Thursday, December 09, 2010

Interfaith Opening & Closing Blessings

Last night I was part of the "WinterFest" celebration at the women's college in the town where I pastor. Knowing that although it would probably be fairly Christmassy, the students are of a myriad of faiths and no faith, I wanted to keep my parts--the opening and closing blessings--fairly universal or even neutral. Below is what I came up with. Please feel free to use and adapt to your needs, just give me credit.

Opening blessing:

Let us gather.

Let us gather and be warmed, protected from the cold and wind.

Let us gather and be brightened, awash in light as the days grow ever shorter.

Let us gather and be still, free for a moment from the busyness of holidays, finals, and end-of-semester preparations.

Let us gather and be energized, allowing word and song to soothe and awaken our souls.

Let us gather and be present, here in this place and time, open to whatever may move us.

Let us gather, and may our gathering be blessed.

Closing blessing:

May we depart from this place having been blessed with warmth, light, stillness, energy, and presence, and may we go forth to bring the same blessings into the world.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Unexpected Guidance

Last night, I went to Hartford, CT with a neighbor/clergy friend of mine to the premier of a documentary entitled, "The Calling" (scheduled to air on PBS around Dec. 20-21). The film follows seven Muslims, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and Jews on their journey to becoming clergy. Two former Hartford Seminary students--at least one of whom was featured in the film, and both of whom are now Muslim chaplains--were on hand to answer questions.

I went thinking it would be interesting to hear about others' sense of call, and especially from the perspective of other faiths. I did not expect the Holy Spirit to use the opportunity to offer me guidance.

See, I recently sent in an application for a part-time job at a local supermarket. Although I know it'd be a stretch time- and energy-wise, I could use the money, and I could handle it for a few months if it meant I could pay down some of my debt. Our church budget is not looking great for this year, which means no pay raise, and our health insurance premium is going up, so I'll actually be getting a pay decrease. I'm already stretched to my limit. I hadn't even heard anything from the store, but I was wrestling with my decision. Was I not trusting God to lead me through this? Was it really worth the loss of most of my free time--which I've been trying to dedicate to art?

My first clue that the Holy Spirit might be wanting to get my attention was in the film. A young socially-active rabbi quoted Lila Watson, an aboriginal activist--the same quote that is the focus of my next project. I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

At the very end of the evening, when most audience members had slipped out the door, the host asked the two panelists to give a closing reflection. He asked the woman to go first. She hesitated for quite a few seconds before picking up the microphone. "You've caught me very much off guard," she told him. She began by talking about how many of us are stuck at 9-5 jobs, or jobs we don't like, but maybe we do it for good reasons. This made me immediately think of my grocery store application--that's how I'd feel about it. I thought, "Ok, I'm with you."

Then she said, "But God has given us each talents."

Um, wait, what? My heart thudded. Was she talking to me? Was she giving me the message that I'm supposed to use my talent?

She spoke a little more about using the talents that God has given us, and said some things about being on the job.

And then the clincher: she ended by saying, "Each of us has the opportunity to be great."

My heart gave one last big thud. Just that afternoon, I'd posted some thoughts on greatness as the "status" of my shop's Facebook page.

It seemed very clear to me that the Holy Spirit had taken advantage of a woman with no prepared words. I went up to her afterwards and shared that I felt the Spirit had worked through her in her moment caught off guard to offer me guidance with a question in my life. She laughed and hugged me, and said she was only the vessel. I told her I well understood that feeling, and thanked her for being open to be such a vehicle.

I guess I won't be taking that supermarket job after all.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Collar Experiment

It's the first day of a new month, which I often use as a jump-start for trying to cultivate habits (like starting to run again) or trying something new. Today, I'm starting a week-long experiment which, depending on results, may stretch out to include the entire month: I'm wearing my clerical collar (for those readers who are not so churchy--it's the tab collar most often worn by priests).

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ, generally a fairly "low-church" denomination. You don't often see UCC pastors wearing clerical collars. I know a few who only tote them out when they want to clearly be designated as clergy--at protests, for instance.

I bought my clergy shirt and little white plastic tab insert a few months ago, and have yet to wear it. Reflecting on what I told my congregation in my sermon last week about being more active and present in the community, I wondered what it might be like to go about my day to day with this visible sign of my profession.

So far, I've been holed up in my office, so no one has seen it yet. I'll admit I'm more nervous about the reaction of church staff and congregation than I am about wearing it in public.

Stay tuned for updates as The Collar Experiment progresses...

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My First Home?

I am in love.

The sweetest house is for sale in my neighborhood. Right now, I'm a renter, and though I my landlord is great, and my apartment is cute (wood floors, fireplace, stained glass), it's not mine. I can paint, but not strip all the white paint off the wood doors. I can have a little garden in the backyard, but not fix the worn-down back porch. Of course, these are certainly small things. And I know that the responsibility that comes with home ownership is huge--no landlord to turn to when, say, the radiator is spurting water 2 1/2 feet up my dining room curtain.

But I LOVE this house. It's been on the market for a few months now, and I've been drooling since I first saw the sign in the front yard. Since I moved into my apartment, I've thought that if I did eventually buy, I'd want it to be in the same neighborhood--featured in This Old House magazine recently. It's full of old, beautiful houses, big old trees, right on a huge park, and friendly people. The house I want is actually located across the street and two houses over from the two neighbors I've become friends with (one of whom is also a single female UCC pastor who adopted--go figure!).

This house needs a little updating, but clearly has "good bones." I'm also not a person who likes a "move-in ready" house. I enjoy DIY projects and putting my own style and personality in things--and that can be done slowly, over time.

The biggest stumbling block between me and this house, however, is the down payment. I've got nothing, and with the market crash and reports of bad mortgages, banks are very wary of making those kinds of loans (as am I in requesting one). I've taken the first few steps--cut back on my monthly expenses ("bye bye" cable, home internet, and iPhone), getting intentional about paying down my debt (I paid off two credit cards this month!), and working to build my "liturgical lovely" shop on Etsy to earn extra money. However, that down payment is still pretty far away.

That's where you come in. More than one person, in response to my dilemma, has suggested fundraising or "taking an offering" to help me clear this hurdle. Being a big believer in community and helping each other out, I'm taking their suggestions. Below is a button you can click that will allow you to donate to "Beth's Down Payment Fund" through PayPal. I haven't figure out how yet, but I will thank each donor in some special way.

I woke up this morning with visions of car washes and lawn-raking dancing through my head. I'm willing to work hard towards my goals, but also willing to ask for help, knowing that I'll get the chance to do the same for others some day, and that many hands make light work. Or, as one friend said, "Every little bit helps."

