Archive for October, 2010

Abiding in God’s Shadow

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Psalm 91, John 15:4-17
October 24, 2010
Mary Hammond

Where do you go to feel safe when you are afraid, angry, anxious, or vulnerable? Who–or what–are some of the safe spaces in your life?
[Congregational reflection].

Every year on Commencement Weekend, PCC concludes its worship service with the song, “On Eagle’s Wings.” Its text is based on Psalm 91. Generation after generation of graduate prepare to move on and take with them what they have received from this place. It seems appropriate to share in such an intimate affirmation of God’s abiding presence amid life’s winding, unpredictable journey.

Last summer, we held a Hymn Service one Sunday. Five individuals picked out their favorite songs and shared what they love about each one. Judy Riggle chose “On Eagle’s Wings,” describing how that hymn has become for her a personal prayer and blessing for her late son, Troy. I looked at this psalm with new eyes after Judy’s sharing.

As time passed, I was drawn into its text to seek gems and insights which I had previously missed. Day after day, I sat with this psalm. I digested it over and over. Some days, I remained fixated on the first two verses: “You who sit down in the High God’s presence, spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow. Say this: ‘God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!’” At times it was just the single image of abiding in God’s shadow that captivated me.

The repetitive readings took me back to biblical and contemporary saints whose outward journeys seemed everything but protected, but whose inward journeys nevertheless seemed centered and strong. The Apostle Paul who chronicled his shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments. Stephen the apostle, stoned to death by an angry mob. Oberlin high school teacher John Randall, who passed away last March after a multi-year battle with cancer and left behind beloved wife Dawn.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the most vulnerable among us like Troy, Judy and Tom’s son. I held in my heart names and faces of those struggling with addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Did God cast a generous, comforting shadow over their continual travails? Did God tuck these blessed and often tortured souls under the protection of her mighty and motherly wings, or huge, outstretched arms, as Psalm 91 and other biblical passages suggest?

While the psalmist boldly asserts God’s constant protection, our human reality is deeply mixed. Tyrants sometimes die of old age, while beloved saints sometimes do not live that long. People are born into the best and worst of family situations, and some have a harder time navigating life than others through no fault of their own.

Our daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Juan Carlos, have taught our granddaughter Sofia a wonderful lesson about resilience and falling, and we all know that toddlers fall a lot. As I read the verse, “God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!” I always think of this story.

Ever since Sofia started walking, her parents have added the baseball umpire role to their parental tool kit. When Sofia falls, they cross their arms over their chest, fling them out, and yell, “Safe!” Consequently, it is the rare, bonafide injury that sparks any tears in Sofia. I’ve seen her fall down a few stairs with a toy too big to really carry on steps and just get up and keep playing. At age three, 9 times out of 10, she brushes herself off, sometimes plays the umpire role herself, and goes on. Sofia has heard so many times that when she falls, she is still “safe!”, that she has come to believe it.

“Fear nothing,” the psalmist proclaims, offering a long litany of terrifying possibilities–flying arrows, wild wolves, disease, and disaster. Allison Lundblad, a Junior Religion Major at Oberlin College, has been reflecting on the concept of “Fearing God,” common to both the Bible and the Koran. An insight from her Islamic studies professor helped her think about this concept in some new ways. He suggested that “fearing God” is more about not fearing anything else than it is about being “afraid” of God. Nothing else is worth fearing when we abide in God’s shadow.

Should we fear what people can do to us or what they may think of us? Should we fear our vulnerabilities, both internal and external? Jesus offers an unequivocal “No!” to such questions in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (Luke 6:19-34, Luke 12:4).

As we situate our heart, mind, soul, and strength–our very lives–within the shadow of Divine Love, we abide in God’s “safe space.” Harm may approach and impact us, but by God’s grace, it needn’t destroy us. In Romans 8:28, the Apostle Paul asserts, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” He goes on to proclaim in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul does not assert that all things are good. He claims that all things–implying even bad things, hard things, and tragic things–can be bent toward redemptive ends when placed in the hands of the Holy and Loving One. Jesus taught this lesson day throughout his pubic ministry and during the difficult days of Holy Week, culminating in the violence of the cross and the glory of an empty tomb.

