Archive for February, 2016

On The Way to Jerusalem

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016
Mary Hammond

As long as I can remember, my dad was a man on a mission. During his youth, he came perilously close to participating in an armed robbery with some buddies. When the two guys came knocking on the door that particular evening, my father opted to stay home. He had found a chemistry book in a trash can that day and poured over it all night long. From that point on, there was no turning back. With the help of a mentor named Smitty who recognized my dad’s potential, the rest of the story is history, although not without struggle.

As the sun began to set on my father’s life, he longed to give back what he had received. He hungered to impart his knowledge, wisdom, and hard-earned life lessons to those coming after him.

Many of us don’t have the opportunity to face death slowly, or even with an awareness that it is coming soon. But others do. And those who do may have the opportunity to use that time deliberately and thoughtfully, even if it is filled with increasing pain, limitations, and heartache.

The last year of his life, my dad had a sense that death was coming. One time that year, he was surprised to return home after being hospitalized. The next time, however, he did not. There was an intensity to the way he lived, and an intensity to the way he died.

Jesus comes to us in the Gospel stories as a man on a mission–not just in his life work, which he pursues with fidelity and intensity, but also as he sets his sights on that final trip to Jerusalem. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus skirts death more times than most of us ever notice in the biblical text. He is keenly aware of what awaits him down the road.

Life has a different feel to it, when we are face-to-face with death. Throughout the Gospels, we sense the pounding urgency of Jesus’ ministry; the fervor of the crowds who follow him and their fickleness; the confusion of the male disciples and their many foibles. We see Jesus withdrawing to seek Respite, Silence, and Rest–to the mountains, into the wilderness, at Mary & Martha’s home.

Danger lurks everywhere. Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by King Herod through the cunning manipulation of his wife Herodius and her alluring daughter, Salome (Mark 6:14-29). As time passes, Jesus has more and more conflicts with the Religious Elite.

It is in this context that we come to today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just confronted a group of Pharisees with their spiritual blindness. The time for niceties, if there ever was one, is past. He pulls no punches. Some of the Pharisees warn him that Herod is out to kill him. They tell Jesus that he should just cut and run.

Why this warning? Do some secretly support Jesus, like Nicodemus does in the Gospel of John (John 3:1-13)? Are these religious leaders functioning as “double-agents,” expressing their concern about his safety when their true motives are nefarious? Are these men hoping to avoid a showdown with Jesus in Jerusalem? Are they trying to protect their Temple turf, while simultaneously appeasing the Romans?

We do not know. But we do know that Jesus is neither intimidated nor deterred from his path by their words. He replies deftly and with conviction: “Go tell that fox: ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work’” (Luke 13:32). Foxes are known for their crafty, manipulative behavior. It is quite bold to call the Occupying King of one’s Occupied People a fox. And this man also ordered the execution of his cousin, John. Think about that for a moment.

Time is short for Jesus. The phrase, “today, tomorrow, and the third day” evokes the sense of urgency which he feels.

Jesus is a man on a mission. What prophet comes to his demise anywhere but in Jerusalem? As he speaks, it is as if the entire panorama of God’s work stands before him–timelessly, eternally. In this particular moment, Jesus sees himself as one among many of a long line of fallen prophets, not the One among the many.

Jesus then launches into what feels to me like a melange of proclamation, confession, and lament. It is all jumbled together in a mixture that seems appropriate for this time and hour in his life. He cries out with a depth of agony and love that echoes throughout the ages, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how many times I have wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!” (from Luke 13:34).

When a Mother Hen spreads her wings, her breast is left exposed. Yet, that very self-exposure protects her baby chicks. She is more vulnerable; they are more safe. It is a juxtaposition of two poignant, contrasting images—one for the chicks, another for the mother.

We could spend a long time on this image of Jesus as Mother Hen. Mystics have ruminated on it throughout the ages, reminding us that gender is not a primary category of the one we call Son of God. In fact, the phrase “Son of God” is the Greek is more accurately translated into English, “the Human One.”

Back to the lament itself. This passage strikes me most deeply when I yearn for something with all my heart and yet have no power to make it happen. I felt that so keenly, time and time again, raising our late daughter, Sarah–in her early adolescence, when we fought for her life through eleven hospitalizations followed by a year-long illness; during her first year of college, when she came within a hair’s breath of unraveling; at age thirty-three, when she had a complete breakdown and returned home shattered and weary, with no fight left in her spirit. And all those moments that connected those moments! How many times I cried out with my own prayers of lament, loving Sarah so much, longing to make her whole, yet being utterly incapable of this.

