Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

On The Move

Friday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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.

Friday, 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)

Friday, 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.

And A River Runs Through It

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Genesis 2:4-10, The Revelation 22:1-2
September 21, 2014
Steve Hammond

Today we are running into a convergence of important events. September 21 is International Day of Peace. It’s also the day of the Climate Action March in NYC. And today marks the beginning of Campaign Nonviolence Action Week. Peace, nonviolence, and the climate crisis. That’s a lot. That’s why I can understand the allure of a faith that deals simply with getting ourselves into heaven. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, that wasn’t the kind of faith Jesus had. He was very much concerned with the issues facing this earth and, indeed, the whole universe. Throughout his ministry he was focused on the healing and redemption of the entire creation, and the possibilities of his followers joining him in building a new world.

I or anybody could spend a lot of time this morning talking about why peace, nonviolence, and living sustainably are important. But I am going to take it as a given that you all agree with me that all of those things are important matters to followers of Jesus. And I also assume that you agree that working for peace and a healed climate are cut out of the same cloth of shalom. If you don’t agree with me we probably should get together for a bit of dialogue. And I am serious about that because there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t have agreed with these matters had something to do with following Jesus. I would love to tell you what has happened to me.

Today I simply want to mention some observations I have made as I’ve been thinking about these three events. Let’s begin with rivers and trees. Most of us, I think, realize that the Bible is not a single work, but a collection of the sacred writings that tell the story of our faith in a variety of ways. But I can’t help but notice that at the beginning pages of the Bible and the very last pages of the Bible we are reading about rivers and trees. I think that is something worth paying attention to. Again, if the point of our faith is simply to get us to heaven, there wouldn’t be any trees and rivers at the end of the story like they are. At the end of the story the earth hasn’t been destroyed after some cataclysmic battle between Jesus and the forces of Satan. There is a renewed earth with a new city. And there is a river running through it. And there planted by the river is a tree for the healing of the nations.

I think The Revelation is a very weird and strange story that is a reflection on the life of Jesus and his vision for our world. Jesus believed that the end of all things was not this orgy of death and destruction as so many, including the guest preachers we had on campus this week believe. Instead, for Jesus what this whole thing is ultimately about is everything and everyone coming fully alive. That’s why resurrection matters so much to me. Death does not get the final word. Life does. What’s that great question the Apostle Paul asks as he reflects on the resurrection of Jesus and all that means for everyone and everything? “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?..But thanks be to God who give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What’s even weirder than The Revelation is that the church has taken this theology of life that was not simply at the heart of what Jesus was about, but everything he was about, and turned everything upside down to where the god of Jesus is a god of death. Even to this day, the rulers of this world know that they can rely on the church to endorse their wars and myriad forms of violence and death. And the church does that in the name of Jesus.

How did it come to this? We’ve talked before about how in the early church the signs and symbols of Christianity were rivers and trees. That’s what you find in the art work. It wasn’t until much, much later, around the times when the crusades were gearing up that the cross became the predominate symbol of Christianity. As the church became more and more an accomplice of empire rather than a challenge to empire, death became more and more important in Christian theology. That’s because you can’t run an empire without a considerable focus on death. And the church had decided that it was for its own best interest to go along with empire. So the rivers and trees and paradise disappeared from Christian artwork and understanding. And the world got sicker and sicker.

The end of the story, though, tells us that the rivers and trees have always been there. The vision of Jesus may have gotten obscured, but it’s always been there. And the other part of the story is that all trees and rivers are for the healing of the nations. Human beings are not meant to be unconnected from the creation. Back in that story in Genesis 2 we read that God took the earth, the humus and created the earth creature, the human. The testimony here that people and all of earth are connected is about as subtle as a search light. That thing we say about how from the earth we came and to the earth we will return is not a surrender to the meaninglessness of life, but a witness to our connection with everything. The internet of everything is not a new idea.

Imagine what would happen if we really began to understand that our healing was in the trees and the rivers, the earth and the sky, the animals and each other. A simple rule of life, and I think it should be elevated in all our minds as Christian doctrine, is that if we take care of the earth the earth will take care of us.