The psalmist ends with a familiar Hebrew blessing of long life and salvation for those who abide in God’s shadow, placing their trust in the Holy One. Is long life always a given? We know it is not. Is the blessing of salvation assured? Yes, it is.

After the tragic death many years ago of high school student, Creighton Green, our daughter Rachel (also in high school at the time) said to me, “You know, mom, when a young person dies, I feel like the rest of us have to live a little more intensely in their absence. It really isn’t counting the days that matters; it is making the days count.”

The psalmist repeatedly affirms that evil does not have the last word in the Realm of God. His descriptions of God evoke strong maternal images, such as dwelling within the Divine Shadow and sheltering under the wings of a great Mother Bird, a metaphor seen elsewhere in the scriptures (Deut 32:11-12, Ex. 19:4, Isaiah 40:31-32, Ps. 17:8-9; Ps. 57:1-2; Ps. 61:4, Matthew 23:27, Luke 13:34). The psalmist invites us into this imagery as well. If you are looking for the Mother Bird imagine in The Message Bible, it is replaced by images of “huge, outstretched arms” where the older translations speak of wings. As you might guess, we will close with the song, “On Eagle’s Wings.” Enter the richness of its promise. Taste the text, feel it, think it, experience it. Let its testimony seep into you in places you might not anticipate. Abide in God’s shadow for a few moments. Rest in God’s presence. Welcome God’s love, protection, and shelter today and everyday. Amen.

The Wrestling God

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Genesis 32
October 17, 2010
Steve Hammond

It was one of the first recorded cases of identity theft. Esau and Jacob were twin brothers. But Esau was the first born, though just barely. The story says his brother Jacob had hold of Esau’s heel when they were delivered. But Esau was still Isaac’s first born son, and by the customs of the time he was entitled to his father’s blessing.

Jacob, though, plotted with his mother Rebekah to trick Isaac, when he was very near to his death, into believing Jacob was Esau. It worked and Jacob got the blessing which also meant he got all the inheritance, because the first born son got everything.

Now you would think this could be easily rectified once Esau exposed this fraud. But once the blessing was given, Isaac told Esau he couldn’t revoke it. So Jacob had to make a hasty exit out of town because Esau was looking for him, and planning to get his revenge. Jacob does escape and Esau calms down. They both end up very wealthy, and in today’s story are about to encounter each other for the first time all these years later. And Jacob is scared to death. Is this going to be payback time?

In one of the many twists in the Jacob and Esau stories, Jacob becomes a victim of identity fraud himself. When he escaped from Esau he went to his uncle Laban’s and ended up falling head over heels for his cousin Rachel and wanted to marry her. The deal he cut with Laban was that he would work for Laban for seven years, at a good wage, and after seven years be given Rachel in marriage.

He gladly put in his seven years, and according to the text, “it only seemed like a few days because he loved her so much.” But, the custom in Laban’s clan was that the younger daughter, which is what Rachel was, never marries before her older sister. This is something that Jacob must have realized and thought he could work around. And he thought he had. But Laban slipped Rachel’s older sister Leah into the darkness of the honeymoon tent, and since Jacob had been doing his wedding day drinking for quite a few hours, he didn’t realize, until it was too late, that he had consummated his marriage not with Rachel, but her older sister.

Now it was his turn to be angry at a great injustice perpetrated against himslef. But Laban reminded that the younger daughter couldn’t be married first. But don’t worry, Laban said, because the next week he marry Rachel too. And all he had to do was put in another seven years. Laban was sure they would all be one big happy family.

