Into the Maelstrom

October 8th, 2015

The Book of Job, Introduction
October 4, 2015
Mary Hammond

Those of you who have known me for years realize that I am a long-time fan of the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. This Big Story, this MetaStory, has seen me through the toughest periods of my adult life. I never tire of reading Job, although I do admit sometimes crawling back to its pages, wishing I did not need its inspiration once again. Surprisingly enough, at each re-reading or change in my own circumstance, self-awareness, or theology, I discover treasures that I missed the last time around.

Where else, in the biblical scriptures, do we find an intimate spiritual and psychological portrait of the human soul in the cauldron of prolonged suffering? Nowhere else. I like to go deep, and if the Book fo Job is anything, it is deep.

The main character, whose name is Job, inspires me. He is relentless in his pursuit of God regardless of circumstance. He is brave enough to speak his truth, even when he feels bereft or misunderstood. His personal testimony in the mid-section of the book reads uncannily like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Job is prophetic; he is also contemplative.

The last time I preached, I went off-lectionary and delved into the initial encounter between Job and his friends at the end of Chapter 2. Today’s lectionary reading includes all of Chapter 2, but I’m expanding that text quite a bit. I want to touch on themes throughout the book that speak profoundly to our deepest questions about life, personhood, suffering, and God.

Let’s begin with the prose Prologue to this story. Here, God is depicted uncomfortably to us moderns, easily swayed by one characterized as an Adversary, but also described as an angel of God. He is named ‘the Satan’ (although translated most often in our bibles, just ‘Satan’). The reason I use ‘the Satan” is because people today think of ‘Satan’ as a proper name, but this was not the meaning in ancient times. Instead, the word indicated a special function, such as instigator of evil, accuser, or prosecutor (see “The Interpreter’s Bible,” Volume 3, Abingdon Press, copyright 1954, p. 912). So, ‘the Satan’ roams the earth, checking out the human race and observing the faithfulness of individuals to the High God.

Job quickly comes to the Satan’s attention. So this angel challenges God to a test of sorts—“Let’s see how faithful Job really is. You, God, bless him with wealth, status, influence, family, land, etc. etc. Would he still be faithful if you took all that away?”

A set of cumulative catastrophes occurs in rapid succession, but they do not deter Job’s devotion. So the Satan–the accuser, the prosecutor–goes back to God again, and asks to take away Job’s health. “Just don’t kill him,” is God’s response. Again, Job’s response is surrender and trust.

In Jewish writer Harold S. Kushner’s book titled, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the author posits that this oft-disturbing prose Prologue to the Book of Job is ancient fable. He believes the same of the prose Epilogue. There, after the whole story plays out in all its intensity and furor, God makes up for Job’s cataclysmic losses by providing more lands, more children, more wealth, more status, than ever before. Job intercedes to God for his erring friends, and everyone lives “happily ever after.”

So unlike real life here on earth.

In between the prose Prologue and Epilogue of Job we find 39 chapters of intense, emotional, honest poetry. This poetry takes direct aim at theological formulas that are not true to human experience—whether found in the prose sections of the Book of Job or revealed in the misdirected advice, shaming, and dogmatism of Job’s friends.

Even as Job faces cumulative grief, loss, and physical pain, his most important attributes remain intact—his strong sense of self and his abiding hunger for God. I don’t know about you, but cumulative loss has a way of ungluing me, taking me out of the game bit by bit. During such times, Job reminds me what it looks like to stay intact under immense stress–hoping against hope, despairing and getting back on my feet again. Job also demonstrates what it looks like to remain engaged with God in those times when we need God the most and yet, God is Silent.

Through no fault of his own, Job finds himself in the fight of his life. We are fortunate to walk with him in the midst of all the raw see-sawing emotions he faces. In her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, author Brene Brown says this: “We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. Our culture is rife with these tales…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending” (see p. xxiv, “Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution” by Brene Brown, copyright 2015, Random House).

Job doesn’t move quickly through the dark. That may be why I think sometimes that his story should be rated PG-13. The violence unleashed on his life and felt in his heart provokes his deep struggle with profound loss and utter dislocation. He tries to regain his equilibrium even though everything around and within him has radically changed. Brown continues in her book, saying, “Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity” (see p. xxvii, “Rising Strong”).

Job reminds me, that at the end of the day, perseverance is more important than courage. How many of you have had times when you felt fragile, broken, and undone–ready to just escape the arena you found yourself battling in? Job felt that often. But he just kept plugging along.

One of my most frequent pieces of advice for people in crisis is this: “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other every day. That, in itself, is something to celebrate. That, in itself, is victory enough.”

In the 39 chapters of this poetic ‘tour de force’ between the Prologue and Epilogue, Job wrestles with the Big Questions of life. He finds himself living in that precipitous gap between his experience and what he has previously believed about himself, friendship, and God. It’s a darn uncomfortable place to be, but staying with the struggle eventually leads Job to the places he longs to go.

Such is the wonder of this poetry. Its themes are Universal. Your own story might be hidden—or not so hidden—in the pages of this book. Trust, hope, betrayal, despair, anger, shame, grief, regret, faith, wonder, disappointment, determination, awe—all these feelings arise and find expression within this narrative.

The Book of Job is considered part of the Wisdom Literature within the Hebrew scriptures. There is much more wisdom to be culled from this remarkable and mysterious text down the road. Stay tuned.


Belief and/or Trust: Or Does God Really Not Give Us More Than We Can Handle? Further Wanderings in the Weird World of Mark 9 (and just a little bit of Mark 10)

September 29th, 2015

Mark 9:38-50
September 27, 2015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week, you remember, I hope, that we talked about that story in Mark 9 where the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus talked to them about the last being first and took this little girl and set her down in their midst and said whoever welcomes her welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. Remember we got up and made lines that we turned into a circle and talked about what it feels like to be welcomed and unwelcomed. Well, we are going to keep looking at the 9th chapter of Mark this morning which is a weird, fascinating, gruesome chapter that seems kind of stream of consciousness, but I don’t think really is. If you don’t have your Bible or smartphone or tablet with you, there are probably Bibles nearby in the pews you can look at Mark 9 with me, if you want to.

Toward the end of the chapter there is this story that begins like this, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” This, as they would say in some places, is rich. Just before the story about how the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest there is another argument. Here is how that story begins. “When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with my disciples?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’”

So the disciples have this public and spectacular failure at ridding this child of his demon. Then right after that they come across this person who isn’t a part of the group who is able to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and they tell him or her to stop. Can you imagine them coming up to Jesus right after he has had to clean up their mess and tell him that they tried to stop this person from doing what they couldn’t do? That is rich. And it’s kind of funny and kind of sad.

And one of the reasons it is sad is because it comes right after the story where Jesus talked about welcoming the child. There is this person who is doing the work of Jesus, no less. Instead of welcoming him, instead of breaking out of the lines that Jesus had just challenged when he put that little child in their midst, the disciples reject that person. Whoever wrote the book of Mark was not hesitant to knock the disciples off the pedestals that they were being placed on in the early church.

The disciples got a much different response from Jesus that they were expecting. He did not perceive the threat to the brand that they did, and said it’s okay. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Do you hear what a welcoming statement that is? He may not be one of us, but he gets it. There he goes, Jesus turning lines into circles again.

The very next story in this chapter gets us back to the children. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[ where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

I told you this chapter was gruesome, weird, and fascinating. It’s better being tossed into the sea with a weight around our neck, cutting off our arms and legs, or plucking out our eyeballs than putting a stumbling block in front of the little ones. What is that stumbling block?

