Archive for May, 2015

Fired Up

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Ever Church Business Meeting. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Acts 1:13-26
May 17, 2015
Steve Hammond

I love the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. There are so many interesting stories in Acts, including the one we just read this morning. Now this has been one of those read by stories, you just read it and don’t stop to think too much about it. That’s why I’ve never preached on it before. But this time, it finally struck me. This is story about the very first church business meeting. Now that’s worth some attention!

Jesus had just ascended to heaven and the disciples all went back to the place where they had been hiding out, having no idea of what they were supposed to do next. So when you’ve got a bunch of church folk together, or those who are soon to become church folk, and you have no idea of what you are supposed to do, somebody calls a meeting. For some reason it seemed important to them that they replace the fallen apostle, Judas.

What I also noticed when this passage came up in the lectionary is that they wanted us to leave out the part of the story about how Judas died, which any eight year old boy could tell you is the best part. “And falling headlong, he burst in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Now why would the lectionary elders leave that part out? Not because it’s gross, I think, but because it’s a much different story than what we read in Matthew 27.

In the story of the Book of Acts it says that with the wicked proceeds he got from turning Jesus over to the authorities, he went out and purchased a field right before his much deserved awful death. But this is what we read in Matthew’s gospel. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, Judas departed; and he went and hanged himself. That’s a much different, and much more sympathetic portrayal of Judas than what we get in the Book of Acts.

It’s interesting what happens to Judas in the gospels. Do you remember the story of the woman who poured out the perfume on Jesus when he was eating dinner with at the home of Simon the Pharisee? Frank Crouch from the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, PA points this out about what happens with this story. All four [gospels] report an objection being raised that the perfume was not sold for the poor — raised by “some of those present” in Mark, by the disciples in Matthew, by Simon the Pharisee in Luke, and in John, by “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him).” Only John adds further commentary, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (v. 6). (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456}

Now you can understand the anger and feelings of betrayal they were all feeling toward Judas. How did Peter say it in today’s story? “…for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Sure Judas did an awful thing, but none of the other male disciples won the steadfastness and courage trophy during Holy Week. It was easy enough for Judas to become a scapegoat that they could pin this on.

So they have this first church business meeting where the main agenda item was to find someone to fill the office of Apostle left vacant by the untimely and, and in their minds, seemingly, well deserved death of Judas. They were freestyling here. There is no book of order or a set of by-laws they can turn to. There is nothing that said there had to be 12 surviving Apostles. It just seemed like a good idea to them that Judas be replaced and that they draw lots to find his successor.

Now just because something is in the Bible it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the way we are supposed to do things. And there are more issues here worth pondering than the casting of lots to determine new leadership, which the Hutterite’s apparently do, based on this passage.

Look at the process in this story. Before he ascends to heaven Jesus tells the disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait, wait for the Holy Spirit before they do anything. “Don’t just do something, stand there!” But they needed to do something, so they called that business meeting. They came up with their criteria for candidates for the Apostleship, and then prayed for God to pick a successor to Judas, as long as it was one of the two candidates that had made the finals. And it’s interesting that the prayer came after the process. They cast lots and Matthias was chosen as the replacement for Judas. This story makes the preacher Ralph Milton really mad because it was so obvious that if they were going to replace Judas, the choice was Mary Magdalene.

Who here can tell me what important mark the Apostle Matthias left on the early church? You never hear about him again. There are some vague and seemingly late traditions about him, but they all seem to be along the lines of he was an Apostle so he must have done something.

Matthias may well have done good and significant things, but his story just got lost. On the other hand, have you ever heard of a guy named the Apostle Paul? It was no business meeting or lot casting, or even a consensus vote that named him apostle. But, obviously, God had plans for him that went way beyond whatever Matthias brought to the church. And there were other Apostles that came along, including Junias, a woman’s name that got changed to Junia, a man’s name, in manuscripts along the way. God was never limited to just twelve, or even men, it appears.

Things, important things, can get done at church business meetings. Fortunately, though, we don’t have to always get it right. God can get things done because of us, or in spite of us. Grace abounds and so do our opportunities to grow and listen to the Spirit. Just because Matthias didn’t rise to the stature that the Apostle Paul did, it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have been set aside for service like he was. The Spirit may well have gotten Matthias to the place he needed to be, it may not just have been what people at first assumed.