Thank you, and God bless.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living the Good Life

Sermon preached on Sunday, September 26, 2010 based on 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your most recent note. I will be sure to forward it on to the other members of our community. It may also help to post it on Facebook so that it can reach as many people as possible. However, I have a feeling that there will be some strong reactions to your words, so I just want to clarify a few things. I want to be prepared with some responses when people share their questions and concerns with me.

So of course the biggest argument will be: what’s so bad about money? (This is not my question; I’m just stating what I think others will ask). I mean, as much as we may not like to admit it, it does make the world go around. You said we should be content if we have food and clothing, but it takes money to get those things, right? And let’s be honest, money can be a lot of fun: it can provide us all kinds of entertainment—sports games, theater, movies, books, concerts, television; it take us to different places all over the world; help us relax on vacation; makes life easier with gadgets, appliances or just getting to and from where we need to go in a timely and comfortable manner.

I also think people might not understand what you mean by “storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” by doing good and being generous. Isn’t that what 401(k)s, pension plans, and retirement portfolios are for—creating a good foundation for the future? I think some might argue that working hard in order to make a lot of money or investing in endowment funds also sets a good foundation for the future by helping to assure that the next generations of our families and communities are cared for. I don’t think that’s exactly what you mean, but I have a feeling others might be confused about that.

And lastly, I really love the phrase that follows your statement about the future: “so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” It’s beautiful, but could you explain it in a bit more detail? What IS the life that really is life? How can we recognize it?

Yours in Christ,


Dear Timothy,

I knew there was a reason I liked you—you ask great questions! I think you are right that there could be strong reactions to what I wrote before, but I wouldn’t worry about that. Truth and wisdom are often hard for people to accept, and let’s face it, Christ never said that following where he leads would be easy—just the opposite, in fact. Besides that, it’s hard for most people to break away from the status quo. There’s a sense of safety and security in going along with society’s established norms, and a feeling that contentment will come with achieving what our culture labels success.

But see, therein lies the problem. We are placing our hope for security and contentment in the wrong places.

In answer to your first question, there is nothing wrong with money itself. People who say, “money is the root of all evil” are misquoting me. If you read my letter closely, you’ll see that what I said was, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” You are correct when you say that we need money to obtain necessities like food and clothing and shelter—and for some of life’s pleasures, as well. The problem starts when our focus is on being rich, when we make money or worldly goods the central hope or desire of our lives. One needs to look no further than reality television to see what craziness ensues when the potential for a large sum of money is on the line. People risk bodily harm, public embarrassment, the ruin of relationships—sometimes even their lives—to try and get rich. A book called The Day America Told the Truth states that in one survey, 25% of people asked would abandon their entire families in exchange for 10 million dollars. 16% would leave their spouses. 7% would kill a stranger. See, that, Tim, is a problem.

Even for those who wouldn’t go to such an extreme can struggle when the desire for money gets in the way of time spent with loved ones or prevents us from being in the world in the way Christ calls us to be. We believe all the books and the advertisements and the workshops that tell us that money will solve our problems. If we just had more money, we wouldn’t be as stressed, wouldn’t have to worry so much, would be so much happier. And it is somewhere along these lines where many who are already blessed with a bigger bank account falter, by “setting their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” as I said in my last letter, instead of God. Actually, this is not limited to those who already have money. Many, many people have fallen into the trap of spending money they don’t have yet, putting themselves into debt with the presumption that the money to pay it back will be there in the future.

I hope that if we have learned anything in the last few years, it’s that the security of money can be gone in an instant. Many people found that 401(k)s and pensions are no guarantee when the market crashed right before they planned on retiring. Stable, secure jobs suddenly were uncertain or gone. A huge bank that “could not fail” was allowed to collapse. Houses bought as a secure investment were suddenly worth less than the money owed to the banks holding the mortgage.

All this is to say, Tim, that our focus should not be on making money but on serving God. Jesus tells us to strive first for the kin-dom, and all our needs will be given to us. I’m not saying that retirement portfolios or savings accounts or investments or even higher incomes are bad, per se; what I want to make clear is that we should not work so hard to lay the foundation of our future with them that we neglect generosity, compassion, the pursuit of justice and righteousness, godliness and good works, cultivating relationships, which lay the foundation for the future of God’s kin-dom and our eternal lives with God. Does that make sense?

And as for what I am suggesting with the phrase “the life that really is life,” I think in some ways that is up for each of us to answer, but be sure it has little to do with money. During his ministry, Jesus often took phrases or ideas which were common and turned them on their heads, so let me do likewise with the phrase, “living the good life.” Usually this brings to mind images of big houses, flashy cars, private jets, expensive toys, maybe a swaying hammock on a pristine beach somewhere. Actually, that last one doesn’t sound so bad! But what if living the good life—living the life that really is life—meant receiving an adoring smile from a child who trusts you because you’ve given him time and attention. Or holding an elderly woman’s hand while she dies to make sure she knows she’s not alone. Or using your God-given gifts and talents to make the world more beautiful, more peaceful, or simply ore interesting. Or taking a walk with someone you love on a crisp autumn day and listening to the sound of leaves crunching under your feet. Or pushing your body further than you ever thought possible. Or reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm in a time of despair and knowing without a doubt that God is with you as your comforter and protector. Or being part of a church where you can be honest, and share, and step outside your comfort zone to take a risk in safety and love. Tim, I’m sure you and the members of your community could add more of your own, based on how each of you find joy and contentment and connection to each other and to God. It is not about being rich in money or possessions, but being rich in love, faith, godliness, endurance, gentleness, and righteousness. This is what it means to live the good life, the life that really is life.

I hope this makes things more clear.

Grace be with you,


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gay is Not An Insult

This Monday we had our first middle school youth group meeting of the new program year. There were eight kids there, in grades 6-8. Due to some struggle with being heard over multiple conversations going on, I decided to quickly insert "Rules of Engagement" into our plan for the night. We looked over the youth covenant that hangs on the wall, and then tried to lay out some practical rules for how to follow the more general thoughts of confidentiality, support, respect, etc.

One I made sure was up there was "gay is not an insult." I've noticed through Facebook pages and overheard conversations that kids in this town--like many across the country--use the word "gay" to insult each other. It usually has very little to do with sexuality at all; it's just a generic way to tease someone, and it's often used among friends, usually as a synonym for "stupid." However, I absolutely refuse to have that occur in my youth groups, and I think it's especially appropriate to spell it out as our church begins the Open and Affirming process.

A couple minutes after I'd written that rule on the notepad, after we'd gone on to add another couple rules amidst much joking and horsing around, one of the kids (who clearly had not been paying attention) looked up and said, "But gay is an insult."

