Archive for July, 2012

Church Without Borders

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Ephesians 3:14-21
July 29, 2012
Mary Hammond

I have a very easy quiz for you. Visitors are exempt, because it probably isn’t polite to ask you this question the first time you are here!

How many regulars present are between the ages of 25 and 45? Could you raise your hands? [One person raised her hand].

Based on conversations I’ve been having, I’ve noticed that a lot of church folk are thinking about this particular generation. Retired members are wondering who will be the pillars of the church when their health fails. It takes a different volunteer each week to shovel the snow around the church that Paul Kuestner shoveled every winter, all winter long, for over ten years. If we continued having Coffee Hour after church, it would take three different volunteers per week to offer this ministry that Mary Caroniti and Paul and Phyllis provided weekly for at least 15 years.

I often ask, “How many younger people does it take to provide the ministries of three or four older members who are now limited in their mobility?” The answer is, “About thirty!”

In every period of transition, we have to ask ourselves the same questions: “Why are we here? How is God’s movement into the future taking shape among and through us?”

We are tempted to become anxious. We do live in an anxious age, after all. Or we might be tempted to just get busier. Offer this program; organize that event. Try this; try that. We could so easily overstretch our capacity responding this way.

I would suggest a radical break from either of these typical reactions in our frenetic, plugged-in world. Instead of getting anxious or stretched too thin, Let’s get quiet.

“Quiet?” you might ask. “What do you mean, ‘quiet’?”

I’m not advocating passivity or asking us to roll over and play dead. I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand and plug our ears to avoid the cacophony of the world around us.

To the contrary, I’m encouraging us to stand at full attention and simply pay attention. Ask questions, deep questions. Listen, not to the chatter, but to what lies below the surface. What makes our neighbors down the street or across the world tick? What is their ultimate concern? What do they yearn for and believe in? How can their stories transform us?

The need of this critical hour is to show up and be profoundly present right where we are. Last week, Steve and I took a field trip. We’re never too old for field trips! Seven of us packed into our van and “showed up” at the hydraulic fracturing site 8 miles from Oberlin. Then we “showed up” at the creek that runs into the Vermilion watershed where truckloads of water were removed the day before to facilitate the fracking process. Steve took pictures and posted them online. Others shared them on their Facebook pages.

Many Facebook friends were shocked to learn that it is legal to extract up to 100,000 gallons of water a day from a local watershed without any permit, even in a time of blistering drought. Local residents are discovering what is happening so close to home because a few people “showed up.” From our disparate locations in life, the seven of us in the van built community, bound together by our shared concern for this precious planet and its finite resources.

Do you know what Jesus did during his three years of public ministry? He just “showed up”–among the vulnerable, the broken, and the curious. With the poor, the hungry, and the contentious. On the streets, at a wedding, around a dinner table, by the sea. Among the crowds and on the mountain, alone with God.

Each day I ask myself, “What time is it in our life together as a community of faith?” I look and listen, observe and ponder. It is clear that we are living in a time of great need among our own members. Steve recently heard a pastor remark, “We have so many vulnerable people in our congregation. The well half takes care of the sick half.” Steve’s first reaction was, “Half of your congregation is feeling well and strong? That’s amazing!”

With our daughter Sarah’s death this past year, we hadn’t completed a Church Newsletter since last September. When I was working on the “Prayer Care” section this summer, I thought to myself, “I could just get the Church Phone List out and write down a request for each person in this church!” While I didn’t do that, it was one of our longest “Prayer Care” sections ever! In these days, the church is a community of “wounded healers” caring for one another, to borrow a phrase from contemplative writer Henri Nouwen. It is a beautiful and exceptional ministry.

“Where is the 25-45 year old age group?” we may ask, yet we cannot forget all those children, teens, and college students in our midst. God willing, they still have 20 years of their lives to be 25-45 year olds! How we touch their journeys now makes a huge difference in the years to come. And the church’s ministry to this age group is not confined to the pews of this church. It is seen in the work of Rev. David Weasley among Chicago’s churches and its street people; the work of Beth Peachey, Annie Neary, and Melissa Hines in the classroom; and among so many more.

