Archive for August, 2015

Meeting Jesus among tears and dusty feet

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Luke 7: 36-50
August 30, 2015
Mary Hammond

Decades ago, a man told me that one of the reasons he did not come to church anymore was because he cried every time he came. My response to this confession was, “If you can’t cry at church, where can you cry?” Yet, for his own reasons, this man didn’t feel safe crying at church. Maybe he spent a lifetime keeping his tears bottled up inside. Maybe he felt ashamed, weak, or too vulnerable, crying in the public setting of a church pew.

Recently, Robin Wallace (who joyfully said I could use her name and reflections), told me that she cried every Sunday the first six months she came to church. Here is what she shared with me in an e-mail:
“When I came there that first Sunday, I believe a couple of different things happened…First of all, I felt totally safe. I mean, really, when I think of it, I just began crying at the first note on the piano and stopped during the benediction…every week. And I thought to myself, “I can’t stop crying…” (then realized), “Oh, dear God…I am safe here.” That was an enormous truth and I wept more. I mean, it was like the Holy Spirit turned a faucet on my heart…and the flood of tears came quietly out. I remember occasionally someone might reach up and just softly touch me in a knowing way…someone handed me a tissue once…those moments were huge for me…I felt loved and cared for and safe to cry. No one needed me to do anything or be strong for them…I could just be. And at some point I slowly realized that it would even be OK if I needed someone.”

Tears arise from many emotions. This is one observation author and social worker, Pete Walker, makes about crying in his book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”: “Crying carries the energy of pain out of the body through the physical motions, sounds, and tears of weeping. Crying emotes our pain out in the true sense of the Latin derivative ’emovere’ which means ‘to move out'” (p. 79, Azure Coyote Publishing, 1995).

The Gospel story before us today is intense, as we could tell by the reading itself. It is intimate. It is emotional. It surfaces conflict in the room where it takes place. It is transforming for one person, and yet not for another. It is a deep story, and we can barely touch those depths today in these brief reflections.

We start out at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, who invites Jesus to dinner. The Pharisees are devout religious leaders who generally oppose much of what Jesus says and does. Some, however, are curious and want to know more about Jesus. Simon initially seems to be one of the latter. Yet the story unmasks his heart.

Aside from Simon and his guests, there is another character in the narrative, an interloper. This is a woman, whom The Message Bible refers to as “the town harlot.” Older translations use the phrase, “a sinner.” The inference is the same.

This woman is unnamed by Luke, the Gospel’s author. She is known only by her dubious reputation. Yet she wasn’t born with the name “sinner” or “town harlot.” She was born with the name Leila or Mary, Susan or Barbara, or some other name.

This woman has a story. It might be a tragic tale of childhood neglect and abuse. It might be a testimony of poverty and deprivation. We do not know.

What has this woman done with her vulnerability over the years, to garner the reputation of “sinner” or “town harlot”? Has she stuffed that vulnerability into a deep inner closet in order to survive abuse in private and scorn in public? How many times has she silenced her tears?

Let’s dignify this woman by giving her a name. For our purposes today, let’s call her ‘Leila.’

So, Jesus is attending a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee, who is named in the text, by the way. And in comes Leila. To the host, she is just a “sinner,”or “the town harlot.” But to Jesus, she has a name and a story. She is a person.

Leila is pretty cheeky to crash this dinner gathering. There is more that we could say about that, but we don’t have time. What does she have to lose, anyhow? She enters, ignores everyone else, and zeroes in on Jesus. Not just that, but she is so overcome with emotion when she sees him that she kneels beside Jesus and starts sobbing, so strongly in fact that she waters his feet with her tears. That’s some serious crying.

Leila takes down her hair, a very provocative act in that culture for a woman in public. She then uses her long tresses to wipe her tears off Jesus’ feet and kisses them. Her final act is anointing his feet with perfume.

All of this happens in front of the dinner guests. Can you imagine? Simon, the Pharisee, thinks to himself, “If [Jesus] was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is.”

Hm. “What kind of woman THIS IS.”

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? Shame is rooted in who we are–feeling defective and flawed, feeling like “If you really knew me, you would not love me.” Guilt, in contrast, is about what we do—the acts that we commit or omit which we have the power and agency to change.

Simon’s thoughts about Leila are shaming. They are about who he thinks she is. To Simon, she is “sinner” or “town harlot.” In this way, Simon un-names her.