I paused a moment, and said conversationally, "No, we shouldn't be using that word to insult each other." He pushed a little harder, saying politely, "But it is." So I replied, "Not in here it's not." "He seemed a little confused, and said, "No, there's another meaning to it."

It finally dawned on me that he wasn't trying to argue values; he actually had heard the word used that way enough that he concluded there were just multiple meanings. One meaning refers to sexuality; the other means stupid.

This shouldn't have been news to me. I had a similar experience in middle school. The word we used was "queer"--but with the local accent, it sounded like "qwaih" (as in, "you're wicked qwaih"). It wasn't until I went to high school that I realized what we had been saying. On a break home, my sister used that word, and I called her on it. I asked her how to spell that word. (Let me just say that my sister is extremely intelligent). "Q-U-A-R-E," she replied. That was logical--that's what you'd assume if you took the accent away. I corrected her, we argued, she looked it up in the dictionary. Bingo. We'd been using a slur without even realizing it. As far as I know, she never used that word that way again.

I realized this was a great learning opportunity for these eight kids. I quieted the others down, and gave a short explanation as to the history of why that word was used as an insult, and why we shouldn't use it that way. They seemed to get it. I felt a little bad for putting that one kid on the spot, but I thanked him for saying what he had so that we could talk about it.

I plan on bringing the topic up again later this year, because I think it's a really important subject worthy of some quality time.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Demands or Delights?

This sermon was preached on August 29, based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Trying to be a good Christian can seem exhausting sometimes. There are all the rules to follow: the ten commandments that Moses receives, plus that new commandment about loving one another that Jesus gives before he dies, among all the other lists of rules and laws and instructions. It’s tiring trying to learn them all, nevermind to try and not break any. Then there are all the people in the media who are telling us that most of the things we’re doing or thinking or may think soon are damning us all to hell. So if you believe them, you become exhausted from the fear of God’s—or a commentator’s—wrath and trying to make people change. If you disagree with them, you spend your energy being angry with them and on trying to make people see that they don’t speak for all Christians. Of course all of this gets paired up with exhaustion from guilt—whether its’ from breaking a rule or being sinful or not working hard enough to fight for justice, that guilt can be heavy.

Some of you may remember a sermon I preached not so long ago in which I spoke about the word “should.” I think this passage, if one is not careful, could easily lead us down the path paved with shoulds, the guilt-inducing feeling of “something should be happening, and it’s not” (or, in the case of injustice being done, things that should not be happening, but are). Now, this is not always a path to avoid. Too often we don’t want to feel the guilt so we ignore the problems around us altogether. Remember the bent-over woman from last week? Sometimes we need a little nudge to pay attention. Those guilt-inducing shoulds can often lead us into action

In my web browsing this week, as I visited multiple sites geared toward preachers, many were taking this angle with these two texts. Now, clearly these other preachers are all serving churches very un-like our dear First Church, because they were gearing up to preach about radical hospitality, and forgoing the love of money and being content with what we have, remembering those who are imprisoned, and inviting those on the margins to banquets instead of people with high societal standing—with, of course, the underlying message that those are the things that should be happening, and are not—or not enough. Obviously, that message doesn’t apply to our church, right? Ahem.

Anyway…I started taking notes about my thoughts for this sermon, heading in the same direction as these other preachers. This type of sermon generally gets me fired up. I feel like I am following in a great tradition of prophetic speech, from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marian Wright Edelman. I get fired up to do God’s work and light a fire under other people’s…seats to do the same. I get energized, and it’s generally not very positive energy. It’s usually more a righteous anger, a frustration with systems which keep people from being free to fulfill their full potential as God’s creation, a lamentation that even now, many millennia after prophets first began telling people that God’s wish for Her people is justice, and mercy, and righteousness, that we still allow and take part in the oppression of others…a burning desire to make things different. This is where I thought the Spirit was taking me, along with many other preachers around the world.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. (Now, there’s a good idea for a musical!) I re-read the texts and my notes and I found myself really, really happy. Gleeful. Giddy. Excited. Because all a sudden, instead of seeing these words as a mandate of what we are supposed to doing or a scolding of how we should be practicing our faith, it became clear that these words are also a blessing. Instead of demands, I saw them as delights.

We get to practice a faith which tells us to continue in mutual love. Dr. King encouraged this when he said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is usually the part of the quote with which people are familiar, but he went on to say, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”[1] Another person also explains this beautifully. She is an Australian Aboriginal woman named Lila Watson, and when meeting with mission workers, she told them, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” What an amazing idea, that our liberation is bound up with others’, and vice versa. We depend on each other. Yes, that means we have some responsibility towards others, but that also means others have responsibility towards us. Yes, it means putting energy into loving others, but mutual love means that we receive just as much love back.

We get the privilege of showing hospitality to strangers, and possibly even meeting angels! The writer of this letter is probably referring to Abraham, who welcomes three strange men to his home, feeds them and lets them wash, and they turn out to be messengers from God who bring the news that Sarah will have a baby. We could also stretch this a little, based on Matthew 25, to say “some may have entertained Christ without knowing it.” Even if we don’t meet angels, though, we get to meet someone new. Take a moment to look around the sanctuary at the people gathered here. Every single person in this church was at some point—and maybe still is—a stranger to someone else here. Our friends, our significant others, our brothers and sisters in this family of Christ, were once strangers to us. This is not just a “do this,” but also a “you shall receive.” We don’t need to know you to pray for you. This church has been praying for a 2-year-old girl named Rylie since January, and not one of us has met her. That’s Christian hospitality. Recently some members of the church who don’t come very often were ill and needed help with meals. Not many of those who cooked and delivered the meals knew the couple, but they were happy to do so. Think of all that has been done for total strangers in Louisiana and Mississippi in the five years since Hurricane Katrina hit. How amazing is it to know that these are things we get to do because our faith calls us to it?

Forget feeling guilty. While we certainly need to work on its implementation in this world, let’s celebrate the fact that at Christ’s banquet, all are welcome, and we as followers of Christ get the privilege of telling those who are on the margins, those who most need God’s love, those who feel most excluded, that they’re on the invitation list. In fact, they get VIP status. We get to be like Ed McMahon, except instead of going just to people’s homes, we go everywhere, but especially to homeless shelters and soup kitchens and afterschool programs and detention centers and prisons and hospitals. And instead of a big check, we present grace and a place at the table. How awesome is that?

