The Pink Candle

December 18th, 2014

John 1 and many more
December 14, 2014
Steve Hammond

Do you know why there is a pink candle in the Advent Wreath? It’s not because we ran out of purple ones. But the pink candle actually does have something to do with the purple ones. I’m not really much of an expert in the liturgical stuff, but I do know there is another time of the church year when purple is big. Do you know when that is? During Lent.

In the early church, and I don’t mean the early church when the Apostles were around, but in the days of the church when folk started doing things like Advent and Lent, those two seasons of the church year were pretty much the same. How many of you think of Advent as one of your favorite times of the year? Would you still think of it in the same way if we did Advent now like they did it way back when it and Lent were just about the same thing. No parties. No feasts. Fasting from just about everything including things like all the food you really liked and sex. Advent like Lent was originally conceived of as a time of repentance, brutal examination of self and others, and self-denial. No Christmas decorations or celebration of the birth of Jesus (that all had to wait until December 25).

We don’t see many hints of that during Advent, and even Lent is nothing like it used to be. But there are still vestiges of Lent around in giving up something during Lent, as compared to most everything in the old days. And there even is, at least, one church in town that won’t do weddings during Lent because you shouldn’t be doing that kind of celebrating during Lent. And the same would have been true during Advent. No weddings then, either.

It was all pretty harsh. That’s why both Advent and Lent had some breaks built into them. During Lent you don’t have to fast and abstain on Sundays. And since I am so uninformed about all of these things, added with I don’t really care, I can argue that for those who are concerned about these things that you can do weddings during Lent on Sundays, and feel okay about it.

Did you know that also during those way back days of Advent and Lent that weddings were usually performed on Sundays, anyway? I actually have a worship manual that has the wedding taking place in the offering section of the morning worship service. The couple would come forward, say their vows, be pronounced husband and wife, and go back to their pew until the worship service was over. Maybe have a little reception afterwards.
We’re talking about the time when Mary and I are eventually going to retire. Before that happens I would love to do a wedding service like that. Any volunteers? And what if you came to church and had no idea that a marriage was going to take place that day? All of the sudden James and Rebecca are saying their vows, or Amy and Jane are being declared wife and wife and they go back to their pews.

It would be so cool to do that, but we need to get back to the pink candle. The pink candle represents what Sundays used to be during Lent, a rest from the harshness. So we have the candle of hope, the candle of peace, and for the third Sunday of Advent the candle of joy. Now back in those old days they didn’t give each candle it’s own theme. That just came to be somewhere along the way. But they did have this thing where on the Third Sunday of Advent you were allowed to do joyful things. You got one day to have the parties, play the games, have the feast, watch the equivalent of the football game, visit with friends, have some alone time with your partner. You got that one day and then it was back to the preparation of your unworthy self for the birth of Jesus. That pink candle in the middle of the wreath is a vague hint of how Advent used to be.

There is something else that pink candle does for me, and maybe for some of you, too. It makes me ask how can it be? How can we think about joy when there is so much sadness? There are too many hard things going on in too many places and in too many lives. There are wars everywhere. We are even at war with the water, the earth, the sky, and all of creation. There’s Furgeson, Staten Island, Cleveland. The weak are being crushed by the rich. They’re telling us that the rich are too poor and the poor too rich. The powerful turn against the powerless. There are divisions among us everywhere. There are people we love who are going through horrendous ordeals. We see these pictures and read these stories online that just make us weep. This can be said every week during Advent. Where’s the hope, the peace, the love? What can we do?

I want us to look at one of the creation stories. Do you know how many creation stories there are in the Bible? There are actually a lot of them. The one I want us to look at this morning is from John 1. It’s such an interesting story for so many reasons. It starts out talking about the Word who, it turns out, is Jesus. “All things came into being through him…what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Then all of the sudden we are hearing not about the Word, but about John the Baptist. But what we learn about John is that he was not the big deal. He came to bear witness to the big deal, to Jesus. Now John was seen as being in the line of the prophets, and the prophets were always the big deal. But not John. He simply came to bear witness.

Where’s the hope, the peace, the joy, the love? What do we do? I wish you all could have heard Bishop Daughtry last week. Remember I left right after church to go hear this 84 year old Black preacher who was there in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, who stood at Nelson Mandela’s graveside, who held the Mothers of the children shot by the police. As he talked about all the heartache that goes on in so many places, all that changes that need to take place in our world, he said, like John the Baptist we are called to bear witness to Jesus. And he said what he didn’t mean by that was we were supposed to go around talking about Jesus, but to bear witness by being present like Jesus was present.

The Word became flesh and lived in our midst, God with us. Incarnation is about God being present. The witness we bear is to the one who is here with us, And we are called by Jesus to be with the God who is with us.

I came across a question this week that I’m going to pass on to you. It was this. What makes Jesus a Christian? With the people sitting around you take a couple or three minutes and see what answers you come up with.

For me, what makes Jesus a Christian is his trust in God. Jesus trusted that the way God calls us to live is the right way to live. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Invite the outsider in. Tear down the walls that divide us from each other, and build new and inclusive communities. Give up on violence. Call the powerful to account. Lift up the lowly. Surrender some of your power and privilege, unless you don’t have much of either. Practice forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. Don’t live as if your life is only a matter of what you own, how much money you make, or your status. Stand tall because God loves you. Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable. Live at peace with each other and the Community of Creation. Jesus really trusted that God has a better way for us. And he trusted that God is a God of life and that life, not death, is the final word.

The creation story in John says that John was not the Light but that he came to bear witness to the light, the true light that was coming into the world. But, Jesus said this most amazing thing. John may have not been the Light, but Jesus once said this to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” That’s how we bear witness, bringing the light into the dark places of the world. It turns out that Jesus believed that the God he trusted trusts us. We read that Christ is in us, but that we are also in Christ. And the Apostle Paul really gets this when he writes about the church being the Body of Christ. We bear witness to Jesus by being who he is. The same things that make Jesus a Christian are what make us Christians.

Where’s the joy? It’s not like the folk who thought about joy, even if for only one day during Advent weren’t asking that same question. These are not the first tough times the world has experienced. We aren’t the only ones who have ever had to confront the sadness. But that pink candle, all the candles of Advent point us to something more than what we see. There are always new possibilities, new creations ahead of us. There are lots of creation stories in the Bible. At the end of the book of the Revelation we read about a new heaven and a new earth. From Isaiah 65. For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity; [e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

In Isaiah and Micah we read about the day when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There’s that creation story that begins in Job 40. And then there is this creation story in 2 Corinthians 5. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything is new.”

There are a million million creation stories. That’s where the joy comes and not for just one day. And it’s the same with hope, peace, and love. I think we do Advent better than they used to. It’s not just about us getting ready for Jesus, but us getting everything ready for Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for God. Jesus is coming, but he’s expecting us to show up too. That’s what makes us Christians. And there’s a pink candle in it for us.

Shalom-Traveling: Off to the Hard Places

December 18th, 2014

Jeremiah 6:13-15, Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2014
Mary Hammond

Today we lit the candle of peace as we began our Advent service. What fools for Christ we are, lighting the candle of peace when wars rage around the planet, refugee populations swell, and winter begins to stalk the dispossessed. Here at home, impunity for police officers involved in excessive force takes center stage in protests nationwide, exposing fissures within race relations that have been present since our nation was founded.

Is our proclamation of peace crazy optimism, blind faith, or false naivete? Or might we be embarking on a daring journey into new territory? Could we be ‘shalom-traveling,’ facing toward the hard places?

