Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Un-Earned Gifts

Luke 13:10-17: 10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

It truly is great to be here this morning, able to offer a word in the middle of a pretty busy time of year for our community.  When Robyn and I talked about stepping in one Sunday while Mark was on sabbatical, I jumped at the chance.  Then about two weeks ago I realized that I had acted without really thinking it through.  This week, the very newly hired Learning Center staff has been participating in Curriculum Boot Camp, as our amazing trainer Bev Briggs has suggested we call it.  With three full days of training this week and two more to come next week, we are right in the heart of it.  At the same time, this is the time to ramp up for the school year all our Children and Youth programs, like Sunday School, Youth Groups, Confirmation and so on which slow down a little in the summer. 
It really is a busy moment for many of the “lower level” staff and volunteers, myself included.  So how appropriate is it that in the midst of my leap to say yes first and think about my schedule later, that same action-first message is at the heart of our gospel text too.  This text gives us a glimpse at how Jesus’ swift action to heal comes before any concern over breaking rules, or before the leaders had the opportunity to tell him no, and even before the woman asks for healing.  This seems like a moment of act first, ask forgiveness later.  Or… in this case, act first, call-the-authority-on-the-carpet for standing in the way of someone suffering, later.  Not really the same as my analogy, but that’s Jesus for you.  The wonderful radical, revolutionary, active Jesus we see in this text and so many others.  The Jesus who says, I see injustice in this life and I am willing to do something about it, will you join me? 
            In our text this morning, we are dropped into the middle of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, without giving us the context of his teaching.  We don’t know if his teaching had anything to do with healing, or rules, or even if the leader of the synagogue was agreeing or disagreeing with his teaching before the interruption.  Instead, we are presented only with a real “teachable moment.”  I’m guessing you have heard the phrase before, a moment in our lives when the lesson plan goes out the window and instead, we use what is happening in our environment to teach a better lesson than we had planned.  In the midst of his teaching in the synagogue on that unknown topic, Jesus finds a woman in need present with him, and quickly switches from the teaching to the reality in front of him, which might be more meaningful than the teaching in progress. 
            I’ve had many of those moments in my life.  In fact, much of my lesson planning is often reactive teaching to what is going on in the lives of my group.  When teaching confirmation last year, I tried to use the youth’s lives, school activities, or emotions to help connect with the text we were studying that day.  Sometimes, that is easier said than done, and sometimes, it can be real gold. 
This summer, I attended Confirmation Camp with four of our confirmands in July.  While I’ve been to Lutherwood before for weekend retreats with the youth, this was the first week I have spent at camp with them.  I grew up attending camp as a youth, so the pattern and schedule of camp came pretty easy to me.  But what was new was that I wasn’t a counselor or staff for the first time in my life.  I was sleeping in a cabin with only adults, few responsibilities and had hours of preparation time each day.  Being a guest at camp was new.  But each morning, I had about three hours of concentrated time with my St. Andrew crew to discuss our own curriculum based on the 5 core care values, to talk about our own issues, and connect that to the Lutherwood curriculum of the week. 
What a gift to be able to take these few who knew each other well, and ask them to go even deeper in their relationship building.  Each day, in the middle of our time together, everyone at the camp attended worship up in the woods, and then would return to our separate sessions.   One day, after talking about Sin and Forgiveness in worship, I took the girls on a hike while we discussed our morning session and the worship focus.  I had a destination in mind, but had never actually gone there myself.  Neither they, nor I knew exactly where we were going.  We just went.  I feel pretty confident in my directional sense, and knew it couldn’t be too far, so I knew we wouldn’t get lost.  Don’t worry parents, I promise we were safe!
But as we hiked out in this beautiful forest, up a pretty steep hill, I posed questions to the girls, like where does racism and sexism play into sin?  Have you ever experienced sexism?  What relationship is there between Community Care and sexism?  Their answers floored me, and the group’s ability to listen to one person’s answer, and then relate their experience was a gift to the conversation.  “Yeah I saw that too!”  “I’ve had that happen to me too” And all the while we kept hiking, talking about the forest in the middle of the conversation and spiraling upward higher until the sounds of the other campers couldn’t be heard any more and we reached the highest point, Mountain Village.  There we stopped, sat and looked down at the world below us.  At the end of our conversation, at the end of our hike, we were presented with this wonderful gift of God’s Creation right in front of our eyes.  Better than any lesson plan I could have come up with staying at our normal spot in the field in the field and asking my prepared questions, or reading more sections of the psalm we had been studying, the girls and I participated in an act of gratitude for our surrounding environment and went deeper into our conversation because we let our expectations disappear.  We didn’t even have to look at each other when someone said something more personal.  And in that known AND anonymous state, more could be shared.  We concluded our session with prayer and headed back down the hill to camp and lunch.  I can’t say if that hike meant as much to the girls, but to me, it was a real teachable moment, and required that I be intentional about making space for the girls to express their reality to each other in a safe space, while creating enough DIS-comfort for the conversation to be real and valuable. 
This too is what Jesus has done here in this text.  By creating discomfort in the leader by healing on the Sabbath, by calling into question what is considered work, and who is valuable enough to receive the gift of new life, Jesus is intentional about creating a certain amount of dis-comfort.  It is interesting to note that the woman has not asked for healing.  The text only says “When Jesus saw her, he called over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Freedom and healing are intertwined here with rules and illness. And it is the human touch that frees her, and us, in our places of pain.  The woman is the recipient of the free un-earned gift of healing and her story gives us another insight into the grace we are given so freely, so openly by living as a grace loving Christian. 