Last week, Cindi Byron-Dixon shared the tragic story of a young man her family knows who has made devastating decisions which led to shooting and killing a man in the midst of a robbery. The newspapers have un-named him. Social media has un-named him. He is now “murderer,” and “criminal”…not the strong, principled boy they have known for years, who got caught up with the wrong crowd and spiraled down a tragic path.

Jesus reaches inside Simon’s thoughts, and tells him a story about two men and a creditor to whom they owe a lot of money. One man owes 500 silver pieces, the other 50. Neither can pay up, so the creditor cancels both debts. ‘Which debtor is more appreciative?’ Jesus asks.

This is an easy one for Simon. “The one who owed more,” he replies. Jesus commends this answer. But then he takes the story full circle and relates it back to Leila. Uninvited and unwelcome, she embraces the role of slave or house servant by washing Jesus’ feet. She offers Jesus a lavish welcome and her rapt attention. Her profound vulnerability is bathed in unending gratitude. What has Simon offered Jesus?

While looking at the woman, Jesus then tells Simon, “She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

Notice that Jesus is looking at the woman–looking in her face, gazing deep into her eyes, I imagine. Jesus is not staring her up and down and judging her like Simon. He is not stereotyping her; he is not sexualizing her. He is not un-naming her.

I have been reading a lot about trauma lately, and it can be extremely difficult for people who have been traumatized to make steady eye contact with others. Jesus, I believe, makes eye contact with Leila. I wonder if she has the ability to look him in the eyes, as well. She has had a lot of men look at her, but most likely, never like this. Surely, the gaze of Jesus is in itself momentous and healing.

Jesus speaks to Leila, “I forgive your sins.”

I imagine that there is so much more Jesus could have said and may have said, either then or later on. Let me throw out some ideas. “I forgive what you have done. You need no absolution for who you are. There is guilt, but there is no shame. You are a person, my beloved. You are beautiful. You did not choose your childhood, Leila, but your future is now in your hands. You are deserving of being treated like I am treating you, not the way other men have treated you.”

What an incredible moment! One might expect the whole padre of guests to stand there, stunned and transformed. But, no! They begin whispering behind Jesus’ back, “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Another incredible twist of the story occurs. The Pharisees and other guests do not see the woman Jesus sees. They do not acknowledge the meaning of her sobs, the power of her anointing, the bravery of her vulnerability. Leila’s agonizing cry for healing and relief is eclipsed by their theological arguments with Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus ignores them, keeping his focus on Leila. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” he speaks.

I love this conclusion to the story. It breathes of agency. Leila has brought something to the table besides her broken and torn story. She has brought agency. She has brought faith. She has brought her deepest, most vulnerable self into the public arena of this dinner party as an uninvited guest. She has gathered up years, maybe a lifetime, of silent tears and cried her heart out in public for everyone to see. She has taken the risk that she might be welcomed or judged or both, and it was worth the risk.

When my health started tumbling further down in late 2013 during the final months of cancer treatment, I felt overwhelmed and without any control. I couldn’t plan anything. I didn’t know when I would be struck with hours of fevers and chills. I had already faced so much trauma, with cancer striking on the back of our oldest daughter’s breakdown and suicide. But one morning, I said to myself, “Every day, Mary, take agency for one thing. Just one thing. In that way, you can slowly reclaim your life.”

This made a difference. Each small act of taking agency gave me hope. And for Leila, agency made a difference, too.

Just when we feel overtaken by a major transition that is overwhelming, a death that is unexpected, a tragedy that is unmanageable, a health challenge that is relentless, we, too, can come to Jesus with our little bit of agency. We, too, can seek relief or at least a shoulder to cry on. We, too, can know his blessing, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Amen.

Peach Kuchen, Jesus, and the Spirituality/Mysteries of Meetings

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

John 6:53-68
August 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

I kept seeing peaches around different stores, Farmer’s Markets, road side stands, etc. And I knew that Kristen had promised dessert for last Tuesday night’s gathering to discuss the book A Path Appears. So my hopes were high that we might be eating Kristen’s peach kuchen, though I would not be disappointed whatever it was. But, I was right. The kuchen was wonderful. But that wasn’t the only feast that Kristen provided that night. The kuchen was the prelude and, for me, anyway also the postlude for another feast Kristen had prepared that evening.