In the year 2000, the congregation changed the name of the church from “The First Baptist Church of Oberlin” to “Peace Community Church.” This transition came as the result of a six-month discernment process followed by a consensus decision. How many of you here today were part of that process?

At the time, the church wanted a name to “live up to” and “into,” a name that called us forward to deeper commitments and greater faithfulness. And here we are, nearly 15 years since we began that process. As we soon enter 2015, the need to be peacemakers and reconcilers, to seek the common good, could not be more urgent.

Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, recently spent a weekend with the congregation. He challenged us to revisit our name and who we are as a congregation. Steve and I have been pastors here a long time, and it is important for the church’s identity to stand on its own and not simply be tied to our ministry. What does it mean to embody Peace as a primary calling, to live in community within a fractured and frenetic world, and to proclaim to the world that “we are church” together?

As we ponder all of this, I want to share part of an e-mail from Jessie Downs, an Oberlin College alum who began attending PCC her junior year and graduated in 2013. Jessie reflects:

“When I think about being at Peace Church, I feel a joy that is of the purest kind I know. There isn’t even necessarily longing in it; though I miss you all–miss the space, the community, the wisdom, and the list goes on–there also seems to be a Peace Church that, while I was with you all on a regular basis, got erected in the inner space of my soul. I feel so blessed–blessed a hundred times over–that it is there. Aside from anything else, when doubt comes (which of course, it must always do), there is a place I can return to inside of myself where I do know God.

“I feel like I really became friends with Jesus while I was at PCC. Of course, that didn’t exactly happen at church itself, per se, but in the times between PCC events where I finally had the tools to go knocking on God’s door and ask if we could talk for a while. Things happened. It became not too different than going a couple houses down to see the Hammonds!

“Sometimes I forget to nurture that friendship, to show up, but it’s always a temporary forgetting. There’s too ‘firm a foundation’ to ever forget entirely. Without PCC, I wouldn’t be there.”

This church may be a small congregation, but we have much to offer one another as we join hands to create an oasis of peace in a world of chaos. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. Community-building can be hard work at times. It can be both joyous and painful. Through it all, in the midst of our human frailties, we seek to weave a fabric of love, compassion, and welcome.

Jeremiah, known as “the weeping prophet,” lived in times much like ours. It wasn’t easy for him to be a prophet. He struggled. He wept. He complained. He even despaired at times. Hear the words of Jeremiah 6:13-15: “From the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush.”

Jeremiah decries a false ‘peace’ that is masked in privilege, self-gratification, and denial. It is callous to the needs of the most vulnerable. It papers over the gross inequities and brutalities of a tragic period in Israel’s history. This ‘all is well’ theology of and for the elite of Jeremiah’s day contradicts his understanding of peace, described in the Hebrew scriptures as shalom. This peace, God’s peace, envisions the Community of Creation restored, redeemed, renewed, and whole.

Fast forward many centuries to John the Baptizer. His diet of bugs and honey and his simple attire may sound like he comes straight out of Oberlin in the 1960’s. But Oberlin fifty years ago is no Judea of the first century.

John preaches primarily to a people of his own faith waiting for a Messiah, expecting a deliverer for centuries upon centuries. His message attracts many who have grown weary of the mighty power and expansive influence of the Roman Empire. John comes, preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry, calling people to turn their lives around and be reconciled to God.

What does it mean, in our own social location, to watch and wait together for the coming of Christ? What is the “good news” that we need to speak and live, amid all the “bad news” of this world? Where are we being sent as “shalom-travelers”?

As we come today to the Table of Christ, may these questions and meditations remain in our hearts. Amen.

The Old Future’s Gone

December 16th, 2014

Isaiah 64, Mark 13
November 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

Have you noticed it’s brighter in here this morning than it has been of late. It turns out there has been an Advent parable unfolding right before my eyes.

Some of us on the Building Ministry Team had a meeting with the energy consultant that the city provides for free. Ron Gibson had already had him over to the church before so he was familiar with us. We told him we hoped he had ideas about how we could not bother to rewire the way high lights, and replace the lower ones with something that would make up for the loss of wattage from the other lights. His name is Tom and he has lots of ideas, most of which were really relative inexpensive.

First of all, he assured us that there are lots of helpful alternatives to the current lower lights that will provide good lighting for us. And he said we could supplement those lights by placing various spotlights that would bounce off our white ceiling and provide not only additional lighting but a nice ambience. He also pointed out that those two lights that hang below the balcony could be easily and quickly replaced with tract lighting that would be very helpful. We talked about how we have those flood lights that illuminate the rose window. The wiring is already there to simply put flood lights on the other side of the beam that would help light the sanctuary. He is going to send us some free compact florescent flood lights we can experiment with. He talked about the subsidized LED lights that will be available to everyone in Oberlin sometime in January.

And then he said that one of the things we can do in this interim period as we figure out what fixtures will best work to replace those lower lights, is to put brighter bulbs in them. None of us had actually thought about that. Initially we were going to use some clear bulbs that are the same wattage we are currently using. That would have helped some. But then Ron Gibson said if we are going to get the ladder out and change all the bulbs, why don’t we just go ahead and increase the wattage. So we did. And now it’s so much brighter in here, even though we aren’t using that whole row of lights way up there.

So here’s the parable or the moral of the story. Sometimes we sit in a great darkness and don’t realize that we have alternatives that are maybe easier than we realized. And Tom, the consultant, also told us that there are lots of things we can try. If these kind of bulbs don’t work, try something else. If there’s not enough light, there are simpler ways than we thought to add more lighting. When you’re sitting in the dark, there may be alternatives, and there may be people who can help us find out what they are. That sounds like hope to me.

Now that we are sitting in a great light, l’m going to plunge us back into the darkness for a bit. When I was reading and preparing for this week, I came across a commentator who has a blog called disclosingnewworlds.net. by a person named Lawrence Moore. I don’t know who Lawrence Moore but from reading this article, anyway, I would call him a truth-teller. A prophet is a person who points out things we aren’t noticing. A truth-teller points out things we are noticing, but don’t want to talk about. Another difference between a prophet and a truth-teller is that more often than not we are grateful for what the truth-teller is saying. The response to a truth-teller is often something like “Yes, that’s true. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” Or, “I’m so glad somebody is finally talking about this.” Now the problem with truth-telling, of course, is that the truth-tellers aren’t always telling the truth. They just simply misunderstand what it going on, blow things out of proportion, or make the false assumption that what they are experiencing is what everyone is experiencing. It turns out the sky is not falling after all, but the damage is already done.

I’m pretty sure, though, that Bruce Moore is doing some important truth-telling in his writing about the realities facing the church in the Western world these days, which is what this blog post is about. And, of course, we are doing some hard thinking and exploring about our own congregation and the larger church as we move into the future. So here is some of what Bruce Moore rights. It’s hard. But I think it’s true.

One way of preparing properly for Advent is to take seriously just what a mess the Church is in. The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.
We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. We recognise the global village in every other aspect of post modern life: the same is true of Church. However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!
Let me say something clearly: I have no doubt that, in twenty years time, church as we know it will be alive and well. We will still be singing the same sorts of hymns, having services and activities that we have now, and living as we always have. The crucial difference, though, is that we will be a tiny, shrinking minority – a sort of “Christian train spotters” society. In other words, we will be one of those tiny, harmless groups of consenting adults (one difference between then and now is that we’ll have virtually no children at all) whom society indulges, leaving us to get on and do our thing because we don’t disturb or hurt anyone. And that is not Church. The Church is here to make a difference to the world. We might talk loudly and often about being salt and light and yeast in the world, yet if that is not a reality, we are deceiving ourselves and God. We are playing at being faithful (.http://disclosingnewworlds.net/advent-1b/)

These are dark days for the church. Do you know why there are so many inexpensive alternatives to replace what I consider to be those tacky lights hanging above the pews? Churches are closing everywhere. There are church lighting fixtures that are no longer in use all over E-Bay awaiting the not very highest bid.

