating the dawn of new life within us. And sometimes it simply hurts like hell. Yet, Jesus calls us to always walk by the light we have, however dim or strong. It may surround us in dazzling radiance, beckon us from a distance, or tease us with nothing more than a promise and a call to fidelity and perseverance. We can only walk by the light we have. And that, my friends, is enough.

Jesus continues, “As you have the light, believe in [trust] the light.”

The past couple years, we have been talking here and in Study Group about how the word “believe” as translated from Greek to English in scripture is really better translated “trust.” Our western enlightenment heritage too often associates “belief” or “believe in” with intellectual assent. “Trust,” however, is a more active word. It beckons our whole orientation of life toward one direction. To trust the light is to trust the One who is Light.

Jesus concludes, “Then the light will be within you, and shining through your lives. You’ll be children of light.”

There is a direct correlation between trusting the light and radiating the light ourselves. Mrs. Bussee trusted the light. She immersed herself in the light. She meditated on the light. She loved the light. And her light shined. Like Mrs. Bussee, we can be children of light.

I managed to take another Quiet Directed Retreat at River’s Edge in Lakewood recently. Anyone in northeast Ohio realizes that the winter sky is gray most of the time—brooding, hovering gray. But the first night I was there, I watched a gorgeous sunset replete with purples, pinks, grays, and oranges. The final morning of retreat, I went out before dawn to simply watch the sky. It was astonishing.

The sunrise began in the east, but it was one of those special days when the colors also reflected in the west. For about 30 minutes, the light show changed in hue, intensity, and location every couple minutes. I could barely keep up as I walked back and forth from the east driveway to the parking lot, then back again. By the grand finale, there was this huge, thick swath of pink nearly wrapping itself around the whole retreat complex. My Spiritual Director told me a couple years ago that pink is the color for “unconditional love.” I don’t know where that came from, but it has meant a lot to me over the years, watching the sky and needing some reminders about deeper spiritual truths.

The rhythms of sunrise and sunset themselves sing this Song of Jesus, a song of bearing light in the darkness. That morning, even the sky was a “child of light.”

As we conclude the Epiphany season–this time of illuminating, revealing, and unmasking–may we embrace the light we have with rich thanksgiving. May we trust that light. Maybe we walk in it. May we Shine. Amen.

Cliff Hanger

January 31st, 2016

Luke 4:16-30
January 31, 2016
Steve Hammond

I want you to listen to today’s story from Luke 4. Don’t read along, just listen. Note any impressions, words and images that stick with you, questions you have, or thoughts the story raises. Imagine what it was like to be one of the people in the synagogue that day, one of the townsfolk, the disciples, the leader of the synagogue, or Jesus. There is paper in the pew if you want to write anything down, or create some kind of visual image.

Let me tell you what struck me, then we will get to you. That thing about “every eye in the place was on him,” caught my attention. They were scrutinizing him, trying to figure him out. He was the hometown boy coming back. Before the whole crowd went crazy some were praising him, “surprised at how well he spoke.” That’s interesting. Why did it catch them by surprise? Their response, “but wait isn’t that just Joseph’s kid,” seems to indicate that during his growing up years, Jesus hadn’t done anything to distinguish himself in his hometown.

He was, though, coming back, evidently, with a bit of a reputation. They had heard the stories and rumors from Capernaum. Luke doesn’t say what Jesus exactly had done in Capernaum, just that before coming back home news about Jesus had spread through the countryside, where “he taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.”

So the hometown boy was back and they were watching him. Nobody stayed home from synagogue that day. And, at first, it seemed like it was going to be a warm welcome. “God’s Spirit is on me; God has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act.”

These folk were the poor who were always being confronted by the tax collectors for more of the little they had to support the Roman occupation. They were the ones who had been in Rome’s prisons, burdened and battered physically and metaphorically by Rome. They were ready to be free.

They understood something about the message of Jesus that many still don’t understand to this day. If what Jesus said is good news to the poor what does it sound like to the poor? That’s where we have to start with Jesus, with good news not to the comfortable and cared for, not to those not in prison, or those not battered by the political and religious and economic systems of this world, but by those who are.

They were all watching him. Trying to figure him out. But then they got mad. So mad, in fact, that they wanted to throw him off a cliff. What happened?

The good news, it turns out, isn’t just for a select few. Jesus started talking about Elisha and Elijah. But the stories he mentioned were not about God’s love and care for the people of Israel, but for the Gentiles, including a Gentile woman no less. They liked the idea of God setting people free, helping the victims of Rome and who or whatever was burdening and battering people. But not everybody. Just them. And it was so important that it was just them that they were ready to throw Jesus over a cliff for suggesting God’s love stretched to others.

That seems kind of extreme and hard to believe that people would really want to kill Jesus for claiming God loves everybody. But have you listened to any Presidential debates lately? Seen any of the ads? You can’t help but notice the anger that is being expressed at the notion that God could love anyone more than God loves us, however you define us.

You read a lot about love in John’s gospel. At one point, it’s in John 14, we read this. 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said, “Master, why is it that you are about to make yourself plain to us but not to the world?”23-24 “Because a loveless world,” said Jesus, “is a sightless world…” “God has chosen me to announce recovery of sight to the blind…”

You know, there is just something about goodness and kindness. It seems so basic, like it should be so easy. But we’ve made it hard. But Jesus comes along and reminds us that we can be kind to each other. We can be good to each other. And goodness and kindness will save us.

