Archive for December, 2014

The Pink Candle

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

John 1 and many more
December 14, 2014
Steve Hammond

Do you know why there is a pink candle in the Advent Wreath? It’s not because we ran out of purple ones. But the pink candle actually does have something to do with the purple ones. I’m not really much of an expert in the liturgical stuff, but I do know there is another time of the church year when purple is big. Do you know when that is? During Lent.

In the early church, and I don’t mean the early church when the Apostles were around, but in the days of the church when folk started doing things like Advent and Lent, those two seasons of the church year were pretty much the same. How many of you think of Advent as one of your favorite times of the year? Would you still think of it in the same way if we did Advent now like they did it way back when it and Lent were just about the same thing. No parties. No feasts. Fasting from just about everything including things like all the food you really liked and sex. Advent like Lent was originally conceived of as a time of repentance, brutal examination of self and others, and self-denial. No Christmas decorations or celebration of the birth of Jesus (that all had to wait until December 25).

We don’t see many hints of that during Advent, and even Lent is nothing like it used to be. But there are still vestiges of Lent around in giving up something during Lent, as compared to most everything in the old days. And there even is, at least, one church in town that won’t do weddings during Lent because you shouldn’t be doing that kind of celebrating during Lent. And the same would have been true during Advent. No weddings then, either.

It was all pretty harsh. That’s why both Advent and Lent had some breaks built into them. During Lent you don’t have to fast and abstain on Sundays. And since I am so uninformed about all of these things, added with I don’t really care, I can argue that for those who are concerned about these things that you can do weddings during Lent on Sundays, and feel okay about it.

Did you know that also during those way back days of Advent and Lent that weddings were usually performed on Sundays, anyway? I actually have a worship manual that has the wedding taking place in the offering section of the morning worship service. The couple would come forward, say their vows, be pronounced husband and wife, and go back to their pew until the worship service was over. Maybe have a little reception afterwards.
We’re talking about the time when Mary and I are eventually going to retire. Before that happens I would love to do a wedding service like that. Any volunteers? And what if you came to church and had no idea that a marriage was going to take place that day? All of the sudden James and Rebecca are saying their vows, or Amy and Jane are being declared wife and wife and they go back to their pews.

It would be so cool to do that, but we need to get back to the pink candle. The pink candle represents what Sundays used to be during Lent, a rest from the harshness. So we have the candle of hope, the candle of peace, and for the third Sunday of Advent the candle of joy. Now back in those old days they didn’t give each candle it’s own theme. That just came to be somewhere along the way. But they did have this thing where on the Third Sunday of Advent you were allowed to do joyful things. You got one day to have the parties, play the games, have the feast, watch the equivalent of the football game, visit with friends, have some alone time with your partner. You got that one day and then it was back to the preparation of your unworthy self for the birth of Jesus. That pink candle in the middle of the wreath is a vague hint of how Advent used to be.

There is something else that pink candle does for me, and maybe for some of you, too. It makes me ask how can it be? How can we think about joy when there is so much sadness? There are too many hard things going on in too many places and in too many lives. There are wars everywhere. We are even at war with the water, the earth, the sky, and all of creation. There’s Furgeson, Staten Island, Cleveland. The weak are being crushed by the rich. They’re telling us that the rich are too poor and the poor too rich. The powerful turn against the powerless. There are divisions among us everywhere. There are people we love who are going through horrendous ordeals. We see these pictures and read these stories online that just make us weep. This can be said every week during Advent. Where’s the hope, the peace, the love? What can we do?

I want us to look at one of the creation stories. Do you know how many creation stories there are in the Bible? There are actually a lot of them. The one I want us to look at this morning is from John 1. It’s such an interesting story for so many reasons. It starts out talking about the Word who, it turns out, is Jesus. “All things came into being through him…what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Then all of the sudden we are hearing not about the Word, but about John the Baptist. But what we learn about John is that he was not the big deal. He came to bear witness to the big deal, to Jesus. Now John was seen as being in the line of the prophets, and the prophets were always the big deal. But not John. He simply came to bear witness.