Well, Leah wasn’t happy. Rachel wasn’t happy. And Jacob sure wasn’t happy. They all wanted to get away from Laban, who was evidently happy, and finally they did. But it turned out that their route took them right through Esau’s territory. So when Jacob found out that Esau knew he was coming he decided to send a bunch of gifts off to Esau who it turns out, was coming to meet him the next day with 400 men. Jacob had a tough time getting to sleep and in the middle of the night decided to go ahead and send his two wives, his two concubines and all their children, his whole camp across the river into Esau’s territory to get ready for whatever the morning was going to bring.

Jacob never did get any sleep that night. He stayed back on the other side of the river and ended up in this really weird wrestling match with a man who turned out to be God. And, wouldn’t you know it, the whole issue of identity comes up again when God asks Jacob his name.

“What’s your name? And don’t tell me it’s Esau. That may have worked with Isaac, but not me. All this stuff, you stole it from your brother and you have been on the run ever since.

“Tell me what’s your name. Yes, it’s Jacob. But has being Jacob really served you all that well. Maybe you need a new start and a new name.” And in the end, of course, Jacob did get a new name. God started calling him Israel, which means God-Wrestler. It’s kind of neat that a whole country gets its name from a wrestling match with God. And to this day, a lot of Jews are not shy about wrestling with God, it’s a part of their heritage.

There’s nothing wrong with any of us wrestling with God, trying to get a blessing in the midst of all the fear, confusion, questions we have. And Jacob is a stellar example. As flawed as he is, Jacob refuses to let go of God until the blessing comes. But, we also have to be willing to let God wrestle with us. To ask us some questions.

I think it’s just as interesting, if not more so, that God was willing to wrestle with Jacob. There was nothing in it for God. God wasn’t looking for a blessing from Jacob. And if God needed someone to be about God’s work, there were plenty of candidates besides Jacob for sure.

God did not walk away from Jacob, in spite of who Jacob was. Instead, God decided to wrestle something out of Jacob, call a new name out of him, so Jacob could live a new kind of life. In the New Testament, Jesus calls it being born again. You don’t have to be what you have always been.

The Apostle Paul talks about clinging to the sin that so tightly binds us. Jacob, all of us, are being invited to let go of that stuff and claim something new. Do we have to keep grabbing at that stuff so fiercely that even God can’t wrestle it out of us?

Jacob did get that blessing from God, like he got a blessing from Isaac. But he didn’t have to steal someone else’s name to get it. The blessing was that he could find his own name. It’s the same blessing God offers all of us, the chance to find out who we really are, to discover the potential that God sees in us.

And like Jacob we may have to wrestle with God and God wrestle with us, and that may well leave us limping. But we get to see God and live. We get to find out who we are, claim our own name. And we limp because God took the time to wrestle with us, to touch us, to call something better out of us.

The epilogue is that when Esau arrived with his 400 men he ran up crying like a baby to embrace and kiss his brother. He was so glad to see his brother Jacob, or Israel, I guess we should say. He cut through all the formalities and said let’s go to my home.

Israel, though, still had plenty of Jacob left in him, so he launched another of his frauds. He told Esau to go ahead because he had to gather up his family and take care of loose ends. He would meet him in a couple of days at Esau’s place. As soon as Esau left, though, Israel took his family and servants and herds and went limping off in the other direction. I don’t know if he was afraid that Esau was leading him into some kind of trap, or that Esau would find more subtle ways to exact revenge. He couldn’t seem to imagine that Esau had forgiven him, was glad to see him, and able to let the past be the past. Being Jacob and what was familiar to him was easier for him than becoming Israel.

In spite of all Jacob’s scheming, does it turn out that Esau got the blessing after all? Did Esau have his own wrestling match with God and learn something that Jacob never did? How to claim his own name? How to live at peace with God, himself, and this world? Was he able to let go of his need for revenge and live into something much better even if that left him with his own limp? Was he able to see for himself what God saw for him?

Evidently, God’s a wrestler, not willing to let go no matter how persistent we are in clinging to that stuff God wants us to let go of. But God knows that in spite of who we are, we are all looking for that blessing, even if it leaves us limping. And the wondrous thing is that God is willing to offer it.