There is, though, more truth. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…” Somebody likened the present status of the church to Holy Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Death has come. But it’s still Saturday. We don’t know yet what resurrection is going to look like. But it’s ours to find. The old future is gone for the church. We get to help make a new one.

There are all these transitions we have been talking about around here, so I’m thinking about the church a lot these days. But, obviously, there are other dark and semi-dark places where we find ourselves. Some of us are maybe bordering on or crossed over to despair. But this is Advent. “The light came into the world and the darkness did not overcome it.” As the signer Bruce Cockburn puts it, “there’s hope in a baby’s cry.”

The truth that we tell is that Jesus doesn’t make it all better. You can’t pray everything away. But there are ways out of the darkness that maybe we haven’t thought of yet. And often the way out of the darkness or at least toward the light is with each other. That’s the hope Jesus brings to this world.

I’m going to turn off half of the lights for a few moments. We didn’t double the wattage, so it’s not exactly going to be same in here with half the light turned off. But when I turn the others back on we will see that there’s more light than we thought. And Jesus came to tell us that.

On The Move

November 14th, 2014

Matthew 5:14-16 and Ephesians 3:7-12
November 16, 2014
Steve Hammond

We had a good weekend a couple of weeks back with Alan Newton and have lots to think about in the coming weeks, months, and years. As I have been thinking about things, though, it seems important that during these transitions that are ahead of us, we need to be thinking about the many transitions that are taking place in the life of our congregation, the larger church, the community and society at large. It seems that all of these transitions can inform each other.

So I wanted to put some thoughts and reflections into writing for folk to think about. I’m not making any proposals or recommendations, just offering some thoughts about things I’ve noticed, trends that Mary and I and others are talking about, etc. There is no particular order of priority or even rhyme or reason to the order of these thoughts and observations. Nor, I hope, is this an exhaustive list or even the list of things we will want to explore together in the coming months and years.

I want to start with the Tuesday night study group. There is a lot of excitement, energy, learning, and community happening there. Some of the folk in that group are more regular on Tuesday nights than Sunday mornings, and a few aren’t Sunday morning attenders at all. I’ve been a bit surprised about how this group has continued to thrive rather than fizzling out like most groups do. In the past I have done study groups with three people. The Tuesday night group is consistently having 12-18 people over what is now the years. And there are other gatherings for the Tuesday night group that aren’t on Tuesdays nor at the church. That group has also started another gathering where folk will be meeting with and encouraging each other throughout the year to continue working with the book we just finished.. Obviously, not everybody can or wants to get involved in the Tuesday night study group. But there is an important need that is being met for some there. There is something important going on on Tuesday nights that I think we need to pay attention to

Another trend that I have been noticing for the past couple of years, at least, is that there are many weeks where we end up with more people in the Community Room for a variety of gatherings than are in the sanctuary for worship that week. Some weeks it’s way more people. Some of those folk are, of course, repeat offenders being at church several times during the week as well as on Sunday morning. But a lot of them are people who are not likely to end up in worship on Sunday mornings, but this congregation is adding something to their lives.

I kind of half joke about taking the pews out of the sanctuary, but I can’t imagine that worship in the coming years is going to continue to be a person or two up front and everybody else looking at the back of other people’s heads. I think what people at large seem to be saying is that they want more community. We do our best to foster that during worship, but it seems to me that people need to be able to see each other. If I could ever get the consensus and the money to get the pews out of the sanctuary I would love and, I think, people would actually appreciate how much more of a community feeling we could create with chairs we could arrange for different configurations. I don’t think that the things we currently do would necessarily change that much; hymns, readings, sharing, special music, choir, sermons, dance, organ and piano preludes, etc., but things would feel different. And who knows what new possibilities new settings might engender for worship. Imagine what Tuesday night or any other study group would feel like if we did it in the sanctuary. I do think the setting makes a difference about what happens. Obviously, Tuesday night and Sunday morning are different things, but maybe not as different as we think.

I’m also thinking about what Alan said about making worship more family friendly. I think that is more than adding a children’s story time to the service. It might mean something like bringing tables into the sanctuary so children could draw or do a craft and their parents and other adults have a place to put their coffee during worship. Pews do get in the way of that kind of thing. (Remember I am not making any recommendations, just sharing thoughts. Don’t panic).

Mary and I continue to be amazed at the number of PCC Scattered folk who stay in touch with us and many of you. For some of them, this is the only church they have. We need to keep them in mind during the coming days of transition for the congregation whenever Mary and I are no longer the pastors. But even if that transition weren’t happening, I think what PCC Scattered represents is really something that points to the future of the larger church. We are simply ahead of the curve. Mary and I continue to be surprised by the comments we get from PCC Scattered folk about our sermons that are online. They are actually being read and even recommended to others. We have 84 members of the church’s Facebook page. We don’t have 84 people in church on Sunday mornings, and of the folk we do have, many of them aren’t on the Facebook page. People are finding ways to stay connected and forming a different kind of community without being physically present with each other. It shouldn’t surprise they expect to be connected to the church without being present. Nor should it surprise us when they find that satisfying and helpful. There is a lot more we can be doing to make the connections between PCC Scattered and Gathered more concrete for more of us. I’m just not exactly sure what that is, but it has something to do with the internet, social media, etc.

Another trend Mary and I are noticing is that among the things that have fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of ’08 is the financial situation that the college graduates from the church are encountering. It used to be that students graduated, got jobs, and some of them started sending money to the church. Now they are sending requests to the church to help fund them as they try to start or work for some kind of non-profit. And they are doing some pretty important and amazing things. Some of those who aren’t looking for such funding still don’t have money they can send to the church because they are unemployed or severely underemployed. Plus they all have an amazingly heavy debt load from their time at Oberlin. And it’s not only recent graduates. There are others among PCC Scattered who are no longer able to send as much money to the church as they did in the past because the new economy has taken a big toll on them, as well. And then, of course, among PCC Gathered there has been plenty of fallout since 2008.

This is a mobile society. And I don’t simply mean that people in our society are moving to other places. We have lost some dear people because they have moved, but also gained so many wonderful folk because they have moved to Oberlin or the surrounding area. Think Kendal, for example. Or Oberlin College. Or most of those places that most all of us didn’t use to live in. But even more significantly, I think, is that we are mobile in that we are off seeing kids and grandkids, going to conferences, reunions, seminars, and workshops, taking care of parents and other relatives, seeing a wonder or two of the world, visiting friends, getting away, marking things off the bucket list, or just getting out of town. It wasn’t that long ago that many folk, at best, could get out of town for a week or two in any given year. They were in church on Sunday morning because they were in town. But lots of us are gone on any given Sunday. Look how many Sundays Mary and I were out of town this year. That’s not likely to happen again in that extreme, but it’s just an example of the protection that Sunday morning has lost because we can travel more easily. And if we aren’t traveling somewhere else, we might have friends or relatives visiting us on Sunday morning. Or the reunion might be coming to us. Those non-Sunday morning times are going to become the places where more folk connect with the church.

People relate differently to institutions than they used to. Their commitments are more fluid, and the competition for their time and resources more intense. More and more people are looking to the church and other institutions with the desire to know what those institutions can do for them rather than what they can do for the institution. And there is a growing suspicion about the place of institutions and organizations in their lives. This talk of being spiritual but not religious is another way for some of saying that they want to find their way spiritually in the world without having to conform to the expectations of what we call organized religion.