That’s why I like the stories in Acts. The thing is that, in spite of a shaky start, the disciples and earlier followers came through. We get to see a bit of their lives and read about their stories and we do see the Spirit at work in their lives.

And here is what I would like to think possibly happened with these two stories of the death of Judas. You can understand the grief, anger, and fear that the disciples felt as they spent those days hiding out in Jerusalem. You can see how that all got turned to Judas, that creep who not only did Jesus in, but put all of them in jeopardy. You can imagine in that fear and uncertainty they were experiencing that they could easily latch on to that story of what they saw as his gruesome and deserved death.

As things went along, though, and the apostles and all the followers of Jesus began to put the gospel on, maybe when it got time to the writing of Matthew’s gospel, the author remembered he had heard another story about Judas and how grief stricken he was by what he had done. Maybe, at least, we ought to keep that in the record, he thought. Life is complicated. Maybe by the time of Matthew’s Gospel the early church was ready to imagine Judas in a different way.

I came across these thoughts about conversion in my reading this week by James Alison that seem an appropriate way to think about what this story of the of the Apostles, and want to share it to close our time this morning. By a story of conversion I don’t mean one of those accounts of how I was bound by this or that vice, had an overpowering experience, and have now managed to leave it all behind me…though such changes are by no means to be belittled when they happen. However, they are incidents, and not stories. Someone can give up doing something held as a vice only to turn into a persecutor of those who lack his same moral fibre. That is not a Christian conversion. The authentic convert always writes a story of his or her discovery of mercy, which means that they learn to create mercy. (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter7b.htm}

In The Valley of the Shadow of Goodness and Mercy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Psalm 23 and Matthew 5:1-11
Steve Hammond
May 10, 2015

We’really not talking about the Beatitudes this morning. It just seemed like it would be good to have them in mind as we look a bit more at the 23rd Psalm, which John Bergen used for his text a couple of weeks back. I’m not going to say much about sheep or sheoherds, though. By I think there is still a lot to that Psalm even without the sheep and shepherds,

John talked about Psalm 23 in response to his thoughts about when resurrection isn’t enough. We’ve been doing all the yay, Jesus is alive stuff during Easter, but what do you do when that’s not enough? Sure there has been resurrection but the depression isn’t ending, the cancer isn’t getting better, the relationships aren’t improving, the pain isn’t going away. There are those valleys of the shadow of death we still traverse even when there is Easter and resurrection.

John talked about how we need folk walking with us when we find ourselves in those valleys of death. And with his time in Hebron in the West Bank of Palestine he did some very literal walking in those valleys by walking with children on the way to school. They have to negotiate Israel soldiers and checkpoints. There is tear gas to try to avoid, settlers and soldiers who want to do the kids harm. He asked us to imagine what it is like for a six or seven year old child to have to decide if they are going to walk through the tear gas on the way to school, take the extra time, maybe hours, to get to another checkpoint where there is no tear gas. Or just go back home. At the Peace Potluck he told the story about the family who can only turn left when they go out their door because there is a checkpoint to their right that is just outside their door.

Having someone like John or other Christian Team Peacemakers or other folk walk with you makes a big difference, even if they can’t put an end to the Israeli occupation, or really do much about the tear gas.

That got me thinking about those children and how important it is to have John and others walk with them through those valleys of death. And that got me thinking about all kinds of other people and all kinds of other valleys that are much closer to home, though we can’t forget about those valleys in places far away like Palestine, or Iraq, or Pakistan, or Nigeria, or Guatemala, or Nepal, or Israel or any of a multitude of places where children are the victims of war, violence, corruption, racism, terrorism, and disasters natural and of human origin..

There are kids in this church that need us to walk with them. It’s not tear gas or angry settlers they face, or terrorists, but they are walking through their own valleys of death. And we get to walk with them and with those who walk more closely with them.

It’s not just the kids, though. Many of us know those hard valleys where resurrection just hasn’t been enough. I remember how many walked with Mary and me through that literal valley of death when our daughter Sarah died. As I was telling Bob Cothran during one of those sharing times that John had us do that morning, it wasn’t that people were just walking with us, but sometimes they carried us, and still do sometimes.