The Children of Lazarus

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

October 10, 2010
Luke 16:19-31
Mary Hammond

We see the Children of Lazarus sleeping in the alleys or begging on the street corners of our major cities. We see the Children of Lazarus on the evening news, huddled together in tents, cooking meager food over an open fire. We see the Children of Lazarus in our public schools, bullied and afraid, invisible to their more popular and connected peers. We see the Rich Man in a thousand places, too, betting American futures on credit default swaps and get-rich-quick schemes. We see the rich man in places where no one has time to be home anymore; they are so busy making a buck to pay for their expensive houses. We see the rich man in ourselves, when those of us with food, clothing and housing compare our fortunes to those of the fabulously wealthy, not to the masses of the world’s poor. We see the rich man in ourselves when our stinginess gets the best of us.

Taken out of context, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is easily misunderstood. Jesus is addressing the religious elite of his day who take great pride in both their status and their wealth. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, these folks harshly criticize Jesus for the company he keeps–lowlifes, outcasts, and nobodies. Jesus challenges their attitudes in telling a story, one many scholars believe is based on an old Jewish folk tale.

It’s a unique story. The cast of characters includes the beggar named Lazarus, a Rich Man, his five brothers, and Father Abraham. In nearly all of Jesus’ parables, the characters remain unnamed, but here Jesus deviates from that pattern. We’d expect the rich man to be named and the beggar to remain anonymous. But Jesus has a habit of turning expectations upside down. His naming of the beggar confers honor and dignity upon Lazarus.

There is no mention of God in this story. Father Abraham becomes the mouthpiece of authority. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day revere Abraham and consider him the “father of their faith.” For Abraham to confer blessing upon Lazarus and judgment upon the rich man is a shocking turn of events. This unexpected twist of the plot produces a “double zinger” for the religious elites who put so much stock in Father Abraham, their sacred texts and religious tradition, their wealth, and their status.

This is neither a story about the bliss of heaven nor the torments of hell. Its purpose is not to scare up fear about one’s fate in the afterlife. Instead, Jesus challenges his audience to embrace a radical social ethic for living out their professed faith in God.

Lazarus and the rich man are juxtaposed in both intimate nearness and haunting distance. The story begins with Lazarus carried to the house of the rich man, willing to eat even the scraps from his table. He’s not an ocean away; he’s right there at the rich man’s doorstep. Nonetheless, Lazarus remains invisible. Physical proximity does not equal human connection.

Later in the story, however, the tables are reversed. In the afterlife, Lazarus is comforted, and the rich man is tormented. There is a great gulf between them that cannot be crossed. The warning at the end of the parable is a clear message to those who revel in their status, wealth, and power and condemn the company Jesus keeps. It is also a clear message to us as we block from our own vision those whom we choose not to see, for one reason or another.

Like the rich man with Lazarus, we dig deep chasms between ourselves and who or what we fear. When we make those chasms unbridgeable, unspeakable things happen. The poor and hungry are not fed. The outcasts are not welcomed. The fragile are not supported. The wounded are not bound up.

Personally, I find the rich man’s pleadings with Father Abraham rather disingenuous. “Relieve my torment!” he cries, “or at least go warn my brothers so they don’t wind up here!” he pleads. The rich man still doesn’t get it. His concern continues to be his own comfort and that of his privileged siblings, not the plight of the Children of Lazarus.

Those five brothers symbolize all of us still living, still surrounded by the Children of Lazarus who share this planet with us. Like those five brothers, we also have the opportunity to heed the words of Moses and the prophets by tending those Jesus called “the least of these.”

Hatred and fear of “the other” are tragically becoming a national pastime in this culture. We witness the collateral damage of this trend every day. If there is any time when the Church is called to stand up and walk with the Children of Lazarus, it is today. Lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual people want the same rights straight Americans enjoy. Poor folks want the same access to food, shelter, and dignity that the non-poor enjoy. Outcasts want the same opportunity for love and belonging that insiders so easily take for granted. There are thousands of ways we can stand with the Children of Lazarus. We can’t do everything, but we can always do something.