PCC is a “church without borders.” Our virtual connections through e-mail, Facebook, and the church website, as well as other communications like the Church Newsletter, enhance this ministry. We don’t look around the sanctuary and see that wider ministry on Sunday mornings, but it is just as real and enfleshed as each of us worshiping here today.

The prayer we read from the Letter to the Ephesians ushers from the depths of a pastor’s heart–a lover’s heart–if you will. It springs out of one who wants nothing more for the people of God than to see them begin to apprehend the heights, depths, and breadth of God’s love and the Spirit’s power in their lives. Why is this often so difficult for us?

In fifth grade, I worked with Sarah through a Grow for it! journal published by Youth Specialities. It was a resource to help young people reflect on their faith and life. Actually, our weekly meetings spanned two years, and we did around 46 sessions. Sarah saved everything, and I recently had a chance to read it. In one section, she had to write her personal reflections on the love of God. To just “receive” the love of God, to take it in as gift, was hard for Sarah. In her response, she said, “It just seems too easy…it seems like it should be harder…”

In a 2003 sermon, Alan Marr (, July 27, 2003) states: “This prayer is about people coming to terms with themselves, being able to live with themselves, and discovering the resources of God. It is about a church coming to an understanding of who they are and finding God where they are within their midst. It is not a prayer about Vision Statements, Mission Statements or goals and strategies. It is not a prayer about the Purpose Driven Life…It is about the people of God rediscovering God. And when we discover God our inner self will be strengthened.”

I often pray to see with God’s eyes. My own vision is so short-sighted and limited. My anxieties get in the way. My spiritual sight gets cloudy and rough around the edges. The writer of the letter to the Ephesian church exclaims, “God can do anything, you know–far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”

I don’t think the writer was talking here about receiving things from God. So often our prayers are filled with ‘things’ we want God to do for us. But as I said in our Reflection Time before the sermon, I believe that the prayers we pray that are answered the fastest are the ones where we are genuinely looking to God, seeking our own transformation of heart or vision, asking for divine strength and power for that journey! In this, God can do more than we might ever ask for or imagine.

We are invited as followers of Jesus to be open and simply receive. We are called to look and see, pray and wait, listen and love, hope and trust. Through all these postures of the heart, we are empowered to risk and act.

May the One who has walked with this church since its founding in 1866 continue to guide us in the year ahead, for God is faithful. Amen.

God’s Favorite Cable Channel is HGTV

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

2 Samuel 71-14 Ephesians 2:11-22
July 22, 2012
Steve Hammond

[I began with a picture that I posted on fb a couple of weeks ago. It’s this beautiful picture of a church with these amazing mountain peaks in the background}

So here’s a picture I took of a church when we were out in Jackson Hole this summer. You could see it for quite a ways on the bike path where I did some running. Now looking at it you could easily say that it was a stunning place to build a house of God. What I think God would say, though, is that it is a stunning place for God to build a house for us.

It turns out that God is a contractor not a client. In that story we just read about David building a house for God, even Nathan the prophet initially didn’t understand this. There was David living in a quite luxurious palace, while the Covenant of the Ark, or the Chest of God, as the Message Bible puts it, was sitting in a tent out back. So it seemed to King David and Nathan that building a really nice house for God, a Temple, would make sense. It seemed like God should have better digs. It turns out, that David never planned for God’s House to be better than his anyway, but it seemed like they could do better for God even if it was going to be less than half the size of David’s place. God doesn’t have a lot of stuff, anyway.

But God told Nathan that he should let David know that God wasn’t particularly interested in a new place. God had never asked for a house, and seemed just fine with a tent that could be on the move. God might just be yurt material.

