Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Meeting Jesus among tears and dusty feet

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hm. “What kind of woman THIS IS.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mold us and Make Us

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracles, Mysteries, and Letting Jesus not be a King

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question, not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all, and marveled at this great wonder? Would we be moved not by guilt but by sheer joy to be part of a dazzling work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion?” (Kathryn Matthews (Huey) http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_26_2015.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Pisgah

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Obama talked about that in her Oberlin commencement speech:

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

“We.”

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

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

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

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

Good for us.

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

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

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

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

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

And where did it get him?

To the brink.

Close, but no cigar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Banner Dedication
in advance of the sermon
June 28, 2015

E-mail from Virginia Douglas to Mary Hammond:

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

**********

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

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

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

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

Riders on the Storm

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Mark 4
June 21, 2015
Steve Hammond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Grace Rules

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

1 Samuel 16
June 14, 2015
Steve Hammond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Seeing and Being Seen is Enough

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fired Up

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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