I’ll never forget George, a high school student at my alma mater of 2600 students. A nerdy guy with big glasses who strode the halls with a briefcase, he bore the brunt of a lot of peer mocking. During middle school the outcasts were those labeled “the EMH’ers,” the ‘educationally mentally handicapped,’ mainstreamed only for art and music. What a brutal experience they faced. Today, bullying takes even more dangerous and deadly forms, as the rash of recent teen suicides in our country attests.

Who are the Children of Lazarus around you? Who are the ones for whom even a crumb of love and care will make an ocean of difference? Who are the ones so easily rendered invisible?

Jesus simply asks us to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to respond. May it be so–for his sake, for the Children of Lazarus who come to us in many guises, and for our own redemption. Amen.

Digital Faith in a Scary New World

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Digital Faith in a Scary New World.
Luke 17:1-10
October 3, 2010
Steve Hammond

[This sermon was divided in four different parts throughout the service

If you have a cell phone you can get it out now. I don’t want you to call or text anybody, or check your email. Just look at the screen and those little bars that tell you your signal strength. How many bars do you see? I’ve got three out of three. Here’s the thing, though. Unless your phone is really old and kind of big you are carrying a digital phone. And those little signal strength bars on digital cell phones don’t mean anything. As I understand it, the way digital cell phones work you’ve either got a signal or you don’t. As long as you’ve got one bar, it’s a good as having three or five, or whatever your maximum is.

So why are those little bars still on cell phones? I think it’s because the wireless phone companies are afraid to get rid of them. They know from the old analog phone days, when those bars really did mean something, that people expect them to be there. Their customers want to be assured they are getting a strong signal even though their isn’t really such a category with digital phone service.

When the disciples ask Jesus to strengthen their faith, it turns out they are thinking analog. But with Jesus its an all digital network. “Jesus we want to see those five bars of faith, rather than that puny one bar that kind of flashes on and off and you just never know if you are going to have a strong enough signal when you need it.”

Jesus response is, “No. You’ve already got the faith you need. You don’t have to go running around looking for better reception. You just may have a little bit of faith, like a little tiny mustard seed. But that’s enough. Go ahead. Make the call.”

The point here for Jesus is not having the faith to move trees into the sea. That’s kind of a silly use of faith. This is all in response to what initiated this request from the disciples in the first place. Do you remember what it was? It was what he said about forgiveness. If someone does you wrong and asks for forgiveness and keeps on doing it and keeps on asking for forgiveness even like seven times a day, forgive them. “Jesus, make our faith stronger. That kind of forgiveness requires five bars. In fact, most of the stuff you ask of us is only for the five bar kind of faith people.” “No. All you’ve got to do is be connected and you can do it.”

Forgiveness is tough stuff, but it was key to what Jesus taught. Remember what he taught us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Somehow forgiveness is part of our daily bread. And that includes both sides of the forgiveness coin. There is the issue of how do I forgive others, especially those who have done really wretched things to me and others, and keep doing them.

The other issue is how can I be forgiven every day for all those ways I just plain get it wrong, for all the sin I so knowingly or so ignorantly commit. God’s forgiveness is there for me every day and it sustains me as much as food does. I couldn’t get through the day without God’s forgiveness nor forgiveness from Mary, from you, nor from those people who have it so hard off in this world, some of that because of the way I live.

And there are people who need us to forgive them if they are going to make it. They may need us to forgive them over and over again. It’s easy to see why the disciples thought only the five bar people could do such a thing. This is the real stuff of faith, not making trees walk into the sea.

Like so many things, Jesus never tells us how to do this. How to forgive others. What he does tell us is that we already have the faith we need to do it, to live each day knowing we are forgiven and we can forgive others. We don’t need a stronger signal. What we have may not be much, but Jesus says go ahead and make the call.

_________________

Something I read this week talked about how when it comes to forgiveness, God does wholesale while we are pretty much into retail. We might forgive a person here or there, but God just does it all the time, everywhere.