God said something else. “Instead of David building a house for me, I’m going to build a house for David.” Not something bigger and better than David was already in, but house in the sense of the House of David, a dynasty, a monarchy that the writers of the New Testament understood Jesus to be a part of. Remember that part in Luke’s birth narrative that says, “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”

So David didn’t build a house for God, but God built a house for David. And God didn’t stop with the house building there. I think God really likes HGTV. We read in Ephesians this morning about another house that God is building. “God is building a home. God’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what God is building, using the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now God’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”

It was probably a bit exciting and a bit scary when this letter was first read to the early followers of Jesus. They were actually committing an act of treason by even listening to it. That’s because the Roman Emperor was the one who claimed to be the bringer of peace. By the power of the imperial army Rome had established the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.

What this letter says though, is that Christ is our peace. Sally Brown, a Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary says it this way. “What is being claimed, after all, is that despite all the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, true peace has been inaugurated by a man the empire crucified. The dissonance between the chilling rhetoric of the state and the thrilling rhetoric of the Gospel would set any listener’s blood racing.”

The cross, that instrument of death and torture that was supposed to be the guarantee of Rome’s ultimate power, became the thing that united Jews and non-Jews in a way far beyond the power that Rome ever imagined possible. And that was just the beginning.

The cross of Jesus Christ served to tear down all kinds of walls and the people in the first churches were seeing just that happen. God was using each of them, each of us, in a new building project. A new kind of house, a church built not of wood and brick and stone, but out of the bodies and spirits of the followers of Jesus. That’s the house God is building for us, and a house where God is more than glad to live with us.

Just a few verses later, in the third chapter of Ephesians, we read the Apostle Paul’s testimony. “And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!”

This house that Gods builds for us, the church, is the key to what God is doing in this world. We’re not doing this for God, God is doing this for us. Making a church out of us, out of our lives lived with each other, lives empowered by the Holy Spirit who is the head of the church, lives built of the foundation of Jesus Christ to reveal who God is and what God wants for this world.

You don’t have to have a beautiful building or have a building in a beautiful place like in the picture to have a church worthy of God. One of the most beautiful churches I have ever been to is Emmanuel Baptist Church in Mexico City. It’s far into the slums of the city and it’s barely a shack. For pews they use boards set on top of tree stumps. The windows are all broken out and when I was there I could hear the noise of the people and chickens outside. But that little group of 20 people understood that God had made a church out of them, built them into a house of God that in the name of Jesus would take on the violence, oppression, corruption, greed, and the Imperial arrogance that impacted the people of Mexico, Central America, and this world.

They knew and still know that the cross of Christ is meant to tear down the walls that divide us and bring an end to the hostility between people. The really beautiful churches that God builds for us are the churches that bring us together.

God is in the house building business. I guess God came up with the idea of Habitat for Humanity long before any of the rest of us. And like our own Habitat for Humanity, God doesn’t build this alone. We get to put in our own sweat equity, build something suitable for any of us, including God, to call the church, to call home.

The foundation of the whole building is Jesus Christ. The Jesus who came making peace has called us to make peace ourselves. He tore down walls so we could tear down walls. He showed us a new way of living so we could live in a new way. That’s what this house of God, this house not built for God, but by God is all about. To reveal the God that Jesus revealed to us.

People like to think of this building, and buildings like it, as God’s House. But God thinks of it as our house, too. We’re kind of like house mates. This is the place where we gather to become the church, and from where we are sent to be the church. The dwelling place of God is between, among, and around us. Don’t look at this picture to see God’s House, the church, but to each other. And be sure to say hi to God.

His Name if John

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Luke 1:5-25; 57-64 (65-80)
24 June 2012
Glenn Loafmann

I’m Zechariah.

That other guy was playing me. Acting. Too young for the part. But. OK. Where you gonna find a guy 2000 years old?

Bet when you heard, “In the days of Herod, King of Judea,” you thought you were going to hear a different story, didn’t you? Surprise.

Nobody pays attention to us, much. Don’t tell our story much. Elizabeth and me and John, we’re like Scotty Pippen to Michael Jordan – Al Gore to Bill Clinton. We get lost in the glare of the Superstar.

So I’m gonna tell you a little bit. But before I do, let’s get something straight.

I’m a retired Priest. That’s what these robes are for – my old uniform. Retired from the Temple in Jerusalem, which is more like the Vatican than you might think.