That’s not just a unique experience to Mary and me, most of you know from your own experiences. There are all kinds of valleys of death that many of us are trying to pass through. And we need people to walk with us.

The writer of the Psalm said that not only was God walking along with him in that valley, but following close behind was goodness and mercy. It’s not enough to feel like God is with us in those valleys, we have to find that presence with each other as they walk with us. And, as hard as those valleys are, can you imagine if goodness and mercy weren’t following behind?

One of the podcasts I listen to is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I was listening to one this week about World War 1. He talked about the experience of a British soldier who had been near the front lines when the Germans launched a four hour long artillery barrage. It was awful. And the British knew that when the artillery stopped the German ground troops would be coming. The bombardment had been so horrific, that instead of demoralizing, at least, this one British soldier before the ground troops came, all he wanted to do was kill someone.

And suddenly out of the fog there came a German soldier who had been wounded, stumbling along. The British soldier pulled out his gun and ran up to the German and pointed the barrel of the gun at the German’s temple. The German soldier just looked at him with fear in his eyes and pulled a picture of him with his family out of his pocket and showed it to the British soldier. Though, Dan Carlin said, “mercy is a dangerous commodity on the battlefield,” the British soldier let the German go. And the one thing from the war that British soldier really continued to think about was whether that German soldier ever got home. Those two soldiers has seen enough death to know that the only way out of that valley was through goodness and mercy.

Goodness and mercy is lots of stuff like compassion, forgiveness, grace, love, kindness (or that really wonderful phrase from the old days, loving kindness). That’s what we get to bring people when they are walking through those valleys. That path of righteousness that we read about in this Psalm must have something, I imagine, to do with goodness and mercy.

And it’s in those valleys where God prepares a banquet in the presence of our enemies. But those banquets don’t happen by magic. We get to do God’s work by preparing times of feasting and renewal and respite for folk even in the hard places of their lives. And that all happens because walk with each other.

And that’s the point. We are walking with each other. We are helping each other traverse our own valleys of death. John talked about how they all walk with each other in Palestine. How many times have you walked with someone through hard times to discover they have helped lay a spread before your enemies?

And what those kids in Palestine know, as well as the rest of us, is that it’s not all valleys of death. There are green pastures and still waters. And, again, they don’t just pop up. We lead each other to those places that God wants for all of us. We get to help pour those cups that overflow, simply because we are walking with each other. That’s how souls get restored.

One of the organizations that has come to be in the midst of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is one that brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents whose children have been killed in the violence there. They walk with each other in that valley they all inhabit. If those folk can do that, what’s the lesson for the rest of us?

I may be becoming a bit obsessed by this transition business that all churches are facing these days. But things are rapidly changing in this world and all churches have to figure out how they are going to create a new future for themselves. Surely, finding ways to walk with others near and far, in places of death or green pastures is key to the church continuing to mean something for this world. And we get to try to figure out how to walk with people along the way of Jesus, or as it was simply called in early church days, The Way. The Way is a path, a trail, a road, a journey where we walk with each other and seek with Jesus the Realm of God, which takes us to valleys of death and still waters, and all kinds of stops along the way. But we keep walking with each other. And the churches whose folk are willing and able to discern how they can help folk along that journey are the ones that will have something to offer.

I think it is unfortunate that the 23rd Psalm has been too often relegated to funeral duty. Sure it’s comforting in those literal valleys of death, but when you really pay attention to it, it offers us a lot of challenge. How do we walk with others and allow them to walk with us? Is God the only one who leads us to green pastures and still waters? How do we help restore souls? How do we prepare a feast for those who don’t feel like eating or make sure we bring what they want to eat rather than what tastes good to us? And as churches make the transitions we must make, can we remember that it’s goodness and mercy that people need?

The title for John’s sermon was When Resurrection Isn’t Enough. John and I talked afterwards about how Easter was never meant to be the end of the story where everybody lived happily ever after. Like the 23rd Psalm, I see Easter and the resurrection as much of a challenge as a comfort.

I think the response to the Easter morning proclamation He is Risen! is not Risen, indeed! but Now what? And the 23rd Psalm suggests that we keep walking with each other and bring all the goodness and mercy we can muster.