Kristen encouraged us to read this book or watch the videos and came well prepared to lead us in a good and fruitful discussion of the topics the authors raised about the nature of charities and good works, some of the things that people are doing to make dramatic impacts in peoples’ lives, ways to help make charities more effective, and even some of the neuroscience behind giving.

Like most of our studies, discussions, and gatherings, folk had different responses to the reading and different expectations for our time together. This is Peace Community Church, after all. But our bodies and spirits were fed by that time together thanks to Kristen’s work. And it has all become a metaphor for me for the part of the story we read from John’s gospel this morning which is all about metaphor. Hopefully, our time together won’t be crushed by the piling of metaphors. So stay with me, and let’s try to keep this thing held up together.

This story from John’s gospel starts at the beginning of the sixth chapter where there is one of those feeding miracles performed by Jesus. The crowds like being fed by Jesus so they start thinking “Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we just make him our new king.” Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with that, so he leaves to be by himself. The disciples take a boat back to the other side of the lake and Jesus ends up meeting them on the boat, in the midst of a storm, about three or four miles from shore. So they didn’t lose anyone in the storm and they actually ended up picking up another passenger, Jesus, along the way. This is quite a story, but it is only the beginning.

The crowds either walk back around the lake, rather than on it like Jesus did, or take boats across when it gets light and the storms are over. But when they get to the other side, who do they see? Jesus. They can’t quite figure out how he got there because they knew he didn’t leave in the boat. But that doesn’t matter as much as the renewed possibility they now perceive of having found him again and getting their meal tickets punched. And the conversation is much more testy this time than the day before.

The people are starting to make demands. They start talking about how Moses provided manna in the wilderness and nobody was ever hungry. This is the opportunity, they argue, for Jesus to show who he really is. If he is so special, he can provide even better food than Moses.

“Exactly,” Jesus replies. “The food I provide is more than food for the body. I am here to bring something that nourishes souls and spirits. If we settle for manna or something like a daily special, then we have all missed the point. This thing, the Realm of God, goes so much deeper. What you need more than manna is to take in me. Eat of me. Drink me in.”

Now this is metaphor and they don’t get it. It sounds like cannibalism. It just sounds so weird. All they are wanting is some fish and loaves of bread every day. And they want it as easy as the children of Israel had the manna from Moses. Just got outside your tent and scoop it up.

Just and aside here. Some folk use this passage to argue that when you take Communion or the Eucharist that you are partaking of the real body and real blood of Jesus. But, this is metaphor. Jesus isn’t talking about anything like that. He is trying to get people to understand that there is something much more going on in this world than where the next meal comes from. It is another way of saying ‘follow me and together we will get to where we need to go.’

This was hard for all those thousands of people who were now considering themselves disciples of Jesus. They didn’t understand this whole business of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And even if they did, all they were really looking for was a free lunch. Every day. All this other stuff Jesus was talking about, like loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, forgiving each other, sharing what you have, no, they just wanted lunch.

So they start walking away, by the tens, the dozens, the hundreds. Jesus just pulled off the worst evangelism meeting ever. And after a little bit, instead of the thousands, it was just that handful of men and women who had been with him from the beginning. So Jesus asked them if they were going to leave to.

In a response that almost wants to make you cry, surely one of the most poignant moments in the Bible Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

There is a lot in this response. But the thing that strikes me is that Peter is not just speaking for himself. He is speaking for what’s left of the group. It’s not just that Peter and James and Mary and Martha and the others have each discovered the life that is in Jesus. They have discovered that together. And that is the essence of what it means to be church, to be discovering with each other the life that is in Jesus.

It’s not that Peter was saying they had burned their bridges and they had no place else to go. The bridges were still there and they could go back across any time they wanted. But what they were learning together was that if you are looking for life, you just keep walking with Jesus even if you have no idea where on earth he is going.

This is what Dan Clarenden writes in his journeywithjesus blog. In recognizing that they have come to the point where there is nowhere else to go, the community becomes smaller but tighter. They have looked at their options and no other option makes sense. Here for the first time, John speaks of the Twelve. The crowd has winnowed down to a few, and have become a community in communion with Jesus. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes:
It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. It is their professed willingness to follow Jesus Christ that renders them a community of faith. What a blessed word to remember as we agonize over mission statements, budget priorities, worship attendance, or other preoccupations of churchly life. It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), (WJK, 2009), p. 385.]

