Archive for January, 2010

On Exile and Turning–January 24, 2010

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

ON EXILE AND TURNING
Nehemiah 8:1-12, Luke 4: 14-30
January 24, 2010
Mary Hammond

I have had only two life experiences that ever came close to resembling exile. The first was at the age of 22, when Steve and I were wide-eyed newlyweds. After our wedding in Indiana, we returned to the house church in Alabama that we have been attending while I was in graduate school. During the month we were gone, this little community had merged with another house church and had restructured under a new, much more authoritarian, model of leadership. Later, this became known as the “Shepherding Movement” of the 1970’s.

“God’s not sending people to seminary these days,” the newest church leader proclaimed. However, we both knew that God was sending Steve to seminary when I finished my degree. Over a few weeks of protracted prayer, discussion, and discernment, it became clear what we had to do.

The parting was not pretty. The final words of the church elders burned forever in our ears: “Your blood is on your own hands. Your salvation is in danger. We wash our hands of you.” Exiled, we said goodbye to a community who had once welcomed us warmly, even as Northerners and newcomers residing in the deep South. We also said goodbye to a way of practicing our faith that had been a rich part of our journey to that point as young adults.

My other primary experience of exile occurred in 2005 when the church decided by consensus to join the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, thus publicly supporting the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in the church. This decision provided a new space to stand in solidarity with countless other people who have been exiled by their churches, families, and communities for their sexual orientation.

With the church’s building on the line and complex negotiations on many levels, the process became a sustained, intense blur for me. I remember the aftermath in my soul much better than the details which folks in the congregation still easily recall. I have never personally felt so dechurched as I did in 2006, once the American Baptist Churches of Ohio were no longer our regional home and my brain and heart tried to catch up with each other.

We have been deeply blessed in our association with the Rochester-Genesee Region, beyond our imaginations, but exile inevitably leaves questioning and scarring in its wake. How can exile not lead to open wounds, when the old has disappeared, and the new is yet to manifest itself? Yet, exile also leads to new opportunities and fresh spiritual growth, as the old is left behind, and the new takes shape before our eyes.

Exile rages like a torrential stream throughout the pages of scripture. It is a paradoxical theme of the spiritual journey. The Apostle Peter describes believers as “strangers and exiles” on earth (I Peter 2:11), a community with a home not made by human hands, living in a Realm not governed by human rulers. In the memoirs of Nehemiah, exile is fresh history for the Jewish people who had been displaced and scattered by foreign invaders. Some had at long last returned to Jerusalem, only to find the city in ruins.

Cupbearer for foreign king, Artaxerxes, Nehemiah learns of the returnees’ plight and the devastation of the city. He petitions the king to allow him to organize the rebuilding process. In spite of threats from enemy tribes, economic hardship, back-breaking labor, and discouragement, the community is successful in its efforts. Yet, the people are hungry for more than a rebuilt temple wall. Hungry for a rebuilt faith, they ask Ezra the priest to open the scriptures to them. Young and old gather in the town square. From dawn to midday, Ezra reads from the sacred scroll. The Levites, assistants in the temple, interpret the words he speaks.

The people are undone. All the embodied anguish from years of wandering and exile, returning to a city in ruins, making a way when there was no way, yearning for God’s Voice–all of this comes to bear on their hearts as if a great flood is unleashed. They weep. I bet these are no quite tears moistening the edges of the cheek. I bet these are great, gigantic wails. We all know that sound. Most of us have cried like that sometime in our lives. The words of Moses from the sacred text fall on their ears as balm, tonic, sting, and vision, all at the same time.

But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the other leaders do not leave the people in their weeping. No, they instruct the community to throw a party. Not only are they to throw a party, but they are instructed to remember to welcome the poor in their midst! The time for lament gives way to a time for celebration. New life is on the horizon. With God’s help, joy arises from the ashes of mourning.

Judy and Tom Riggle have a friend in Zimbabwe named Eddie, and they often send me his e-mail updates. Eddie writes passionately about the heart-wrenching news from his country and always signs off with this one verse from Nehemiah: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” A cry of hope in the midst of devastation and madness, oppression and violence, these words become a beacon of light for him in truly desperate times. Throughout everything, Eddie continues to claim for his own the ancient confession of an exiled people working to make ‘return’ a full reality in all its many-orbed facets. He is watching, waiting, and working for the turning of his native land to sanity, sustenance, and justice.

The bible is a paradoxical book. Nehemiah reminds us that exile leads to return and restoration; the Gospel reading reminds us that return can lead to exile as well. Jesus re-enters his hometown, only to leave it exiled from the very people who watched him grow up, nurtured him, and supported him. His prophetic proclamation is too much for their ears. Their praise turns to anger, and they mob him, dragging him out of the temple to throw him over a cliff.