The Earth’s Holy Ground

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Joyce Parker
May 3,2015

Here are the notes from what Joyce Parker shared for the “Soil Blessing: service.
“Train your children to choose the right path, and when they are older they will remain on it.” Prov. 22 :6
“The moment that a child can walk
Like that it which it first can talk,
Is a precious start of exploration into landscapes of creation.
Walking, walking, walking walking, walking on the earth.” –FD Hole … walking on holy ground….
We are designed to connect with nature with body, mind, and spirit. Emotions weave with understanding over time. There are several pathways that we adults can nurture:
1) Experience—Variety of experience helps us be adaptable (trait for human success), tolerant (rain, heat, cold), also to handle fears, become comfortable in situation
2)Mentoring- “Go with me”, show me, collaboration is a second trait that makes humans successful.
3) Understanding –Knowldege (trait for human success)–starting with big ideas such as awesome world, cycles of life, stewardship of creation, doing our part to take care of this gift! But spice it up with interesting details that they may discover—and you may discover with them!
Our spirit and attitude are what is caught by the children around us. So, our first questions for ourselves might be, “Do I feel glad about the soil under my feet? When did I last give thanks for the dirt that literally keeps me alive? Have I recently done anything that would pay respect to nature’s gift to which we are all connected?
So getting hold of those feelings and gathering a round of enthusiasm and curiosity, NOW you and I can share with the generations that follow us.
Last year, I watched with wonder as our 5 year old grandson called out to us as we arrived at their home, Grandma come see the garden! It was just a 10 x 12’ space alongside their garage. With his running (which is what he does most of!) to his little gate, he entered along one row of peas and began picking and eating as he went. His mama said for the children to have access was important and she is also big on vegetables. We got a little sand bucket and he started in on the cherry tomatoes. Plunk into the bucket and chomp into the mouth. Growing right up in the center of it all were two giant sunflowers. We recalled that in the spring for at least 2 years, our son and family had bought little peat pots and sunflower seeds for 2 and 3 year olds to handle and watch grow. It wasn’t the perfect system, but it was done with enthusiasm and some real results. Pride and a sense of ownership had been instilled. I was seeing the benefit for those kids. They buy produce and eat it on the way home. (I cringe because it is not washed, but there is freedom of access and encouragement to enjoy!!)
Teach your children well. And turn their questions back to them to encourage curiosity.
Cultivate a sense of wonder in the natural world. Be curious, explore, let the kids find new things and then look up the details (even on the computer where there are wonderful pictures and videos). I brought exhibit #1 a long piece of string. Have you ever roped off a section of the yard (2X2) with string and then started naming all the things you can find in that area. Dig for worms and insects? Try the woods. Nature is full of mysteries to be solved and when we enjoy the out of doors, we can share time asking questions and finding answers. Plan a walk taking a magnifying glass or camera, go barefoot and play with the stones.
And listen with delight when they tell you of their encounters with nature. Put their findings on a special table for display.
There is a book, How to raise a Wild Child. (Meaning a child in love with nature.) Time in the out of doors can have many benefits.. It is especially important in today’s world so full of technology, screen-time, games, and scheduled time. Children in connection and comfortable with nature are often more relaxed and have a greater love for it —and will likely to want to care for it.
Take a winter walk and view the ice on the trees and look for animal tracks. A lot of “bad” weather can be tolerated if we dress appropriately. It teaches adaptability. Being out of doors can help energize us and inspire us. Play for the youngest ones is most important– “splashing in puddles” is a must in my experience. When I was young I loved to turn our little turtle loose in a big puddle and then worry about finding it again! And now as a Grandma I love to wade in a stream and listen to the water.
One parent has a worm bin and the kids enjoy feeding the worms their food scraps. Vermicomposting has taught them about the circle of life and made them more aware of protection and sustainability
Read a book on the back steps or under a tree. Take a picnic to the park. Lay on your back and watch the clouds go by, feel the wind pick up before a rain. Watch the storm. You know what I mean. Get in touch with the natural world.
It can be a part of their life that they will not forget. Put down the phone. Talk to the Creator about life on this planet. Teach the children for joy and for healthy survival on this earth.