Is this all easy? No! Of course not! But not much worthwhile is. Think of peace talks, getting people out of gangs, raising a child, accompanying someone at the end of life, sustaining a relationship, finding a cure for a disease, standing up for what’s right. Welcoming the stranger, remembering the prisoner, inviting the marginalized to the table, all that makes us vulnerable, and that’s scary. Ooh, but here’s where that happiness comes in again, because that writer of Hebrews reminds us of God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God will never leave us or forsake us. I think that’s worth repeating one more time: God will never—NEVER--abandon you. You are never left on your own. This promise then gives us the confidence to say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Sounds an awful lot like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

So not only do we get to do and say and be all these great things as Christians, but our faith also assures us that God accompanies us through it all. So, maybe trying to meet all the demands of being a good Christian is exhausting sometimes, but other times—many, many other times—it’s exhilarating and uplifting and inspiring—breathing life into us. We get to be a blessing to others, and in turn are richly blessed. Let us lift up our praise for such delights, and let the whole church say, “Amen!”

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in John Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, New York: Random House, Inc, 2007, p. 203.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Now Is The Time--Luke 13:10-17

Many have asked for it, so here is the sermon I preached Sunday, August 22 based on Luke's story of Jesus healing a bent-over woman on the sabbath.

I want to start this sermon with a practice used by faithful people for generations: confession. I want to confess to all of you…that I am a procrastinator. I have made an art of procrastinating, in fact. I’ve been doing it all my life. I sometimes joke that since I was born 11 days past when I was due to be born, I procrastinated even from the womb. I was that kid in elementary school who would wait until the day before a big project was due to tell my parents I needed to pick a topic, research it at the library and create a diorama to bring to class. In college, being a morning person, I’d often go to bed at a reasonable hour, wake up early the next morning when a paper was due, and write it the day of. Finding ways to avoid or put off doing what needs to be done is easy for me. Seminary paper to write? Perfect time to clean out the closet in the lounge. Sermon to write? You know, I think I’ll start this sewing project I’ve been meaning to get to for a few years. Research to do? Yes, I think I will bake bread! And on and on.

Oh, I know I’m not alone. In fact, I know very few people who are speaking honestly when they say they don’t procrastinate, people who never put things off until a “better” time, until they’re more prepared, until everything is just right. Psychologists will tell you that procrastination is often linked to perfectionism, which is why people who do it need deadlines—otherwise nothing would get done, as everything would be put off until the person is ready, the research is exhausted, the situation is perfect and there is no chance of failing. Not now, we protest, with any number of excuses; maybe tomorrow will be the right time. Let me do something else and try to ignore what I know needs to be done.

Now Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Now by this time, Jesus was probably getting pretty well known. He had declared Isaiah’s prophecy about being anointed with God’s Spirit to have been fulfilled in him. He had healed quite a few people, calmed a storm at sea, and told many parables to his disciples and gathered crowds. So we can imagine that if Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, there were probably a lot of people there to hear him. And maybe it wasn’t a service, like we have here, where everyone is gathered in the same place and listening to one person. Maybe they’d had their regular Sabbath service already, and Jesus was simply teaching something extra, so that while many were gathered around to hear him, others were simply going on about their business. And so perhaps that is why this woman just “appears” to Jesus. Certainly as bent over as Luke describes her, she probably wasn’t moving very quickly. But perhaps the crowds just happened to part the right way all of sudden, and there she is, bent over and “quite unable to stand up straight.”

Jesus could have ignored her. He was in the middle of teaching—maybe even right in the middle of a sentence. It was crowded; he could have simply pretended he hadn’t seen her. It would’ve been easy enough to do. As far as we can tell, she wasn’t seeking him out. He so easily could’ve acted like he never even knew she was there. Haven’t we all done that at one time or another? Averted our eyes away from what makes us uncomfortable or what we just don’t want to deal with? Another confession: there were many times on the subway in New York when I’d deliberately put on my earphones and pull out a book to avoid the person coming down the aisle asking for money. If I could pretend I didn’t see the person, I could continue the act and tell myself I hadn’t, actually. I’d been listening to my music, hadn’t heard the story of a lost job, apartment eviction, hungry kids and waiting for benefits. I’d been reading my book, hadn’t seen the outstretched hand. I had an excuse.

Jesus had plenty of excuses, but he didn’t use them. Instead, he stops what he’s doing when he sees the woman. Now Luke puts three actions in one sentence—he sees her, he calls her, he spoke to her—but we know in life things don’t happen quite that fast. He sees her. He calls her over. She, bent over as she was, makes her way slowly through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone, people shuffling to let her pass. Was there silence as they all watched her go to Jesus? Or were there murmurings, wondering what he was going to do? Did Jesus keep his eyes on her, or watch to see how others were reacting? She finally reaches Jesus and he tells her that she is healed. He lays his hands on her, and he immediately stood up straight and began praising God. We can imagine everyone is joyful.

But wait. The leader of the synagogue steps in. My guess is he was worried this would become a regular thing. Jesus heals one person on the Sabbath, now everyone’s going to want healing. “Hold on,” he says. “There are six other days meant for working. Come and get healed on those days; leave the Sabbath alone.” It seems like he was just trying to avoid, to put off, what he knew needed to be done. He was giving an excuse—it’s not the right time. There are rules, he says. He was telling the people to wait a little longer, come back later. Jesus retorts, basically, that it is always the right time for healing, and perhaps the Sabbath is particularly suited for being healed and set free. Immediately after this healing, Luke writes, “He said therefore, ‘What is the reign of God like?’” It is clear that Luke is connecting Jesus’ act of healing the bent-over woman to the God’s reign.

In John’s Gospel, the night before Jesus dies, he gives his disciples a new commandment. “Love one another,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” If we are to love as Jesus loved, it’s clear that this story from Luke gives us clear example of how we as a church—as the Body of Christ—should act, as well as a model for each one of us. Kate Huey, part of the Local Church Ministries Team of the UCC, writes, “Every single one of us, in our daily lives, has the occasion to encounter the bent-over woman.”[1]

Who is she?

She is the teenager who endures day after day of ridicule and bullying for not keeping in her “place” at school. She is the middle-school student who is taunted relentlessly for being—or just seeming—gay. 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was new to South Hadley and the U.S., a freshman who apparently had dated a senior boy or two. After months of unrelenting torture by some school mates, she committed suicide in January. 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield was told by his mother that he could do anything, and was on the honor roll, but in April of last year, he decided what he couldn’t do anymore was deal with the teasing at school, and he took his own life. Phoebe and Carl are gone, but there are many more like them. They are the bent-over woman, feeling so alone and so helpless, longing for acceptance in God’s reign.

The bent-over woman is a man who got laid off from his high-pay corporate job, couldn’t pay the bills, and lost his home. He and his family sleep in their car, and try to pretend everything’s ok, while he struggles to find work and figure out how to buy food. He is the bent-over woman, feeling hopeless and longing for mercy in the reign of God.