Since last year, we’ve begun to use the phrase “The Community of Creation” at church. Though we have been talking about environmental concerns and issues for a long time, It seems to me that in the coming years, it is going to become more and more important for us, and all of the church, to figure out what it means to live in the Community of Creation. That’s one of the reasons we will be adding the environmental organization Plant with Purpose to the groups we are supporting with our Missions giving. And, of course, Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy meets in our building. One of the visitors in church last week talked for a while to both Mary and me about how important it was to him that we were talking about the Community of Creation in church.

Obviously Campus Ministry is an important mission of this congregation. But there are transitions happening in progressive Protestant ministry as well. ECO is currently having it’s own struggles for viability that the group is starting to address. Folk from other Christian groups on campus have been talking with Pastors in town about some of the struggles their groups are having. Those concerns and coming transitions aren’t a dis-ease that has originated n Oberlin but the symptoms of something much larger going on in church and society. [Have Mary read that section from No Longer Invisible]

The transitions the church is facing as we contemplate the time whenever it might be that Mary and I no longer pastor this church or the larger transitions all churches are facing in the coming years, like all transitions, are times of danger and opportunity. Now is the time for us to risk the danger because the opportunities are so great. One of the Pastors in the support group Mary and I are in commented recently that the changes we used to say were coming are here.

Alan suggested so many good things while he was here. Some of them are very practical nuts and bolts things, others will help fuel some important discussions and actions as we work through this time and process of discernment. One of those suggestions he made was that the congregation explore what our name means nearly 15 years after changing the congregation’s name. What does Peace mean to us? What does Community mean to us? What does Church mean to us?

Not to get too Zen here but one of the things I’ve been trying to practice more consistently is more fully entering into the moment. I don’t know if you find yourself doing what I do too often, like thinking about the next meeting while I am in the current meeting, or thinking about the next person I need to talk to while I have somebody else right in front of me. We do need to make sure we enter the moment more fully, but we also have to remember there is more than the current moment. It’s important to remember that as we face the church’s transitions and our own transitions. We need to enter into these moments of transition with great intentionality, but there is more going on than these particular moments of transition. We don’t want to lose the moment, but we don’t want to get lost in it, either.

So there are some of my thoughts and observations. I am excited to hear reactions to this and all the thoughts and observations that will come from so many of us in the months and years ahead as we make these transitions and help build together the future God has for us.

I do think it’s really interesting we are going to be doing a lot of transition work as the congregation approaches it’s150th anniversary in 2016. We have been left an incredible legacy going all the way back to 1866, and are the current manifestation of a church that has gone through lots of transitions over a century and a half. Throughout that time, through all the changes in church and society, through transitions large and small, the call has been the same. We get to discover with each other what it means to follow Jesus Christ in our own changing times. We get to continue to be the Body of Christ and Light for the world, even in some very dark places. We discern the times, undergo the transitions because we don’t want the light to be covered up. As we said at the beginning, Jesus was always on the move. His was always a call to the future and all the changes that implies, all the new ways of being and living and doing and understanding. He was in transit, moving forward. That’s a metaphor worth noting. This church, and all congregations big and small, people like us are the mystery hidden for the ages in God. Isn’t that an amazing thing to think about and keep in mind as we make these transitions? Grab tight, because here we go.

Come, Join the Dance

November 12th, 2014

Psalm 65
November 9, 2016
Mary Hammond

Steve and I were recently visiting our daughter Grace, her husband Dave, and our twin grandbabies in Wyoming. The last morning there, we took a chilly pre-dawn walk to watch the sunrise in the Grand Tetons. I knew it would be a stunning experience, but I never expected the dancing.

A few clouds illuminated the sky here and there amid the darkness. “Ah, this sunrise will be even more magnificent!” I said to myself, as the presence of clouds always previews greater color in a sunrise. I’d watched enough sunrises in the last several years to know that.

As morning slowly, imperceptibly dawned, colors danced across the sky. Pinks here, purples there. Still some grey in the clouds. Hints of white. Colors reflecting other colors from east to west.

Then the shadow show began. Snow-covered mountain peaks were illuminated in the changing light. The shadows shifted. Other mountain peaks joined the dance. More shifting. Steve’s was clicking his camera wildly.

“Look over there!” I’d say, and we looked behind us. Pinks.

“Look to the side!” I called. Shadows danced on the highest mountains to our left. To our right, we waited for the sun to rise.

We were undone.

Steve and I finally spotted the first burst of sunlight peaking over the mountains. The pinks and purples to the south gave way to hues of yellow and orange in the east.

But there was more.

As we turned around and walked back to the car, my gaze was redirected to the wild grasses on the sides of the road next to me. Pearls of frost reflected off the sunrise, dancing on top of them– glistening, shining.

“Take a picture for me, Steve!” I asked. “Take another!” I implored.

It looked like a field of diamonds.

Sadly, ‘dance’ too often in some religious traditions has been separated from our spiritual story and experience. We may attend dances or take dance lessons. We may be afraid to look clumsy if we dance. We may not feel like we have enough “rhythm” in our bodies to dance easily or well. Can we turn this all around, however, and see our whole journey with God as one big, huge dance?

Our daughter Rachel’s husband is Venezuelan. I so appreciate seeing how intrinsic dance is to culture in his background. Rachel sent us a video via Facebook of their little Viviana, not yet 3 months old, legs jerking, hands flailing. She titled it “Viv dancing.” Children learn to move with their bodies from the start. In Latin America and in so many cultures, dancing becomes one with children as they mature, not a separate activity.

Rachel’s Ecuadorian host brother attended her college graduation Open House. As we prepared for the event, he asked me, “What do people ‘do’ at Open Houses?” I told him that, basically, people talk and eat. “No dancing? Just talking and eating?” he asked incredulously.

The psalmist declares, “Dawn and dusk take turns calling, ‘Come and worship.’ Oh, visit the earth, ask her to join the dance!”

As the psalmist continues, it is clear to me that the earth doesn’t need an invitation. She is already deeply engaged in the dance of Creation, and it is the humans who need to join in!

Dancing with the Spirit is intrinsic to our very being. We offer rowdy, happy dances of praise and gratitude; slow dances of contemplation and surrender; spontaneous dances requiring juggling and improvisation. Repeatedly rehearsed dances are forged in the face of chronic conditions, big research projects, and challenging work loads.

Amid the Dark Nights of the Soul, we dance the wild and chaotic rhythms of lament. We join group dances of Christian community, couple dances of teamwork and love, solo dances of solitude and individuality.

Sometimes we cannot dance very easily with our bodies. Age and illness takes their toll. Then we may be called to “dance in place.” Our hearts continue to dance amid our bodily limitations.

I have been longing for an extended Silent Retreat. I finally found three good days this month to get away, but the Retreat Center was full. I expressed my yearning for a Silent Retreat to my Spiritual Director, and she suggested that I “retreat in place” with my old journals from previous Silent Retreats.

“Let your writings speak to you anew, for this time and place” she suggested. “Be at River’s Edge now through them,” she urged.

The 2009 week-long Silent Retreat has been my home for about a month now. It is full of metaphors of dancing—butterflies, leaves, birds, and music. At present, I am called to “dance in place.”

As the ancient Song of Creation arose, the Community of Creation began to dance. Come, people, join the dance! Amen.