Jesus calls them the little ones who believe in him. Remember how I keep saying that just about every time you see the word believe or belief in the New Testament you should substitute the word trust? The word is legitimately translated as belief, but the way we use the word belief has changed, and the word trust gets more to what that word really meant.

There is a difference between belief and trust. Have you ever helped a child jump or even take the steps down into a swimming pool when they didn’t want to do that? What they believe is they are going to drown. But when they jump from the side into your arms, or walk down the steps to you, they trust that they aren’t. And the trust is not that there is magic that prevents them from drowning, but that you won’t let that happen.

One of the things that really sets me off is those politicians and others who say they believe that every child needs a father and a mother. From the age of three, I was raised by my widowed grandmother. Here is the brief, sad summary of what I have been able to piece together of why that happened to me. Evidently, my mother did the best she could to spend all of my father’s paycheck on alcohol before he lost it all gambling. You may believe all you want that every child needs a mother and a father, but my mother and father could not be trusted to raise my brothers and me. They weren’t bad people, just not able to raise my brothers and me. But my grandmother and my larger family I could trust. Fortunately, those stumbling blocks that were put in front of me didn’t trip me up forever.

I think this is the stumbling block that Jesus was talking about. The little ones, the vulnerable ones are trusting us. They are willing to jump into that pool not because of what they believe, or what they have been told they are supposed to believe, but because of trust. Jesus is saying we need to go to extreme measures, “pluck your eyeballs out if you have to,” to make sure we don’t violate or sabotage their trust. We are called to be trusted, to make the church and the world more trustworthy. There are plenty of stumbling blocks along the way to challenge their trust, we don’t want to add to them. And this is not just about children, though they are the most vulnerable ones and, often, the most trusting ones. It’s about all the vulnerable ones in our lives and this world. And when we, when the church, welcomes the vulnerable ones we are honoring or rebuilding their trust. They feel the welcome of Jesus.

This is how chapter 9 ends. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “Be at peace with one another.” That takes us right back to that story about the dispute about who is the greatest. This chapter, maybe, holds together a bit more than it appears. Maybe Jesus is saying one of the ways we can stop from putting stumbling blocks in front of the little ones is to live more peacefully, more graciously, with a more welcoming attitude with everyone. If we turn those lines into circles, where there is no first or last, nobody at the front or the back, and welcome everyone into the circle, the little ones will surely have more reasons to live in trust. What would it be like for the little ones, the vulnerable ones if the ‘adults’ decided the children are more important than our wars and ideologies, and our lines and borders? What if we made children and the vulnerable ones more important than our politics decided to welcome each other because it would make the world a more trusting place, a better place for the little ones?

That’s the end of Mark 9, but not the end of the story. Jesus has been talking to the disciples and showing them about welcoming the outsider and the vulnerable, turning our lines into circles, living in peace with everybody. Could somebody read Mark 10:13-16 for us? Do you understand why Jesus was so indignant, so frustrated and upset with the disciples? They had just gone over this. But, again, as we talked about last week it is so hard to turn those lines of exclusion and competition into circles of welcome and community.

I want to close with something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. At last Sunday’s ECO discussion, we talked about that age old question of if God is all loving and all powerful, why do so many people in this world experience so much crap in their lives. There’s obviously a lot to that question and the discussion was a good one. But one of the things we talked about was that thing you will often hear people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Now I understand why people say that and it does seem to be a way of saying that I am going to trust God no matter what.

But think about it. Why do we imagine these hard things are gifts from God? “I am going to give you the opportunity to be unemployed. Your job is going to be outsourced, and the day after your benefits end, I’m also going to give you a heart attack. That’s not a gift that’s too much for you, is it?” “And you. I am happy to give you the gift of a very ill child. That’s not too much is it?” “And you. I know I have a gift for a bunch of you. A war. And I will let you be a refugee. You also get a boat, well kind of a boat.” “And you. You’re 12 now. How about I give you this? You get to work in the sex industry. I can get a guy into town tonight who can set you up. That’s not too much for you is it?” And, frankly, there is no two year old with an mentally ill and alcoholic mother and a gambling addicted father for whom that’s not too much. I would not trust a God who gives us things like that, whether it’s too much or not.

Here’s another way to think about all of that. The Apostle Paul wrote some things that are just down right sketchy. But there are times where he really comes across for us and shows us a more excellent way. He had such an amazing trust in God. And instead of believing that God wouldn’t give him more than he could handle, he showed his trust in God when he wrote this at the end of Romans 8. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who first loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That’s the kind of God I can trust. The God who gives us love and welcomes us, who gives us healing, and forgiveness, new life, and each other, and empowers us, and tears down walls that divide us, and turns lines into circles, and calls us to follow Jesus and seek God’s Realm, and, yes, trusts us. That’s the God Jesus was talking about in Mark 9; not the God Jesus believed in, but the God Jesus trusted all the way to an empty grave. Those little ones, the vulnerable ones. They don’t care what we believe about God. It’s what we trust about God that matters. How willing are we to jump into the pool?

Lines and Circles

September 20th, 2015

Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

[Have people line themselves up, facing the pulpit, alphabetically by first name]

Lots of life is about lines and finding our places in the line. We could have lined up using any of a number of criteria other than our names. But we would still have had to work at it and needed the assistance of others to find our place in the line, which is not an uncommon experience. There are all kinds of people and norms and expectations that will tell us exactly where our place in the line is.

What do you see as you stand here in the line? Everybody turn to the left. Now what do you see. Perhaps more than the head in front of you. You don’t have to work as hard to see something other than the head in front of you, but you are still in a line. And lines are isolating, they disconnect us from each other, except we have the shared experience of being in the line. Even though we are in the same line, sharing this same experience, most of you can’t see my very well, and I can’t see most of you.

This story from today’s gospel about who gets to be the most powerful of Jesus’ buddies is a story about lines. Most of us probably aren’t all that concerned about who gets to be next to the pulpit in our line, but in most of the lines we find ourselves in the goal for just about everybody is to get to the front of the line, or as close to it as we can get. Or if you find yourself not getting any closer, the goal becomes to try your hardest to make sure more folk don’t get in front of you. This was the linear thinking that was driving the disciples as they argued about who was the greatest among them, or who got to be at the front of the line. [Tell people they can sit down, but not to get too comfortable]

Jesus wanted to help them think in a new way. So he picked up a little girl who was standing nearby and said something that sounds so heartwarming to us. Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me. But when the people who were there heard Jesus say this, their blood began to run cold. It was awful. How could Jesus imagine such a ridiculous thing, much less say it out loud?

Here is how the lines worked in Jesus’ day. At the front of the line were the men of high status; wealthy men, the religious establishment, the social and political elite. All of them were fighting to be first in line. Behind them the men of lesser status would jockey for their positions in the line, the closer you could get to the front the better. You would never get to the front of the line, but maybe you could find ways to push others out of the way. Then came the women. Then the slaves. And after the slaves who brought up the end of the line? The children. But they weren’t even right behind the slaves. The farm animals actually were farther up the line than children. You could get more work out of a goat than a four year old child. And besides, goats usually lived longer. According to Micah Keil, who teaches theology at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, children weren’t even considered to be people until they could start working and make themselves more valuable than the animals. This was the established line up in Jesus’ world, and then he picks up this little child and all their chins drop.