We are going to sing another hymn, then I will finish up, and then hear what struck you about this story. The Gift of Love on page 526. Think about the passage this song is based on in 1 Corinthians not in the context of a wedding, where we usually hear it, or even as a series of bumper stickers about the kind of love we are called to. But think about Syrian refugees, Black Lives Matter, the political discourse going on in this and other countries, the growing economic disparity in this country and world, the people, including even still in this country, who lives and livelihood are threatened because of their gender and sexual orientation, the so many places and ways that people are imprisoned, burdened and battered, and oppressed in this world. But also think about the ways love is being demonstrated, the people who are reaching across the borders, tearing down the walls, calling us to something better in this world.

“Every eye in the place was on him.” In 1 Corinthians 12, right before this passage that we just sang, the Apostle Paul writes about the church being the Body of Christ, being the presence of Jesus in this world. I don’t think it was an accident in his mind to follow our call to be the Body of Christ with the love chapter. It’s time that every eye in the place is upon us. Are we going to be that presence of Jesus that gets under people’s skins? Is the message of God’s inclusive love, the kindness and goodness we are called to going to be such a part of us as the body of Christ, that people are going to want to drag us to the edge of the cliff? And how are we going to walk through the crowd when that happens?

What did you hear in this story?

And the Future of the Church Is…?

January 25th, 2016

Matthew 11:28-29
Amos 5:16-17,21-24
Hebrews 12:1-3,12-13
January 24, 2016
Mary Hammond

The winds are blowing fiercely across this nation, and I am not speaking about the ecology of Climate Change in this regard. I am thinking about the climate in which followers of Jesus find themselves within our country. With her permission, let me quote some personal reflections of Ellen Broadwell, in response to questions I posed to the church googlegroup this week in preparation for worship today.

“There is so much going on with the ‘big C Church’ right now that I see the American Church going in the direction of the European Church (slowly disappearing). The evangelicals are so tangled up with the right wing of politics and have allowed themselves to be manipulated by cynical politicians, that our children, for the most part, no longer see [the church] as the hopeful answer to life’s important questions. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. American evangelicals tell us to hate the LGBTQ community, that an unborn child’s life is more important than the life of its mother, that the poor are responsible for their poverty and don’t deserve any relief, refugees are not welcome in this country of immigrants. For the most part, our children are looking at the Church and finding it hypocritical at best, and at worst, evil. I am so disgusted with the American Church right now. If politicians refuse to pander to right wing evangelicals, the Church can lose its facade, go underground, and regain its soul.”

Pastors these days often huddle together and converse about the future of the American church. Prospective clergy are warned in seminary not to expect positions after graduation that both pay off their student loans and provide adequate support to sustain themselves. They are told that the church of tomorrow will not look like that of today, and, as future leaders, they are on the cusp of this radical change. In fact, we are also on the cusp of this change.

In one recent conversation Steve and I had with ministerial colleagues, a young pastor commented, “I’m not into all this hand-wringing about the ‘future of the Church.’ What will the American church look like down the road? It will look like ‘the Church.’ The Church will not disappear, but it will just look a lot more like the church of the first three centuries than of the last several hundred years.”

I think this is what Ellen is getting at in her comments. Rapid transitions require much of us, and it is critical to reflect together on some of the characteristics we need as a congregation to face such challenges. The decades before us truly cry out for the Church to embrace a calling to be a Place of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience. While not exhaustive, these “three ‘R’s’” provide valuable guidance for moving forward.

Let’s begin with “a Place of Refuge.” How many of you here today have found PCC to be such a place, either when you first arrived or through some personal crisis or transition? There is no need for a show of hands, but is there anyone here who would like to share briefly about that experience and what it meant to you? [Two people shared personal testimonies, one about first visiting the church, the other about a time of family crisis].

There are a lot of people that feel a need to flee from the Church, from its institutional largess, exclusive practices and policies, legalistic mores, distorted theologies, and even mean-spirited individuals. But what about fleeing to the church, discovering in its midst a community of love, hope, and trust–a People who laugh together and cry together, who seek to practice compassion and justice in the wider world? We never know who might be looking for refuge, or when. We do not know when we ourselves might need it, until something happens. To foster a Place of Refuge speaks to those beyond the congregation about who we try to be for one another, who Jesus is among us, and who we seek to become in the world.

Secondly, what does it mean to be a Place of Resistance? Such a community seeks to live as both a sign and witness to the Reign of God, a counter-sign among the Kingdoms and Empires of the Earth. Steve often reminds us that the primary purpose of prophecy is not so much to predict the future as to contradict the present. And there is a lot of present to contradict. Our mass media culture spews hatred and division everywhere. Further, it too often paints both Christianity and Evangelicalism with one broad, intolerant brush. This does disservice to many other Christians and self-described Evangelicals who distinguish themselves from fundamentalists.

Any Church serious about becoming a Place of Resistance must insist on being tethered to both the Way and ways of Jesus. To me, these are the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Hearts must focus on a vision of the entire Community of Creation living in harmony and shalom–with God, one another, ourselves, and the earth.

Finally, what are the fruits of Resilience? As we reflect on this 150th Anniversary of the church, I am so struck by the tenacity and perseverance of our forebears. In 1866, a small group of people formed a new congregation. They mustered up the financial means to construct a church meeting house. A half a century later, Oberlin College purchased the land, razed the building, and offered the congregation the location where the current building now stands. I often wonder what those meetings were like, as the congregation–people like you and me–made those momentous decisions to sell the property.