Anita Peebles Sermon from the Festival of Young Preachers in Nashville, TN

October 27th, 2014

Luke !0:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

In late January 2012, I found myself in a little tiny car driving up Black Mountain. Black Mountain is in southeastern Kentucky on the border with Virginia, and is known for its black bears, cougars, and coal. It is also the highest peak in Kentucky. As I drove up that mountain, the January fog got thicker and thicker, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see anything but clouds at the peak. Up and up and up I drove, around breakneck bends with no guardrail on the side. Up and up and up I drove, until I rounded the last bend and pulled over into a gravel parking area.
What I saw when I stepped out of the car made me weep.
What I could see over the border into Virginia was Mountain Top Removal. Mountaintop removal is the process of using dynamite to blast off the top ridge of a mountain to expose coal seams; in many places it is used instead of deep underground mining. The phrase “laid waste” took on a new meaning. Where there were supposed to be endless parallel ridges of Appalachian glory, there lay only the long ropy scars from the naked coal seams. Where there had been vast forests, there lay pits excavated by dynamite blasts. Where there had been a skyline that humans had born witness to over thousands of years, there lay only the flat triumph of human power and greed over the breadth and beauty of God’s creation.
This sight moved me deeply. Black Mountain was also in line for Mountain Top Removal.
Right there on that mountain, I decided that I could not live in the way that I had been before—namely, in chosen ignorance about the destruction of extractive industries. Standing there in the cold on top of that mountain, I vowed that my children and grandchildren would see mountains. Right there on that mountain, the paradigm in which I saw my life shifted, and I was faced with a choice—to pass by or to act.

Do I have an obligation to help this mountain?

It was a cool and lonely evening as the Samaritan man walked down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road he walked was known for being dangerous, full of breakneck bends and merciless robbers. The sun had already set and the man was tired from his travels, a merchant heading home to Schechem, a city in Samaria. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, leading his donkey. Down and down and down through the valley he walked, until he turned his head and looked to the side of the road.
What he saw in the roadside ditch made him pause.
Just visible in the ditch beside the road was a human figure who had evidently been brutally beaten, lying naked, exposed to the elements. The person’s face was bruised and bloodied, barely recognizable. No clothing or identification or possessions accompanied the man, who had been robbed of all he must have carried with him, valuable or invaluable, on this dangerous road. Only long ropy scars marked this man’s back.
This sight moved the traveler deeply. He also knew the despair of being robbed of his dignity, of living in a world of oppression, and of being seen as unworthy of anyone’s assistance because of the walls people set up between each other.
Right there on that road, the traveler had to make a decision. What if this person was a Jew? What if they didn’t want to be helped, seeing only danger hovering above them in the form of an oppressive Samaritan? What if other Samaritans found out he had shown mercy to a member of a hated ethnic group? What kind of world did he want to leave for his grandchildren?
The traveler didn’t even know that he was not the first person to pass by the man in need, that others had seen and not taken action. But that night on that road, he didn’t ask the wounded man’s name or country or station before he tended the man’s injuries. Instead, he decided to offer an extravagant grace, a radical hospitality, in caring for someone in need by virtue of them being a fellow Creation of God.

Who is my neighbor?

In the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer at the beginning of this passage, Jesus does something really cool. The lawyer, like many of us today, is looking for instant gratification; he simply wants to know how to gain eternal life by doing something simple, by crossing something off his to-do list (AJL). He is wondering, “Whom must I treat as a friend? Whom do I have an obligation to help? How far do the limits of my responsibility extend? Where can I draw my borders?”

Jesus, however, turns these questions around, asking, “Who in the story acted as a friend?” He includes action in his rephrasing, changing the conversation to one about verbs—gaining eternal life is not about believing one thing, but it must be combined with actions. In this back-and-forth, “Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from one who is the object of kindness (in need and receiving the compassion and mercy) to one who bestows it.” There is mutuality in the word “neighbor”: it is a two-way street of loving “your neighbor as yourself.”

Many of us are good at this. We volunteer in soup kitchens, deliver water to people whose water is contaminated, donate clothes to the needy, visit folks in prison, and (sometimes) we even welcome the stranger. Jesus does not only expect us to bless others with our privilege as a community service project, but he paints a picture of a society in which there is mutual benefit from assisting and accepting assistance from each other. Scholar Amy-Jill Levine recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interpretation of this parable: “[King] said something like: ‘I don’t know why [the priest and the Levite] walked by the man in the ditch, but here’s what my imagination tells me. Perhaps these men were afraid. The priest and the Levite say to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? There are bandits on the road.” And the Samaritan says, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” So the Samaritan asked the right question.’ King goes on to say: If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers in Memphis, what will happen to them?’ And we know what happened to King.”

So: no more can we view ourselves simply as the givers and distributors of aid. No more can we simply view ourselves as waiting for someone to haul us out of the ditch and fix the world for us. And certainly, no more can we wear our tunnel vision through our lives, missing the stranded travelers and people in need along our path. Gaining eternal life is living into a beloved community over time—being a “neighbor” is an ongoing process of being fully engaged and committed to community. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a simple story about just one person showing compassion to one other person in need. It is about different ways of being in a community, and how we should treat each other as neighbors.

What if a mountain was our neighbor?

Knowing what we know about human-enabled climate change, we cannot continue to pass by on the other side of the road. No matter how much differing views say humans contribute to environmental issues, if we are part of the problem, then we can also (and should also) be part of the solution. We cannot continue to think that recycling our plastic-ware and planting a tree every Arbor Day are going to fix everything. We cannot watch the Appalachian economy suffer while coal companies shut down, without having another solution ready. We cannot watch people going hungry when there is enough healthy food in the world and not do anything. There must be a verb enacted so that we can truly be neighbors to our fellow created beings. How far does our responsibility extend? Whom and what must we love in order to be true neighbors?

Philosopher William James writes, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Though humans find many reasons to separate ourselves from each other and from nature, we must realize that we are all part of the same Creation, the same dream of God. Environmental justice is not just about saving a tree for a tree’s sake, but it is about the health and wholeness of all the beings that share this planet. It stretches across race, class, gender, sexuality, geographical location and even time. Many indigenous cultures emphasize understanding all actions we do as affecting the world even to the 7th generation from now. All things—you, me, a tree, water, animals—we were all formed intimately by God’s own hands, raised out of the dust and given the breath of life. And God loves us extravagantly. It is our job to reflect that love back—around our neighborhoods, in our communities, and throughout the whole world.

Right here and right now, I challenge you to live into a beloved community of creation. Support school gardens. Help reduce your church’s waste. Listen to children’s stories. Get to know your neighbors. Share a meal with friends. Witness the season’s change. Reflect the extravagant grace and hospitality that God showed the world—even to the 7th generation.

The radical hospitality that the Good Samaritan showed the Jew lying in the ditch–that Jesus showed the Earth by coming to us incarnate in human flesh—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of a community that upholds justice and love of neighbor—that radical hospitality is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God, the community of all Creation.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.”

Imagine you are traveling up a mountain. The air is cool. You see your surroundings clearly—every rock, tree, animal, and person gets your attention. You see the homeless person and the river contaminated with coal dust. You see the endangered woodpecker and the children living in food deserts. You see the mountains lying naked, scarred from demolition–their dignity ripped away by extractive industries’ violation. What do you see? What do you do? What kind of world do you want to leave your grandchildren?

Candles and Prayers

October 27th, 2014

1 John 4, Romans 8
October 19, 2014
Steve Hammond

As I was waking up one morning last week, I was listening to an interview on BBC radio with Frederick Taylor who wrote a history of the Berlin Wall. It was actually the morning of October 9 because it turns out, October 9, 1999 was a crucial day in the history of East Berlin and the Berlin Wall. I put something on Facebook about it.