[Tell folk to get back in line, but reverse order. Ask everyone to join hands. We need to get the first person in line holding hands with the last person in line. How are we going to do that? Form a circle.]

Now that we are in a circle, what do you see? Each other. We are no longer isolated. You see Jesus wants us to break out of our linear way of thinking and change to a circular model. That whole thing about the last being first doesn’t really mean anything if we cling to a linear way of thinking. The line is still there. People’s positions just change, though that’s better than it was, but it’s still a line. Who is first and last in this circle? See what Jesus was doing? Too much of the history and the life of the church indicates we believe that Jesus came to tweak the line, to make it better, maybe a little fairer. But, like the disciples, we still haven’t understood that Jesus wants us to get rid of the line and make the circle our paradigm. [Tell people they can sit down].

Jesus said whoever welcomes a little child, the little girl at the end of the line, welcomes him. What does it mean, what does it feel like to be welcomed?

This world is experiencing a refugee crisis. People from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, in particular, are fleeing their homes, looking for refuge. They are at the end of the line, and there are plenty of people who are trying to keep them there because they are afraid they will get ahead of them. Is the church able to help this world think about circles of welcome? I mentioned in study group the other night that I had heard an Eastern European Bishop say the refugees couldn’t be let into Europe because they would destroy the Christian heritage of Europe. What kind of Christian heritage is it that turns the little child away, the person at the end of the line? The person Jesus put in our midst? And it’s not just Christian leaders in Europe who are opposed to welcoming the little child. The politicians most vocal about their Christian faith in this country are adamant about building walls, keeping people out, and sending away any of the little children who have happened to make their way into our midst. We can’t stop thinking in linear ways, protecting that line at all costs.

At the beginning of today’s story Jesus says this amazing thing about being turned over to the authorities, being killed and rising again. But the disciples don’t ask him about it. Instead, their attention turned, rather quickly it seems, to who gets to be first, Jesus’ Chief of Staff, in whatever it is he was setting up. What a more fruitful discussion they would have had along the road if they just asked Jesus what on earth he was talking about. Here he is talking about betrayal, death, and resurrection and all they were trying to do was figure out where their place in the line was. The line that Jesus was turning into a circle.

How much do we miss because we are so concerned about the lines in our lives and our place in them? So concerned about getting closer to the front or, at least, keeping others from getting ahead of us? But when Jesus gets us thinking about circles rather than lines, than our thinking on lots of things can change. Instead of being preoccupied about the lines, maybe we can start asking about resurrection and trying to figure out stuff like how we turn our lines into circles.

A Special Kind of Presence

September 13th, 2015

Job 2:11-13
September 13, 2015
Mary Hammond

September always feels like a “new beginning” to me. Leaves start falling, and the air starts changing. Children and youth are beginning school, meeting new teachers and making new friends. College students are arriving in Oberlin from all over the country and world, many encountering each other for the first time. This small town that attempts to hibernate in the summer is once again abuzz with activity and energy.

Even as we face these autumn transitions, thousands upon thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe—a veritable flood of humanity, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of World War II. They come, traumatized and hungry, bearing nothing but the clothes on their backs, and often children on their shoulders. These desperate human beings are pleading for help, hope, and somewhere that can become a new home. Meanwhile, government officials throughout the Eurozone are debating their national responses.

It is an important time to ponder the meaning of friendship, both here and around the world. There are surely many ways to explore this topic in scripture, but I am drawn to a few short verses in the Book of Job today.

This book quickly immerses us in MetaStory, a Big Story. Its main character, a man named Job, is beset by a series of cumulative catastrophes. The first chapter captures the intensity of these calamities with the repetitive phrase, “While he was yet speaking…,” as one messenger after another brings news of the next disaster. There is absolutely no breathing room for Job. The deep truth of this story is that such overwhelming suffering occurs every day throughout our world.

Job faces the loss of family, property, wealth, and health in a brief period of time. His former prominence and social status are rapidly reduced to nothing. Think again of all the times people must start over in some way when tragedy strikes. We can all relate to this story on some level, because we all have known loss.

Three of Job’s friends–Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad–hear about his sorrows and travel to the land of Uz to support him. The painful sores on Job’s body render him nearly unrecognizable. His friends are shocked by his appearance. In a pure and unforced manner, they respond with grief, lament, and solidarity. The tearing of their garments and dumping of dirt on their heads are outward symbols of their inward acts of mourning. They sit on the ground with Job, one with him in his suffering and loss.

It is uncomfortable sometimes to sit with another’s pain, because it quickly surfaces our own. It forces us to face our personal fragility and mortality, our personal trauma and loss. The answers we relied on in the past may not hold up in the face of this new reality. Faith crises may erupt. We are driven to ask harder questions and seek deeper wisdom. We are forced to acknowledge the inexplicable and confront the possibility of Mystery. In such times, we have to face our own discomfort and name it. Otherwise, we risk disengaging to protect our illusions of safety.

Job’s friends follow their best instincts at first. There are moments in life when words are woefully inadequate. For seven days and nights, these three sit beside Job in silence. If silence is about anything in such circumstances, it is about listening below the surface, beyond the words, deep into the heart of reality. It is about the profound power and comfort of Presence. Our human temptation is to fill such spaces with attempts to fix the sufferer, fix the situation, or explain the suffering.

Unfortunately, as the story progresses, Job’s friends break their silence in all the worst ways, sure they can fix Job’s situation by fixing Job. His circumstances do not fit their theology, so instead of rethinking their own views of God, they blame Job. The friendship sours, becoming argumentative and even abusive. But that is a topic for another time.

In this brief paragraph from the Book of Job, however, simple acts of friendship become a model of radical accompaniment. The suffering of our neighbor calls us to ask not only “What shall we do?” but also “Who shall we be?” We are given the opportunity to open up to one another in shared pain and shared hope. Even if hope is dashed, as in Job’s case, we are invited to share in that, too.

I received a wonderful e-mail from a former student who gave me permission to share these reflections about PCC. They speak so much about cultivating friendship amid joys and sorrows. They testify to the power and importance of an individual and communal ministry of presence. I quote:

“Sharing Time is one of my favorite parts of PCC worship. Although really, all of it is my favorite part. I remember a lot of times sitting, listening, or sharing, and just feeling my heart cry out. Cries for peace, healing, justice, freedom from my then undiagnosed depression. Collective pain and sorrow are so real, and after two years of counseling and acknowledging just how deeply I feel others’ pain, I feel much better able to bear it. Most importantly, I feel better able to address that side of me proactively.

“I will be holding Peace Church in my heart, especially those who are having Hard Times. It seems so important to me to have a church community that is able to share equally in sorrows and joys, especially in this culture of chasing happiness, where we can simply buy it or choose it and sadness is seen as a failure…There’s so much keeping people from sharing their authentic, messy, raw emotions with one another, or fully engaging with someone who is vulnerable. Which is exactly why being at PCC is always such a blessing.

“I spent my entire college life running away from and suppressing my depression, but without knowing it, it appeared during worship and was somehow lessened by the authenticity I found there. I think that was what I was getting to earlier. Peace Community is a community to Just Be, and Just Be with Jesus.”

Every day offers us new opportunities to give and receive friendship, to engage in compassion and solidarity, in listening and responding. May we celebrate the beauty, power, and potential of such relationship–extending it next door, across the pew, and throughout the planet. Our world is crying out for such radical love and genuine generosity of heart. Amen.