During the 1920’s, another period of massive cultural transition, the church faced a huge fundamentalist-modernist split. Those were the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Darwinism, heated theological debates about teaching creationism vs. evolution. Many folks left the church; a remnant stayed. Another fundamentalist-modernist split occurred in the 1940’s. During the 1960’s, the congregation boldly retained an activist pastor who was fired from a second local church he pastored at the same time. At issue was Rev. Michael Morse’s strident opposition to the Vietnam War.

Fifteen years of retired part-time clergy served the church from 1964-79. The community dwindled to “eleven people plus Jesus,” as Moderator Bob Thomas described it. The church contemplated closing its doors, but before that happened, Bob had a vision. He convinced the other members to make one last effort to remain together. The church secured two years of financial assistance from the Ohio Baptist Convention and hired Steve Hammond fresh out of seminary as a full-time pastor. If the congregation was not completely self-supporting after those two years, then it would in fact close. Nearly 37 years later, here we are today. Thanks be to God!

The fruits of resilience are all over this 150 year history, even amid times of conflict, uncertainty, and rapid social change. Let’s not sugar coat the story. Real people struggled, embraced risks, and took stands. They faced challenges by accepting the need to change. The congregation grew and contracted, grew again and contracted again, yet continued to stay the course.

To offer a haven of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience is a calling, not just for PCC, but for the wider Church in our country and world. The United States has never been a Christian nation. Who can honestly describe this country at any time as a Christian nation, when it has been built out of the ravages of colonization and slavery, on the backs of flesh and blood human beings? Such myopia is frightening, deadly amnesia. Today’s Church must be filled with a community of Truth-tellers. As the Psalmist attests, we “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” from a place of exile.

Challenging, exciting, and perilous days are before us. And you know what? The Church is often at its best in times such as these. Amen.

Signs and Wonder(ing)s

January 17th, 2016

John 2
January 17, 2016
Steve Hammond

At the end of the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel we read this. 30-31 Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.”

Theologians and Biblical scholars have noted seven signs in particular that they claim John is referring to. As Professor Merrill Tenney wrote…The author [of John’s Gospel] states explicitly that the purpose of his writing is expressed through these signs and that he has selected seven from a much larger number known to him as the core of the discussion of Jesus’ words and works. They may be understood as the divine endorsement of His authority (2:18, 23), or as illustrations of the varied nature of His word (4:54; 20:30). Or

The first of the seven signs to make the list, Jesus turning the water into wine is, to me, by far the oddest. (The walking on water thing comes in second for me, but that’s another sermon). And Jesus walking on water, unlike the story of the wedding at Cana, makes it into the other gospels. Turning the water into wine is not only the first sign of John’s seven, but the first thing Jesus in John’s Gospel does in his public ministry.

We talk about signs and wonders, but for me this is more signs and wonderings. I just don’t get it. Turning water into wine seems to me more like what they used to call a parlor trick. Parlor tricks, though, are meant to delight and amuse the other folk in the parlor. But most of the people at the wedding didn’t notice what was going on. Rather than attributing this as something miraculous Jesus had done, they complemented the groom for holding the best wine to last. The only people other than Jesus and his mother who knew what actually happened were the newly called disciples and the slaves who were working the banquet. Though I guess the groom must have known that wherever this wine came from, he didn’t have anything to do with it.

What did the disciples and slaves see? This is where it gets really fascinating. Remember where Jesus got the water? The water came from the big stone pots the people used for the ritual washings of their hands. These cleansing rituals were central to the way folk practiced their religion. You didn’t want to be touched by someone whose hands had not been thoroughly washed according to the religious rituals. If that happened, you would be rendered unclean. You would have to leave the party and could not reenter polite company until you went through all the regulations to make yourself clean again.

Jesus asked for the water that was used to wash off all the dirt and debris and, ultimately, the grime of any unrighteousness those hands had been involved in, and turned that water into wine. It would be like filling the bathtub with water and deciding to turn it into wine after you took a bath. I can’t imagine what the reactions of the slaves must have been. How could they have kept straight faces as they watched folk drink this bathwater wine? If those folk had realized they were drinking wine that had come from the water in those pots, they would have gone running from that place. The whole ideas of those jars of water was to ensure their ritual cleanness. But all that dirt and grime and disgusting stuff, instead of being washed off of them, they drank it. And they thought it was great, the finest wine there was. The talk in the kitchen must have been really interesting. And I imagine it gave Jesus a bit of a chuckle.

Such an odd story, this first sign that John says reveals Jesus to us. And speaking of wonderings, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. Stay with me, though, because there is something else rather odd going on in this story, or more precisely right after this story that might help us make that connection.

In the other three gospels, that story of Jesus cleansing the Temple and driving out the money changers takes place right after what we now call Palm Sunday, at the end of his life and ministry. But in John’s story it comes right at the beginning of his ministry. After he does that there is, of course, a big conflict with the religious establishment where Jesus argues that God is doing something greater than what the Temple is all about, and it is focused on Jesus. Then we get this very near the end of the second chapter of John, not the last verse, but more on that later. “During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him.”

So this thing of Jesus cleansing the Temple is called a sign in John’s Gospel, but it isn’t counted as one of The Signs that the theologians and Biblical scholars talk about. That was curious, so I thought I had better look a bit closer at things. Maybe it’s a different Greek word. No, it’s the same word. What do the commentators say? What I found in the New Interpreter’s Commentary was pretty much the consensus. “In 2:11, the miracle at Cana is called a sign, but the Evangelist also notes that Jesus manifested his glory in this sign. It is the manifestation of glory, not simply the sign itself, that leads to the disciples’ faith. In 2:23 there is no indication that the people see the glory to which Jesus’ signs point.”