We were in the One Percent, Elizabeth and I – you can look it up: “descendant of Abijah…daughter of Aaron.”1

I didn’t get where I was by being “prophetic” or “creative” or “open” to things, or by “affirming” this or that. I was a priest: I paid attention to the Temple Rituals. I followed the Temple Rituals. I performed the Temple Rituals.

In fact, I didn’t get where I was by doing much of anything. I was born into the priestly tribe; Elizabeth and I were part of the priestly caste, to use a term you’re familiar with. Maybe we weren’t part of the One Percent; we kept the One Percent comfortable. We did their religion for them.

So. I was “Old School”, an apparatchik. Still am.

There were 24 teams of us Temple Priests – “squads,” really – “battalions.”2 Each team on duty for a week, twice a year, offering the sacrifices twice a day, on the outer altar – where people could see – and on the inner altar – where it was just one priest and God.

We cast lots to see who brought the incense to the inner altar, and who cleaned the altar afterwards – there’s a cookbook on how to do that – and we kept a list of the people who had not done it, and we rolled the dice to see which one was next.

Everybody got a turn… well… if they lived long enough.

Almost nobody got more than one turn. Ever. Once in a lifetime, you understand. We each got one chance, if we lived long enough, to make the offering on the inner altar once. Once. Or clean the ashes off.

So that’s the day. My day.

There were a lot of “days of King Herod of Judea,” but this was the only day in all creation that I got to make the incense offering on the inner altar at the Jerusalem Temple. “Peak of my career,” the One Percenters would say. Peak of my life, really. That’s the day.

You don’t understand this story unless you understand that – understand what Day it was. This happened on the day that was already scripted to be the high point of my life.


We wanted kids, Elizabeth and I. We got old. Everything was OK, except that. We were righteous. Obedient. Respected, and we were as good as we looked. No phonies. No hypocrites. But no kids.

After while it got to be just an ache. Not something we talked about, not even something we “bore” or anything, like a burden; more something that was just always not there. We wanted kids, and we didn’t have any kids.

You’d have to talk to Elizabeth to really know how she felt, being barren. What it was like for her. It’s a great word, by the way, isn’t it? – … barren… that really describes it. You’d have to ask her. We didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think I knew what to listen for. We didn’t say anything.

Nobody said anything. I’ll give ‘em that. Nobody gave us a hard time, nobody condescended; nobody “pitied” us. Nobody scolded.

Some people were pitied, you know, because they had no children. Some people were blamed. Neighbors said God had cursed them, or punished them or things like that. Job had his “friends,” you remember, in all his troubles, and there are still friends like that – eager to explain why God makes your crops die, or your wife barren, or your city get hit by a hurricane. Or eager to feel sorry for you.

They didn’t do that to us, far as I know… nobody said anything like that to me, and Elizabeth never let on like anybody said anything like that to her…maybe behind our backs, but not otherwise.


I did the incense – got it ready – did the preparatory blessing, the prayers of consecration, purification, cleansing, all that . . . and I turned around to place it on the altar and light it, and everything changed.

There was an angel.

I was dumb-struck. Scared the p-waddin’ out of me.

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says.


“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” he says.

And he goes through the whole list: Prayers answered, wife – son, name “John.” Joy, gladness, rejoice. No booze. Holy Spirit. Elijah. Reconcile parents and children. Prepare the people. Lights, camera, action. Just like that.

You just heard what he said {it’s in the readings}.

“I’m old.” I said.

“I’m Gabriel,” he said. “This is an offer you can’t refuse. When you’re ready to sign, we’ll listen to you then.”


I made the offering, and went outside.

“What you doin’ in there?” everybody said. “What took you so long? Who you talking to?”

I couldn’t say anything. No words.

We went home. Our deployment ended, and we went home.

Elizabeth got pregnant: “God Almighty has done this for me”

El Shaddai. The old name, more like “God the Sufficient,” “God the Strong Enough” “God that Gets Things Done” –

“for it has pleased Her to take away
the humiliation I have suffered.”