Brave Women, Brave Spaces

September 6th, 2015

Mark 7:24-30
September 6, 3015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week or read her sermon online, you know that Mary talked about that woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair. Mary asked us what our initial thoughts were about that story and the first thing that came to my mind was how incredibly brave that woman who had been unnamed was. What courage must it have taken for her to not only walk in that place where she was unwelcomed, but then to approach Jesus and do something so provocative. Simon the Pharisee could have thrown her out or turned her over to the authorities to be punished for violating several sections of the purity code. But, even worse, Jesus could have rejected and denounced her. And that is exactly what Simon was waiting for. He thought he had Jesus in a bind. If Jesus didn’t denounce her and demand her punishment then Simon had Jesus for being some kind of wishy-washy religious liberal. If he did denounce her then Jesus would lose all the credibility he had been gaining with the people.

Jesus did not walk innocently into traps, however. He did something very brave himself. He shifted the focus from the woman to Simon. And it was Simon he denounced, not the woman. And both Simon and Jesus knew that Simon had enough power to make Jesus pay for dressing down Simon in front of his guests. But like the woman, Jesus was willing to take the risk.

In today’s story we have another brave woman. This unnamed Syrophoenician woman, this Gentile had the ovaries to approach a Jewish Rabbi in the hopes he could save her daughter. And, as with the woman at Simon’s house, it turned out well for her. But this story leaves us feeling a whole lot different than with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet.

Some of us were talking at a meeting the other day about the importance of normalizing discomfort in the church, including this church. There is a lot about Jesus, a lot about figuring out what it means to be church together, what it means to be church in this society that should leave us feeling pretty discomforted. Think about the disciples. Their whole time with Jesus was discomfort normalized. Can you imagine what their stomachs felt like each day when they woke up? What’s he going to do or say today that gets him and/or us in trouble? What’s he going to do or say that leaves us totally baffled and him frustrated because we have no idea what he is doing or saying? Why is it his goal to leave no tenet of or our religious tradition unchallenged? Doesn’t he know that this can get us all killed?

So anyway this passage leaves us feeling some discomfort. Jesus seems kind of clueless, at best, or rude, at worst in his initial encounter with this woman. I mean he called her and her daughter Gentile dogs. So what do you do with this story? The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair, at the end of that story we are all going Yay, Jesus! At the end of this one we are saying, “What was that?”

We are, though, normalizing discomfort so we are going to keep looking at this story. But, first, we need to look at the story right before this one in Mark’s gospel. It turns out that Jesus was having another dispute with the religious authorities. This time it’s not just with one Pharisee and the folk he had invited to his house. It’s with a whole group of the religious elite in a public setting. They were complaining that Jesus and his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. It’s not like they are somebody’s mother worried about dirty hands. By not washing their hands in the ritual ceremonies before they ate Jesus and the crew were challenging the validity of the purity codes. And the enemies of Jesus were not going to give him a pass on this.

I guess an analogy for what Jesus was doing there would kind of be what it was like when people first came along and suggested something like the creation stories in Genesis were not accurate to how the world was really created, and since they are poetry, were never meant to be taken literally, anyway. That still causes controversy today, but nothing nearly like when people started hearing such a thing back in the 1800’s. The religious leaders would have seen Jesus’ willingness to violate the purity codes as a deep threat to the core of their personal and societal religious underpinnings, just like folk did when Darwin and others started talking about evolution.

So the very next story, in effect, doubles down on that threat the establishment was feeling. Here came a Gentile woman asking Jesus to help her daughter. That was even a more courageous act than the woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party. But it’s not some Pharisee or other religious leader that Jesus challenged, but the woman herself. Why should he even care? He had more important things to do than deal with some little Gentile dog. His mission was different. The woman, though, stood her ground, not slinking off like some Pharisee who found himself in over his head with Jesus, but gave it right back to him. Mother love does make people crazy. “Go ahead and call me and my daughters dogs. I don’t really care. But I know that even you would allow the dogs to have, at least, the scraps from the table. And that’s all I’m asking for, just some scraps.”

It’s Jesus who seems taken aback by this whole encounter. Notice that in most healing stories, Jesus says something like your faith has made you well. What does he say to this Gentile woman? “Because of what you just said, you are going to go home and find your daughter delivered of her demons.” Can you imagine what it must have felt like for that woman? She had the courage to take Jesus on, and her daughter is well.

I think, though, this is another story where it is not just a woman who shows some bravery, but Jesus does too. I do have to say that one of the reasons this story becomes so tricky is that people get uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus needed some advice from this woman, or anyone. I used this story for a group on campus once and talked about what Jesus learned from this woman. Several students there took great offense at my suggestion that Jesus actually learned something new here. I’ve never been asked to speak for that group again.

But, there are a couple of brave responses I see from Jesus here. One is the bravery to let this woman’s arguments persuade him to do something he didn’t seem to think he needed to do. But he changed his mind, right there in public. And we’re talking about a Gentile woman, no less. Jesus didn’t care about losing face right there in public. She won the argument and he was more than willing to admit in front of all those people that she was right. Not many religious or political leaders are brave enough to do such a thing. The other thing this women’s bravery did was inspire Jesus to understand his ministry in a new and dangerous way. His openness and compassion to Gentiles would set him on a crash course with the religious authorities. But Jesus never looked back after the encounter with this Gentile woman, who put so much on the line for her daughter.

I can’t imagine anyone braver than Jesus. But these, and other stories, make it clear that Jesus knew that it is others who help us to be brave. Mary and I have been talking a lot this summer about the difference between safe spaces and brave spaces, something Rachael Weasley got us thinking about. We hear a lot about safe spaces, those places where people can go and feel like their needs and concerns will be honored and protected. Safe spaces are needed. But, you can’t guarantee that even designated safe spaces will be free from something being said are something happening that violates a person’s since of safety. And, as people are learning, safe spaces can become places where people are so careful about maintaining the safety of the space, that the conversations and interactions become hesitant and inauthentic. The safety erodes because people begin to fear they are going to say or do something that unknowingly violates someone else’s since of safety, or are misunderstood, even when the intentions are good.

Brave spaces offer a community where people can step up and try to build a more supportive community, even if there are some stumbles along the way. The women in both of these stories helped create brave spaces that Jesus stepped into. The bravery the women and Jesus showed are good models for the church. It’s worth noting that these stories were recalled in the life of the early church when there was much debate about the place of Gentiles and women in the life of the church. Maybe the writer’s intention was to help us understand about brave spaces than try to figure out why Jesus was so mean to that woman at first.

There are many metaphors for what it means to be church; the body of Christ, family, a spiritual temple, a community of faith. Another good metaphor seems to be the church as a brave space where together we are learning how and helping others to be brave in taking new steps toward faith, seeking God’s Realm, having our opinions and lives changed, being that light on the hill Jesus said we are. And notice in those stories that the women not only inspired Jesus to some brave actions, but they were drawn to Jesus because of the bravery they had already seen in him. That’s that idea of a virtuous circle where we are all drawn to and inspired by the bravery we see in each other, which only helps us to be braver. Of course, creating brave spaces, by definition, is normalizing discomfort. If it weren’t uncomfortable and scary, it wouldn’t be brave.

At the root of both of these stories, of course, is that question of how we learn to live with others who are different than we are. There were amazingly rigid boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, and men and women in Jesus’ culture. And there are plenty of rigid boundaries today. Part of creating brave spaces is the willingness to cross those boundaries and not be confused, or afraid, or so willing to let others manipulate our differences. Instead, as Lynn Powell said in that same meeting where we talked about normalizing discomfort, when we are creating brave spaces where we can cross those boundaries we get the opportunity to be curious about each other.