Really? I think Martin Luther King, Jr. found plenty of glory in Jesus as Jesus confronted the religious and political powers that oppressed so many who were poor and outsiders. I have no trouble arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr. would even say that that kind of sign is much more important than turning water into wine and delivers a more important testimony to who Jesus is.

Martin Luther King, Jr. encountered lots of opposition from the church during his own life and ministry. And it just wasn’t white churches. There were plenty of Black churches, too, especially in the beginning, who thought he should be preaching more about Jesus turning water into wine than overturning the tables in the Temple. Just deal with the spiritual stuff the real signs of who Jesus is, not all the political stuff that’s just going to get everybody upset.

He couldn’t do that, though. Perhaps he was like the writer of John’s Gospel who saw lots of signs, so many they couldn’t all be written down. And when they allowed Rev. King to say that challenging racism and discrimination might be something we could learn from all those signs, they wanted him to stop there. That stuff about war and poverty was taking it too far. What did following Jesus have to do with any of that?

That’s the choice that’s always there for us. Let’s just notice the signs we are looking for or the ones that make us more comfortable. Some want all the miracles, water into wine stuff. Those are the real signs. Some just want the cleaning out the Temple and keep away from all that miracle stuff. But maybe that’s why John had both of these signs at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Every year I lament the way people have tended to erase the religious roots of Rev. King’s activism. They can’t see what his belief and trust in Jesus had to do with any of that. But it was core to him.

I mentioned that there was still another verse to look at in the second chapter of John’s gospel. Remember how we read about the people seeing the signs and entrusting themselves to Jesus. Here is what comes next. “But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.” Again, this is all so odd. You would think that Jesus was glad to have all these followers. It seems like this story should have a more upbeat ending. There are all these signs that are pointing out that Jesus has come to us from God. People are seeing those signs and trusting their lives to him. Jesus, though, is real skeptical.

If you look at the history of the church maybe that skepticism is well placed. But maybe it is as simple as Jesus is also looking for signs. We can say all we want about how much we love Jesus, but is it all water into wine stuff? But I think there were some pretty good signs from Martin Luther King, Jr. that there are folk who do get what Jesus is about.

Today’s story was from the Lectionary. It isn’t, obviously, a story that you quickly relate to Rev. King. But, hopefully, I’ve at least gotten us thinking about the story and Dr. King. Another Lectionary passage for this week is from 1 Corinthians 12. We aren’t going to read that today, but it’s all about the different gifts we bring to what the Apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ. What he means by that is how the church makes Jesus known in this world, how we become the feet, the hands, the heart, the presence of Jesus in our world. That letter from a Birmingham jail to the church leaders in Birmingham was Rev. King’s plea for the church to be the body of Christ. He was looking for signs that were pretty hard to find. And it seems to me that since we are the Body of Christ, that there need to be signs from us. Signs that point to the power of God at work in us. Signs that are more than parlor tricks, but signs that reveal the glory of Jesus Christ. More signs than anybody could ever write about.

Reflections on the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the building where Peace Community Church meets

January 10th, 2016

The cornerstone for our building was laid on January 1, 1916. We celebrated that event this week at PCC. Kristen Bredenbeck Mayer shared some thoughts during worship and other folk sent some of their reflections about the place of this building in the life of our church. This year is also the 150th anniversary of when the congregation was founded. Throughout the year we will be remembering and celebrating both of these anniversaries.

Anniversary Memories by Kristen Bredenbeck Mayer

When I think of my memories of this building I do not immediately think of the building—at least not the physical building. I certainly could. I could marvel at all the care and love people show this place—a testament to the sacredness of place. I remember people cleaning, organizing, painting, putting in new countertops, sealing the coal room roof…..and most recently cleaning out the balcony!

What I remember most, though, is not the building but what happens here. When Steve first asked the question: “What are our memories of the building?” three experiences came to mind.The first remembrance was my first visit here for Sunday Worship. Caleb was 3 years old. I can remember sitting right over there and just soaking up the music, the words, the place…. The word that comes to mind is authentic. I experienced an authentic worship where people could be themselves. You’ve heard it said how people wear masks as they go about their lives—even in churches. But what I felt on that first Sunday was that there were no masks here. I could be myself

The second memory is when we opened our church to the community right after the 9/11 attacks. I remember just looking around and seeing people from all parts of the community come together to morn, to find solace, to search for hope.. .. .. This reminds me that PCC is a gathering place for the community, where everyone is welcome—a place where people know we care about peace and justice.

The third experience happens occasionally. It happened the other week. I was sitting in church, girding myself for the week ahead—enjoying this little time apart from what is going on in my life
and I hear a siren. Our church is a sidewalk church—we sit right upon the sidewalk –we don’t have a large green lawn separating our building from the street. We can hear the police cars, the sirens, the ambulances—the sounds of life happening. When I hear an ambulance, my prayers turn to the noises outside. Every time this happens it strikes me that this is how is should be—the church is not removed from the world, from the sirens and ambulances, but amongst the world, as a witness to a better way and as a community of people who happen to gather in this sacred space seeking to make an impact by our worship, by our lives, by our actions in the world outside these walls.