The bent-over woman is a mother whose 7th grade son needed to see a dentist for an $80 tooth extraction, but couldn’t find one who would accept Medicaid. She took him to the ER, where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis, and a dental abscess and sent home. When he got much sicker, he was rushed into surgery where it was discovered that bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his brain. Two major operations and eight weeks of hospital care later (costing about $250,000), Deamonte Driver died. His mother is the bent-over woman, grief-stricken and longing for justice in God’s reign.

Where else do we encounter the bent over woman? Who is she in your lives, in this community, around the world? Tell me. The bent-over woman is… [suggestions included the people affected by the floods in Pakistan, the Vietnam vet asking for money on the corner, the person sitting next to us in church who never says a word].

These are some of the ways people are bent over and pressed down. But they're not the only ones. There are people who are weighed down and bent over by loneliness, grief, worry, anxiety, doubt, and addiction. There are people whose mental illness or physical ailments or business struggles or family conflicts feel like burdens that bend them over and weigh them down.[2] And we, ministers to the world each one of us, are called to love them as Jesus loved the bent-over woman.

It is tempting to put it off our work of healing until the “right” time. Sundays are bad for me, I’m struggling with my own stuff right now, let me wait until I do some research into helpful programs, etc, etc, etc. It is tempting to turn away and pretend we don’t see the bent-over woman at all, isn’t it.

Kate Huey writes these moving words: “It is God who brings the reign of God in God's own time. Sure, today we proclaim it, we witness to its beginning in Jesus Christ and to its coming fullness. But we're called to do more than to proclaim that word, we are called to enflesh it, to become a word of hope for all those who appear before us, bearing burdens, pressed down. Jesus is calling you this day to engage yourself in the great dream of freeing all of God's children, all of the daughters of Abraham and the sons of Sarah from everything that holds them in bondage. We're invited to see our lives, our world, as they can be, for God has given us, according to the prophet Jeremiah, ‘a future, and a hope.’ As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the children of God.’

Let us not delay any longer. The time for proclaiming, embodying, and struggling for God’s healing and freedom is not tomorrow, or the next day. The time is now.

Let us pray: Holy God, Great Healer, inspire, motivate, and strengthen us to do the work of your reign to which you call us, and help us to see, acknowledge and act towards healing the bent-over women in this world. Amen.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Summer's End (But Let's Not Rush Things)

Our modern calendar places the beginning of Summer on June 21, but, as that is on or near the summer solstice, that is actually the mid-point of Summer (hence the celebration of Midsummer and Midsummer's Eve). The Celts traditionally believe summer begins on May 1, and ends on August 1. And I have to say, I think they got it right.

Without knowing about the Celtic tradition, the last few years I have found myself first noticing the waning of summer sometime around the beginning of August. While we struggle to squeeze in the last bits of vacation and reading lists before fall "officially" begins, nature is already telling us it's a losing battle.

The nights have already started to become longer and cooler. The first few leaves are starting to change color and fall. We have a lot of old trees in my neighborhood, and as I walked around tonight, I actually crunched through some fallen leaves. One ancient tree has already completely changed color and lost most of its leaves! I noticed that recently I've been wanting to wear jeans, and love the cool mornings when I put on a sweatshirt, and a friend of mine said the same thing. We who have grown up in this type of climate have the rhythm of the seasons flowing through our bodies, and they know even if the calendar doesn't. It's time. Summer has ended, and autumn is beginning.

HOWEVER. This all being said does NOT excuse the grocery stores having candy corn on the shelves in July. I mean, seriously? If you buy it now, you know you're going to eat it way before Halloween. And if not, ew. Do stores really going to think they're going to sell Halloween-specific candy when people haven't even wrapped their brains around back-to-school (which, by the way, I saw signs for in May. Before the kids had actually finished their previous school year.)?

The earth, and our lives, move in cycles and rhythms, but there's no need to rush from one to the next. Summer's ending, but there's a special atmosphere this time of year that happens no other time. The really hot days set off by the increasingly cooler nights. The way the sun slants in late afternoon. The abundance of harvest.

It's the beginning of August. How about we enjoy some fresh corn on the cob, and leave the candy corn for October?

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mid-Week Mini Sermon: It's Not Fair

Hear these words from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There was a familiar refrain in my house growing up. Whether it was because my sister got a bigger piece of cake, or extra play time, or I got to go somewhere the other two didn’t, or the youngest got away with something we two older girls were never allowed to do, it was the same: “It’s not fair!” This was usually followed up by the just-as-familiar response from one of my parents: “Life is not fair.”

And while this is certainly true, we like to think of God as just and…fair, right? Well, not according to this parable. I don’t know about you, but I can definitely understand the point of view of the early laborers. I’d be pretty annoyed too, if I’d worked hard a full day for what I thought was a fair sum, only to turn around and have that same sum given to people who’d shown up an hour before closing time. That’s not fair! Why should they get the same?

I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume many feel the same way about deathbed requests for forgiveness or expressions of belief—especially if it’s coming from someone who hasn’t led the best life up until that point. It doesn’t seem fair that we who try our best to be good people, get the same amount of forgiveness and grace as the ones who proclaim their faith just before they die. We protest just like the early laborers: “Now, wait just a second! I was baptized as a baby, went to church my whole life, followed the ten commandments, did good things in my community and be nice, and this guy, who lied, cheated, stole, hurt other people, wreaked havoc around him, never set foot in a church, was just plain mean, prays five minutes before he dies and he gets the same amount of grace I will?? That’s so not fair!!”

No, it’s not fair. That’s the point. Jesus was trying once again to explain how different the world is when God reigns. Those who arrive late, who don’t get the first chance, still get just as much as those who are first on the scene. As the landowner explains to the complainers, this takes nothing from those who work hard. We get just as much grace as we expect from living good lives, from being people who have held life-long faith. We don’t lose anything by God being generous. So if we’re not a person who had faith from the get-go, if we found Christ as teenagers or adults or are just settling into our faith now, we still get all that grace. The kingdom of heaven is not competitive, like the world—or at least the United States—is, where everyone needs to fight to be first, to get the best things, to do the most and receive the most recognition or money or status. The last shall be first in God’s reign. No, it’s not fair…it’s grace.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doubts and Debts and Sins, Oh My! Luke 7:36-8:1

It is perhaps a familiar story. And it should be. This story of a woman anointing Jesus is found in all four Gospels, although, probably if we were asked, without hearing the text first, to tell the story, the details might get a little fuzzy, because there are variations between the four and so they get muddled up. In Mark and Matthew the dinner is also at the home of a man named Simon, but he’s noted to be a leper, not a Pharisee. And in those two stories, the woman anoints Jesus’ head, not his feet. In John, the woman has a name: she is Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. In all three other versions, the anointing is protested because of the cost of the ointment, that it could’ve been sold and the money given to the poor, and it’s also connected to Jesus’ impending death, so if this seems like a Lenten story, well, that’s because that’s when we usually hear the other versions.