The fact is, that even though Jesus was so different than people were used to in his own culture, he had not had any meaningful or long term interactions with Gentiles and his interactions with women were roundly condemned for violating those rigid understandings about separation of the sexes. But this Syrophonecian women obviously ignited his imagination, sparked his curiosity. He didn’t just walk away from her as another Gentile dog, no matter what he initially said. She said something to him that he had either never really thought about before, or confirmed something that was starting to make sense but had not been called out of him. The safest thing for Jesus to do would have been to denounce that woman at the dinner party and walk away from that woman who wanted him to rescue her daughter. But, with those women, he chose instead to be brave enough to tear down some walls.

If you want to look at metaphors, Donald Trump is calling for a wall to be constructed along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. And not to be eclipsed, Scott Walker, another Presidential candidate is calling for a wall between the U.S. and Canada. Those Pharisees and religious leaders feared the walls coming down. They wanted more and higher walls, just like Donald Trump and Scott Walker. You see, walls are what make people comfortable. But they don’t make us safe. Walled spaces should never be confused with safe spaces. Not only are those walls keeping things out that we really need on the inside, but they are keeping on the inside things we really don’t need there, or on the positive side gifts that could be shared with others. Walled spaces are the opposite of brave spaces. They are the places where we cower, so very afraid of what is on the other side of the wall.

It’s no accident, I believe, that the stories of these women and the impact they had on the life of Jesus and his own understanding of his ministry are included in the gospel stories. Then there was the Roman Centurion whose slave Jesus healed. These were the despised, the people kept outside by the walls that had been erected by Jesus’ own people. Jesus didn’t tear down those walls all by himself. They did it together and got great courage from each other.

These aren’t the only brave women Jesus encountered. Do you remember who some of the others were? Mary his mother. The Samaritan Woman. The bleeding woman. The woman who touched his garment. Mary who sat at his feet. Martha who confronted him when her brother Lazarus died. The women who stayed by the cross when the men fled, and came to the garden to tend to his body when that could have gotten them in so much trouble.

Never underestimate the bravery it takes for some people to walk into this building, or share something about their lives during our sharing and other times. We offer those treasures of our vulnerability, and needs, and joys, not because we are looking for our problems to be solved, but we are looking for places that will help us be brave. In one of Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas songs there is a line about this baby being born to release us from our sin and fear. Being released from our fears. Creating and occupying brave spaces together is our calling

The stories of these two brave women, especially the second, invite us to some discomfort. That’s so we can build brave spaces with each other. And if we build them right, the brave spaces will be the safe spaces.

Meeting Jesus among tears and dusty feet

August 30th, 2015

Luke 7: 36-50
August 30, 2015
Mary Hammond

Decades ago, a man told me that one of the reasons he did not come to church anymore was because he cried every time he came. My response to this confession was, “If you can’t cry at church, where can you cry?” Yet, for his own reasons, this man didn’t feel safe crying at church. Maybe he spent a lifetime keeping his tears bottled up inside. Maybe he felt ashamed, weak, or too vulnerable, crying in the public setting of a church pew.

Recently, Robin Wallace (who joyfully said I could use her name and reflections), told me that she cried every Sunday the first six months she came to church. Here is what she shared with me in an e-mail:
“When I came there that first Sunday, I believe a couple of different things happened…First of all, I felt totally safe. I mean, really, when I think of it, I just began crying at the first note on the piano and stopped during the benediction…every week. And I thought to myself, “I can’t stop crying…” (then realized), “Oh, dear God…I am safe here.” That was an enormous truth and I wept more. I mean, it was like the Holy Spirit turned a faucet on my heart…and the flood of tears came quietly out. I remember occasionally someone might reach up and just softly touch me in a knowing way…someone handed me a tissue once…those moments were huge for me…I felt loved and cared for and safe to cry. No one needed me to do anything or be strong for them…I could just be. And at some point I slowly realized that it would even be OK if I needed someone.”

Tears arise from many emotions. This is one observation author and social worker, Pete Walker, makes about crying in his book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”: “Crying carries the energy of pain out of the body through the physical motions, sounds, and tears of weeping. Crying emotes our pain out in the true sense of the Latin derivative ’emovere’ which means ‘to move out'” (p. 79, Azure Coyote Publishing, 1995).

The Gospel story before us today is intense, as we could tell by the reading itself. It is intimate. It is emotional. It surfaces conflict in the room where it takes place. It is transforming for one person, and yet not for another. It is a deep story, and we can barely touch those depths today in these brief reflections.

We start out at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, who invites Jesus to dinner. The Pharisees are devout religious leaders who generally oppose much of what Jesus says and does. Some, however, are curious and want to know more about Jesus. Simon initially seems to be one of the latter. Yet the story unmasks his heart.

Aside from Simon and his guests, there is another character in the narrative, an interloper. This is a woman, whom The Message Bible refers to as “the town harlot.” Older translations use the phrase, “a sinner.” The inference is the same.

This woman is unnamed by Luke, the Gospel’s author. She is known only by her dubious reputation. Yet she wasn’t born with the name “sinner” or “town harlot.” She was born with the name Leila or Mary, Susan or Barbara, or some other name.

This woman has a story. It might be a tragic tale of childhood neglect and abuse. It might be a testimony of poverty and deprivation. We do not know.

What has this woman done with her vulnerability over the years, to garner the reputation of “sinner” or “town harlot”? Has she stuffed that vulnerability into a deep inner closet in order to survive abuse in private and scorn in public? How many times has she silenced her tears?

Let’s dignify this woman by giving her a name. For our purposes today, let’s call her ‘Leila.’

So, Jesus is attending a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee, who is named in the text, by the way. And in comes Leila. To the host, she is just a “sinner,”or “the town harlot.” But to Jesus, she has a name and a story. She is a person.

Leila is pretty cheeky to crash this dinner gathering. There is more that we could say about that, but we don’t have time. What does she have to lose, anyhow? She enters, ignores everyone else, and zeroes in on Jesus. Not just that, but she is so overcome with emotion when she sees him that she kneels beside Jesus and starts sobbing, so strongly in fact that she waters his feet with her tears. That’s some serious crying.

Leila takes down her hair, a very provocative act in that culture for a woman in public. She then uses her long tresses to wipe her tears off Jesus’ feet and kisses them. Her final act is anointing his feet with perfume.

All of this happens in front of the dinner guests. Can you imagine? Simon, the Pharisee, thinks to himself, “If [Jesus] was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is.”

Hm. “What kind of woman THIS IS.”

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? Shame is rooted in who we are–feeling defective and flawed, feeling like “If you really knew me, you would not love me.” Guilt, in contrast, is about what we do—the acts that we commit or omit which we have the power and agency to change.

Simon’s thoughts about Leila are shaming. They are about who he thinks she is. To Simon, she is “sinner” or “town harlot.” In this way, Simon un-names her.

Last week, Cindi Byron-Dixon shared the tragic story of a young man her family knows who has made devastating decisions which led to shooting and killing a man in the midst of a robbery. The newspapers have un-named him. Social media has un-named him. He is now “murderer,” and “criminal”…not the strong, principled boy they have known for years, who got caught up with the wrong crowd and spiraled down a tragic path.