As in much of the healing stories in the Gospels, it is touch that heals, and there are many reasons for this.  Physically, touch can trigger a decrease in stress, or pain, and mentally, touch also puts us immediately into an awareness of community, an important aspect to any of Jesus’ moments of healing.  His work here and in many other moments of healing echoes what we heard in the Isaiah passage this morning, repairing and restoring the afflicted to community.  And Jesus does the work of restoration in the most personal way possible, touch. Many studies point to the ability for massage, and a gentle warm touch to lower blood pressure and decrease stress in people of all ages, including newborn babies.  I am reminded how necessary it is for our development as infants to touch real living skin.  And yet, something so necessary for our health can be laden with so many layers of pain and suffering.  How many of you can think of times when all you really needed was a hug to break the mental barriers you were holding up? 
The text doesn’t tell us anything about the woman’s life before she literally appears in front of Jesus, if she is isolated in her life, if she is crippled by a life of service, an injury or genetics.  But we can see evidence of her isolation in the simplicity of her story.  She has no one who has come with her, nor is she requesting the miracle.  She might even have made peace with her ailment, and her lack of community.  We might not know where she comes from, or where she goes to, but we know that her life has been given new freedom and in that, she offers praise! 
But the story doesn’t end there.  Her newfound comfort and relief is also the specific means of creating discomfort for the leader.
“There are six days… come on those days and be cured.”  What a rebuke to the crowd!  It is no wonder the crowd ends rejoicing in all the wonderful things Jesus is doing while the leader is shamed.  This statement is a slap in the face of the woman who did not ask for the gift, not even spoken to her, but rather generalized toward everyone gathered.  It is much like the leader is turning to the crowd and saying “Don’t get any ideas people!  This was wrong and I know the rules better than you.”  Given that tone, I know I stand with the crowd, rejoicing in Jesus’ rebuke to the hypocritical leader.  Yeah! That’s right! Take him down! Take that hypocrite!  Ha!
And isn’t it interesting that two weeks in a row we are confronted with hypocrisy in the lectionary readings.  I can’t help but be a little grateful that Robyn preached last week on the text calling the crowd, all people, all of US, out on our hypocrisy, while I just have to work anger toward with hypocritical authorities, something we might all be able to relate to.  But there is something odd about the pattern of those parallel stories of hypocrisy, and seem almost backward.  If I were creating a lesson on this, I might turn them around.  We can all get behind calling someone else a hypocrite, placing blame outside ourselves.  Then from that stage, confront our own areas of hypocrisy, calling the blame into question as well.  But here, we confront first our own issues, and then move back to looking at the world.  As I worked with these texts in this order, I have had to question even more my own hypocrisy, which provides me the freedom to have compassion for the leader I might not have otherwise felt. 
It is uncomfortable, however, to see the stories in this order.  It breaks with what we might see as the correct order for teaching and provides us with another avenue with which to see the integrated moments of grace at work here for all in the text. It is inevitable to be uncomfortable when trying something new.  Much like a baby learning to walk, there will be bumps and bruises along the way.  Very few of us think the steps through long enough to just stand up and walk -right off the bat.  It is the same in stories like today’s which challenge our mental assumptions.  The discomfort we feel is indicative of a need to push into the discomfort to better understand what it is that is making it hard to find a comfortable and simple solution to the situation.  Maybe there isn’t a comfortable answer, and that reality is incredibly important to listen to.  It means something is really going on here. 
In the text from Isaiah, we are told, that if you “satisfy the needs of the afflicted, your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”  But Jesus certainly does not feel the darkness rise, and is instead shot down when satisfying the needs of the afflicted.  He is the restorer of life, and yet is confronted with confusion, discomfort and the continued need to call out hypocrisy.  But maybe that just means the story isn’t over yet.  This story is told in community, about community, and about leadership as a vocation of stewardship in the community.  This leader has been entrusted with the gift of a rich religious tradition, and yet does not use that tradition to bring “light to the world” through the interpretation of that tradition.  Instead, he just attempts to contain order.  What is the harm that will be done to the tradition by healing on this day if it is equivalent to untying the donkey, giving water to the ox, or maybe feeding the dog?  It could be that the leader is reacting out of a fear that if people would come on this day to receive, his job would be harder, that he would end up feeling overwhelmed and working overtime.
And I can certainly understand the need to maintain boundaries around your time so maybe he is just holding onto the rules because he doesn’t know what else to hold onto.  But is that the message of Isaiah?  Is that the voice of the Hebrew Prophets?  There is much more to the law side of the tradition than just keeping rules.  The God we can glimpse in Jesus is more concerned with justice than boundaries, and is more uncontrolled and intimate than the rules might allow.  This is God who breaks down to rebuild, whose actions speak louder than words, who teaches that LOVE will always trump order and restriction.  By worshipping the God of divine abundance, WE can live into a life of abundance, a life of freely given unearned gifts, of grace
Together we worship a rule breaking God.  Who, Isaiah foretells will “guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…”
We worship the God who Luke presents here questioning a generic set of rules that merely maintain order, who sets us free from the bondage of pain and suffering and invites us into the life of grace available to us here. 