Exile is not always the result of misdeeds; it can also be the result of speaking the truth. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal…but the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony” (from compiled quotations provided by Every Church a Peace Church). While exile can be the consequence of faithlessness, it can also be the price we pay for faithfulness.

Today we continue to celebrate the season of Epiphany. We see the bright light of God in Nehemiah’s memoirs as the returned exiles see new life dawn on what had been a bleak and barren horizon. We see the bright light of God as Jesus stands before the hometown crowd and risks his life proclaiming his mission. We see the bright light of God in this place, in these faces here, in the hymns sung by children in Haiti, in the prayers offered from the deepest places of exile on the earth.

Let us participate in this gigantic journey. If exile is our experience, may we grow to understand its meaning and begin to know the joy of return and celebration, even when it looks much different than we envisioned. When called to do so, may we bear the price of exile to speak the words of truth. Through it all, may we forge a deeper, more grounded faith and trust in God. There is always Light to be seen on the road ahead, no matter how treacherous the path, no matter how dim the light.

“The joy of the Lord is our strength.” Amen.

This Little Light of Mine: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

This Little Light of Mine: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 17, 2010
Steve Hammond

[You might also want to check out the story Whips and Wine which we read in church this morning. I’ve posted it on the blog]

We keep our house pretty dark. Even though we have compact florescent bulbs in just about all of our light fixtures, we still try to make sure the only lights that are on are in the room we are in. It’s one of the ways we try to reduce our carbon footprint.

Last week, though, we had ECO at our house and as it got darker I realized that before everybody got there that I needed to turn some lights on, not only in the dining room and the kitchen, but the living room and the family room. I hate to admit it, but I liked it. The whole house felt different not being in the dark and semi-dark. And not only was there light, but we had also turned up the heat so it was warm. Well, for us 65 degrees is warm.

I’ve thought a lot about that this week. I’ve even left some lights on longer than I should have. But there is something about light that really makes a difference, especially in these short, cloudy days of winter. Those folk who included Epiphany in the church year knew what they doing.

We need light. Think of all the ways light makes a difference besides lighting up the places we live. Early one morning this week, while it was still dark, I was searching for something in the guest room. Since I knew where it was, I decided to not turn the lights on in the room. What I forgot about was the footstool. Light makes a difference.

Light makes such a difference, obviously, when you are trying to read. More than a couple of times this week, when there was some sun, I stood next to the window, and amazingly I could read the phone number in the book. It’s easy to see why light became a metaphor in the Bible. Light helps us to feel better, it helps us to see, it illumines things.

And what is amazing about that metaphor is that it applies to things of heaven and earth. “In the beginning was the Word…and the word was the light for all humanity.” That, of course, was about Jesus. But what did Jesus say to us? “You are the light of the world…So let your light shine.”

Today we are celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He sure let his light shine. There are all kinds of things you can say about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I always like to start with that Rev. part.

He was a Christian. And he showed us that when Jesus said we could live in different and better ways he really meant it. That’s why Rev. King was able to set so many people free. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He faced jail. He was martyred. But it all started as a Christian who was trying to follow Jesus. And he realized Jesus was about light and life, and his calling, and the calling of all who follow Jesus is to bring light and life to this world.

Contrast that view to the most recent statements of Pat Robertson who said the people of Haiti are being punished for the pact their ancestors supposedly made with the devil. I guess he didn’t hear what I did about how reporters could hear people standing together in the streets praying with each other and singing hymns right after the earthquake. Rev. Robertson knows a god of darkness and death, but Rev. King knew the God of Light and Life. That’s the legacy he left us.

We might think we could never be like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But we’re wrong. Not only can we, but we have been. Before Martin Luther King, Jr. raised a voice of righteousness, most white Christians, and even some black Christians believed that segregation and white supremacy were the will of God. They believed that integration was contrary to God’s will.

People, especially white people in this country, would not cross racial lines, and when people did, especially black folk, there was violent reaction, often justified in the name of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr., though, showed us another way. He shined a light on our racism, and though things are far from perfect, we changed. Most white Christians these days would never argue that segregation was the will of God. But we might still believe that if Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who inspired him, as well as those who were inspired by him, hadn’t shown us something better, shown us the light.

He taught us about how making peace had something to do with following Jesus, and reminded us that Jesus showed us the way of non violence. Some of us have become peacemakers. We cross racial lines. We tear down all kinds of barriers that Christians were once expected to uphold. We may not be as wise, or courageous, or committed as he was, but Rev. King has helped us to become better Christians. He has helped us to live in ways that Christians two generations would have never imagined we could live. He taught us about living in the light. He said we could do it. He was right.