What if we spent our time, concern, and national budgets on taking care of the earth rather than fighting each other? What if we stopped that kind of violence and the violence we do against the creation? We would be healed. So, I guess that was my first thought. The next two are way shorter.

We are reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in our current study group. The chapter we just finished outlined a history of how far back in the history of this world people were working on lifting up the importance of nonviolence. Many of the founders and early adherents of many major and minor religions focused on the importance of nonviolence in their religions. The teachings on nonviolence in the New Testament and early church were not simply this new notion that can just be passed off as a great idea but wholly impractical. Lots of people have been thinking about this for a long time.

Third thought. There is actually a fourth commemoration of note for us today. In addition to being the International Day of Peace it’s also the International Day of Prayer for Peace. That was set by the World Council of Churches back in 2004 to coincide with the International Day of Peace. People are thinking about lots of action today. I think the World Council of Churches is helping us to see that it’s more than action we need to be thinking about today. Or maybe to realize that prayer is one of the actions we need to include as we consider all of these things.

Jesus believed in partnerships. Partnerships between people, including those who are normally divided from each other for a variety of reasons. He also believed in partnerships between us and God. Jesus showed us we can’t do this without and God isn’t going to do it without us.

Prayer connects us. Not only to God but also who are what we are praying for. Prayer without action is empty. Action without prayer robs us of depth and new possibilities.

There is going to be a march at Noon on Tappan Square in solidarity with those who are in New York at the People’s Climate March. But before we go to Tappan Square, and I hope many of us are, l want us to pray for peace in our world and with our world first. These are days for prayerful action. In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul writes about all of creation awaiting for the revealing of the children of God. Now is our time. From battered countries, to battered lives, to a battered climate, creation is waiting for us to come into our own and stake our claim with Jesus. A river runs through it all. From the beginning to beyond the end the river shows us the way of life, it brings us healing. And like all of creation it is waiting, waiting, waiting.

[We used this prayer, attributed to St. Patrick at the close of the service]

Today in this fateful hour
I place all heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with it whiteness,
And Fire with all the strength it hath,
And Lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of Darkness.
St. Patrick

When Yesterday Looks Too Much Like Today

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Exodus 14-15
September 14, 2014
Mary Hammond

I read lots of pastoral blogs and commentaries on today’s text from the Book of Exodus. Nothing I read touched the deep churnings of my heart until I found Barry J. Robinson’s blog, Keeping the Faith in Babylon. Everything else felt trite in the face of both present day circumstances and the underbelly of violence and suffering inherent in the Exodus story itself.

Like Robinson, I cannot look at the world we live in now and the world the Egyptians and Israelites lived in then and ignore a host of parallels. We see the ageless themes of the oppressed chafing against their oppressors and the oppressors clinging to their power at all costs. It is Pharaoh vs. Moses; the Egyptians vs. the Israelites. The oppressed become a band of refugees, searching for a new and better home.

In the biblical narrator’s understanding, the penchant for indiscriminate violence is not just reserved for Pharaoh in his cruelty toward the Israelites. The storyteller attributes violence to God as well, setting in motion the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt while Pharaoh continues his oppression and resolve (Exodus 4:4-5). Later in the text, the Red Sea parts to let the fleeing Israelites pass through unharmed. Then the waters return to their place, drowning the pursuing army. The result is powerful and joyous for the Israelites. Not so for the Egyptians and their families back home. After so many centuries and such long and brutal oppression, the Israelites have escaped. The tables are turned, even if just for a season.

Moses breaks into song, exulting in the one he describes as a ‘warrior God’ (Exodus 15:3) Yet haven’t we seen people praise the ‘warrior God’ way too much throughout human history? Hasn’t that view of God resulted in devastating consequences for the history of this planet across religions? We are reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in study group. She makes the assertion that we need to reject any interpretation of scripture that leads us to violence.

Looking back, the Exodus story seems clear-cut. There are 400 years of suffering and waiting. Finally, in one great tug-of-war and a final blast of victory launched by God through his servant Moses, the liberation begins! Yet too soon the story becomes murky again with 40 years of desert wandering.

I so often read the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the Israelite slaves released from bondage. This is the dominant story line, and a critical one that has inspired successive generations of the oppressed in their impulse for liberation.