How can we go out today, listening for the call to break boundaries and guide the un-named sources of pain in our lives toward freedom and praise?  A life of healing touch and community conversation, A life of grace.

Youth as the Cornerstone of the Church

1 Peter 2:2-10New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built[a] into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him[b] will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble,
    and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10 Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.   
Good morning friends.  I am so grateful to be up here once again presenting the Word.  This morning's readings have really resonated with me.  From the baptismal connection I see in the beginning of the reading from 1 Peter, to the teachable moment we have preserved as Jesus answers Phillip and Thomas in this morning's Gospel.   When we baptize new children into this congregation, we commit to be their partners in faith formation for a lifetime.  We would hope nothing more than that they would, "long for spiritual milk and grow into salvation" as the text from 1 Peter says.  And I am sure many of you resonated with often quoted phrase of "I am the way the truth and the life."  In this morning's readings, we are provided with a summation of the call for Christians individually and for the church as an entity.  In the reading from 1 Peter, the text is actually a quote from Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28 with the imagery of the cornerstone.  I am sure if I were to ask each person here what is the "cornerstone" program is, I would come up with many different answers.  The experience of church is different for each person and that is a good thing, especially in a congregation who has put diversity and welcome at the heart of our mission.  The goal, however, is that within that diversity, each individual would find the most meaningful pieces for themselves while affirming that another's spiritual needs may be met by a different piece.  That is why we have such a wonderful variety in our music program right?  While one person may connect deeply with an organ piece deep with those lower register room shaking tones, another might connect with the multiple instruments carrying the melody and harmony of a Waters Sunday.  Diversity of interest is also why each Sunday we offer three adult education courses to choose from.  Not everyone here has the same interests and needs and so we have built this spiritual house on the foundation of diversity and an acceptance of varying needs.  
     But how do we meet the diverse needs of the kids and teens in our community?  When we commit at baptism to support each child as they grow we commit to supporting their individual faith. That process certainly starts with supporting the family in faith building through programs like Splash! but it continues through the work of really getting to know the kids and teens in our congregation and helping them to develop their relationship to the resurrected Christ and this community. 
     For the kids who are seekers and the kids who feel more clear in their understanding, the church is there to provide guidance, support and pose new questions.  Throughout their early faith lives, the children in this congregation are supported and strengthened by providing a responsive Sunday school program, and a quality Confirmation program.
     Officially, the end of Confirmation happened this last Thursday for two members of our congregation, Haylie and Michelle, who met with Council to read their statements of faith, and be approved as adult members of this congregation.  That means that they are no longer children of members.  They are no longer kids, they are awarded the rights and responsibilities of adult members of St. Andrew.  Congratulations ladies! And what does the future hold for these two youth?  For Haylie who is interested in kids and dance, and Michelle who is interested in law and fashion…Will they ask the same questions?  No they won't ask the same questions.  But I believe they will support each other in this journey, and with the right programs and mentors in their lives they will seek out the best way to be those "living stones".  To let themselves be built into a spiritual house.
     But what if I was to tell you that they are walking into a blank wall?  Would you be concerned?  If I said there was no youth group for them to participate in would you frown and furrow your brows?  Or if I said the youth group has no official leader and very few attendees, would you stand up in outrage?  For too long, we and most churches have relied on a tried and true model of youth ministry that operated on the Field of Dreams motto of "Build it and they'll come" or that sought to provide fun entertainment just to get them in the room.  But what happens when they are there?  Why did they come?  What will sustain their commitment to be there?  The model of youth ministry based on gathering on Sunday nights with the guitar playing Youth Pastor is a vision from a wonderful part of our history, but not something that is drawing kids in today.  I'm certain you have heard me, or other leaders talk about the frustration in trying to compete with sports schedules, clubs, music and other friends to "bring kids to church".  The opportunities for other activities are vast, and we can't compete with those programs.  So there are fewer kids to play the planned games.  Fewer teens to attend the trip and more teens disengaged from the "youth group." 
     This year the Kids and Teen Ministry Team has taken on the task of reframing our youth program; allowing the program the room to breathe and speak for itself.  To take out all the regular features of the youth program and re frame our entire policy toward "youth."  This year, we have been trying to ask if the pattern for youth ministry I was handed when I started is still working, and the hard truth is that it isn't.  For what will happen to the spiritual house if the only offerings we provide are those that don't meet the living needs of our teens? We are losing teens, not through families moving out, but through the teens dropping back, staying home, seeking elsewhere. From several parents of our teens, I can feel the frustration that creates when their child doesn’t want to come to church and I know the tension that can build in the family dynamics.  It is time to make a change.  It is time to respond to the younger members of our community as the adult members we have confirmed.  It is time to recognize the stumbling blocks that WE as a congregation have put in their way.  It is time to see the rocks that are making our ministry fall. And that begins with naming the culture of youth in this congregation and the community at large. It isn't about numbers.  It isn't about hanging out in the youth room with me.  The question that is always the hardest to answer is "How many youth come on a regular basis?" I never know how to answer, because even there were 3 there my response may cause concern that there isn't enough teens.  Or the follow up question may come, "So what are you doing to get more next time?"  It isn’t about numbers.  So this fall, we aren't programming youth ministry activities. 