So Luke’s telling of the story stands out in a few ways. First, it occurs fairly early on in Jesus’ ministry, so there is no association with his death. Second, there is no focus on the cost of the ointment or Jesus’ famous “the poor with you will always be with you” statement. Of major significance is how Luke portrays the status of the woman as a sinner—and, by Simon’s reaction, a known sinner. Luke’s version is also a lot longer than the other three, giving us a little more detail, drawing us in to the scene a little bit more.

And it’s a poignant scene, isn’t it? The men have gathered, reclining on their sides at the table, enjoying a friendly meal, while this woman who is weeping—whether out of shame, out of sorrow, or out of relief, we don’t know—stands just behind Jesus. Her tears are numerous enough to wash the dust off his feet, and we can imagine them streaming down her face. Maybe her body is wracked with sobs, or maybe the tears flow silently. Tenderly she takes down her hair and uses it to wipe the tears and dirt off his feet before she begins rubbing them with ointment. Perhaps by now her tears have stopped, and she kisses Jesus’ feet, inhaling the scent of the ointment. She is deep into her ministrations, perchance so focused she is not even aware of anything going on around her.

But there are things going on around her, and that makes me think this scene is also somewhat…awkward. Have you ever been in a situation where someone is breaking social convention—whether intentionally or not? I don’t know about all of you, but I get nervous and tense when that happens. I kind of hold my breath a little bit, wondering how others are going to react. Jesus and Simon and the woman were not eating alone. There were other guests at the table. When we imagine this scene, our focus is usually on the woman. It’s like our mental cameras zoom in on her. But let’s back up and widen our view a little. What about everyone else who was there? Maybe they tried to carry on their conversations, and pretended not to notice what was going on while continually glancing at her out of the corners of their eyes. Maybe their voices dropped as they talked about the woman. Maybe eventually, everyone fell into an uncomfortable silence as they watched this woman break huge social and religious boundaries: not only was her hair down, but she was touching the feet of a man—which had sexual overtones, and not only that, but she was labeled a sinner, someone unclean, and she was touching not just any person, but a rabbi, a teacher, and a man whom some thought to be a prophet. I don’t see how the whole party didn’t just grind to a complete halt while all the men just lay gaping at the woman’s audacity and Jesus’ apparent oblivion. I’m sure it was not just Simon who was thinking that if Jesus was really a prophet, he would not be letting this woman anoint his feet like it was an everyday occurrence. Or, as Luke phrases it, Jesus would have known who and what kind of woman she was.

But Jesus does know this woman. Jesus knows her sorrow, knows her shame, her regret, her grief at being cast into the margins of society. He knows what’s in her heart, and he welcomes her expression of appreciation and love for the forgiveness and grace and peace he can give her. It can be so comforting to see ourselves in that woman, to recognize that Jesus knows each one of us just as well. Many people live feeling like imposters, believing that if people really knew who they were on the inside, they wouldn’t be so liked or loved or lauded for their accomplishments. But Jesus knows all of it, all our fears and insecurities, our guilt and shame and failure and regret, our judgments and mistakes and grudges and sins, and forgives every last one of them, and every last one of us. The grace of Jesus Christ is a powerful and moving thing. I think so many of us take our faith for granted, and we forget about that power sometimes. I hope that at some point in each of your lives, you have the experience of being with people who think they’re not good enough, or have made too many mistakes, or are unloveable, or unwelcome in the church, or are simply lost, and to look them in the eye and tell them that Christ knows everything about them—and forgives them what needs to be forgiven, and loves them. In fact, I think that each of us needs that reminder every once in a while. Christ knows you, and forgives you, and loves you.

It is indeed such a comfort to see ourselves in the story as that woman, known and forgiven and sent forth in peace. That being said, we cannot ignore the fact that we are Simon as well. Jesus tells Simon a little parable, and then asks him, “Simon, do you see this woman?” I wonder if Simon thought, in that split-second way our brains work, “Yeah, I see her—I see that she is a sinner and shouldn’t be here and has interrupted my meal.” Isn’t that how we often see, at first glance? We see someone driving a fancy car and we see a successful person, or a spoiled kid, or someone who is all about image. We see a person at a soup kitchen, and we see a drug addict or someone living off the system or a person not as privileged as us who we feel good about helping. We see someone who is different from us—someone who’s gay and we’re straight, someone who’s black and we’re white, someone who is from another country and we’re nth generation American, someone who’s liberal and we’re conservative, someone who’s in academia and work retail, someone who’s old money and we’re no money, someone who reads Us Weekly and we read the Wall Street Journal, someone who is pro-choice and we’re pro-life —and that’s all we see.

Jesus asks us, “Do you see this person?”

“Sure, Jesus!” we think. “We see that person wants to make our taxes go up and that guy plays his music too loud and that woman is undocumented, and that person is pretty dirty and smelly from living on the street, and that person over there just lives the perfect life that we want. Of course we see them!”

“No,” Jesus probes gently, “Take another look. Do you see them?”

We look again, and we see what Jesus sees: the children of God. Certainly we cannot possibly know each other as Jesus knows us, so we may never know if our first assumptions are “right” or not, but perhaps it’s possible that we can see each other as Jesus does and offer the same hospitality. Our last hymn today is the old favorite, “Amazing Grace,” and the first line ends, “was blind, but now I see.” Jesus not only offered grace to the woman, but to Simon, as well, that he might be freed to see beyond the first assumptions and judgment. Certainly, Jesus confirms that Simon’s thoughts of the woman as someone who had committed many sins. But it’s how the two men interaction with her that made the difference. Unfortunately, we can only guess whether Simon took the grace he was offered, or not, as Luke doesn’t tell us.

But our faith tells us that same grace is offered to each one of us—the opportunity to be known and welcomed with all our doubts and debts and sins, the chance to see each other as clearly as Christ and, having experienced Christ’s forgiving peace, the encouragement and strength to love as extravagantly and passionately as that woman did. May we all accept Jesus’ offer, and offer it to others as well. Amen.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Losses and Gains--Philippians 3:4b-13

Once upon a time, if people in this country really wanted to proclaim their Christian faith without even having to say anything, they might wear a necklace with a cross on it, or hang a cross in their home. More rebellious biker Christians might get the name “Jesus” or a cross tattooed on their arm. Nowadays, there are a multitude of possibilities for sharing a love of Christ. T-shirts range from “Jesus is my homeboy” and “Got Jesus?” to screen-printed images of our Savior. Kids can play with action figures, like this one, or talking Jesus dolls that quote scripture. There are bobblehead dolls, body wash, night lights (this is Jesus doing karaoke) and keychains (mine has a light), in addition to cuff links, earrings, band-aids, iron-on patches, and of course the popular “WWJD”—what would Jesus do—bracelets among almost countless other items. But perhaps one of the most popular ways folks today transmit the message “I’m Christian” is on their cars, with a silver fish symbol.