From Julie Hanson Reiswig (OC ‘82)
When I imagine the “First Baptist Church” building, I think foremost of community.

Jeff rushed me to church one spring evening in 1981 to get to Family Meal in the church basement. I couldn’t understand why he was so keen on getting there in a hurry, until we arrived to find a surprise (for me) wedding shower! Church members and students had conspired to throw us a party before we married that summer. One of our gifts was a green and white flowered metal recipe box that I still cherish – remember when we used to write recipes on index cards?? As I flip through the cards now, I can see the faces of some of our church mothers: Wilma McDole, Mary Caroniti, Enid Buckland, Juanita Brown… The first card, titled “Lesson for a Bride” greets me every time I open the box. It’s a typewritten poem from Mae Chesbro:

There was a young bride
Who wanted to please
She used lots of wine
And very rare cheese;
She served rattlesnake meat
And octopus stew;
She was always searching
For something quite new.
Her spouse ate and drank
Right down to the dregs,
Then ran off with a gal
Who cooked ham and eggs!

The recipes that fill the box are like little love notes from a congregation that held us in our new relationship, and I like to think of it as a symbol of the glue that has held us together for 34 years! That and the love and care from Steve and Mary, our ADULT role models who were ten years older. Steve’s recipe contribution was for “Pretty Nutritious Oatmeal Cookies”, a handwritten card with a final instruction of “Then take some to your pastor.”

Good community-building advice!

From Julie Reuning-Scherer (OC ‘92)
So much of my experience of FBC/Peace Church had nothing to do with the building. Of course it was the EXCO Class, small group discussions, worship, prayers from the congregation, times at the Hammond house, retreats. So I will save my stories for the 150th Congregational Anniversary!

Debbie Hughes, ABCRGR pastor:
In 1866, Lucy Read Anthony bought the house at 17 Madison [in Rochester, NY] that would be the homebase for Susan B. Anthony and Mary S. Anthony, two of her daughters, for the rest of their lives. Of course, there were significant connections between the reformers of Oberlin, OH, and Rochester, NY. Congratulations on this 150th and Centennial Anniversary years!

Caite Weymann McKinney (OC ‘82)
That organ is gorgeous! Wasn’t there in my time, though…that was a dim and dingy choir lot.

Rachel Ramirez-Hammond (pastors’ daughter)
Sooo many memories in that basement!!!!

Jane Millikan (OC ‘82)
I remember doing nursery for Women’s Study Group and trying to keep Grace from falling asleep so she would nap at home. I remember the Sunday School kids giving Mary Meadows a surprise birthday party in the basement. It was my job to get her there while keeping it secret.

Carrie Broadwell Tkach (OC ‘06)
I have a wonderful picture of my bridesmaids and me getting dressed for the wedding in the church basement, surrounded by the Ark and other kid paraphernalia. The two owls on the wall looked utterly shocked by what was happening in their domain.

Anna Ernst (OC ‘10) a bit late!! Kept meaning to do this and forgetting!
PCC was a safe haven for me during college. Whenever I got too overwhelmed with homework or college romance or whatever, PCC was where I could come and just be myself and yet STILL feel encouraged in that call to bring about the good and just kingdom of God on earth. If it weren’t for Steve Hammond, I might not have applied to Lutheran Volunteer Corps and wouldn’t have begun going down the path toward ordained ministry that I am on right now. Mary Hammond’s cookie bakes and comforting walks and words of prayer nourished me as well, particularly during tough times such as when my grandfather died in the spring of 2009.

One specific happy memory I have at PCC is sleeping in Noah’s ark in the nursery during a lock-in. Linden Cady ’09 and Ethan Draeger ’09 were there too. It was folks like Al Carroll ’58 and Judy Riggle and many more who inspired me with their constant presence at weekly peace vigils and persistence in matters such as developing the Peace and Conflict Studies academic program at Oberlin.

Other happy more recent memories include coming back to Oberlin post-graduation for Heather Kirkconnell’s (OC ‘11) senior organ recital in the sanctuary, and giving a message in the same sanctuary at her joyful wedding to Jacob Farnsworth in the summer of 2014.

My family and I are forever grateful for the safe haven and inspirational, encouraging community that PCC was and is. PCC scattered I may now be, but PCC is always in my heart.

Glenn Loafmann:
Some memorable moments in no particular order.

1.) I have a picture I can’t find of a worship service downstairs, where Roger is helping Jonathan follow along in the hymnal.

2.) Personal memorable moment: I think June 24 2012 may be the best sermon I ever preached. It satisfied me the most, anyway. Thanks for letting me do that, and thanks especially to Mary Meadows for the first meeting/planning session, which got me started on a new track for approaching the preparation of the sermon (and she had a different lectionary, which gave me the text I used – the baptism of John story).

3.) Yvonne

4.) Memorable moment inside the church outside the church: the “disfellowship” meeting in Norwalk, when/where I first perceived/understood how very powerful consensus decision-making is.

This is from LeDayne Polaski on behalf of the staff and board of BPFNA-Bautista por la Paz
To The Congregation of Peace Community Church:

Dear Friends,

On behalf of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and your sister peace–loving, justice-seeking congregations throughout the continent, I send you greetings as you celebrate 100 years of being rooted in one place.

I celebrate with you not just because you’ve been able to stay in one spot (though I could argue that in our rootless society, that is impressive in itself) – but because you have remained rooted in and responsive to that place even as it has grown and changed over time. That is well worth celebrating!