Rev. King and so many others throughout church history have shown us that it is silly to take the dark path through the wilderness, when there is a path that is lit with the light of God. Yet why do we choose so often to stumble in the dark when there is a much better way for us to go? Why do we need people like Martin Luther King, Jr. to keep pointing that out to us?

Rev. King was a model for us in so many ways. He was a civil rights leader. He was a peacemaker. He was a Christian who showed us the way, who led us to the light. He had his personal flaws. But he left us a witness. He showed us how to follow Jesus Christ.

And he knew that following Jesus wasn’t simply to make his own life better and get himself into heaven. He knew that following Jesus was the way we could make life better for everybody, and get heaven into us.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in dark times. Segregation was law in many places and custom in most others. Our country was fighting a brutal war in Viet Nam and he saw how militarism was destroying the moral fiber of our nation. There was grinding poverty in this country, not to mention so many others. He couldn’t even acknowledge that one of his key aides was gay because that would be more ammunition for those trying to kill the movement. Things were tough. But he knew the darkness could not overcome the light. And he knew we all had the choice, to walk in God’s ways or let evil overcome us. He showed us how good the light is. And he showed us we could walk in that light.

So in honor of Rev. King I want to encourage all of you to think about your experiences with light or the lack of light this week, whether it’s walking into a well lit room or stumbling over a footstool in the dark. They are all parables. They remind us, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did that we are children of light not shadows.

Whips and Wine by Ralph Milton (rumors.com)

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

[This is a story we used during our worship service on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Though it was geared to the lectionary passage that day about the wedding at Cana, it got me thinking a lot about the struggle any prophet has, like Martin Luther King, Jr., when they are so angry and about the injustices that go on in this world.

The story was written by Ralph Milton, one of my favorite Canadian preachers and was on his web site. You can check it out some time at www.rumors.com. You can also subscribe to the weekly email which includes lots of great stuff, which I sue all the time, including stories and reflections on the lectionary and paraphrases of lectionary texts, plus some ‘holy humor.’ Send an email to rumors-subscribe@joinhands.com with subscribe in the subject line. Don’t put anything else in the email. I’ve also put today’s sermon on the blog.]

Rumors – Whips and wine
This is not a re-telling of John’s Gospel. I let my imagination loose and soon I had a story that featured Mary of Magdala who isn’t in the first part of John and isn’t connected the wedding in Cana or the cleansing of the temple.
It’s a story. Enjoy it and see if it talks to you.