Last week for the first time, I found my attention riveted on the Egyptian soldiers who drowned in the Red Sea. Maybe that is because so many soldiers on all sides of so many battles are dying today. Some are escaping disenfranchisement, unemployment, and poverty. Some are fighting for a cause they believe in; others are mere children, drugged and forced into military service. Some approach their enemies with hatred; others sooner or later are wracked with guilt and anguish over the violence they have participated in and witnessed. Countless soldiers will prematurely go to the grave, as they have for millennia. Countless families will mourn both their deaths and their living deaths.

Is the story of the Exodus really so clear?

We see this ancient tug-of-war playing itself out in devastating violence in revolution after revolution in our own time. In the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America…in our own nation’s drone warfare, boots on the ground, and proxy revolutions.

I am reminded of a verse in I John that I don’t think about very often, but I have been referencing a lot lately in my head. “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (I John 2:18). So often we hear the word “antichrist” in reference to some person or nation. It is associated with the many ‘end-times scenarios’ popularized by books, films, and conservative Christian radio.

But what does “anti-christ” really mean? I understand it is an ideology or theology diametrically opposed to all Jesus lived and taught. “Anti-christ” is about mercilessness instead of mercy; violence instead of peacemaking; bitterness instead of forgiveness; cruelty instead of gentleness; hatred instead of love. It is about building Empire rather than beloved community, whether Empire is constructed through extremist ideology or dazzling Corporatocracy.

When God provided Israel land on which to settle after the Exodus, was that land meant to be shared or meant to be taken away from its previous owners? What if this story continued with a theology of reciprocity and communal sharing rather than one of conquest and extermination? I want to re-write this story from way back. Honestly, I do.

I have seen in my own lifetime how the Exodus story has inspired generations of oppressed people the world over to trust in a God that Sees their need, Hears their cry, and Comes to their aid. I saw that so intensely in the Nicaraguan people in the 1980’s, when local community leaders, with the help of a supportive government, increased literacy among the poor. They developed neighborhood health clinics. Base communities sprouted up, even as radical Catholic priests were reproved by the Vatican or defrocked. The Reagan administration clamped down and crushed that movement, calling it a Communist plot. Soon Nicaragua was back under our thumb.

There are huge forces at play in this world. Pharaohs continue to proliferate and refuse to let the people go. Faces change, names change, locations change. Moses rises again and again in the form of one ordinary human being after another, leading nation after nation toward liberation. Prophets gaze at their burning bushes, struggle with God, and finally confess, “Lord, send me.”

Sometimes people are liberated, and sometimes they must wait for another day, year, decade, or multiple generations. How shall we interpret and imagine God in the midst of such Meta-History? What can we hold onto, as we look back at the march of generations and the multiple Exoduses of time, past and present?

First of all, there is Hope. Without hope, we are lost. No matter what our story, or our neighbor’s story, there must be hope. The South Africans taught us that with apartheid, as have so many other oppressed groups. “If liberation does not come in my lifetime, maybe it will come in that of my children or my children’s children.” This was their mantra. That visceral hope did not die, nor did it ultimately disappoint.

Secondly, there is Love. Without love, how do we stand against Empire here in the United States? How do we counter our own violence as a nation? How do we walk with the hopeless, the war-torn, the displaced, the sorrowing? Mother Teresa, in the slums of Calcutta, taught us about love. Bob Thomas, the Moderator of the church when we moved here in 1979, taught us about love. We teach each other about love. Without love, we are lost. Love is expressed in many forms–doing justice, promoting the common good, practicing hospitality, providing comfort, and offering forgiveness, to name a few.

And finally, there is Faith–Faith in the One whose hand is unseen behind the grand machinations of Empire, anti-christ, and all the rest of the horrors of Time. Faith that this One still Sees, Hears, and Responds to humanity and indeed, to all of Creation. This Holy One of both Mystery and Promise responds through me, through you, through Doctors without Borders, through Christian Peacemaker Teams and Muslim Peacemaker Teams, through Interfaith PeaceBuilders in the Middle East. This One is seen, heard, and experienced every time the Way of Life reclaims even an inch of ground from the Way of Death.