Earlier in the summer of 1989 a weekly Monday night gathering had begun at a Lutheran Church in East Berlin where people were beginning to organize for greater freedom in East Germany. The crowds got bigger and bigger each Monday, and the authorities were getting more and more irritated. Everybody sensed that October 9 was going to be some kind of watershed moment. The folk gathering at the church were prepared for a government crackdown, the government was expecting some kind of attempt at an overthrow of the government. Lots of people stayed in their homes that night because they were expecting trouble, so there weren’t nearly as many people at the church as there had been on the previous Monday nights.

The folk who were at the church decided to have a prayer service and then they lit candles and marched through the city. And nothing happened. When writing the book, the author asked one of the government officials why the Army backed off that night. She told the author that they were prepared for everything, except they hadn’t prepared for candles and prayers. The author went on to tell the interviewer that October 9, 1999 was the night the people of East Germany lost their fear. In the next weeks the crowds marching through the streets with their candles and prayers got bigger and bigger. Finally, they marched right past the stunned soldiers and started tearing down the Berlin Wall.

So that got me thinking pretty quickly about what things would be like if we lost our fear in this country. We have become such a fear based society. That is nothing new for us. In his famous first inaugural speech in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt told the people of the United States that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” There is a long history of politicians manipulating peoples’ fears in this country including things like the red scare after the Russian revolution and the McCarthy years which were a prelude to the Cold War when we were supposed to be afraid of everything. Here is the well known quote famous lines from a commentary by Edward R. Murrow. “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthty’s methods to keep silent. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.”

Once politicians and the media could no longer use the Cold War to stir up our fears, they turned to terrorism. It’s amazing how quickly we surrendered our civil liberties in our country after 9/11. In the debate between liberty and security we have chosen our security. Fear has won again. And fear causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Just look at the perpetual war we now have going in the Arab world. Lots of people knew that there was no justification for starting the war in Iraq, that has led to such disastrous consequences. The emperor had no clothes but, like everybody in that story except that one kid, we were too afraid to say anything. And that’s just the way emperors like it.

Just the past few days I read some commentary in the New York Times that said the overarching theme for Republican Campaign for the 2014 elections is “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Be afraid of terrorism, be afraid of ebola, be afraid of same sex marriage, be afraid of tax increases, be afraid of regulations that would curb climate disaster, be afraid of Hillary Clinton, be so afraid that you have no choice but to vote for us. And the democrats response is basically be afraid of Republicans. But you can’t build a country on fear. And these same people who insist this is a Christian country seem to be the ones who appeal so quickly to fear.

A couple of weeks ago there was a seminar that Al Carroll helped plan and organize about conflict transformation with Iraq as a case study. Professor Mahalliti put forth an audacious proposal suggesting that our foreign policy should not be based on what’s best for the national interests, but on making friends. What if we gave up fear for friends in our international relations? Making friends instead of making enemies seems to be not only more productive, but much more in line with what those who claim as a Christian nation would want to endorse.

. Bruce Springsteen sings a song where there is a line about a man having tattoos on the top of his fingers, right below the knuckles. On one hand it says love and on the other fear. You see, hate is not the opposite of love, fear is. And truth be told, most of us I think, live in that land between love and fear. I think the writer of the First Letter of John is on to a universal truth. And it’s not just nations and politicians. It’s us. And it’s perfect love that casts out fear. That’s also a universal truth.

So I am not what one might call an anxious person. I am not what I heard referred to the other day as a catastrophic thinker. Maybe me talking about getting over our fear is a bit presumptuous. But, in my defense, this passage about perfect love casting out fear does speak to me. I may not be anxious, but there is plenty I worry about. And it may seem trivial, but it’s real to me. I think about things like what if nobody likes this sermon, or what if somebody gets upset with me because of something I said, or something I didn’t say? If someone visits church and doesn’t come back, I assume it has something, if not everything, to do with me. What happens if we don’t meet the budget next year, or this electrical work ends up costing way more than we imagined? What if I don’t offer someone what they really need at the time they need it most? What was that funny look on that person’s face after church today, or that pause on the phone? Why didn’t they respond to that email? Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, is coming in a couple of weeks. What if that is the day lots of us are gone or decide just not to come? What’s he going to think about me if that happens, think about my ministry? (Please be here. And if you wanted to invite a bunch of your friends to church, that would be a good time to bring them with you). So my fears may not be world class fears, but they do exist. I’m not assuming this passage about perfect love casting out fear is directed to others, and not me.

I’m also aware that I don’t struggle with fears on the same level as others do. It’s easy to say let love cast out your fear if you don’t have any trouble loving yourself. I don’t experience that personally, but for most of her life, I and so many others worked so hard at helping our daughter Sarah try to love herself just a little bit. But she could never do it. So I have seen how hard this can be. And I hope I am not throwing out some simplistic answers here.

Here is what I think I know. When we lose our fear we can trust love. But it’s hard to lose our fear alone. We need each other to lose our fear. We can stand tall with and because of each other. Fear is contagious, but so is fearlessness.

What if, together, we kept remembering day in and day out that God loves us. That’s the whole point of why Jesus came to us, to show us that love. And what if we remembered every day that there are people who love us. And what if we focused on those who love us and we love rather than those who don’t or might not love us? What if that love began to crowd out, at least, some of the fear?

I guarantee that everyone in this room is loved. By God and, if nobody else, loved by others in this room. But I also bet there are plenty of others who love each of us as well.

And think about all the people you love. There is plenty of love to draw on both what you give and receive when those voices of fear, within and without, are trying to cast out love. When fear is at the door, don’t cower but stand tall. God and the people who love you and that you love have your back.

If you can’t love yourself, trust the love of God and the love of others for you. It may not sound doable or really helpful, but what’s it going to hurt to try? And if just a tiny bit of the fear gets cast out for just a little bit of time, it seems to me to be better than nothing.

Rob Voyle, who was Bible study leader at Peace Camp in 2011, talked about perfect love casting out our fear. I remember him talking about how for so much of our lives we are waiting for disaster around the corner. You know that feeling of what can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s just about to happen. The person you don’t want to see, the email you don’t want to receive, the bank statement you don’t want delivered, the doctor’s appointment you don’t want to go to, the test you don’t want to get back, the conversation you don’t want to have, the boss or board member you want to avoid. Those kind of things do seem like they are right around the corner and we can run into them at any time. But Rob said what if we start expecting Jesus around the corner, rather than the things we are afraid of. And even if those things really are right around the corner Jesus is, too.

One of the other things I remember so clearly Rob Voyle saying is to ask ourselves what we want, more life or less death. The love that Jesus showed us, the love that casts out fear is about more life. He doesn’t want us to settle for less death, even though, sometimes that is the best you can get. But don’t settle for less death if you don’t have to.

Some of you have heard me tell this story that I want to close with. Back in the days when we were still a part of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio I was the point guy for the Ohio Baptist Peace Fellowship. We would have a display table every year at the Annual Meeting and there was one very memorable encounter at that table. This man got very angry with me and said that we were not only wrong-headed in working for peace, but that if we had peace in this world then Jesus couldn’t come back. I don’t quite get it, but it is something lots of people believe. They have this whole end times thing going that says the world has to get worse and worse and when it gets bad enough Jesus will come and rescue his followers.

The man finally settled down and we actually got into a good conversation. Here is what he said that continues to move me. “Christians are not supposed to be afraid,” he said, “but everybody in my church is afraid. What you could really do for me is come to my church and speak to our fears. But I know my pastor would never let that happen.”

He knew the way to deal with our fears and more deeply experience God’s love is with each other. He also knew there is lots that keeps that from happening. If I speak to anybody’s fears, all I can do is talk about love.

You’ve got candles. We are going to light them and pray. What walls do you want to tear down?