I had a song going through my head…
“Cana wine, Cana wine,
working on my heart and mind…”
And you know how it is. Once you get a song like that in your head, you keep humming it over and over. And I felt just great, because it really was such a wonderful wedding there in Cana. Such a celebration. We laughed. We cried. We danced.
I drank a bit too much, I guess. O, I wasn’t out of control or anything, but I woke up the next day with a headache, a bad headache actually, but that song kept running through the headache. Sick and happy at the same time.
Now as we walked toward Jerusalem, I kept singing the song…
“….flowing free, filling me,
till I lose all sense of time…”
“Mary!” Jesus spoke almost sharply. We had stopped to rest by a spring in a wadi. “We have to walk more quickly or we won’t reach Jerusalem before Passover.”
“And I’m slowing you down?” I asked.
“Yes. No. Not really. I’m sorry, Mary.” Jesus was smiling but I could tell he was worried. I knew his moods. I could sense his fears. He was a strong man, but a man nevertheless, and sometimes afraid.
“Mary, when you were so sick, in Magdala, when we first met. And I was able to help you get rid of that sickness, those demons that were destroying you…do you remember how at first you were angry at me?”
“Yes. It’s always scary to change. I guess I’d grown comfortable with my own sickness. That was my identity. When you took that away, I had to change, and I don’t think I wanted to.”
Jesus looked very sober. Then he grinned. “Let’s get going. Sing the song a bit faster, Mary. It’ll speed us up a little.”
It wasn’t till we were near Jerusalem that Jesus began talking about the temple and the money changers. “They charge a whole day’s wages just to change foreign coins into temple money. That’s way too much. It’s not fair to the poor people. And the price for those animals for sacrifice? An animal costs ten times as much in the temple as it does in the marketplace. And Mary, God doesn’t even want those burnt offerings. God wants our hearts, not burnt meat.”
Jesus walked in silence for awhile. There was a fire building in his eyes. The muscles in his jaw pulsed under his beard.
“And the Gentiles. That’s all they can see of the temple. All they get is the yelling and shouting and the money changing and the stink. And that’s where they’re supposed to pray. They can’t get any further inside the temple. Can you imagine trying to pray in a place like that?”
I’d never been to Jerusalem. This was my first visit and till this moment, I’d been excited and happy.
“What are you going to do, Jesus?”
“I shouldn’t do anything. If I’m smart, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“You’re not much good at being smart when you’re upset, Jesus.” That comment got me an annoyed look, then a grudging smile.
Jesus didn’t tell me what he planned to do in the temple. I don’t think he knew himself. But the more he thought about the temple, the more he got upset.
We stopped at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, to stay with our friends, the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. It was a pleasant evening, catching up on old friends, gentle arguments, new ideas. They wanted to know all about the wedding in Cana. I told them how we seemed to run out of wine, then suddenly there were six huge jars full of the best wine we ever tasted.
“Hey, wasn’t that a party?” Lazarus said. He suspected Jesus had something to do with the wine, but Jesus just smiled and wouldn’t say a thing.
The next morning, Jesus was up and gone before I was awake.
“He went to the temple,” said Martha.
“But we were going to go together!” I was angry.
“I think he needed to go alone,” said Martha. “He seemed to have something very heavy on his mind.”
“He’s upset about the money changers, Martha. I’m just afraid he’s going to do something crazy that’ll get him into trouble.”
Which is exactly what happened. He came rushing in at noon that day. His cloak was torn. He had an ugly bruise on his cheek. And as I went to him, I smelled the acrid sweat of tension.
“We have to go right away, Mary,” he said.
“But I haven’t been to the temple yet. I haven’t even been into Jerusalem.”
“I’m sorry. All right.” he snapped.
And so we left and walked together in a tense, unhappy silence. But then, the hard walking – the coolness of the evening seemed to dissipate the fear and anger and frustration of the day. Leaning against a rock that night, Jesus told me what he had done, how he had gone into the temple intent on simply explaining why things needed to change.
“I tried to tell them how evil it was to do this in the temple. But nobody would listen. I lost my temper,” Jesus said sadly. “I just lost it and I started turning over tables and lashing out at people and yelling at them. I even made a whip and started beating at them.”
I sighed. “And they’ll be no more grateful to you than I was, when you purged the evil from my life.”
The sun had set. The shadows closed around us. The evening star was bright and clear against the gathering darkness.
“It’s better to make wine,” I said.
“Hmmm?”
“It’s better to make wine than whips. Good wine softens the soul. A whip hardens the heart.”
Jesus looked long and deeply at the evening star. “Amen, Mary,” he finally said, and closed his eyes into an exhausted sleep.
There were more stars now. Have you noticed that in the night, there is more darkness in the sky than there is light? But it’s the light we see. It’s the light that shines into our soul.
And so I sang my song into myself and to the stars…
“….a new life’s rising in me too,
like an overflowing stream,
and it comes from the taste of Cana wine…”*
*Common Cup Company,
from Turnings, Music Resources for Lent and Easter,
United Church Publishing House, Toronto.

Cleaning House–God Style

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Cleaning House, God-Style
Luke 3:7-17, 21-22
Mary Hammond
January 10, 2010

“The main character in the drama” [that would be Jesus] “will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house–make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned” (Luke 3:16-17). Thus proclaims the fiery prophet, John the Baptizer, in the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

Cleaning house! What appropriate imagery for Americans who have just celebrated Christmas, eaten more than we needed, received gifts we might not use, and thrown away more stuff than usual. What appropriate imagery for Ohioans in winter’s grip, when every snowfall induces further fantasies of burrowing in our holes or retreating to our nests until the spring flowers start blooming again.

“It’s house-cleaning time!” John the Baptizer announces in no uncertain terms. It’s another way of saying “The Reign of God is at hand,” but is an image that embodies both the ordinary and the radical all at the same time.

I can appreciate this analogy even more because the winter cold has indeed induced within me the hankering to do some deep housecleaning. Just from cleaning some shelves between the Piano Room and kitchen I realized an important fact: Cleaning house can reveal unexpected surprises.

The prophet John wants the crowds who come to be baptized by him to know that he is performing no empty ceremony. Jesus, the one who follows him, will be “cleaning house,” and he’s not just talking about doing the dishes and picking up the living room for company. Jesus is calling for a deep cleaning, the kind that takes time, reveals what is authentic and duplicitous within ourselves; the kind that exposes what is good and true and confronts what we prefer to ignore or deny.

John’s directives are tailor-made for each audience–first the crowd, then the tax collectors, and finally, the soldiers. In light of his question, “Is your life green and blossoming, or is it deadwood ready to be thrown on the fire?”, each group successively asks, “Then, what are we to do?”