     Instead we are preparing for our ministry with high school students.  It is a small thing really, but it speaks to a much bigger paradigm shift for all committee chairpersons, potential leaders and current leaders. Teenagers are adult members of this community.  They are a group with specific constraints on time, but their interests are just as diverse as that of our adult congregation. 
     I'd like you to take a look at the diagram up on the wall and really read through it.  On the left  you will see a model similar to what we do now.       We advertise fun events, we organize bring a friend events, we provide a single classroom on Sunday where all of them are supposed to want to come, we hire professional staff to run the programs, and we rely on volunteers to make all that programming happen. In the past year, we have done poorer and poorer at this as volunteers were not to be found, relying more and more on my position as the main route of any activity being planned.  This isn't fair to our teens.  This is frustrating.  This is tragic.  As only one member of this community, my route to connecting with the youth is pretty narrow.  I love hanging out with them.  We have a very special group of teenagers at this church.  But I am only one member of their spiritual community.  All ministry regardless of age, is about making connections.  For these teens whose interests range from robotics to running guitar to comedy, my skills aren't enough to pull them in just to attend this fabulous weekly meeting, to draw them to the church just to be members… and I know it. 
     Instead, if we look to the right side of the diagram, you see a different model. A model that isn't asking how many are there.  Even when there is only one teenager, this model still holds water.  Because we should still be able to articulate how that one teen is being ministered to using this model.  Let's make ministry responsive to the mission of the church, and something that anyone, of any age, could attend and walk away with a feeling of Sabbath from their daily lives.  It doesn't rely on age requirements or group numbers.  This model asks for the involvement of mentors, not volunteers.  A volunteer can be a body in a room, but a spiritual mentor is someone who is a co-learner.  Who has gifts in the same areas as the teens.   Defined by Brian Kirk and Jacob Thorne of the blog "Rethinking Youth Ministry", and the book Missional Youth Ministry: Moving from Gathering Teenagers to Scattering Disciples, spiritual mentors are "people of all ages and spectrums of life—who could be with our youth through all the years they’re growing up in church."
     When we look toward next year's education hour for our ministry with high school students, and even as we look for Sunday school teachers, Confirmation Guides and Nursery Assistants, the Kids and Teens team and I will be looking for people who are interested in taking their commitment to each baptism performed here seriously.  We are looking for people who have a faith story to tell.  For people who usually attend adult education, for people who usually walk in right when service starts and leave immediately after, for people who grab a coffee and sit in the narthex each Sunday, for grandparents and parents and those without children.
     But more than that, I am looking for the committees, the taskforces, the ministry teams to start seeking out youth.  Yes I can connect you with a teenager, but you can too.  Yes I can beg and plead for people to be volunteers for an event being planned, but this fall, I won't.  I am asking you to stand up today and tell the kids and teens in this congregation that you are willing to make your baptismal commitment mean something.  I am asking you to enter the conversation on ministry for, with and alongside the next generation of this church, not out of a need to perpetuate the congregation, or to give them something to do while the adults attend this meeting or that but because you are willing to affirm their baptism into the people of God. 
     This fall, we will be living out this vision of seeing high school students as adults by using an adult education course for the education hour that invites interaction from teens, young adults, and those young at heart to study faith questions together using a curriculum called Animate. Which uses pastors and theologians like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans and Jay Bakker to tell a story and utilizes discussion on what it means to live an animated faith. These sessions are not your typical High School Bible Study.  This is something new, and you are invited to be a part of the NEW story unfolding here at St. Andrew about our ministry for high school students.  
     Even those of you who are still sitting in the pews not sure that you are called to do this work, who are hearing these words and don't see yourself reflected here, let me call you out.  You are reflected here.  And it is up to every one of us to create the culture of welcome we say we stand for in our welcome statement.   " All are welcome, without exception, regardless of ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, education, income, or family status.  All are welcome here to worship God, receive the sacraments, and share in fellowship, leadership, and service."  But age is a barrier more often than we even recognize.  Teenagers aren’t really welcome until every one of our congregation's teens are greeted by name by more than just a few regular people.  We will know age is no barrier to welcome when you, yes you, seek a teen's involvement in fellowship, service, earth care and worship activities not as a youth representative but as a young adult.  We will know we are fully welcome when there is no chore involved in recruiting spiritual mentors, not volunteers, to stand alongside our teens in fellowship, education, and service activities. 
     So at this point, you might have already wondered to yourself, why is she wearing a T-shirt if she knew we was going to preach today?  This shirt came from the Oregon Lutheran Youth Organization event two years ago that was hosted right here.  And what more could I say to you about why youth ministry matters to me.  It is because of this.  This work on our ministry for high schoolers isn't a by-product of doing church.  It is about a commitment to loving each child and teen we baptize like Jesus loved.  Radically, completely, with welcome and respect.   Love like Jesus friends.  It's not just a trend. 