Our stories are all different, and we all have them. And yet the lament we share is the same lament. It is also the lament of Jesus. Even the Human One, the Incarnate One, cries out in stark words of agony, confessing his utter lack of agency. I find a strange comfort in knowing this.

Yet, there is hope at the conclusion of this text. Jesus affirms that the day is coming when the chicks will be gathered, when they will proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35b). For Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, that day remains in the future. Yet, his vision of it offers a testimony for us: what we see here in this moment is not the whole story, nor is it the end of the story.

Jesus remains faithful to God. He makes himself vulnerable for the sake of those he loves. He perseveres in spite of all odds. In a recent Facebook post, beloved PCC’er and Oberlin College alum, John Bergen, encourages his friends to “do something brave” for Lent. Fidelity, vulnerability, perseverance. That’s what I call “brave.” The world is crying out for that kind of brave. Amen.

Hearing Voices

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Luke 4:1-14
February 14, 2016
Steve Hammond

It’s a good thing Jesus heard that voice when he was baptized. “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” It wasn’t much later until Jesus was hearing a different voice. Let’s read that story now. It’s a responsive reading in your bulletin.

I am wondering if this season of the church year we call Lent isn’t about the voices we hear. Now I kind of play it pretty loose with the church calendar. I do have an understanding and appreciation for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. But, since I am not rooted in a liturgical tradition, I don’t particularly feel the need to adhere to some, or maybe even many, of the expectations about the appropriate ways to conduct ourselves and our worship during the different seasons of the church year.

Some of you have heard my story about the time years ago when several churches in town decided we were going to end all of our worship services on Palm Sunday of that year by processing to the bandstand area of Tappan Square and doing a short liturgy as we all got ready to move into Holy Week. I was the person who had been charged with the responsibility of creating that liturgy, which, it turned out, was not a decision that had been made with a lot of foresight. Palm Sunday is a high liturgical ground for lots of people. But, liturgically speaking, I am situated much closer to sea level.

I thought I put together a pretty good liturgy for the occasion. It was Palm Sunday which is, of course, a highly celebrative event. And, there is a good churchy word that is often used in our celebrations that nobody had told me we weren’t supposed to use during Lent. And I used it several times in the opening reading. It’s the ‘a’ word, or ‘h’ word if you know what I am talking about. I am about to say it, so I hope it’s not offensive to you. But, I am not going to make you to say it, as I did for the folk who were gathered that day because it came up time and time again in their response. That word is ‘alleluia,’ or ‘halleluiah.’ I didn’t know about that before the gathering. But I sure did afterwards. And, actually, I kind of felt worse for those who didn’t say anything than those who did.
I realize that such a liturgical blunder might be disconcerting to people, but that kind of thing is not a real big deal to me. I mentioned at the last Community Meeting is that one thing that is going to happen during Holy Week is that I am going to listen to an entire gospel in one sitting, and invite whoever wants to, to join me. Nobody in this congregation has given me any pushback about that other than some “a whole gospel?” “will there be a bathroom break?” “how long will that take?” kind of stuff. But I know I have friends and colleagues in town and other places that object to things like Christmas and Easter being dragged into Holy Week.

I am going to do it anyway, precisely because I think what Easter and Christmas and Epiphany and Pentecost and Lent are about are all about the whole year not just the various seasons of the church year where we highlight them. That, of course, is not my discovery. The most intense adherents to the traditions that come along with each of the seasons of the church year never claim that Christmas doesn’t matter just because it’s Pentecost. But they like to make sure Pentecost, Christmas, and all the rest get their fair share of attention.

Let’s get back to the voices Jesus was hearing. I think hearing those voices, however we hear them or describe them, the voice of God and the voice of the Devil are a constant in our lives. “You are my child,” we hear God say. “How do we know you aren’t a fraud?” comes from the Devil. And, of course, those devilish words that so often come into our lives at those points where we are weak, or struggling, or exhausted physically, or spiritually, or emotionally, or psychologically or a combination of some or all of the above.

During Lent, of course, there is a big emphasis on giving up something. And there are people who do that who aren’t what I would particularly call committed church folk. Giving up chocolate is particularly popular. Some people give up a TV show, or limit their online time, or texting during supper during Lent. That kind of stuff that leads to better health or better behavior or better habits is all fine. Self-improvement is always a good thing at any time during the year. But people are realizing, of course, that there must be more to Lent than it being some kind of self-improvement strategy, though. That’s why people are starting to figure out what they can add to their lives during Lent; things like helping out at the Food program, visiting their grandparents more, or making positive changes in their lives for the sake of the environment.