Jesus reaches inside Simon’s thoughts, and tells him a story about two men and a creditor to whom they owe a lot of money. One man owes 500 silver pieces, the other 50. Neither can pay up, so the creditor cancels both debts. ‘Which debtor is more appreciative?’ Jesus asks.

This is an easy one for Simon. “The one who owed more,” he replies. Jesus commends this answer. But then he takes the story full circle and relates it back to Leila. Uninvited and unwelcome, she embraces the role of slave or house servant by washing Jesus’ feet. She offers Jesus a lavish welcome and her rapt attention. Her profound vulnerability is bathed in unending gratitude. What has Simon offered Jesus?

While looking at the woman, Jesus then tells Simon, “She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

Notice that Jesus is looking at the woman–looking in her face, gazing deep into her eyes, I imagine. Jesus is not staring her up and down and judging her like Simon. He is not stereotyping her; he is not sexualizing her. He is not un-naming her.

I have been reading a lot about trauma lately, and it can be extremely difficult for people who have been traumatized to make steady eye contact with others. Jesus, I believe, makes eye contact with Leila. I wonder if she has the ability to look him in the eyes, as well. She has had a lot of men look at her, but most likely, never like this. Surely, the gaze of Jesus is in itself momentous and healing.

Jesus speaks to Leila, “I forgive your sins.”

I imagine that there is so much more Jesus could have said and may have said, either then or later on. Let me throw out some ideas. “I forgive what you have done. You need no absolution for who you are. There is guilt, but there is no shame. You are a person, my beloved. You are beautiful. You did not choose your childhood, Leila, but your future is now in your hands. You are deserving of being treated like I am treating you, not the way other men have treated you.”

What an incredible moment! One might expect the whole padre of guests to stand there, stunned and transformed. But, no! They begin whispering behind Jesus’ back, “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Another incredible twist of the story occurs. The Pharisees and other guests do not see the woman Jesus sees. They do not acknowledge the meaning of her sobs, the power of her anointing, the bravery of her vulnerability. Leila’s agonizing cry for healing and relief is eclipsed by their theological arguments with Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus ignores them, keeping his focus on Leila. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” he speaks.

I love this conclusion to the story. It breathes of agency. Leila has brought something to the table besides her broken and torn story. She has brought agency. She has brought faith. She has brought her deepest, most vulnerable self into the public arena of this dinner party as an uninvited guest. She has gathered up years, maybe a lifetime, of silent tears and cried her heart out in public for everyone to see. She has taken the risk that she might be welcomed or judged or both, and it was worth the risk.

When my health started tumbling further down in late 2013 during the final months of cancer treatment, I felt overwhelmed and without any control. I couldn’t plan anything. I didn’t know when I would be struck with hours of fevers and chills. I had already faced so much trauma, with cancer striking on the back of our oldest daughter’s breakdown and suicide. But one morning, I said to myself, “Every day, Mary, take agency for one thing. Just one thing. In that way, you can slowly reclaim your life.”

This made a difference. Each small act of taking agency gave me hope. And for Leila, agency made a difference, too.

Just when we feel overtaken by a major transition that is overwhelming, a death that is unexpected, a tragedy that is unmanageable, a health challenge that is relentless, we, too, can come to Jesus with our little bit of agency. We, too, can seek relief or at least a shoulder to cry on. We, too, can know his blessing, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Amen.

Peach Kuchen, Jesus, and the Spirituality/Mysteries of Meetings

August 30th, 2015

John 6:53-68
August 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

I kept seeing peaches around different stores, Farmer’s Markets, road side stands, etc. And I knew that Kristen had promised dessert for last Tuesday night’s gathering to discuss the book A Path Appears. So my hopes were high that we might be eating Kristen’s peach kuchen, though I would not be disappointed whatever it was. But, I was right. The kuchen was wonderful. But that wasn’t the only feast that Kristen provided that night. The kuchen was the prelude and, for me, anyway also the postlude for another feast Kristen had prepared that evening.

Kristen encouraged us to read this book or watch the videos and came well prepared to lead us in a good and fruitful discussion of the topics the authors raised about the nature of charities and good works, some of the things that people are doing to make dramatic impacts in peoples’ lives, ways to help make charities more effective, and even some of the neuroscience behind giving.

Like most of our studies, discussions, and gatherings, folk had different responses to the reading and different expectations for our time together. This is Peace Community Church, after all. But our bodies and spirits were fed by that time together thanks to Kristen’s work. And it has all become a metaphor for me for the part of the story we read from John’s gospel this morning which is all about metaphor. Hopefully, our time together won’t be crushed by the piling of metaphors. So stay with me, and let’s try to keep this thing held up together.

This story from John’s gospel starts at the beginning of the sixth chapter where there is one of those feeding miracles performed by Jesus. The crowds like being fed by Jesus so they start thinking “Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we just make him our new king.” Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with that, so he leaves to be by himself. The disciples take a boat back to the other side of the lake and Jesus ends up meeting them on the boat, in the midst of a storm, about three or four miles from shore. So they didn’t lose anyone in the storm and they actually ended up picking up another passenger, Jesus, along the way. This is quite a story, but it is only the beginning.

The crowds either walk back around the lake, rather than on it like Jesus did, or take boats across when it gets light and the storms are over. But when they get to the other side, who do they see? Jesus. They can’t quite figure out how he got there because they knew he didn’t leave in the boat. But that doesn’t matter as much as the renewed possibility they now perceive of having found him again and getting their meal tickets punched. And the conversation is much more testy this time than the day before.

The people are starting to make demands. They start talking about how Moses provided manna in the wilderness and nobody was ever hungry. This is the opportunity, they argue, for Jesus to show who he really is. If he is so special, he can provide even better food than Moses.

“Exactly,” Jesus replies. “The food I provide is more than food for the body. I am here to bring something that nourishes souls and spirits. If we settle for manna or something like a daily special, then we have all missed the point. This thing, the Realm of God, goes so much deeper. What you need more than manna is to take in me. Eat of me. Drink me in.”

Now this is metaphor and they don’t get it. It sounds like cannibalism. It just sounds so weird. All they are wanting is some fish and loaves of bread every day. And they want it as easy as the children of Israel had the manna from Moses. Just got outside your tent and scoop it up.

Just and aside here. Some folk use this passage to argue that when you take Communion or the Eucharist that you are partaking of the real body and real blood of Jesus. But, this is metaphor. Jesus isn’t talking about anything like that. He is trying to get people to understand that there is something much more going on in this world than where the next meal comes from. It is another way of saying ‘follow me and together we will get to where we need to go.’

This was hard for all those thousands of people who were now considering themselves disciples of Jesus. They didn’t understand this whole business of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And even if they did, all they were really looking for was a free lunch. Every day. All this other stuff Jesus was talking about, like loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, forgiving each other, sharing what you have, no, they just wanted lunch.

So they start walking away, by the tens, the dozens, the hundreds. Jesus just pulled off the worst evangelism meeting ever. And after a little bit, instead of the thousands, it was just that handful of men and women who had been with him from the beginning. So Jesus asked them if they were going to leave to.

In a response that almost wants to make you cry, surely one of the most poignant moments in the Bible Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

There is a lot in this response. But the thing that strikes me is that Peter is not just speaking for himself. He is speaking for what’s left of the group. It’s not just that Peter and James and Mary and Martha and the others have each discovered the life that is in Jesus. They have discovered that together. And that is the essence of what it means to be church, to be discovering with each other the life that is in Jesus.