Do you remember this from the Apostle Paul? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who 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.

When Life is Not So Easy…Remembering Mental Health Awareness Week

October 27th, 2014

Psalm 69, selected verses; Job 2:11-13
October 12, 2014
Mary Hammond

Many years ago, I proposed a topic to the student discussion group, Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin. 99% of the time the students suggest topics and lead the discussions, not me or Steve. I don’t think I’ve actually led a discussion in the group since that time. However, for some reason, I felt it would be good to talk about Mental Illness and Spirituality.

The night of the discussion, one student opened up about her family. All her life, her mother had struggled with mental illness, and that had profoundly impacted her childhood. As she shared her story, she wasn’t the only teary-eyed person in the room. Others began to speak of personal struggles with depression or anxiety. Some mentioned friends they were concerned about. It was an intense and honest conversation.

That evening we also explored the question, “What contours does spirituality take when entangled with mental illness, either in one’s own life or in the family?” This is an issue that deserves a lot of attention, and is often overlooked.

I never forgot that evening. Mental illness mainly seems to come out of the shadows when a prominent figure like Robin Williams commits suicide, or some young man completes another horrific mass murder. Politicians and families call for reform in one area after another—mental health services, gun laws, and education. Other politicians and special interest groups push back. And then mental illness returns again to the shadows.

I’m always glad when Yvonne Garland, one of our dear parishioners who is currently shut-in, speaks up during Sharing Time about her own journey with mental illness. On occasion she will make remarks like these: “Someone in the congregation today is depressed and wonders whether life is worth living. I just want you to know, there is no shame in mental illness.”

The gift of Christian community is to provide a safe place for everyone to come out of the shadows, whatever those shadows may be. Our hearts’ yearning is to be able to speak our truth and be received with compassion and openness.

There are a few things that I have learned along our family’s journey as our oldest daughter struggled so long with mental illness before her death nearly three years ago. These are simple but hard-won lessons worth passing on today. They are also applicant to many other situations people face in life.

The first of these is amply illustrated by Job’s friends before they start trying to come up with explanations for his misfortunes and sorrows. Hear the words of the text: “When they [saw Job], they began to weep and wail, tearing their clothes in grief and throwing dust into the air and on their heads. Then they sat there on the ground with him for seven days and nights without saying a word, because they saw how much he was suffering” (Job 2:12b-13).

This is the ministry of presence. We so often think we are doing nothing when we are just there, lending a shoulder to cry on, offering an encouraging word, or simply listening. But these are precisely gifts that can be in short supply for someone whose family may be un-supportive, whose colleagues cannot know, whose church tells them to “pray the devil away,” or who is simply feeling too alone and overwhelmed to reach out very much. Never underestimate the ministry of presence.

Along with this ministry of presence is the importance of not trying to fix things. We want to fix things. In American culture, we are do-ers more than be-ers. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We cannot “fix” another person. What we can do, however, is love them unconditionally. That love takes time and commitment. It may also come bathed in sacrifice. Sometimes it is gushy and gentle, all hugs and helps. Sometimes it has to be heartbreaking, tough love. Soaking that love in prayer matters, but here’s the catch:

There are some things that are not healed in this life, in spite of mountains of prayer and reams of unconditional love. Compared to 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago, substantial relief for many forms of mental illness exists through prayer, meditation, medication, therapy, support groups, body work, experimental brain stimulation, community, and so many other means.

But it can still take the mentally ill a herculean amount of strength to get through each day. This is not only true for this population, either. It can be a reality for any who face a long-term disability or history of trauma. The effort to continually choose life amid the temptation to just “give up” needs to be honored and appreciated, even celebrated, every single day.

As we close, I invite you to let the music of Ken Medema fill your soul, the light from the dancing candles touch your heart, and the voice of the Spirit speak deep within yourself. Amen.

How do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? Maybe we need more information. Maybe he was a work in progress. Maybe we are all works in progress.

October 10th, 2014

Philippians 3:4-14
October 5, 2014
Steve Hammond

Remember the song from the Sound of Music where the question was “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” Well, what do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? For some in the church he’s the problem and gets the blame for all that they see wrong in conservative Christianity. For others he’s the solution to the problem of liberal Christianity. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between. I don’t think he deserves either the depth of the vilification that has become a cliché in some circles nor the height of unquestioned authority he receives in others. Today’s passage shows us that there is way more nuance than we often allow for him. We see both the peril and promise he engenders.

This passage doesn’t, initially, seem to be one you would want to highlight in multifaith dialogue. Paul is hard on Jews, and he can’t stop talking about Jesus.

First of all, we can’t get past the fact that we look at this passage through 2000 years of Christian history, some of it unfortunate and tragic when it comes to Christianity’s interaction with Judaism. But none of that was there when Paul was making this testimony he made from his prison cell. Paul, like all early Christians, understood himself as a Jew. And most Jews understood Christians as one of the many sects of Judaism. It wasn’t until gentiles, or folk who hadn’t grown up Jewish, began to become followers of Jesus that people even started asking about whether Christianity and Judaism were separate religions. And it took a long time to settle that question.

We begin to see that debate taking place about this question of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in some of the later writings of the NT. But archaeologists have found evidence of Christian congregations basically viewing themselves as branches of Judaism up until about 150 C.E. And it wasn’t until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E that the structures in Judaism began to push back against sects like Christianity. With the Temple destroyed, there was a felt need by many to rein in the varieties of Jewish expression. It was time to circle the wagons and have a clearer definition of what it meant to be Jewish.

So the argument for Paul initially, anyway, was not Christianity vs. Judaism, but a struggle for the future of Judaism. It seems to me to be very similar to what has happened in the history of the Christian church to this very day. Christians continue to discuss, debate, argue, name call, and condemn to hell or some other condemnation if you don’t particularly go along with the idea of hell, other Christians. And there were many times when those disagreements led to violence and death. If I just say names like Pat Robertson or Jerry Fallwell, what kind of feelings arise in you? But I don’t think an outside observer would call me anti-Christian because I believe that Pat Robertson has a wrong view of what Christianity is supposed to be. So I think it is a bit harsh to call Paul anti-Semitic because he had serious disagreements with other Jews about what Judaism is supposed to be.

Another way to look at it is to think about Martin Luther and the other Reformers. They were exactly that–reformers. They weren’t trying to bring down Christianity, just challenge it to be something else, something they saw as truer to what God had in mind. In much the same way, Paul understood himself as a reformer of Judaism, not it’s enemy. Christian Eberhart, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston put it this way, ”In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147)

Now in his zeal, and the heat of the moment, Paul may have crossed some lines, which anti-Semites have found helpful helpful. And don’t forget it was folk from his own Jewish tradition who worked to have him imprisoned and eventually martyred. You can imagine how intense their arguments got. But I think the problem may sometimes have been more of how he argued than what his argument really was. And it’s not only the Apostle Paul that has fallen into that kind of thing.

What was obviously more important to Paul, though, than the future of Judaism was the new life he found in Christ Jesus. And he was not shy in his testimony. Last week Mary talked about street cred. Paul had street cred in Jewish life. He came from the right family, he studied with the right teachers. How did he say it, “You know my pedigree, a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” Paul, or Saul, as he was known before Jesus changed everything, was on his way. He was one of the golden boys. The Jewish establishment was his to occupy.