* Spiritual Mentors explanation from Kirk, Brian; Thorne, Jacob (2011-06-07). Missional Youth Ministry: Moving from Gathering Teenagers to Scattering Disciples (Youth Specialties) (p. 92). Zondervan/Youth Specialties. Kindle Edition

Friday, January 27, 2012

Laboring for Justice

Text: Exodus 12: 1-14
Cedar Hills UCC Sept 4th 2011
The story of Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, the Early Israelites and the Egyptians is certainly a complex one.  It is the story of economic and labor justice, of the freedom to worship, of the journey of faith, of the support we gain from friends and family when faced with thought times, of God’s presence in the hardest of times, and the vindication that God will reign down on those who do not act appropriately.  The story is a well known one.  It is a Passover meal we celebrate at communion.  Every year we see the story of Exodus played out on TV with Charlton Hesston in the lead role. The story of freedom in that comes to fruition in Passover was a source of inspiration for African slaves escaping Southern slavery.  And it is easy to parallel the situation of the Israelites and the Egyptians to many unjust circumstances in the present day.  I am even tempted on occasion to imagine the divine hand of God dealing harsh punishment to those who oppress our neighbors, wishing for a divine intervention that would even the scales of injustice.
This week, our text focuses on the ritual requirements of Passover, a tradition that we as Christians do not consistently observe, but which is an integral part of our tradition.  So let’s set the scene.  Moses returns from his career as a shepherd, to lead the labor negotiations with the Pharaoh, freeing the Israelite slaves from bondage.  He demands merely the allowance to leave a life of unjust overseers, deplorable working conditions and inhumane treatment to worship in community.   Pharaoh, however does not negotiate, but instead makes the work harder for the people of Israel, taking away their straw from their building material, yet requiring the same quota.  After several failed attempts, Moses and Aaron give notice of a last plague that will befall the Egyptians if he does not let the people go, death.  Greedy Pharaoh – – who makes and breaks promises, knowing that it might be inconvenient to him, but assured that his privilege will protect him – – cannot protect himself from the effects of this plague.  After leaving Pharaoh, the sentence given, Moses and Aaron converse with God on how to properly prepare the community to memorialize this day.  In effect, they are given a Divine instruction manual on how to appropriately ritualize the massive death sentence God has just imposed upon the Egpytians in the last plague.  We can hear the urgency for action in this passage as they are told to Eat in a hurry, sandals on your feet and walking stick in hand.  It wouldn’t have been a small thing however to mobilize the entire Israelite community to leave their homes and run toward freedom.
What I love about that commandment, this instruction manual is that we are told to celebrate in the same breath that we are told of the disaster that is coming holding onto nothing firm but faith that conditions will improve.  Celebrate the uncertainty in your life! Celebrate even though the work you do today is backbreaking!  Celebrate the possibility of release from this way of life. I say possibility since so far, 9 times these plagues have buried the Egyptian people, and the Pharaoh in God’s judgment. Each time without release.  We know, of course, that THIS will be the one that clinches it.  The loss of Pharaoh’s son is too much for him, and he does in fact let the people go.  So the memorial-ization doesn’t seem quite as odd to us, but think about being in that situation.  It’s like a planning a party without knowing who it is being held for.
Today’s Passover meal is a far cry from the one outlined in the text we are given today.  The elements are there, bitter herbs, unleavened bread, roasted lamb.  But in the meal I described with the children today, we see the attention to memory that has been added to this commandment to remember.  In the Seder plate, we remember the hard work of laying bricks, the bitterness of the times, the sweat and tears poured out through their labor.  And we remember the speed that was so important, in the use of unleavened bread.
And yet… we cannot live in the past.  It does you no good to live in history, to live in your memories.  They will not clothe you, or feed you, right?  If the study of the Christian history can tell us one thing, it is that there is no golden age in our lives, in the lives of the Israelites, in the lives of Christians anywhere in the world.  The truth is that we are part of the constant flow of time.  Our actions are created from our past and our actions will create our future.  By creating ritual, the ancient Isrealite community’s memories have become an integral, but not consuming part of future generations.  In the Passover rituals, we remember the history, we are renewed for the work that it requires to learn to our history, and we are revived on the path that leads us from injustice to freedom.  We remember it as a PIECE of who we are today.  There is ritual, and there is ceremony, but there is also constant work toward change.