Of course, the ironic part about flashing this symbol everywhere so that everyone knows the car belongs to a Christian is that it used to be a secret code. The point of using it in the days of the early church was so that Christians could identify each other without others knowing. Christians were persecuted by Romans and Jews for their beliefs, and so being able to recognize a person or place as being “safe” was key.

In the United States, a country often dubbed as a “Christian nation,” this notion can be somewhat foreign to us. Christmas and Easter, our two biggest holy days, are marked with government and—perhaps even more significantly—retail holidays. There are churches everywhere, and of most every denomination, belief system, political stance, economic and ethnic makeup and worship style you can imagine. It is generally accepted and common to be Christian, even if it is only by name and not by practice. Baptisms are often done without a second thought. Many call themselves Christian by default, because that’s the way they were raised, or because their parents were Christian, or because they think that to be American means being Christian.

Many of us might have come to Christianity the same way, almost as if it just “happened,” while we played a passive role in the decision. While being a faithful Christian does often mean “giving up” some things—sleeping in on Sunday mornings, a portion of our incomes, maybe even the respect of those who believe religion is just an “opiate for the masses” and not for the intelligent, discerning person—and I know I often say that following Christ is risky, it’s usually more of an internal risk, rather than an external danger. Here in this country, at this time, it’s pretty easy to say you’re a Christian, and generally people are pretty nonchalant about it.

So one of the things that strikes me about the passage from Philippians is Paul’s passion. He is willing to give up everything—and pretty much has—just to know Christ. He regards all that he has lost as rubbish—more properly translated as dung or excrement—as compared to being found in Christ. The love and commitment to Christ just ooze out of this letter. Reading this, I found myself feeling a little…jealous.

I had a similar feeling at the end of my time in seminary. Each year, there is a beautiful small ceremony in which Catholic women graduates are commissioned. I attended the ceremony, a few weeks before graduation, in support of two friends and classmates. I sat in awe of the choices these women had made. One woman had a Jewish parent; the other woman’s parents were radical secularists. Despite the risk of alienating their families—nevermind their not-always-Catholic-friendly classmates at a Protestant seminary—they chose Christ, and to follow the call of Christ into a religious institution in which they could not preach or really even leave. Yet they were not only willing, but joyful about their choice. As they shared their stories, it was clear that neither of them found the choice to be Christian an easy one, but they found what they gained with Christ to be worth whatever losses they might suffer. I left the chapel that day marveling at the passion and commitment of those two women, and wondering—as much as I loved Christ and the Church—if I could do the same if I had to make a choice like that.

I try to imagine what it’s like to live in a place that’s hostile to Christ. Around the world, even today, people are risking everything for Christ. I think a lot of times we in the mainline church don’t like to think or talk about conversion, and honestly I’m not really comfortable with missions which attempt to “save” people of other or no faith by making them Christians, but then, no one else is out there showing Christ in any other way. And I’m amazed that in many places around the globe, people are introduced to Christ and choose to become Christians—even if it means the loss of their families, their friends, their standing in society, their freedom, or even their lives. Knowing Christ is worth all of that and more to them.

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi from a prison cell, presumably for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul lists off all the ways he found status in his society: his bloodline, his education, his adherence to the Jewish faith—all of which he gave up in favor of Christ. Although there’s no clear evidence of how or when Paul died, most scholars are fairly certain that he was killed because of his faith, since Christianity had been separated from Judaism and become illegal. And despite all this, he writes with such fervor about Christ. He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” And this: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Straining forward: he’s not casually meandering on his spiritual journey, he is straining forward towards Christ.

I have to say, I think this is one area the Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have us mainline folks beat. They are passionate about Christ. They are not afraid to tell people who their Lord and Savior is, not hesitant to share Christ with another, not worried about letting people know of the value they place in knowing Christ. Now, I may not always agree with the way they go about it or the reasons behind it, but no denying they have Paul’s excitement. I mean, imagine if someone arrived at our church for the first time, and in polite conversation, someone asked, “So what brings you to First Church?” and instead of “Oh, I grew up UCC” or “I’m new to the area and wanted to check it out,” they said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Would we think? Honestly, I’d probably wonder why they came to a UCC church. No offense to our beloved denomination, but we don’t tend to be that expressive about our faith.

But what if we were? What if, when someone asked any of us why WE go to church, or call ourselves Christian, we said “There is nothing surpassing the value of knowing Christ?” Or if they comment about churches being full of hypocrites, we reply, “I’m not perfect, but I try to make Christ’s goals my own, because Jesus has made me his own?”

Why do we hesitate? I’ll admit straight out even when answering the question of why I’m a minister I hedge a little. This is why I am jealous of Paul, and of my two Catholic classmates. I want not only to know Christ in the same way Paul does, but I want to be able to passionately proclaim to others what gain there is in Christ. I posed a question to my friends on Facebook: “What is Christ worth to you?” One friend answered, “I don't know how to quantify it. Jesus is so much. How do you put a price on the air you breathe? The blood that courses through your veins? He is that much, whatever that is, to me.”

Really, what have we got to lose? Compared to Paul and to other Christians, very little. So I offer a little challenge. We’re still in Lent. I wrote in my newsletter blurb that Lent was about practicing our faith. And remember our Lenten theme is gratitude. So in gratitude to God for the gift of Jesus, and in gratitude of all we gain from our relationship with Christ, let us practice two things. First, let us practice actively choosing Christ. Take some time in reflection and prayer and then make a decision about whether or not to be Christian. And then do the same the next day. And the next. Practice for the next two weeks. Let’s see what happens. And second, and this is probably the tougher one for most of us: practice sharing your choice. Once this week, and once next week, tell someone why you’ve chosen Christ. This can be in person, on the phone, in a letter, an e-mail, a Facebook posting. It can be with someone you know, or if you’re feeling really adventurous, a total stranger. Let’s try and find that passion and excitement that Paul has, and instead of keeping it to ourselves, proclaim it—and if a t-shirt, action figure, or bumper sticker helps, then, hey, go for it!

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Giving God Our First Fruits

This is my sermon from yesterday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Two facts you should know: the town in which I serve is BIG on sports playing, and our church has a pretty large endowment. Read on...

They say you can tell a lot about people by looking at their checkbooks. I would say you could also learn some things about people by looking at their calendars. Or at the bookmarks on their web browsers. Take a second to think about your checkbook or bank statement, calendar, and if you use the internet, the sites you visit most often. Now think about what that might say to others about you, and whether it’s accurate or not!