It’s not that Peter was saying they had burned their bridges and they had no place else to go. The bridges were still there and they could go back across any time they wanted. But what they were learning together was that if you are looking for life, you just keep walking with Jesus even if you have no idea where on earth he is going.

This is what Dan Clarenden writes in his journeywithjesus blog. In recognizing that they have come to the point where there is nowhere else to go, the community becomes smaller but tighter. They have looked at their options and no other option makes sense. Here for the first time, John speaks of the Twelve. The crowd has winnowed down to a few, and have become a community in communion with Jesus. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes:
It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. It is their professed willingness to follow Jesus Christ that renders them a community of faith. What a blessed word to remember as we agonize over mission statements, budget priorities, worship attendance, or other preoccupations of churchly life. It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), (WJK, 2009), p. 385.]

Every time we are at worship, or study group, or Communion Lunch, or Peace Potluck, or working with Families First or whatever it is we are doing, we are leaving those places we used to be behind, and finding together the life that is in Jesus. At our retreat last week, I proudly confessed I was a big fan of meetings. I just couldn’t contain myself after I heard person after person talk about how terrible meetings were. But Judy joined me when she said ‘meetings are magic.’ Things happen you never expect. Another way of saying it is that time and time again, I have seen the Spirit at work in our meetings. There is mystery and magic afoot when the people of Jesus are together and the Spirit is in their midst. That doesn’t mean that things are always smooth, that we don’t get off topic, or get boring. But time and again I have seen us end up at the most unexpected and helpful of places. And sometimes that is just getting us started somewhere, but it is the way of life, the way we need to be going.

People do not live by peach kuchen alone. As good as Kristen’s peace kuchen was, that meeting she prepared for us was better. The peach kuchen was the sign of something much deeper we were going to reach for that evening. And like those disciples, we sometimes take lots of twists and turns, have no idea of what’s going on or why things are happening the way they are rather than the way we expected, but we have come to trust and know that together we are finding life in Jesus.

Jesus, the Peach Kuchen of Life? Makes as much sense as the Bread of Life. It’s metaphor. And it’s all about the life, not the kuchen or the bread.

Mold us and Make Us

August 30th, 2015

Joyce Parker
Jeremiah 18:1-6
Aug. 9, 2015

God knows about work in process—just look at the natural world we know. Examples: Acorn & mighty oak, virus evolutions.’
Just look at us and think of human growth and development. What we continue to learn in about human history, health, healing, brain development, etc. boggles the mind!
Look anywhere and see change. Some change we like; some we don’t like.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said this: “There is nothing permanent except change.”
This morning we are using a favorite topic of mine—clay and the potter. Look with me at this lineup and think about transition. Think about change and the different stages of a simple thing like clay:
1) Ball of clay—In nature it was once molten or pressed, then hardened rock, then sand, then became microscopic particles as silt in a river eventually becoming beds of clay. Now it is soft and pliable and we call it clay.
It can be liquefied and poured into molds, or in this soft but firm state it can be thrown on a wheel, or pressed into a shape.
With this clay the possibilities seem endless—a work of art, a common bowl, or a toilet bowl.

2)Now this soft clay has been formed and then let dry out some. It has evaporated some water and it will keep its form. We can still do some bending, scratching, adding new parts, or crush it. It is called leather hard and it is definitely in a transition stage. We can dry it out completely OR we can add back the water and soften it again—or we can dry it & put it in the oven (KILN) and bring it to about 1500 degrees F and it is on its way to being stone again.
NOW pretend you are a pot. Remember that God, the Master Potter, may have additional qualities and effects that you could use for yourself and the environment you serve or care for. His kindom may need something in addition from you!
Maybe there is healing needed. Maybe courage needs more practice for confidence.
Maybe joy got buried in your life somewhere.
Maybe more work needs to be done—another change!
3)After it has been through the first firing (bisque) it is pourous like an unglazed terra cotta flower pot.. It is no longer flexible.
Let me give a side thought: We want to hang on to our core values but sometimes we just don’t want to be flexible.
(That happens to some of our minds when we say—or want to say—no more! I’m satisfied. Stop now, I’m OK and I don’t want to change again.)

4) So this is the once fired pot. Now the potter wants to put on a decoration. I may put on glaze for a design, smoke it in a barrel or do a different design techniques. If I need this vessel to hold liquid or to be put in the oven/microwave for food use, then it needs a glaze.
5) (Pick up the glazed unfired pot)
With the glaze material applied, the pot is ready for a higher firing. I do about 2,000 F in the kiln. It takes from 8-12 hours for the clay-stone glaze to become a glass quality surface and the clay body now becomes more vitreous.
As people what can we draw from this transition illustration? 1) Maybe I have been subjected to stress and strain in life. 2) Maybe someone has pulled the rug out from under me 3) Let’s say I have been in the fire again. I’m going to come out different than before all that happened. We make many personal changes as we live life.
Life has no guarantees. Pottery doesn’t either. My pot may turn out poorly—the glaze wasn’t mixed well or it had gotten altered and the potter didn’t know it. Or it may turn out beautifully and then I’m pleased—and the firing was so worth it. With experience, the wait, and a surprise may result. Now the pot can finally serve as a work of art, or a soup bowl, a pitcher, or a ceramic sink.
Vessels of clay and human souls have different qualities and all can be useful!
6 Some pots may be re-fired for another chance at usefulness or beauty.
Have you ever said “God is not through with me yet.”? There is always hope .
We can learn on our life journey. In Christian values we learn Love, mercy, forgiveness, patience, empowerment, hope.

We believe God has not given up on us. We have not given up on ourselves!
The Spirit can continue to mold and make us into vessels for spreading the Good News and to become better human beings who help others. The Holy Spirit can still do great things for us, in us, and through us. That Spirit is ready and waiting and able.

We are, after all, like lumps of clay at one stage or another. We can be molded or altered, or repaired. If we are clay, let us remember there is a Master Potter and the pottery shop.

In fact to think of the church as a Pottery Shop is not a bad analogy! Work goes on here that makes us into improved vessels so that we get sent out into the world for use!
If we want to be changed for the better, we have come to a good place. There is the skill of the Master Potter we usually call GOD or Christ, the Son. We can be changed and therein lies our hope—and the hope of the world. It’s called transition and growth.

Jeremiah 18: 1-6 is an analogy in the OT. The Lord gave a message to Jeremiah: “Go down to the shop where clay pots and jars are made. I will speak to you while you are there. So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.
Then the Lord gave me this message; O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand so are you in my hand.”

It is a good exercise for us Christian people, it seems to me, to think about our flexibility and whose hands we are really in. We have many tugs and pulls to consider as we make decisions for our priorities. So, for me, questions to myself are good. And as I see you, my Christian friends, making choices, that affects my thinking.

I read a daily devotion recently that used the Jeremiah scripture. The author took off on a thought about our attitudes. Chris Spicer wrote that the“angle of approach “ of an airplane landing is also one definition of attitude. “Attitudes are to life as the angle of approach is to flying. Attitude is the way we choose to think about things; attitudes will cause us to react and behave in a certain way. Attitudes are learned and absorbed reactions; therefore they can be changed.”

If we need to review attitudes, we have an excellent resource in Matt. 5. They are called the BE attitudes……

If I am open, the Spirit keeps working on me and shaping my attitudes and actions. I call them Christ-attitudes…. Christ-actions, and Christ reactions. It is not easy because we have an elemental first responses as part of our being human. So we mis-step all the time.