Adding something during Lent is all good, too. But in this story of Jesus responding to that voice of the Devil in the wilderness I see something much deeper going on. Maybe what we need to give up at Lent is the need for power, the need to prove ourselves before God and others. Maybe we need to give up the fear we can’t accomplish what we want to accomplish because we don’t have enough resources, however we define those resources. Maybe what we need to do during Lent, and continue all the way to the next Lent, and the Lent after that is to listen more carefully, more intentionally, more methodically for that voice Jesus heard in the river, not in the dry desert. “You are my child, marked and chosen by my love. Pride of my life.”

It was so important for what Jesus was about to do that he listen for that first voice because it would be telling him things so different than the second. And the thing is, that as much as we would like to think differently, it’s that second voice, the Devil in the wilderness that is the default for most of what goes on in this world. Both voices are always there, but Lent reminds us that we have to, more often than not, stop and listen for the first.

That second voice, just like it did for Jesus, always tells us that there is a better way, a way that makes more sense, a way that’s less of a hassle and gets more approval than whatever God is saying to us. It’s a voice that says you can make the system work for you, rather than going to all that effort to come up with a new system. “And you know,” the voice says, “nobody wants God working outside the system. Even if you listen to God’s voice, nobody will ever believe you, anyway. Just do it my way, Jesus. It works for me and everybody else.”

One of Gospel stories that illustrates this so well can be found in Luke 16. That’s where Jesus is talking to the folk about money. It’s the place where he says you can’t serve two masters, you will love the one and hate the other, you can’t serve both God and money. But here’s the response to that. It says it so well in The Message translation. “When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.” Jesus was giving us something from God, that first voice. But the Pharisees immediately gave voice to the second, the Tempter.

Jesus just said no. That voice in the desert wasn’t the one Jesus was going to listen to. It wasn’t the voice of life. Jesus knew that the voice of God was calling us to something better and it had to do with things like loving our enemies, forgiving each other, walking across the borders, tearing down the walls, putting our hope in God not our stuff, treasuring ourselves and each other. I noticed a theme that started with Jesus’ baptism. ‘As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.’ ‘Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild.’ ‘Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit.’ You can’t have Lent without Pentecost. Empowered by God’s Spirit, Jesus was much more enabled to hear that first voice. And the Spirit was with Jesus when that second voice was speaking.

When we hear that first voice more clearly, more constantly than that will, of course, have an impact on what we say. What comes out of us is likely to sound more like that first voice Jesus heard rather than the second. In Ephesians the Apostle Paul counsels us to “let no corrupt communications come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Now there’s a worthy Lenten discipline.

Some of you read that post from John Bergen that I put on the church’s facebook page about Lent. It’s pretty good. And he says Lent is his favorite season of the church year. I don’t hear that much. I always kind of chuckle to myself when I hear Mary tell somebody that Advent is her favorite season of the church year. And I think, “You and something like 94% of everybody else.” But I get what John is saying. Lent gives us the opportunity to hone our listening skills, and change how we talk. To hear what God is saying that is so contradictory to the voice of the Devil. Lent provides us the time to remember that God is calling us to something that is wonderful and dangerous and life giving. Lent is all about taking risks and moving not toward death, but resurrection.

As I alluded to in my Lenten confession, I think we have to get past the hyper individualism that Lent can seem to encourage. What if this business of Lent, of listening to God’s voice and setting our faces toward life, isn’t simply about me or you or somebody else, but all of us? What if Lent is about this church, about the bigger church, empowered by the Spirit, listening together for the voice of God, the church, not just me or you, rejecting that second voice? What if Lent is that reminder that we take this wonderful and dangerous journey, that God keeps telling us about, together?

Hearing voices? Of course you are. The voices are there all the time, telling us much different things. But Lent reminds us to keep listening for the first voice no matter how loud, or constant, or present or persistent the second is. Listening for that first voice is, I think, a Lenten discipline worthy of pursuit and something worth celebrating. Can I get an amen and alleluia?

[I began the service with this]

Lenten confession

I have to confess, as we gather on this first Sunday of Lent, that I have some reservations about whether the whole idea of Lent is really a good thing. Mary and I have been talking about this.

First of all, I don’t want to dismiss the real value that any of you, and a whole bunch of other people, in all kinds of times and places, have found in pursuing a deeper spiritual life during Lent. Going deeper, exploring confession and repentance, making positive changes in your relationships with God and people and the environment are all worthy things. But here is where my discomfort comes.