One day, though, on a journey to deliver some Jesus followers over to the law, Jesus knocked him off his horse. Whether that was literally or figuratively, that argument rages, but whatever happened, Paul became a different person. What was once a fast track to a corner office in the Temple was suddenly of no importance to the future Apostle. “I count it all as rubbish,” is how some of the more genteel translators put it. Petersen is getting closer when he says the Apostle Paul thinks of what could have been as nothing more than dog dung. The commentators at girardianlectionary.net put it in an academic framework. “The Greek word skybala is found only here in the NT and very rarely in any other Hellenic literature; some scholars conjecture that it is a slang term for excrement.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper22a.htm)

However you say it, Paul had found something in Jesus that made everything else, all his credibility, all his assumed future, all the power that could have been his, worthless. He felt himself come alive in Christ.

That’s what we bring with us. Christianity has plenty to apologize for when it comes to multifaith dialogue. But we are not the only ones. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, paganism and atheism have all brought death, destruction, and oppression. But there is so much life in all of those traditions, as well.

Rabbi Brand on campus suggested to me once that one good way of engendering multifaith dialogue is to start talking about some of the ugly parts or our histories and traditions. And he didn’t mean Jews talking about some of the awful things Christians have done, or Christians talking about some of the difficult texts in the Koran, but each faith talking about itself, its own problematic histories and texts.

Now Paul may seem like too much of a Jesus fanboy to be of any help in multifaith dialogue. But I don’t know what we have to bring if we don’t bring Jesus. I don’t think we would legitimately expect Muslims to not talk about Muhammad or Allah if we were going to enter into dialogue with them. We wouldn’t ask Jews to stop talking about God or Moses or the commandments. We wouldn’t look askance because Buddhist were talking about the Buddha, or Hindus were mentioning their gods and goddesses. And I don’t think they are expecting us to not talk about Jesus.

It’s when we bring life into this world that we are being good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good whoever. All that the Apostle Paul could see in Christ was life. And what he objected to most was when people tried to turn Judaism or Christianity toward death. Resurrection was not some theory or theological formulation for Paul. It’s what filled his heart with hope and imagination.

In his more candid moments, like here, Paul admits to his own deficiencies . He didn’t claim to have it all together. But he knew that he was reaching out for the Christ who had grabbed hold of him. He was off and running. And even if he got off the course now and then, he wasn’t turning back, because Jesus kept holding out life before him.

And he did get off the track, for example, when it comes to women in the church. Though not all of the awful things attributed to Paul were really from his own pen, we do get enough to realize that he had a woman problem. But as you keep reading Paul, you see him evolving or growing from “no woman is allowed to speak in the church,” to where he is commending the work of his women co-workers and greeting the churches that are meeting in their homes. He wrote to the Galatians that “in Christ there are neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, neither men nor women.” As he was running that race toward life in Christ, he changed along the way. And I am glad the scriptures let us see that. It’s too bad, though, that people have focused on some of his earlier understandings rather than his later ones.

This, was the guy who wrote 1 Corithians 13, the ‘love chapter.’ This is what we read from him in Romans 12. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In Romans 8 he wrote about all of creation longing for the revealing of the children of God and how nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

He said many provocative things along the way but he also wrote about how it was his job to help Jesus followers provoke one another to love and good works. And then there was that thing he wrote in Ephesians. “Be kind and tender hearted to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ.”

Paul neither deserves to be placed on as high of a pedestal as some think nor have his statues torn down. We are all works in progress. What Christians bring to the mix is that we are, like Paul, coming alive in Jesus. And so at communion, as Paul pointed out, and in so many other ways we are simply called to remember Jesus. And we are reminded to remember what Paul knew with all his heart, that Jesus has grabbed hold of us and we are reaching for the life that is in him.

Street Cred(entials)

October 10th, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014
Mary Hammond

I am always astounded by the creativity and wisdom of Jesus when he is faced with “thinking on his feet.” Jesus is a master of the adroit question and penetrating story. He knows how to get to the heart of a matter quickly, even when others don’t see that coming.

As Jesus’ ministry expands, the religious authorities seek to blindside him and trap him in his own words. They are threatened by his popularity and incensed by his disregard of religious tradition.

Time after time, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He exposes their foibles, bringing to light their deepest motivations. He outwits them, again and again.

Today’s Gospel story is a perfect example of this phenomena. The context of the passage is telling—Matthew situates this story shortly after Jesus’ Procession into Jerusalem on a donkey during what turns out to be the last week of Jesus’ life. This ragtag parade isn’t really the great palm-waving celebration that the Church has transformed it into over the centuries. Rather, it is a portend of the immediate and impending Clash of Empires–the Reign of God vs. the Reign of Caesar, the Rule of the Holy One vs. the Rule of the Roman State.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first stop after entering Jerusalem is the Temple. He takes note of the profiteering, greed, and other evident abuses of his religion. Like the prophets of old, Jesus takes bold action. He overthrows the tables, scatters the pigeons, and laments the sad state of affairs. He cries out, quoting from his own scriptures, “My house was designated a house of prayer, You have made it a hangout for thieves” (Matthew 21:13).

After that momentous and exhausting day, Jesus heads to Bethany for the night. Now, Bethany is the town where his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live. You may remember the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Or you may recall a story in Luke’s Gospel. Martha is in a huff about meal preparation and hospitality while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, in the position used by rabbinical students, learning from him.

I like to think Jesus hung out at their house after that intense confrontation in the Temple and dusty trip to Jerusalem. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the conversation they might have had.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shows up at the Temple again the next day to teach. Imagine this scene for a moment. Jesus really has a following by now. The religious leaders have had enough of him. The Temple is their turf, not his. They are furious about his incursion into this space and all the ruckus he created the day before. They are wary about the crowds he is attracting. According to Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book, “The Last Week,” they are also colluding with Rome to keep the peace among the populace. What could happen next?

The Pharisees and teachers of the Law demand to see Jesus’ credentials. ‘What are you doing here? Why gave you permission to teach here? Who did you study with?’ These are the questions of credentials! Clearly, in their estimation, Jesus is not welcome in their Temple!

Jesus could have answered them by saying, “Actually, I don’t have a degree or even a certificate. I haven’t been apprenticed to a famous rabbi. I was not invited to teach here by one of your scholars. In fact, I was home-schooled at the feet of my revolutionary mother.” He doesn’t say that. Instead, Jesus spars with the religious leaders on their own grounds. “You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours,” he replies.

So begins the duel. Jesus never addresses the question of his own authority or credentials. Instead, he brings up his cousin, John the baptizer, who was beheaded by King Herod. John still has quite a following among the common people.

So Jesus asks the religious leaders about the baptism of John—Is it from God or humans?

The religious leaders know they are trapped. Remember–Jesus is teaching in the Temple. There are other people around. Afraid of riling up the populace, the religious leaders whisper among themselves. One answer exposes their own blindness; the other threatens to disturb the peace. They concede this round to Jesus, and he refuses to answer their question.

Jesus continues with a story about a father who has two sons. In patriarchal first century culture, marriage and bearing many children is the norm rather than the exception. Further, sons are the most valued progeny. These male religious leaders could easily relate to this story.

The plot is simple. A father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard for the day. One refuses, relents, and later goes. The other agrees, but never follows through. ‘Which one does the Father’s will?’ Jesus asks.

“The first son,” they answer.

Jesus then segues onto the topic of John’s ministry among the people again. “…John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him” (Matthew 21:32)

According to Jesus, credentials aren’t found on a piece of paper, in who a person has studied with, or how many years of loyalty they have given to an institution. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Street cred?” It is short for “street credentials,” authority that comes from incarnational practice—the kind of living that gets tangled up with the sufferings of the world, engaged with the most vulnerable and despised. It is living that exposes the abuses of religion, particularly of one’s own. It is living that challenges the status quo and takes on the power of the powerful, regardless of the cost.

Where is the Kingdom coming? It’s coming in the streets. Amen.