The injustice the Israelites suffered under Pharaoh, is a common take away from this story.  The injustice suffered here, and the strength it required to stand up to that oppression has filled oppressed people throughout the world with hope that change CAN come, that deliverance from slavery is a value we can attribute to our Divine source.  That hope for change can be reasoned as a constant in our tradition.
This weekend as we celebrate Labor day, we also celebrate the release of our fellow worker from unjust overseers, deplorable working conditions and inhumane treatment in our own history.  We celebrate today the freedoms struggled for, pleaded for, died for, in the 1800s when labor relations might be seen at their worst, and in more recent years, the constant battle that engulfs our world as power and justice so often stand at odds from one another.
We remember the history of unjust labor practices, unsafe working conditions and impossible employer expectations that is the industrial revolution.  We celebrate the privileges that most of us take for granted: reasonable hours, safer working conditions and the ability to gather a community of fellow workers to negotiate.  But, we also memorialize the sacrifices made by those who gave life, and limb to the cause.  It is a celebration in process, however, as economics and corporate policies continue to make harsh demands on many workers lives here, and around the globe.
In 1894, Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington to demand justice and employment relief for unemployed men.  In a statement for the press, he said, “We stand here today on behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been un-responded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative labor have been taken away from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators and gamblers.”
In 1963, Martin Luther King Junior led a march on Washington to demand civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, the right to vote, and adequate education for all.  In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King said “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
And in 2009, President Obama wrote in the introduction to his first US budget “The time has come to usher in a new era – a new era of responsibility in which we act not only to save and create jobs, but also to lay a new foundation of growth upon which we can renew the promise of America. … Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness. … It will take time, but we can bring change to America.  We can rebuild lost trust and confidence.  We can restore opportunity and prosperity.  And we can bring about a new sense of responsibility among Americans from every walk of live and from every corner of the country.”
I would add to President Obama’s statement that we must learn from our past mistakes, but we must also learn from our past greatness.  Our past is also filled with beautiful moments of great responsibility, of great compassion, and many who have stood up to seek fairness and justice.  From prayer and petition, to hope and faith, to responsible action, at the center of each of these flashes of history, is a concern for justice in every age and for all people.  It takes work to hew a mountain of despair into a stone of hope.  It takes commitment to our neighbors to listen to the petitions for justice.  And it takes diligence to remember our past and rebuild trust and confidence.  We must learn from the moments of history we ritualize, and the moments we seem to forget about.  We must learn from each other and the lives of all those who stand with us for justice.  We must continue to provide meals to the hungry, proclaim release to the captives, give socks to those without dry homes in which to warm their toes, and listen to the stories from our faith tradition that give us sustenance for the journey.
This weekend, we memorialize the significant work toward justice that CONTINUES to be needed in today’s growing global economy.  Much as the Israelites were instructed in how to memorialize the Passover before salvation had come, we today must celebrate in the same tone.  We remember how the past was significantly different, and we cannot just pat ourselves on the back and call it a day.  No, we must be diligent in continuing to stand with those who need the opportunity to speak.  We must celebrate with our sandals on and our staff in hand because it's the Passover to God’s march toward justice!  We will walk alongside those who are continuing to suffer under unsafe practices as they find voices to speak to the Pharaohs of today. We must seek out the unheard story and try our best to build a future that is more fair, more just and more equitable than the one we currently live in.
In the middle of King’s speech, he quotes the book of Amos, "We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." My hope today is that we too will not be satisfied until justice is as plentiful as the waters that fill not just our streams, but our rivers, lakes and oceans.