You don’t even have a word for it, or not one word, anyway: “humiliation,” “reproach,” “disgrace…” your translators try to sneak up on that feeling from all directions.

That’s what she felt, Elizabeth did. All that. Or maybe “sad” would be enough. And then she got pregnant.

“God Shaddai has done this for me,” Elizabeth sang,
– Sang! She sang when she found out! –
“for it has pleased Her to take away
the humiliation I have suffered!”

Maybe only a Woman could know how Elizabeth felt. Maybe Elizabeth could only tell a Woman. I don’t know. That’s what it seemed like to me.

I’m Old School. But I can’t get all bent out of shape by “God is Her.” I liked my mamma, too.

Elizabeth got what she needed from God, and if God felt like “Her” to Elizabeth, that’s good enough for me. I can go with that. She can call God anything she likes – she waited a long time, and God made her happy, blessed her.


So the baby was born, and we took him to be circumcised – and … now Listen to This …. “they” … that’s what’s in the Official Minutes of the Meeting:3 “they”… “they were going to name him … ‘Zechariah’” – after me.

They? It takes a village to name a child? Or a battalion of priests? I couldn’t talk, not that anybody asked. Everybody just “knew what I wanted.” Thought I would follow the program. After all, I was a priest – I follow programs.

“He’ll want somebody to carry on his name.”

And I would have, except things had changed. The ritual had changed – the script.

Elizabeth spoke up – did you hear that? did you hear that part? did you hear how she spoke up? which probably scared the Circumcision Squad as much as the angel scared me.

“NO! You gonna take a razor to my baby, you better keep me happy! He. Is. To. Be. Called. JOHN.”

“They” gave me something to write on, and I wrote, “What she said. You darn tootin’: John it is.”

So we named him John, like Elizabeth said: “God has shown favor.” “God is gracious.” Nobody knew more about that than she did.


Well, that’s not the end of the story – you understand how it is with babies. Sometimes I did think we should have named him, “God has poked me in the eye with a stick.”

He was not an easy child. He ran away, early on4 – went to live in the desert.

Joy and happiness and reconciliation weren’t his strong suits. Something about being part of the One Percent – or the One Percent Enablers – didn’t suit him. He was Honked Off at the Romans and their toadies all the time.

And getting prepared for the Lord …. well, it didn’t involve any once-in-a-lifetime incense offerings, or keeping kosher.

He tended to favor locally-grown honey and organic free-range shade-grown fair-trade grasshoppers.

He was a good preacher, though. He gathered the crowds, got ‘em to listen – got ‘em to think – and Herod couldn’t have that, so ….

But along with the honey and bugs the crowds got a taste of how everything had changed. They wouldn’t go back to the old way.

When John was murdered, his crowds started to follow Jesus.

That’s the story that gets lost: Jesus was the messiah, but it was John got ‘em ready.

John made it possible.

John started it.

Our son.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Raw Before God

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Psalm 130
July 1, 2012
Mary Hammond

For centuries, we have assumed that the psalms were all written by men. And yet, these universal writings could oftentimes just as easily express the heart cries and thanksgiving of ancient women. We do not know the gender of the psalmist in today’s text. Psalm 130 is a “pilgrim psalm,” whose author is unknown. So let’s not make the usual assumptions today. I’m going to refer to the psalmist as “he” through the first two pages of my sermon, “she” through the second two pages, and then use inclusive words in the conclusion. I think this will be instructive in ways that surprise us!

In his article, “The Psalms in Ministry” Barry Bence asserts that the psalms “provoke our dialogue with God as they help us invoke [God’s] presence” (wordandworld/ We lean on these writings in times of turmoil and grief, gratitude and praise, questioning and transition. The psalms come to us as ancient yet timeless prayers, intimate yet honest reflections of the human soul interacting with the divine presence. In text after text, the psalmist lays bare raw grief, pointed questioning, vengeful thoughts, unfettered joy, dogged hope, and a host of other emotions. It’s all there for us to witness.