Now granted I haven’t done a whole lot of research on this. But I have read that Lent didn’t come along until later in the traditions because there was a feeling that Christians were getting complacent and needed some prodding, or even scolding, that something like Lent could provide. Here is something Ken Sehested wrote. “Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary. There was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.”

Giving people a bit of a spiritual kick in the butt is not a particularly bad idea, but here is where it can get bad. The folk who need to take it seriously, are often, the ones who don’t. But the ones who aren’t particularly among those who have been ho-hum about their faith are the ones who do take it seriously and there can be lot of unnecessary self-flagellation going on because they feel like, as hard as they try, they just aren’t good enough.

It’s kind of like the Good Citizen thing that used to happen in the schools. It was a program designed to encourage the kids whose behavior could use some improving. But the kids who took it most seriously were the ones whose behavior was great, but the message was it was not good enough. I fear that too much of what Lent is about is that you aren’t good enough.

Another concern I have is that in this hyper-individualistic culture of ours, Lent feeds into that whole idea that it’s all about me, and doesn’t have much to do with this being about us. I have to examine myself more rigorously. I have to get my act with God more together. I have to take care of my salvation. To me, that can just reinforce that building community is, at best, a nice option for us, but what really counts is me and God.

And related to that concern is that I don’t understand how the story of Lent, which is essentially Jesus turning his face toward Jerusalem to face what he knew he would face there, became something not about Jesus, but about us. How Jesus lived his life may be something worth examining during Lent, at least, as much as we examine how we live ours.

And finally, I am not sure what giving up candy during Lent, or watching less TV has to do with following Jesus. That kind of thing is good to do, but if that is what captures the essence of Lent for folk, that leaves it all feeling a bit empty for me. And even if there is a bit more to it in our spiritual disciplines like being nicer to our little brother, visiting our grandparents more, or shoveling the next door widow’s walk, I’m still not convinced that we are reaching into the depths of the sacrifice Jesus made, nor the kinds of sacrifices people are making in this world, not because they choose to, but because of what is being imposed on them by our political, economic, social, and religious forces.

This is something I found in the Huffington Post by ecotheologian Jacob Erikson. “Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of people who are surprised and grateful for the strange sacrifices they take up during Lent. But there are moments when some Lenten practices feel like vaguely pious, individualistic, New Year’s resolutions. They begin to fall by the wayside quickly, and don’t really open up our imaginations to thinking life differently.
“Lent, for me, is not about (and has never been about) sacrifice or penance or appeasing some unexamined heritage. It’s about interrogative love, passionate justice, and learning how to wonder again in the midst of all the awful, awful sadness. It’s about asking how beauty might occur in the midst of our fragile, decaying lives. It’s about creating new songs, stories, images scribbled in dust and ash that reexamine what human beings can be for the life of each other and the life of the planet. The short-shrift harmonies we sometimes manage to sing never are pure or clear, and the words and questions often grate against our ears with their grittiness. But Lent is about the questioning, the ambiguity of grit and glory.”

So that’s my Lenten confession. I go into Lent hoping that I will keep my ears attentive to hear the voice of God in all the ways it comes. And that, I hope, will have an impact on what people hear coming out of me. At the same time, though, I am going to approach Lent with my eyes a bit more widely open because, in spite of so many good intentions, there might be some unintended consequences.

Epiphanies in Light and Shadow

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

John 12:35-36
February 7, 2016
Mary Hammond

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate the season of Epiphany more and more. It is a Season of Light, Revealing, Manifestation. This theme of “Light” is elemental to scripture from the first verses in the Book of Genesis, “Let there be light,” (see Genesis 1:1-3) to the final chapter of the Book of Revelation, “…they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (see Rev. 22:1-5).

John’s Gospel speaks deeply and often about Light. We read one such passage in unison today. Hear it once again, as I read it slowly: “For a brief time, the light is among you. Walk by the light you have, so darkness doesn’t destroy you. If you walk in darkness, you don’t know where you’re going. As you have the light, believe in [trust] the light. Then the light will be within you, and shining through your lives. You’ll be children of light” (John 12:35-36).

I recently spent about two weeks contemplating these verses over and over, letting them wash over me and get inside me. Let me share today a little of what I have seen.

“For a brief time,” Jesus begins, “the light is among you.” What powerful words!