So, today, I give you the ancient story of the Exodus, of the children of Israel under the leadership of Moses fleeing the brutal hand of the Egyptians. We weep with them over their centuries of enslavement. We rejoice with them in their promised liberation. We remember both the slaves who perished and the soldiers who perished. We mourn with the Israelite families that lost their children in the slaughter of their babies and the Egyptian parents who lost theirs as well.

We stand with the landless, refugee Israelites of ancient times in their search for a new home, and all the other refugees through the generations searching for hospitality and safety. Today, in 2014, we long for this home in the Middle East to be shared, where there is no conquest and dominance, no lust for power and resources. We long for it to be a home where there are no “winners” and “losers.” We long for it to be a home where there is Light and Life for all. And here in the United States, we long for the same.

As we join in offering God our tithes and gifts, we offer as well our dreams and visions of a world renewed. This is what we must pray for, work for, strive for, and seek to live into, right where we are. Amen.

Remembering the Future

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Matthew 20 and Luke 22
September 7, 2014
Steve Hammond

[Earlier in the service we read the Last Supper stories from Matthew 20 and Luke 22]

Ask people to compare and contrast the two stories. Mention that Mark’s gospel is almost the same wording as Matthew’s except for the Judas part.

One difference is that in Matthew’s gospel the talk about the betrayal and Jesus not eating this meal again until he eats it with them in the realm of God comes before the supper in Matthew’s story and after the supper in Luke’s story.

There is also a big difference in exactly how, for lack of a better word, the liturgy went that night. In Matthew’s story Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup. In Luke’s story, Jesus passes the cup, then later in the supper, breaks the bread, and after the meal passes the cup again. In Matthew’s story you can almost see a somewhat formalized ritual. The plates are cleared out of the way a bit, things get real solemn and then Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, much like what happens in most Communion Services. But in Luke’s story, it seems like things go much more with the flow of the meal. Before all the food is brought out Jesus passes the wine. After they have been eating for a while he breaks the bread, and then after the meal is over he passes the cup again.

So in adapting communion to a church service, which has always struck me as weird anyway, since it was first done by Jesus and in the early church as a part of a meal, we usually share the Lord’s Supper toward the end of the service. We do get real solemn and break the bread and pass the cup. We sing a hymn and go home.

If we adapted it to Luke’s way though, we would start the service by passing the cup. And then sometime later on, probably before the sermon, pass the bread. And then at the end of the service pass the cup again.

It’s become so important in the life of the church, since its early days, to make sure we do this right. Schisms and battles have ensued throughout the history of the church over the right way to do communion. But there isn’t even agreement in the gospels about what really happened that night.

I think the more important thing is not figuring out the right way of doing communion, but focusing in on that remembering part, which I might point out is only in Luke’s story. Jesus in never recorded as having said ‘do this in memory of me’ in either Matthew or Mark’s gospels. But I still think it is important and will offer some back up on that in a bit.

Remembering means something like putting the pieces or the members back together (re-member, like re-build). When we remember Jesus we are putting the story back together, or retelling the story. We are restoring the memories. We are recalling who he was and what he was about.

Sometimes, though, communion has become just the opposite of remembering. Instead of putting the pieces of Jesus life together, we pull out his death and isolate it from the rest of the story. It’s as if nothing in the story of Jesus before Good Friday is of any importance. Instead of remembering we are, and dismembering Jesus (or an invented word might be demmebering). Instead of reconstructing the story of Jesus we are deconstructing it to simply a cross and some lashes, and not much of anything else.

I don’t believe that when Jesus is recorded in Luke’s story of asking us to remember him, the only thing he was thinking about was his death. We’ve talked about this plenty of times before and in plenty of different ways, but I am convinced that there is something, at least, as redemptive in the life Jesus lived as there was in the death he died. People want to be remembered for how they lived. Nobody wants to be remembered for the way they died, unless all you think you have to offer is martyrdom.

Let’s look at another communion story. This one is not from the gospels, but from the life of the early church. It didn’t take long for things to go bad. I am going to be reading from 1 Corinthians 11.

17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for[g] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink[h] without discerning the body,[i] eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[j] 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined[k] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters,[l] when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Paul seems to be more familiar with the Luke story about the Lord’s Supper. He uses the ‘remember me’ language. He doesn’t say anything about Jesus passing the wine at the beginning and the end of the supper. But his story does have Jesus passing the bread during the meal, and then later, at the end of the meal, passing the cup.