In my mind’s eye, I can see many people coming in those doors. I see them finding a faith they thought they had lost, finding a welcome they had never known, finding a cause worth fighting for, finding support and love through hard times, finding a place to celebrate their joys, finding a group that will be with them through their failures and their successes – finding community again and again and again. I think too of members of the community who would never describe themselves as people of faith coming in those doors and being surprised to find an unexpected group of Christians – Christians who are thinking, loving, welcoming, questioning. I think of people coming to find a little help to make it through and being touched by the loving way in which their needs were met. When I think of all those hundreds of people coming through those doors for 100 years and of all they found inside and all they took with them when they walked back out, I am in awe. I hope you are too!

May your celebration of this milestone be rich and full, brimming with a strong sense of God’s continued presence, strength, and grace. May your journey forward be blessed with a lasting sense of God’s calling through joy and challenge, hope and pain. May God be real for you all in days of triumph, days of struggle, and all the ordinary days in between. Through it all, may you serve as bearers of peace – to one another and to our aching world.

Know that we share your celebration and joy – as we will share your path forward as together we seek to follow the Prince of Peace.

Peace and Grace,

This is from Judy Riggle

Of more than 14 years, I value more than the following:

The precious gift others have made sharing their life struggles and celebrations, making it possible to support them in meaningful ways

Inspiration for finding new ways to serve God

Seeing the power of consensus in action

Observing the powerful influence Steve and Mary have had on a succession of college students

The comfort in being able to to share the struggles and celebrations of our lives and those of our dear ones

The hugs, and place to celebrate son Troy’s life after he committed suicide

The place to make new close Family

Love Comes

December 30th, 2015

Luke 1:37-55
December 20, 2015
Mary Hammond

In 2014, our two youngest daughters, Rachel and Grace, found out that they were pregnant on the same day. They scrambled to get the news to each other before telling anyone save their husbands. Alas, Grace had left her cell phone at home when she went to work. With the two-hour time change, the news had to wait another day. How hard that must have been for them!

The joyful news finally got out. I can imagine the fast-paced conversation, the squealing laughter, the camaraderie. Serendipitously, their first sonograms were also scheduled for the same day. Lo and behold, Grace and Dave were expecting twins, and Rachel her third child. Mama Rachel quickly became the ‘seasoned elder’ to her younger sis in the modern mothering department.

While this story does not parallel Luke’s account of the pregnancies of Elizabeth and her younger cousin, Mary, the shared feelings of joy, anticipation, family ties, and uncertainty reflect a certain timelessness. Two women, caught up in the biggest drama of their lives–together on a journey neither could ever imagine.

Last week, Steve spoke of the Christmas story as “God’s practical joke,” a comment made by Canadian Mennonite pastor, Ralph Milton. Milton imagines God cackling away in delight as the stunning reversals of this remarkable drama unfold–a pregnant teenager singing a subversive song, a stable birth, rough-hewn shepherds, rejoicing angels, a threatened ruler. What could be more shocking than the arrival of a wailing infant-king, born in a smelly manger, when no better place could be found?

The Princes of the World still cannot embrace the true import of this narrative. It may be sung by choirs, piped into malls, recited at Christmas plays, ad infinitum. But the Deep Story, the Real Story, is and always has been quite revolutionary.

Hands down, Advent is my favorite season of the Church Year. Anyone else feel the same way? Incarnation shouts Presence with a Capital “P.” Incarnation announces an Embodied God.

This week, Steve and I received several Christmas letters. In one, the writer makes this comment, “I hope you take time out during this busy season to remember that Christmas is about Christ coming to redeem us by his death and resurrection.”

I stopped short when I read that. This comment passes right over the Incarnation, blasting on to Holy Week. What about Jesus’ life, his powerful ministry, the ways he challenges the religious and political status quo? What about the fact that his very arrival as ‘Son of God’ challenges Caesar, the ruler of the Roman Empire, who his subjects call by that same title?”

Incarnation is about the Face of a Present God-made-flesh. Thirsty and hungry. Energized and tired. Disturbed and satisfied. Joyful and tearful. Bold and careful. Trusting and agonizing.

‘Matter’ simply matters to God. What happens here, today, in this place, matters. The agony and ecstasy of being human matters. Your joy matters; your tears matter. Your gratitude matters; your heartaches matter. The ant matters; the hippopotamus matters. The coral reefs matter; the polar bears matter. The glories and convulsions of our planet matter. The cosmos matters. It all matters.

Incarnation also reminds me that Presence, God-with-Us, is what we need, much more than Explanation. I recently read an amazing blog, debunking the popular Christian belief (or myth; however you see it), “Everything happens for a reason.” Have you heard that recently? I did just this past week.

The longer I live, the more I react to this statement. Do we thus attribute rape, starvation, genocide, and a thousand other sufferings to “God’s reasons”?

Such theology too often breeds passivity to injustice and blindness to privilege. In his wonderful reflection on this topic, Tim Lawrence quotes his mentor, Megan Devine, saying, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried” (see

Amen to that!

As humans, we crave answers. Explanations comfort our rational minds, yet Presence strengthens our deepest heart. What does Job, the ancient suffering saint, desire from God, through all his cumulative catastrophes? His deepest longing is for Presence. He yearns, even aches, to simply Hear God’s Voice.

In Job’s story, Presence finally comes amid a Whirlwind. In the prophet Elijah’s story, Presence arrives in the form of a Still, Small Voice. Presence has many Faces and Forms, visiting us through prayer, nature, friendship, solitude, even anonymous gestures of caring.