Every time we are at worship, or study group, or Communion Lunch, or Peace Potluck, or working with Families First or whatever it is we are doing, we are leaving those places we used to be behind, and finding together the life that is in Jesus. At our retreat last week, I proudly confessed I was a big fan of meetings. I just couldn’t contain myself after I heard person after person talk about how terrible meetings were. But Judy joined me when she said ‘meetings are magic.’ Things happen you never expect. Another way of saying it is that time and time again, I have seen the Spirit at work in our meetings. There is mystery and magic afoot when the people of Jesus are together and the Spirit is in their midst. That doesn’t mean that things are always smooth, that we don’t get off topic, or get boring. But time and again I have seen us end up at the most unexpected and helpful of places. And sometimes that is just getting us started somewhere, but it is the way of life, the way we need to be going.

People do not live by peach kuchen alone. As good as Kristen’s peace kuchen was, that meeting she prepared for us was better. The peach kuchen was the sign of something much deeper we were going to reach for that evening. And like those disciples, we sometimes take lots of twists and turns, have no idea of what’s going on or why things are happening the way they are rather than the way we expected, but we have come to trust and know that together we are finding life in Jesus.

Jesus, the Peach Kuchen of Life? Makes as much sense as the Bread of Life. It’s metaphor. And it’s all about the life, not the kuchen or the bread.

Mold us and Make Us

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Joyce Parker
Jeremiah 18:1-6
Aug. 9, 2015

God knows about work in process—just look at the natural world we know. Examples: Acorn & mighty oak, virus evolutions.’
Just look at us and think of human growth and development. What we continue to learn in about human history, health, healing, brain development, etc. boggles the mind!
Look anywhere and see change. Some change we like; some we don’t like.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said this: “There is nothing permanent except change.”
This morning we are using a favorite topic of mine—clay and the potter. Look with me at this lineup and think about transition. Think about change and the different stages of a simple thing like clay:
1) Ball of clay—In nature it was once molten or pressed, then hardened rock, then sand, then became microscopic particles as silt in a river eventually becoming beds of clay. Now it is soft and pliable and we call it clay.
It can be liquefied and poured into molds, or in this soft but firm state it can be thrown on a wheel, or pressed into a shape.
With this clay the possibilities seem endless—a work of art, a common bowl, or a toilet bowl.

2)Now this soft clay has been formed and then let dry out some. It has evaporated some water and it will keep its form. We can still do some bending, scratching, adding new parts, or crush it. It is called leather hard and it is definitely in a transition stage. We can dry it out completely OR we can add back the water and soften it again—or we can dry it & put it in the oven (KILN) and bring it to about 1500 degrees F and it is on its way to being stone again.
NOW pretend you are a pot. Remember that God, the Master Potter, may have additional qualities and effects that you could use for yourself and the environment you serve or care for. His kindom may need something in addition from you!
Maybe there is healing needed. Maybe courage needs more practice for confidence.
Maybe joy got buried in your life somewhere.
Maybe more work needs to be done—another change!
3)After it has been through the first firing (bisque) it is pourous like an unglazed terra cotta flower pot.. It is no longer flexible.
Let me give a side thought: We want to hang on to our core values but sometimes we just don’t want to be flexible.
(That happens to some of our minds when we say—or want to say—no more! I’m satisfied. Stop now, I’m OK and I don’t want to change again.)

4) So this is the once fired pot. Now the potter wants to put on a decoration. I may put on glaze for a design, smoke it in a barrel or do a different design techniques. If I need this vessel to hold liquid or to be put in the oven/microwave for food use, then it needs a glaze.
5) (Pick up the glazed unfired pot)
With the glaze material applied, the pot is ready for a higher firing. I do about 2,000 F in the kiln. It takes from 8-12 hours for the clay-stone glaze to become a glass quality surface and the clay body now becomes more vitreous.
As people what can we draw from this transition illustration? 1) Maybe I have been subjected to stress and strain in life. 2) Maybe someone has pulled the rug out from under me 3) Let’s say I have been in the fire again. I’m going to come out different than before all that happened. We make many personal changes as we live life.
Life has no guarantees. Pottery doesn’t either. My pot may turn out poorly—the glaze wasn’t mixed well or it had gotten altered and the potter didn’t know it. Or it may turn out beautifully and then I’m pleased—and the firing was so worth it. With experience, the wait, and a surprise may result. Now the pot can finally serve as a work of art, or a soup bowl, a pitcher, or a ceramic sink.
Vessels of clay and human souls have different qualities and all can be useful!
6 Some pots may be re-fired for another chance at usefulness or beauty.
Have you ever said “God is not through with me yet.”? There is always hope .
We can learn on our life journey. In Christian values we learn Love, mercy, forgiveness, patience, empowerment, hope.