They get practical instructions from the prophet, not theological treatises. John’s words radically excavate their hearts, confronting the deepest human instincts to take care of ourselves while ignoring or missing the impact our actions have on others.

What would John the Baptizer say to me? I wonder. What would he say to this church and to this nation? I want to know. The truth is, what John said to the tax collectors, soldiers, and crowd convicted me enough to get me moving this week. I don’t know if I could handle much more!

Before we explore these questions, however, I want to take you on a little journey. Give me a minute, and I’ll return to talk with you. You can talk among yourselves for a bit, but please stop when I come back (we all know how gabby we are as a group when we get going!).

[I leave the sanctuary and bring back a suitcase full of clothes and three large cloth bags, one completely full of plastic bags, one with newspapers and magazines consumed with both celebrity gossip and bad news, and another with items for the Church Food Shelf].

Boy, do I have a lot of house-cleaning to do! This stuff can get downright heavy!

I’ve got this suitcase full of clothes here. Steve and I have collectively lost 100 pounds in the last three years. We’ve passed through multiple sizes on the way. This means that a lot of clothes have been gathering dust around the Hammond house.

“Those who have two coats should share with the person who has none,” the Baptizer says to the crowd. Uh oh. I fit into the “two coat” category–or so. I can’t really
preach on this text if I don’t think about that fact. OK…

Friday, I remembered reading that Oberlin Community Services was collecting coats, mittens, scarves, sweaters, and sweatshirts for clients, so I called. Good timing! The monthly Food Distribution was Saturday, and crowds would be there. “By the time it’s over, all the free winter gear will probably be gone,” the staff person told me, “and we’ll be starting over for next month.”

Time for some closet-cleaning! The hardest item to part with was my mom’s down coat. I helped her pick it out after my dad died. I thought she was crazy to buy a new coat off-season when she had inoperable cancer and might not see another winter. She felt otherwise, so we went shopping. Mom was right; she used it longer than I ever anticipated.

That coat was a piece of her heart that sat in our closet. Could I really get rid of it? Could I be so attached to something I was not wearing that someone else might need? I really had to look inside myself on this one.

I placed an anonymous card with a note in the pocket for the new owner. I shared a little history of the coat, just to make parting with it easier and hopefully make it more special for the next person.

“If you have two coats, share with the person who has none,” the Baptizer says to the crowd. How relevant is that in the United States, where 1,549,000 private sector jobs have been lost in the last decade? ( see Dean Baker, The Center for Economic & Policy Research, January 8, 2010, “Economy Loses 85,000 Jobs in December, Ends Decade with Job Loss,” Truthout).

John continues, “If you have food, share it.” Last Sunday Steve mentioned that one in four children in our country right now lives on Food Stamps. As Judy Riggle said from her pew, “This is criminal.” When I grocery shop, helping to support the Church Food Shelf reminds me that I have food while one billion people in the world go to bed hungry every night. As one person told me this week, “Helping to support the church Food Shelf is part of our family tithe.”

OK, John the Baptizer didn’t mention plastic bags. You can’t eat them. Oh, but wait! You can—and you probably DO! Last year, I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to be somewhere between twice the size of Texas and twice the size of the Continental United States. It is an enormous stretch of floating oceanic debris, 80% from the land, 20% from ships.

You see, plastic never biodegrades. It turns into particles smaller than the naked eye, floating in that Ocean Garbage Patch, eaten by fish which are then consumed by people…on and on the food chain goes. Steve and I use cloth bags for groceries; I recycle our plastic bags at Ben Franklin’s, and still they grow like weeds in our house.

What might the Baptizer say to us here in the United States at this time in our history? [Congregational feedback].

Before we close today, let’s bring these questions even closer to home. What might John–and Jesus–say to Peace Community Church to respond to our question, “Then, what should we do?”[Congregational feedback]. What might they say to you as an individual? [Congregational feedback].

All of these thoughts take us back to Epiphany where we celebrate the Light of God that comes in Christ. In order to shine, we have to open ourselves daily to some deep inner house-cleaning. Are we green and blossoming? Do we make time for prayer, meditation, and rest? Do we live with humility while practicing justice and mercy? Do we take Jesus seriously? Are we just too lazy, too busy, or too fearful to do the deep cleaning of our inner–and outer–closets, for our own welfare and the common good?

We don’t need the passing of a calendar year to begin again. We can begin again every single day of our lives. We can start small, and build. Every great journey begins with a single step. The Light of Christ continually radiates God’s transforming love. Let us walk in that Light, and there find Life Now and Forever. Amen.