Psalm 130 begins with a cry of distress and lament, a deep guttural plea. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.” The author lays bare his yearning, spiritual hunger, and relentless pursuit of the Holy One. There is no other place to either begin or continue the spiritual life but from this posture of the soul. Heart hunger is the one thing needed, after which all else will come.

Jesus underscores this lesson when he teaches his disciples in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom [or Reign] of God, and all else will be added to you.” The psalmist understands this truth and begins his prayer with a cry of unfulfilled hunger and yearning, ushering from his depths.

This pilgrim poet prays to be heard. I have thought a lot about the “ministry of presence” since our daughter Sarah died seven months ago. The ancient saint, Job, faced cumulative losses of a magnitude I can only imagine—home, children, livelihood, health, reputation. Three friends came to comfort him. For seven days and seven nights, they sat with him and didn’t say a word. They ministered to him solely through their presence (Job 2:11-13).

So many times in life, what we need is simply the gift of presence. Our heart cries yearn to be heard. We don’t need someone to fix us or attempt to explain the inexplicable. The psalmist needs God to hear. She is crying for mercy, grace, and redemption from the torments of life, whether induced by external or internal circumstances, or both.

“If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand?” she rhetorically asks. This is a communal question, a human condition question, a big picture question in the midst of individual, very personal suffering. The psalmist’s private distress does not blind her to the looming distress that infects her social context.

This week I had the opportunity to hear noted Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, on Democracy Now. In this interview, he talks a great deal about the need for a profound paradigm shift among the nations of the world. He pleads for human beings to recognize that we are animals, part of–not separate from or superior to–the natural world. Just like other biological creatures, we require air, food, and water to survive.

Suzuki comments that when he says such things to audiences in the United States, people come up to him afterward and say, “Don’t call my children animals! Don’t call me an animal!” He believes that those who truly live in their oneness with the earth are the indigenous peoples of the world. They need to re-teach the rest of us what we have forgotten (see this remarkable interview at

This discussion between Amy Goodman and David Suzuki drew me back to traditional patriarchal, anthropocentric (or human-centered) interpretations of the Creation Stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Such exegesis reinforces man’s domination over woman, and humanity’s domination over nature, each at the peril of the entire planet. “If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand?” the psalmist cries out. We know the answer full well.

The psalmist does, too. She answers her own question: “But with you is forgiveness, and for this we revere you.” We worship a holy, loving God who isn’t keeping tally of our wrongdoings, and yet calls us to transformation. Forgiveness opens us to new life; lack of forgiveness strangles the spirit. We need only look as far as a child, learning and growing, trying and failing, to see the impact of mercy compared to that of condemnation.

The psalmist trusts in God, affirming her stance even amid an anguished cry and unfulfilled yearning of the heart. “My soul waits for you, O God, more than sentinels wait for the morning.” Watching and waiting are critical elements of the spiritual journey. On occasion, epiphany moments come, and change is rapid. Most of the time, however, we know the spiritual journey as a long, patient slog. I continue to think of the comment made by Bob Cothran’s son, as Bob moved his beloved wife, Rosalyn, to the Care Center at Kendal. “The world is beautiful, life is hard, and love is real.”

To watch and wait for God is to embrace the awareness that spirituality is not about the quick fix, easy explanation, or magic prayer. In ancient times, the sentinel–or watchman, guarded the city from enemy invaders and rogue criminals. Alert, awake, ready to spring into action, the sentinel knew that this job was a life and death matter for both the self and the community.

“Like those who wait for the morning, let your people wait for you,” the psalmist continues. The remaining strophes move fully from the voice of the individual to a focus on the community of faith. The psalmist locates personal watching and waiting within the context of the greater watching and waiting of the people of God. This is not just a “me” journey with God, but an “us” journey, together. It’s not just the psalmist who feels lost; the community has lost its way as well. Both need divine intervention.

In concluding, the writer affirms God’s unchanging capacity for love and re-creation, along with the conviction that God will, indeed, respond in faithfulness and mercy.

Let me slowly speak key words of this psalm. May they awaken spaces within your own heart as we prepare to share the Lord’s Supper together. I invite you to close your eyes and experience these words…