A pot is a thing and it has no attitude, it has no choice in what it becomes. IMAGINE–
If I were this pot, with a living and changing body, living and changing mind, and a living and changing spirit, I may have some real objections to the transitions expected! In fact the firing would be downright scary! As humans, we get scared!

Some changes are uncomfortable. They interrupt what we have grown accustomed to. What was predictable can no longer be predicted. Unwanted change confronts us with the fact that we only thought we had control. Examples may be control over our own attitudes, control over other people’s lives or even over life itself. We are confronted by our vulnerability and that is often very uncomfortable.

So if we often do not have the control we may think that we do, then the thing we need to think of is managing our transitions. How can we learn to accept the change? How can I practice being flexible? What can I do that will make this change be imbedded with hope, faith, and happy or promising possibilities? For myself and others!

Here’s another thought: When something changes something always ends.
(When this pot went to the fire, its past nature ended.) (When I dry this pot for firing I must let go of one of my favorite stages, the leather hard. I like its leathery feel and its possibilities for creative playing.) As a human parent, when our children learned to walk, we had to recognize their leaving baby-hood. Change and development had brought a new stage. And we would have to deal with it! Change is not made without inconvenience they say. But who would wish that their child would not walk and run!

So we have to accept some losses. That’s the way life happens. Endings are NOT to be neglected. They can be felt and talked about. We can help each other be realistic in our assessments of a change, even those being made at PCC. We may call it a small “T” transition. Hopefully, we can trust the process of change and the future with faith.

Beginnings have their own charm and challenge, for example: Getting ready for a new school year, planting a new garden area, fixing up a room, working on a healthier diet.
Just like the the beginnings with this ball of clay. Looks daunting doesn’t it. How does that become a vessel? The details are in the learning and experience. Experiment! Throw that ball of clay on the wheel. Learn! We can put our adaptable characteristic in the hands of the Master Potter. Let’s sum this message with words you probably know well:
(ball of clay)
Have Thine Own way Lord, Have thine own way.
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay;
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Miracles, Mysteries, and Letting Jesus not be a King

July 30th, 2015

John 6:1-21
July 26, 2015
Steve Hammond

There are a lot of hymns and worship songs that proclaim Jesus as King. That is still such a curios things to me. That’s because, just like in the story we read this morning, every time we read about people wanting Jesus to be a king he refuses. Where did we come up with such low expectations of Jesus? Jesus, a king, really?

What is it that kings want? Power, wealth, obedience, women, armies, palaces, servants. They want to be exalted, obeyed, and honored. They want to be kow-towed to. They want to be either regarded as divine themselves, or the representative of the divine. Jesus wanted so much more than all of that. And what he really wanted was so much more than any king could have. And it was not for himself, but for all of us, for all of God’s creation. He wanted us to discover what it means to share God’s Community of Creation with each other, to live in light of God’s Realm with all of creation.

Here is a reference, evidently, to an early hymn in the church that the Apostle Paul mentions in Philippians. “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” And then Paul goes on to say that it was because Jesus didn’t want to have a kingly or divine status that he gained the honor and adoration of the entire universe.

There is a lot in this story from John’s gospel that gets me thinking about the limits we place on God and Jesus, in addition to limiting Jesus to a king.
We get two miracles in this story for the price of one. But we are so afraid of mystery that we have to try to explain or dismiss miracles.

What has become the classic interpretation of the crowd feeding miracles of Jesus is that he didn’t do anything other than convince people to share their food with one another. Getting them to share was, indeed, the real miracle.

There are a couple of assumptions to that interpretation to what is going on here, though, that we need to, at least, consider. One is that the people weren’t willing to share what they had until Jesus got them to. That’s one of those areas of low expectations we might be carrying with us. Really? The people who were gathered there were simply going to eat what they had and not share anything with each other until they saw some kind of aura or halo around Jesus that softened their hearts toward one another.

Kate Huey points out that “Karen Marie Yust takes rather strong objection to such a modern reading that misses the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God’s amazing power to completely ‘transform human expectations’; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it’s up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves. (God helps those who help themselves, right?) Yust observes the power not of God but of shame in this interpretation, that is, getting people to share out of a sense of guilt: ‘God is no longer a miracle-worker unbounded by human laws, but a social manipulator who reminds people to share. Behavioral modification replaces amazing grace as the core of the story…’ (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3).”

You could argue, I think, that you also get a two for one in this interpretation because it not only lowers our expectations of God, but our expectations of ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with mystery being mystery. Maybe we just can’t explain what Jesus did, or explain it away by saying it never really happened anyway. And, I don’t think the point of the story are those two miracles of Jesus feeding the multitude and him walking on water.

I think, for example, that Jesus rejecting the crowd’s desire, which could have quickly become a mob if he wanted, to make him king is more important to John’s story than these two miracles. Remember, for John that what we call miracles, he called signs. What are these signs pointing out about Jesus here? That’s what is really important to the story teller.

What if one of the signs is the power of what happens in community when Jesus is in its midst. Whatever actually happened on that hillside wasn’t about people getting fed, but a community getting fed. And what happens if that community raises its expectations about Jesus and itself? What if they had been able to realize Jesus didn’t want to be limited by their expectations of a king? And what if they had been able to realize what could happen to their community if they stopped looking for a king, but something more? But, they defaulted to what they knew and they missed the real miracle that was right there.

“What would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question, not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all, and marveled at this great wonder? Would we be moved not by guilt but by sheer joy to be part of a dazzling work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion?” (Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

How often do we live, in the church and in our lives, by our limited expectations and imaginations? Jesus wanted us to expect more and imagine more.

That second miracle. What if the sign of Jesus walking on the water was about, as Douglas John Hall writes, Jesus’ presence and compassion enabling “ordinary, insecure and timid persons…to walk where they feared to walk before?”

This is a communal question as much as that feeding of the crowd. How do we build this community of Jesus followers in such a way that we encourage, help, and accompany each other to those places we have never walked before? Places where we become more open to and more open about our faith. Places of reconciliation and forgiveness. Places of bringing and receiving healing. Places like Black Lives Matter and borders that need to be crossed. How do we raise our expectations of who we are? What miracles and mysteries are afoot? Our skepticism about mystery and miracles fuels the limitations we set, as does our need to focus on miracles rather than signs.

At the end of this part of the story, after the crowds have found Jesus on the other side of the lake and not exactly sure how he got there, Jesus challenges them about their low expectations. They are looking for perpetual bread like the children of Israel gathering manna in the desert. ¬Jesus is talking about something so much more, the Bread of Life.

It’s not enough, for me, to suggest that we can make Jesus a better kind of king, the perfect king. That still, to my mind, is thinking too small. Those miracles in the Gospels are about us letting go of what is familiar and logical, what is expected. Can we walk out into the deep and maybe even scary waters, and go different places with Jesus than where we have been? Look for things we have not seen? Can we do that with each other?

Instead of looking for a king, what if we looked for what’s making people hungry and fed them? What miracles can we perform by not settling for the scarcity of kings and rulers, but the abundance of creation, the abundance of community, the abundance we all possess as image bearers of God? What happens when we realize that the signs are the miracles? And that the church we are building is the sign?

Mt. Pisgah

July 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Obama talked about that in her Oberlin commencement speech:

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


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

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

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

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

Good for us.

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

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

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

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

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

And where did it get him?

To the brink.

Close, but no cigar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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