Where’s the hope, the peace, the joy, the love? What do we do? I wish you all could have heard Bishop Daughtry last week. Remember I left right after church to go hear this 84 year old Black preacher who was there in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, who stood at Nelson Mandela’s graveside, who held the Mothers of the children shot by the police. As he talked about all the heartache that goes on in so many places, all that changes that need to take place in our world, he said, like John the Baptist we are called to bear witness to Jesus. And he said what he didn’t mean by that was we were supposed to go around talking about Jesus, but to bear witness by being present like Jesus was present.

The Word became flesh and lived in our midst, God with us. Incarnation is about God being present. The witness we bear is to the one who is here with us, And we are called by Jesus to be with the God who is with us.

I came across a question this week that I’m going to pass on to you. It was this. What makes Jesus a Christian? With the people sitting around you take a couple or three minutes and see what answers you come up with.

For me, what makes Jesus a Christian is his trust in God. Jesus trusted that the way God calls us to live is the right way to live. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Invite the outsider in. Tear down the walls that divide us from each other, and build new and inclusive communities. Give up on violence. Call the powerful to account. Lift up the lowly. Surrender some of your power and privilege, unless you don’t have much of either. Practice forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. Don’t live as if your life is only a matter of what you own, how much money you make, or your status. Stand tall because God loves you. Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable. Live at peace with each other and the Community of Creation. Jesus really trusted that God has a better way for us. And he trusted that God is a God of life and that life, not death, is the final word.

The creation story in John says that John was not the Light but that he came to bear witness to the light, the true light that was coming into the world. But, Jesus said this most amazing thing. John may have not been the Light, but Jesus once said this to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” That’s how we bear witness, bringing the light into the dark places of the world. It turns out that Jesus believed that the God he trusted trusts us. We read that Christ is in us, but that we are also in Christ. And the Apostle Paul really gets this when he writes about the church being the Body of Christ. We bear witness to Jesus by being who he is. The same things that make Jesus a Christian are what make us Christians.

Where’s the joy? It’s not like the folk who thought about joy, even if for only one day during Advent weren’t asking that same question. These are not the first tough times the world has experienced. We aren’t the only ones who have ever had to confront the sadness. But that pink candle, all the candles of Advent point us to something more than what we see. There are always new possibilities, new creations ahead of us. There are lots of creation stories in the Bible. At the end of the book of the Revelation we read about a new heaven and a new earth. From Isaiah 65. For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity; [e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

In Isaiah and Micah we read about the day when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There’s that creation story that begins in Job 40. And then there is this creation story in 2 Corinthians 5. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything is new.”

There are a million million creation stories. That’s where the joy comes and not for just one day. And it’s the same with hope, peace, and love. I think we do Advent better than they used to. It’s not just about us getting ready for Jesus, but us getting everything ready for Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for God. Jesus is coming, but he’s expecting us to show up too. That’s what makes us Christians. And there’s a pink candle in it for us.

Shalom-Traveling: Off to the Hard Places

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Jeremiah 6:13-15, Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2014
Mary Hammond

Today we lit the candle of peace as we began our Advent service. What fools for Christ we are, lighting the candle of peace when wars rage around the planet, refugee populations swell, and winter begins to stalk the dispossessed. Here at home, impunity for police officers involved in excessive force takes center stage in protests nationwide, exposing fissures within race relations that have been present since our nation was founded.

Is our proclamation of peace crazy optimism, blind faith, or false naivete? Or might we be embarking on a daring journey into new territory? Could we be ‘shalom-traveling,’ facing toward the hard places?

In the year 2000, the congregation changed the name of the church from “The First Baptist Church of Oberlin” to “Peace Community Church.” This transition came as the result of a six-month discernment process followed by a consensus decision. How many of you here today were part of that process?

At the time, the church wanted a name to “live up to” and “into,” a name that called us forward to deeper commitments and greater faithfulness. And here we are, nearly 15 years since we began that process. As we soon enter 2015, the need to be peacemakers and reconcilers, to seek the common good, could not be more urgent.

Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, recently spent a weekend with the congregation. He challenged us to revisit our name and who we are as a congregation. Steve and I have been pastors here a long time, and it is important for the church’s identity to stand on its own and not simply be tied to our ministry. What does it mean to embody Peace as a primary calling, to live in community within a fractured and frenetic world, and to proclaim to the world that “we are church” together?