Finally, Incarnation is about Turning the World Order Upside Down. This is indeed of Ultimate Concern to God. TV pundits endlessly dissect the latest polls. Some presidential candidates vie for the honor of who can flatten a village and defeat the enemy better than the next guy.

But Incarnation proclaims both a different Word and a different World. On Facebook, I recently saw a photo of a church sign. It read: “The Christmas Story: A Middle Eastern Family Seeks Refuge.” This embodies the heart of our ancient narrative, my friends. An upside-down, inside-out Gospel. This is the Jesus Story we celebrate, remember, and live into, all year long.

I invite you to have an Incarnational Christmas. Amen.

Summoned to God’S Dangerous Service

November 15th, 2015

Gathering Words for November 15, 2015

Heard any stories lately? Probably. We are hearing stories all the time. Yesterday’s news. The latest family gathering. The time out with friends this weekend. Stories at work. Stories at class. Stories in the gym. Maybe you are reading a book about some event in history, a biography or memoir. Maybe you have been reading stories to your children or grandchildren. Maybe you have been to a story tellers conference, or recently forwarded a story on Facebook. Maybe you just got together with some friends you haven’t seen for a while and spent the entire evening telling stories. Maybe you were sitting with family and friends and somebody said “Tell that story about the time…”

We hear or read stories everyday of our lives. So many stories that in fact the question we ask is more often “Have you heard a good story lately.” But who decides which stories are good ones? Whose stories aren’t we allowed to hear or repeat? What stories of yours keep going unheard? What story have we heard too much?

The Bible is a storybook. It is a collection of stories. One of Ken Medema’s albums is called Story Telling Man and is songs about the stories Jesus told. Of course, much of the gospels are made up of stories about this story telling man, who favorite technique was telling parables, or stories.

We are going to talk about Bible stories today. Not all of them. Some particular kinds of stories about some particular kind of people who have to fight to get their stories told and heard. But the stories are important, no matter who tells you they aren’t because they are important to God. And Jesus showed us over and over again that our stories are important and so are the stories of others.

Summoned to God’s Dangerous Service
Exodus 1 and 2, Ruth 4 (several others)
Steve Hammond
October 15, 2015

Ask people to mention the stories in the Bible that feature women. Eve. Sarah and Hagar. [Shiphrah and Puah. Pharaoh’s Daughter. Moses mother and sister (Miriam).] Ruth. Naomi. Esther. Tamar. Rahab. Michel. Abigail. Jephthah’s daughter. Hannah. The widow of Zerapath. Debra. The Shulamite Woman in Song of Solomon. Mary the Mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene. Mary the sister of Martha and Martha. Joanna. Susanna. The Woman at the Well. The Syro Phoenician Woman. The woman who touched Jesus’ garment. The woman caught in adultery. The widow in the Temple (Widow’s mite). Anna. Elizabeth. Lydia. Pricilla.

It feels like there aren’t as many stories about women in the Bible as there actually are. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be more. But why does it feel like there are even less than there are?

Men’s stories are emphasized, highlighted, remembered, and more detailed than women’s stories. Patriarchy, by definition, means men’s stories are more important than women’s stories. It also means you have to fight for women’s stories to be included. That’s why it actually, to me, is surprising there are as many stories about women in the Bible as there are. I think it also means we have to make sure we pay more attention to those stories about women in the Bible because it would have been easy enough to leave them out. So they are there because the writers thought it was really, really important they be there. But getting them included is just the first step. We need to make sure they don’t get swamped by the patriarchic tide. They are literally subtexts. They are underneath the larger text that we are used to reading with our lenses of patriarchy. We have to reach down and pull them to the surface.

Most of us here know the story of Moses. But how does it start? It actually starts with two women Shiphrah and Puah. They were Hebrew midwives living with that Israeli community that had grown in Egypt over the years since the time of Joseph. Pharaoh was so concerned by the large numbers of Hebrews that he ordered Shiphrah and Puah to kill all new born Hebrew boys. But they refused. The story says they feared God more than the Egyptian King. So they came up with this really interesting defense. “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They are strong. And by time we get there they have already given birth so we can’t do anything about the male babies.”

So Pharaoh decreed that whenever anyone came across a Hebrew baby boy, that baby was to be thrown into the Nile. When Moses was born, the story goes, his mother hid him for three months. But he was getting bigger and louder so she made a basket and waterproofed it, and set the basket in the hallows where Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses and decided to raise him. Moses’ sister, Miriam perhaps, but it doesn’t say, was watching all of this and told Pharaoh’s daughter she could find a woman to be a wet nurse for the baby. That woman, of course, was Moses’ mother.

I was looking at the Interpreter’s Bible about the beginning of the book of Exodus and here is what the writer wrote about the Exodus story. “While the work of Exodus is clearly God’s work, the human Moses is indispensable as an agent in social transformation. As becomes characteristic in the Bible, God’s action in the world is undertaken by human agents who are summoned into Yahweh’s dangerous service.” Now who was more summoned into God’s dangerous service than these five women? To be fair, that same writer seems to get it when a few paragraphs later he writes this. “Moses is kept safe through the inscrutable protection of God, which in the narrative is credited only to the women.” In other words, the writer of Exodus is telling us that without the women there is no Moses. Without Moses there is no Israel. And from our perspective, without Moses there is no Jesus. The story of these women is more than a story of brave women. They are essential to whole story.