I think it would be an interesting exercise to make a list of what is most important in our lives. No limit—doesn’t have to be a top 10—just list out friends, family members, activities, ideas (like justice, peace, wealth) etc., from most important to least (and keep the lists private, lest anyone find out that your dog is higher on your list than your friends). Then, we would make three more lists, under the headings time, money, and energy, and on those lists, we rank how we would like to spend those three resources. Then, after we have these four lists all made up, we would look at how we actually use those resources, and how the lists match up. Something tells me family, friends, God, hobbies or interests and doing good in the world might get a much higher rank than something like “watching TV” and yet I bet the “actual” list might reveal very different priorities.

Do you ever notice that unless we are intentional about how we use resources in our lives, things seem to feel out of our control and we never have the time/money/energy for what we really want and need, the things that deserve our best? Things come up, and all of a sudden we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel on our resources to give to what should be on the top of our list.

Although it’s a law from thousands of year’s ago, today’s reading from Deuteronomy addresses just that, by stressing that God should get some of the first fruits of the harvest. This law is repeated many other places, and it often states that God should get not just any of the first harvest, but the best or choice first fruits. It’s always important to consider that generally if these laws had to be stated, it meant that at least some people were doing just the opposite. When Paul writes that women should be silent in worship, for example, it’s because women were speaking up and stating their opinions. So the fact that the law contains multiple references to giving God the first fruits probably means that at some point, people were eating and selling their harvest, and then taking the leftovers (if there were any) to offer to God. But by giving to God first, it ensures God is recognized and thanked as the provider of the harvest to begin with, and that God is established as the most important part of the people’s lives.

So how does this translate into our lives? What does it mean to make sure God gets our first fruits, and not just whatever we can scrape together from our leftovers?

First, we prioritize. We make God and God’s priorities our top priority. I’m usually not one to refer to dictionary definitions but I thought this one was appropriate. Priority:

“1. the state or quality of being earlier in time, occurrence, etc.” God was there first.

“2. the right to precede others in order, rank, privilege, etc; precedence.” Is anyone going to dispute God’s right to precede anything or anyone else in rank? Probably not.

“3. the right to take precedence in obtaining certain supplies, services, facilities, etc, especially during a shortage.” Well, God gives us life, so I suppose that might give God the right to take precedence in obtaining our “supplies” of time, money, energy, thought, etc, especially when there’s not enough to go around. And

“4. something given special attention.” Being God, I think God probably deserves the most special attention.[1]All these say the same thing as Deuteronomy: God comes first.

A woman moved into a house which had blueberry bushes in the backyard. The first summer, she went out and happily enjoyed plucking the ripe, juicy berries. After a few years, she discovered that the berries that ripened first were always the most plump, juicy, and sweet. As the season wore on, the plants couldn’t produce as much energy, and the berries were smaller and more tart. The same holds true in our lives. The first recipients of our time, labor, and money get the best of us, while subsequent recipients get less and less. God should be our first recipient, given our best fruit, in gratitude, worship and praise for all we’ve been blessed with. No, it’s not easy, especially if it’s not what we’re used to. Budgeting out how much to give to the church and then figuring out where the rest of the money goes, and not the other way around. Getting up a little earlier to have time to pray and read the Bible before going to work. Establishing worship on Sunday mornings as a part of your routine that doesn’t get broken except for illness or unusual circumstances. Ok, I may be getting myself into a lot of trouble here by saying this, but let me just say that of all the conceivable issues I thought I might have to deal with when I came to Longmeadow, “sports” was not on my list. I can’t tell you how many people have complained about the amount of time, energy, and money that go into sports, and how often that conflicts with going to church. Now, I’ll admit that not having kids and not being a big athlete myself when I was younger, so I’m kind of an outsider. However, I have heard how much it bothers people that games and practices are scheduled on Sunday mornings, and how much they would like it if Mike and I and the other Longmeadow Christian clergy could talk to the town and get them to change the schedules back like they used to be, with nothing before noon. I am sorry to disappoint, but it’s not happening. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but with the exception of mail delivery and most banks, Sundays are basically like any other day. That being said, we are not powerless. We absolutely can tell a coach that our children won’t be at practices or games that interfere with church. They may not understand at first. Neither may our friends when we tell them we can’t stay out too late on Saturdays because we have church in the morning. Guess how well that came across from a young single woman on a Saturday night in New York City. We are quickly reaching a point when practicing Christianity is not the standard societal behavior, and it’s an adjustment to be made from the time when things seemed to revolve around Christian life. But it’s do-able. Just think of it another way. Imagine you get to Heaven and God’s going over your life with you, and She comments, “You know, you didn’t really seem to have much time for me. What was that about?” Could you look God in the face and say, “We had soccer?” Or, “I like to sleep late?”Or imagine God looking at our checkbooks with us. What might He think? We make other things in our lives non-negotiable, why not our commitment to God?

Giving God our first fruits also means putting our trust in God. This is also not always an easy task. It means letting go of our illusion of control, and the fantasy of safety in money and possessions. It is a lot easier (even given the financial events of our recent past) to make ourselves feel secure with investments and savings accounts than to give our first fruits to God and God’s priorities and trust that having done that, God will provide if something happens. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those things, just that if we are placing a higher priority on growing or maintaining them than on doing God’s ministry in the world, we’re putting our trust in the wrong place. The last verse of our reading today says that after giving of the first fruits, the Israelites were to celebrate with the bountiful gifts of the harvest God had given them and share that bounty with the priestly class and the strangers among them. What we have after giving of our first fruits is not only enough, but a bounty with which to have a party for a whole lot of people!

In the same way, giving our first fruits to God can bring new life and abundance to the rest of the “fruit.” Remember that woman with the blueberry patch? Well, she also found that if she picked those first ripe berries, the other berries on the stem could get the energy they needed to grow plump and juicy as well. If she left the first fruits, the later berries were smaller and didn’t ripen as quickly. In the same way, by giving God our first fruits, the rest of our time, energy, and money may be even better spent and go even further out of the sustenance that comes with a focus on God. I read a quote this morning about how Martin Luther didn’t pray for hours a day because he had extra time, but because he needed to in order to be able to do his great works. I’m sure there are many here who already know the feeling of revival and renewal that comes after attending worship, or the feeling of centeredness that stays with you when you start your day with prayer, or the mysterious way giving seems to bring abundance.

As we begin our journey through Lent, a time of self-examination, prayer, and reflection, let us be intentional about giving God the first fruits in our lives, making God a priority, trusting in God to provide and care for us, and celebrating with gratitude the bounty that God has given us. Amen.

[1] priority. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: February 20, 2010).

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