What Paul doesn’t mention is the part of the story about the betrayal. He doesn’t tell us whether Jesus talked about that at the beginning or the end of the meal. There are several reasons that we could speculate on about why Paul didn’t write about that important part of the Last Supper, some literary, some theological. But one of those reasons could be that Paul wasn’t so much concerned about a betrayal that happened in the past during that first Lord’s Supper, but one that he saw actually taking place, in his own day, in the Corinthian church.

If Jesus did, indeed, ask us to remember him whenever we do this, the question obviously becomes what should we remember. Nobody can, of course, tell us what we are supposed to remember. Memories are our own, even flawed memories. When we remember Jesus we bring our own memories of what we have discovered about him in the scriptures and in our lives.

What Paul seems to be doing with the folk at the church in Corinth is not so much telling them what they are supposed to remember about Jesus, but showing them what they have forgotten. Paul was appalled by what communion had become in that church. Their dysfunctions, which were many, came to a head when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper. Their divisions were fully put on display when the poor folk, who couldn’t afford to bring any food with them, had to watch the rich folk stuff themselves on food and drink. And the poor folk were also the ones who were probably expected to make sure that the rich folk who were too drunk to get home on their own, got their safely.

Some people look at this story and rue the fact that people would come to the Lord’s Supper just to get drunk. Though Paul had a problem with that, his bigger problem was that the rich were dividing themselves from the poor.

When Paul warns the Corinthians about the dangers of partaking in the Lord’s Supper without discerning the Body of Christ, he isn’t saying that the danger is they don’t have a proper theological or creedal understanding of Jesus. He isn’t commenting on what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus. Though there are some of his writings that have caused great consternation in the church, Paul comes up with some pretty amazing things, including his understanding of the Body of Christ.

The body of Christ is a metaphor that Paul uses for the church, particularly local congregations. It’s in the church that the living, saving presence of Jesus is seen and felt and followed. To not discern the Body of Christ is to not discern what the church is about. And the church, definitely, is not about keeping our divisions in tact, liked they were doing at Corinth. In showing them what they had forgotten, Paul was helping them to realize that remembering Jesus surely has something to do about tearing down the walls that divide us rather than keeping them up or even making them higher and stronger. To discern the Body of Christ is to remember that Jesus called us to love each other, to welcome in the outsider, to take care of each other and the world. When we have forgotten those things that is when we are eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. People are ill and dying not because of God’s judgment for their lack of clear theological understanding about Jesus and his cross, but because they weren’t taking care of each other.
We’ve done all this talking about Matthew, Mark, and Luke and Paul. But we probably should take a quick look at what the Gospel of John has to say about the Lord’s Supper. Can somebody find that for me and read it real quickly? John, of course, does not write anything about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. What he does write about is the foot washing that took place. It’s John’s version of understanding that the Body of Christ isn’t just about the dead, cold body of Jesus, hanging on a cross, but about service and love and compassion.

When Paul remembered Jesus, he remembered the world Jesus told us we could make with Jesus and each other. And here’s the thing. Paul wasn’t there to hear Jesus say any of this. But the remembering of others who had been with Jesus, who were struggling to come to grips with that vision of a new world that Jesus had given them, gave Paul something to remember, along with his own very mystical encounters with Jesus. They were all remembering a future that Jesus believed in. And that’s how remembering Jesus is not only about personal memories, but corporate memories.

So what’s sacred is not the bread and the cup but the remembering. I think the folk in that church who were so worried I would join them in Communion have forgotten some important things about Jesus and the Body of Christ. But there was another time I was asked to preach at another church in town for a pulpit exchange. One of the first things that happened there was someone came to me and wanted to make sure that I knew that I was welcomed to share in the Eucharist with them. That’s remembering Jesus. The most important remembering we do, of course, is not when we share the Lord’s Supper, but the day to day remembering we do. How are we the Body of Christ with each other on Tuesday and Wednesday? Every day we get to put back together the pieces of Jesus and remember the future with him. That’s what we are celebrating this morning.