We believe God has not given up on us. We have not given up on ourselves!
The Spirit can continue to mold and make us into vessels for spreading the Good News and to become better human beings who help others. The Holy Spirit can still do great things for us, in us, and through us. That Spirit is ready and waiting and able.

We are, after all, like lumps of clay at one stage or another. We can be molded or altered, or repaired. If we are clay, let us remember there is a Master Potter and the pottery shop.

In fact to think of the church as a Pottery Shop is not a bad analogy! Work goes on here that makes us into improved vessels so that we get sent out into the world for use!
If we want to be changed for the better, we have come to a good place. There is the skill of the Master Potter we usually call GOD or Christ, the Son. We can be changed and therein lies our hope—and the hope of the world. It’s called transition and growth.

Jeremiah 18: 1-6 is an analogy in the OT. The Lord gave a message to Jeremiah: “Go down to the shop where clay pots and jars are made. I will speak to you while you are there. So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.
Then the Lord gave me this message; O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand so are you in my hand.”

It is a good exercise for us Christian people, it seems to me, to think about our flexibility and whose hands we are really in. We have many tugs and pulls to consider as we make decisions for our priorities. So, for me, questions to myself are good. And as I see you, my Christian friends, making choices, that affects my thinking.

I read a daily devotion recently that used the Jeremiah scripture. The author took off on a thought about our attitudes. Chris Spicer wrote that the“angle of approach “ of an airplane landing is also one definition of attitude. “Attitudes are to life as the angle of approach is to flying. Attitude is the way we choose to think about things; attitudes will cause us to react and behave in a certain way. Attitudes are learned and absorbed reactions; therefore they can be changed.”

If we need to review attitudes, we have an excellent resource in Matt. 5. They are called the BE attitudes……

If I am open, the Spirit keeps working on me and shaping my attitudes and actions. I call them Christ-attitudes…. Christ-actions, and Christ reactions. It is not easy because we have an elemental first responses as part of our being human. So we mis-step all the time.

A pot is a thing and it has no attitude, it has no choice in what it becomes. IMAGINE–
If I were this pot, with a living and changing body, living and changing mind, and a living and changing spirit, I may have some real objections to the transitions expected! In fact the firing would be downright scary! As humans, we get scared!

Some changes are uncomfortable. They interrupt what we have grown accustomed to. What was predictable can no longer be predicted. Unwanted change confronts us with the fact that we only thought we had control. Examples may be control over our own attitudes, control over other people’s lives or even over life itself. We are confronted by our vulnerability and that is often very uncomfortable.

So if we often do not have the control we may think that we do, then the thing we need to think of is managing our transitions. How can we learn to accept the change? How can I practice being flexible? What can I do that will make this change be imbedded with hope, faith, and happy or promising possibilities? For myself and others!

Here’s another thought: When something changes something always ends.
(When this pot went to the fire, its past nature ended.) (When I dry this pot for firing I must let go of one of my favorite stages, the leather hard. I like its leathery feel and its possibilities for creative playing.) As a human parent, when our children learned to walk, we had to recognize their leaving baby-hood. Change and development had brought a new stage. And we would have to deal with it! Change is not made without inconvenience they say. But who would wish that their child would not walk and run!

So we have to accept some losses. That’s the way life happens. Endings are NOT to be neglected. They can be felt and talked about. We can help each other be realistic in our assessments of a change, even those being made at PCC. We may call it a small “T” transition. Hopefully, we can trust the process of change and the future with faith.

Beginnings have their own charm and challenge, for example: Getting ready for a new school year, planting a new garden area, fixing up a room, working on a healthier diet.
Just like the the beginnings with this ball of clay. Looks daunting doesn’t it. How does that become a vessel? The details are in the learning and experience. Experiment! Throw that ball of clay on the wheel. Learn! We can put our adaptable characteristic in the hands of the Master Potter. Let’s sum this message with words you probably know well:
(ball of clay)
Have Thine Own way Lord, Have thine own way.
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay;
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.