Here’s something from Greg Carey, a professor at Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania. “When Jesus’ followers ask for faith, what do we want? Some might desire that faith brings a kind of certainty, perhaps even superiority. Faith, then, becomes an accomplishment. Some seek a mystical experience, a faith that works like a drug and helps us get through life’s ordinary challenges. Some aspire to faith as an antidote to struggle. With enough faith, the televangelists tell us, we can conquer doubt, illness, even economic hardship.
In this light, mustard seed faith and modest discipleship may be just what we need. By God’s grace, discipleship requires not unshakable confidence or spectacular accomplishments. Luke’s Jesus indeed makes extraordinary demands of his disciples, yet sometimes discipleship requires ordinary and daily practices of fidelity and service.
May I digress for a word of personal testimony? Though raised in the church-centered Bible Belt, I did not grow up in church. When I was twelve, I spent a week in the hospital with a hip injury. I received two visits, one from my aunt and uncle’s part-time pastor and one from a church youth group. (The youth group brought a cutely packaged soap and washcloth.) Just a few years later, when I could embrace my faith, I remembered both of those visits. That’s the kind of thing Christians do.
Unfortunately, our culture has acquired a taste for spectacular spirituality. By the grace of God, mustard seed faith and ordinary discipleship more often suffice.”

_______________________

I’m on the Cable Co-Op Board and serve on the nominating committee. We just sent out the ballots for the election for our Board of Trustees. Last year that was a disaster. The person who compiled the personal statements for the folk running for seats on the board, somehow got the file from the statements of the previous year mixed up with those who were running last year. And nobody caught it. So when people got their ballots they couldn’t figure out how someone with a name like William Smith could be a grandmother of five or why some person they had never heard of was claiming to have served several terms on City Council. Those weren’t the exact examples, but it was kind of like that.

I was in charge of getting the ballots out this year and we got it right. And people on the board are very excited. But this is no occasion for a special award or a big banquet. It’s what Nominating Committees are supposed to do.

I think part of the disciples desire about having a five bar faith was wanting to be recognized as people of great faith. And Jesus is just saying, no, faith is what we do. It’s like that servant who plows the field and then comes in and cooks dinner. There’s no brass band, no trophy. No special recognition. That’s what’s expected and the servant does it.

As followers of Jesus we do faith. All of us do faith. In this digital faith world, some of us don’t have one bar or three bars or five bars, we just have faith. And that faith enables us to forgive and accept forgiveness. Make peace. Care for the outcast. Love God. Love our neighbors. On this World Communion Sunday, we are on an adventure of faith with followers of Jesus all over the world.
___________

Another person from Lancaster Seminary, Bruce Epperly, writes about visiting his new born grandson in Washington DC this summer. He was on the way to the hospital when all these people cam streaming out of the Metro for the Glenn Beck rally. So he stopped to talk to some of them and sensed some of their anxiety that caused them to talk so much about America turning back to God. “Deep down, however, I suspect they know that the American Empire is on the wane, and that other nations will compete with us for supremacy. Deep down, they know that their side, despite possible victories in November 2010 elections, is on the losing arc of history. America is no longer a white-dominated society; but is achieving the dream of pluralism not only envisioned by King, but imagined by our founding parents. As I read the news reports, I wonder what Beck means when he says, “America today begins to turn back to God.” I wonder if we worship two different Gods or have two different visions of God.”
Luke 17:5-6 invites us to think big, and not small, to make mistakes and not worry about failure; God will supply us with possibilities, insights, and synchronous encounters. We just need to have enough faith: to open our eyes to a deeper, more energetic reality than we can imagine. God is luring us by a future vision in which all God’s children, human and non-human, share in abundance alongside one another.
On World Communion Sunday, we are called to imagine alternatives to the present state of affairs, whether in our lives, the church, or the world. We are called to move from limitation to possibility and from competition to partnership. As the meal of possibility, communion calls us to embody “sound teaching” in the sharing of bread and wine. We are invited to imagine a diverse, possibility-filled, open-source faith emerging from a mustard seed to transform our world.”