Last week, Anita Peebles preached from the book of Ruth. That is such an interesting story of how Ruth and Naomi supported each other, persevered, schemed, took amazing risks, and even seduced to survive. Here is some of the story. “Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’” That part about uncovering Boaz’s feet. That’s a euphemism. Do I need to say any more?

Boaz was a good guy and this turns out to be a nice love story. After some scheming on Boaz’s part he and Ruth are able to be married. But here’s how the book of Ruth ends, here’s the punchline.”18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron,19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22 Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” These two women, how did he say it, “summoned into God’s dangerous service” set into motion something that changed the whole course of Israel.

Let’s quickly think about the gospels. Mary, the mother of Jesus, comes off as one he most radical people in the gospels. Remember the Magnificat? God..has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” You don’t hear anything like that coming out of the mouths of the male disciples in the Gospels.

The longest theological discourse Jesus has in the Gospels is with the Samaritan woman at the well. There is that Syro Phoenician woman who challenges Jesus about his understanding of the nature of his ministry. That one woman touches Jesus and power is drawn from him. In that story where Martha confronts Jesus because he delayed his trip and didn’t show up until after Lazarus died, she also makes this confession “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is her sister Mary who challenges the deeply held traditions of her day and sits to listen to Jesus rather than work in the kitchen. It’s the women disciples who are the first witnesses of the Resurrection on Easter morning.

Even though the stories of the women in the gospels are less developed than those of the men, it is obvious in the Gospels that the women get Jesus much more than the men do. Yet all the gospels are named after men.

We need all the stories, particularly the ones that we don’t usually get to hear, we need to hear the stories of those we aren’t supposed to hear from. What would it be like if Palestinians and Israelis could hear each other’s stories? What would it be like if we could stop and really listen to the stories that are being told by the Black Lives Matter folk? What would it be like if we stopped telling other peoples’ stories and let them tell their own? Why are we so afraid of stories that are different than the accepted narrative?

We all know people, I imagine, who are desperate for their stories to be heard, so they keep telling them over and over again. How do we hear and honor those stories? But how do we find ways to not get stuck on our stories? There is, obviously, a time to tell our stories, but also a time to listen to the stories of others.

Jesus had stories to tell. He knew that stories were important. And not everybody liked his stories. They were afraid of his stories and didn’t want them told. So afraid that they killed him. They thought they could put an end to the stories. But they couldn’t because too many of us listened to his stories and realized that God wants to hear our stories and wants us to hear each other’s stories.

Imagine what it was like for Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter to tell their stories to the women around them. What was it like when Ruth told her story to her daughters and friends? What did the women who had spent all that time with Jesus, been there when he died and was raised again, say to each other and their families when they told their stories? What was it like in those rooms when the stories were being told? Those would have been amazing stories to hear even though the stories of women have been so quickly discounted, and often feared in most, if not all, societies. How much we have missed?

We’ve got stories to tell and stories to hear. It’s in the balancing of the telling and the hearing that we can find a way to follow the story telling who summons us into God’s dangerous service.


Before we close this morning I want us to think about the Apostle’s Creed for a couple of minutes. Now before I acknowledge my usual concerns about the Apostle’s or any creed, I do want to note and celebrate thatthere are plenty of people who find the creeds quite meaningful. And they have stories to tell about going into a church in a new or far place and hearing the same creed that they recite, the same creed that has been recited by Christians over the centuries all over the world.

But, I can’t help but mention today that there are no stories in the Apostle’s Creed. If you don’t know it, you can find it on page 359. It talks about God being the creator of heaven and earth, but nothing about that creation that we read about in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, the book of Job, in the Psalms or so many other places in the Bible. It says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate and was killed. It says Jesus was resurrected. But there are no Nativity stories, no stories about what happened on Holy Week and Easter morning. And the creeds, like this one don’t even make a reference to the life Jesus lived, much less tell stories like his encounter with the Woman at the Well, or with Zacchaeus, or the time they tried to throw him over a cliff in his home town. The Holy Spirit gets a line, but no story of Pentecost or the Spirit’s guiding the followers of Jesus.

Now, of course, the stories in the Bible are alluded to in the Apostle’s Creed. But imagine if you heard this creed as someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Bible. How can we know what the creed is trying to tell us without hearing the stories?


Any of you here listen to the Vinyl Café? It’s a long running Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program that, I think, you can hear on one of the public broadcasting stations. I listen to their weekly podcast so I’m not quite sure when you can listen to it on the radio, but I think it’s Sunday afternoon. It’s built around stories. Kind of like the Canadian version of the Prairie Home Companion. Stuart McLean, it’s host, who is, at least, as good of a storyteller as Garrison Keillor, always closes the broadcast with his hope that we will have a “story worthy week.” And we will, because there are stories everywhere.


God, we come this morning to join with each other in worshiping you. We’ve got good stories and we’ve got hard stories to tell, some so hard that we don’t know how to tell them. But we know that no matter what our stories are, we are a part of your larger story. Jesus has called us to not only tell the story, but to add to it, to make the story our own.

Forgive us when we imagine there are folk whose stories aren’t worth hearing, or whose stories don’t really count. Forgive us when we shrink from telling our stories, or drown others’ stories out with our own. We don’t know how the story ends, God, it just keeps unfolding and is told by your Spirit along the way. And that is why we are thankful. Help us to add a bit more to the story today and in the days ahead. In the name of the one who came telling us your story. Amen