Can you imagine, being there with Jesus, interacting daily with his startling, radiant light? We can get all warm and fuzzy about this possibility, but most of the time, it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy experience at all. His disciples were slow to understand and quick to compete with one another. They were ready to dismiss all sorts of people–a group of children, a Gentile woman, a blind beggar, even a whole town! Furthermore, nearly all our understanding of Jesus’ relationships with his disciples is based on his interactions with the twelve men who, with Jesus, take center stage in the ongoing Gospel stories. Yet, there were those moments of wonder and awe when the twelve sensed the luminous reality that they were truly in Holy Presence. We have those moments, too.

Each of us encounter people who are so full of light, we simply just love being around them. I worked as a Nurse’s Aide at a Nursing Home during the summers when I was in college. There were lots of crotchety elderly people who lived there and complained about everything. There were also severely physically disabled younger men whose behaved badly around the female aides. There were folks in all states of misery, loneliness, physical and emotional pain.

Then there was Mrs. Bussee. All the aides wanted to be assigned to her. She appreciated us; she was delighted to see us and grateful for every bit of care she received. She just radiated.

There was something else unique about this woman. She talked about Jesus like he was her best friend, with her all the time. I had grown up in the church, yet I had never heard anyone talk about Jesus the way she did.

Mrs. Bussee was tall, frail, and thin. One day, I was transferring her from her room chair to a wheelchair. In an instant, the transfer went terribly wrong. She fell flat on the floor, face-up. I was terrified. I had no idea how badly she was injured. Yet with her radiant smile, she looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Jesus is taking care of me.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Bussee was OK. Once again, I saw her shine. That changed me, just a little bit, every time I took care of her. It had a cumulative effect on my searching, 18-year old self.

Jesus continues, “Walk by the light you have, so darkness doesn’t destroy you. If you walk in darkness, you don’t know where you’re going.”

The truth of our lives is that sometimes we do walk in darkness, and sometimes it does seek to swallow us whole Who hasn’t known that experience? Sometimes we absolutely don’t know where we are going. Ken Medema has a song that begins, “What am I doing here? I don’t seem to recognize the words they’re saying.” He’s singing about sitting at church, going through the motions, but feeling like nothing is making sense. Who has never had that experience?

Sometimes darkness is pregnant and full, slowly gestating the dawn of new life within us. And sometimes it simply hurts like hell. Yet, Jesus calls us to always walk by the light we have, however dim or strong. It may surround us in dazzling radiance, beckon us from a distance, or tease us with nothing more than a promise and a call to fidelity and perseverance. We can only walk by the light we have. And that, my friends, is enough.

Jesus continues, “As you have the light, believe in [trust] the light.”

The past couple years, we have been talking here and in Study Group about how the word “believe” as translated from Greek to English in scripture is really better translated “trust.” Our western enlightenment heritage too often associates “belief” or “believe in” with intellectual assent. “Trust,” however, is a more active word. It beckons our whole orientation of life toward one direction. To trust the light is to trust the One who is Light.

Jesus concludes, “Then the light will be within you, and shining through your lives. You’ll be children of light.”

There is a direct correlation between trusting the light and radiating the light ourselves. Mrs. Bussee trusted the light. She immersed herself in the light. She meditated on the light. She loved the light. And her light shined. Like Mrs. Bussee, we can be children of light.

I managed to take another Quiet Directed Retreat at River’s Edge in Lakewood recently. Anyone in northeast Ohio realizes that the winter sky is gray most of the time—brooding, hovering gray. But the first night I was there, I watched a gorgeous sunset replete with purples, pinks, grays, and oranges. The final morning of retreat, I went out before dawn to simply watch the sky. It was astonishing.

The sunrise began in the east, but it was one of those special days when the colors also reflected in the west. For about 30 minutes, the light show changed in hue, intensity, and location every couple minutes. I could barely keep up as I walked back and forth from the east driveway to the parking lot, then back again. By the grand finale, there was this huge, thick swath of pink nearly wrapping itself around the whole retreat complex. My Spiritual Director told me a couple years ago that pink is the color for “unconditional love.” I don’t know where that came from, but it has meant a lot to me over the years, watching the sky and needing some reminders about deeper spiritual truths.

The rhythms of sunrise and sunset themselves sing this Song of Jesus, a song of bearing light in the darkness. That morning, even the sky was a “child of light.”

As we conclude the Epiphany season–this time of illuminating, revealing, and unmasking–may we embrace the light we have with rich thanksgiving. May we trust that light. Maybe we walk in it. May we Shine. Amen.