As we ponder all of this, I want to share part of an e-mail from Jessie Downs, an Oberlin College alum who began attending PCC her junior year and graduated in 2013. Jessie reflects:

“When I think about being at Peace Church, I feel a joy that is of the purest kind I know. There isn’t even necessarily longing in it; though I miss you all–miss the space, the community, the wisdom, and the list goes on–there also seems to be a Peace Church that, while I was with you all on a regular basis, got erected in the inner space of my soul. I feel so blessed–blessed a hundred times over–that it is there. Aside from anything else, when doubt comes (which of course, it must always do), there is a place I can return to inside of myself where I do know God.

“I feel like I really became friends with Jesus while I was at PCC. Of course, that didn’t exactly happen at church itself, per se, but in the times between PCC events where I finally had the tools to go knocking on God’s door and ask if we could talk for a while. Things happened. It became not too different than going a couple houses down to see the Hammonds!

“Sometimes I forget to nurture that friendship, to show up, but it’s always a temporary forgetting. There’s too ‘firm a foundation’ to ever forget entirely. Without PCC, I wouldn’t be there.”

This church may be a small congregation, but we have much to offer one another as we join hands to create an oasis of peace in a world of chaos. We aren’t perfect, and we never will be. Community-building can be hard work at times. It can be both joyous and painful. Through it all, in the midst of our human frailties, we seek to weave a fabric of love, compassion, and welcome.

Jeremiah, known as “the weeping prophet,” lived in times much like ours. It wasn’t easy for him to be a prophet. He struggled. He wept. He complained. He even despaired at times. Hear the words of Jeremiah 6:13-15: “From the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush.”

Jeremiah decries a false ‘peace’ that is masked in privilege, self-gratification, and denial. It is callous to the needs of the most vulnerable. It papers over the gross inequities and brutalities of a tragic period in Israel’s history. This ‘all is well’ theology of and for the elite of Jeremiah’s day contradicts his understanding of peace, described in the Hebrew scriptures as shalom. This peace, God’s peace, envisions the Community of Creation restored, redeemed, renewed, and whole.

Fast forward many centuries to John the Baptizer. His diet of bugs and honey and his simple attire may sound like he comes straight out of Oberlin in the 1960’s. But Oberlin fifty years ago is no Judea of the first century.

John preaches primarily to a people of his own faith waiting for a Messiah, expecting a deliverer for centuries upon centuries. His message attracts many who have grown weary of the mighty power and expansive influence of the Roman Empire. John comes, preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry, calling people to turn their lives around and be reconciled to God.

What does it mean, in our own social location, to watch and wait together for the coming of Christ? What is the “good news” that we need to speak and live, amid all the “bad news” of this world? Where are we being sent as “shalom-travelers”?

As we come today to the Table of Christ, may these questions and meditations remain in our hearts. Amen.

The Old Future’s Gone

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Isaiah 64, Mark 13
November 30, 2014
Steve Hammond

Have you noticed it’s brighter in here this morning than it has been of late. It turns out there has been an Advent parable unfolding right before my eyes.

Some of us on the Building Ministry Team had a meeting with the energy consultant that the city provides for free. Ron Gibson had already had him over to the church before so he was familiar with us. We told him we hoped he had ideas about how we could not bother to rewire the way high lights, and replace the lower ones with something that would make up for the loss of wattage from the other lights. His name is Tom and he has lots of ideas, most of which were really relative inexpensive.

First of all, he assured us that there are lots of helpful alternatives to the current lower lights that will provide good lighting for us. And he said we could supplement those lights by placing various spotlights that would bounce off our white ceiling and provide not only additional lighting but a nice ambience. He also pointed out that those two lights that hang below the balcony could be easily and quickly replaced with tract lighting that would be very helpful. We talked about how we have those flood lights that illuminate the rose window. The wiring is already there to simply put flood lights on the other side of the beam that would help light the sanctuary. He is going to send us some free compact florescent flood lights we can experiment with. He talked about the subsidized LED lights that will be available to everyone in Oberlin sometime in January.

And then he said that one of the things we can do in this interim period as we figure out what fixtures will best work to replace those lower lights, is to put brighter bulbs in them. None of us had actually thought about that. Initially we were going to use some clear bulbs that are the same wattage we are currently using. That would have helped some. But then Ron Gibson said if we are going to get the ladder out and change all the bulbs, why don’t we just go ahead and increase the wattage. So we did. And now it’s so much brighter in here, even though we aren’t using that whole row of lights way up there.

So here’s the parable or the moral of the story. Sometimes we sit in a great darkness and don’t realize that we have alternatives that are maybe easier than we realized. And Tom, the consultant, also told us that there are lots of things we can try. If these kind of bulbs don’t work, try something else. If there’s not enough light, there are simpler ways than we thought to add more lighting. When you’re sitting in the dark, there may be alternatives, and there may be people who can help us find out what they are. That sounds like hope to me.

Now that we are sitting in a great light, l’m going to plunge us back into the darkness for a bit. When I was reading and preparing for this week, I came across a commentator who has a blog called by a person named Lawrence Moore. I don’t know who Lawrence Moore but from reading this article, anyway, I would call him a truth-teller. A prophet is a person who points out things we aren’t noticing. A truth-teller points out things we are noticing, but don’t want to talk about. Another difference between a prophet and a truth-teller is that more often than not we are grateful for what the truth-teller is saying. The response to a truth-teller is often something like “Yes, that’s true. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” Or, “I’m so glad somebody is finally talking about this.” Now the problem with truth-telling, of course, is that the truth-tellers aren’t always telling the truth. They just simply misunderstand what it going on, blow things out of proportion, or make the false assumption that what they are experiencing is what everyone is experiencing. It turns out the sky is not falling after all, but the damage is already done.

I’m pretty sure, though, that Bruce Moore is doing some important truth-telling in his writing about the realities facing the church in the Western world these days, which is what this blog post is about. And, of course, we are doing some hard thinking and exploring about our own congregation and the larger church as we move into the future. So here is some of what Bruce Moore rights. It’s hard. But I think it’s true.

One way of preparing properly for Advent is to take seriously just what a mess the Church is in. The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.
We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. We recognise the global village in every other aspect of post modern life: the same is true of Church. However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!
Let me say something clearly: I have no doubt that, in twenty years time, church as we know it will be alive and well. We will still be singing the same sorts of hymns, having services and activities that we have now, and living as we always have. The crucial difference, though, is that we will be a tiny, shrinking minority – a sort of “Christian train spotters” society. In other words, we will be one of those tiny, harmless groups of consenting adults (one difference between then and now is that we’ll have virtually no children at all) whom society indulges, leaving us to get on and do our thing because we don’t disturb or hurt anyone. And that is not Church. The Church is here to make a difference to the world. We might talk loudly and often about being salt and light and yeast in the world, yet if that is not a reality, we are deceiving ourselves and God. We are playing at being faithful (.

These are dark days for the church. Do you know why there are so many inexpensive alternatives to replace what I consider to be those tacky lights hanging above the pews? Churches are closing everywhere. There are church lighting fixtures that are no longer in use all over E-Bay awaiting the not very highest bid.

There is, though, more truth. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…” Somebody likened the present status of the church to Holy Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Death has come. But it’s still Saturday. We don’t know yet what resurrection is going to look like. But it’s ours to find. The old future is gone for the church. We get to help make a new one.

There are all these transitions we have been talking about around here, so I’m thinking about the church a lot these days. But, obviously, there are other dark and semi-dark places where we find ourselves. Some of us are maybe bordering on or crossed over to despair. But this is Advent. “The light came into the world and the darkness did not overcome it.” As the signer Bruce Cockburn puts it, “there’s hope in a baby’s cry.”

The truth that we tell is that Jesus doesn’t make it all better. You can’t pray everything away. But there are ways out of the darkness that maybe we haven’t thought of yet. And often the way out of the darkness or at least toward the light is with each other. That’s the hope Jesus brings to this world.

I’m going to turn off half of the lights for a few moments. We didn’t double the wattage, so it’s not exactly going to be same in here with half the light turned off. But when I turn the others back on we will see that there’s more light than we thought. And Jesus came to tell us that.