This is the Day

Text References: Psalm 118, Phillipans 4:4
Chapel Sermon March 3, 2011

Good morning friends!  This morning we have entered the retreat space of chapel to be catapulted OUTSIDE into our memories and our hopes for CAMP.  So we have entered that special moment where individuals gather around a fire, or in our case, the imagined flame, to tell stories, learn each other’s history and develop relationships.  And what would campfire be without a good story around the fire? 

Mary sighs as she stares out the car window waiting for the traffic to move.  She isn’t THAT far from her destination, but at 15 years old, the anticipation makes the few miles she and her mother have left to travel feel like a complete round trip to Bolivia.  Mary closes her eyes, leans her head against the cold clear glass of the car window.  Her mind begins to wander out into the summer heat.  “It’s the same every year,” she thinks.  “I’ve only got a bit longer than I will be there, but it feels SO far.  Soon I’ll be able to breathe again.  I’ll be with the people who really get me.  I’ll be at camp.”  Dreaming of the plans she and her friends will make this week and all the activities she knows are staples of camp, Mary drifts off to sleep. 
Janet, Mary’s mother catches a glimpse of Mary slumped against the window through the rear view mirror.  Mary legs drape casually over the new duffel bag they purchased this past week.  Even though it is new, the seams are stretched to the limit with bug spray, sunscreen and everything else Mary will need for the week.   At her side, Mary clutches the old, well loved, teddy bear she has always taken everywhere.  “That bear has been with her more than I have.” Janet thinks.  The stuffing has been refilled at least four times.  He’s been sewn, and patched over and over again.  Beginning to look a little like Frankenstein, Mary is now proud of the one toy she has kept throughout her years.  Last year the bear was shoved in her suitcase like a bad memory she was trying to hide.  Not this year, no longer ashamed to take it with her to camp, the bear rides in the car sitting next to Mary.  Looking back on the many years and many trips she and Mary have taken out to camp, Janet is filled with vivid memories of the past.  Humming along to herself, Janet loses herself in her own memories of camp; late night conversations in the cabin, the smell of the campfire, the taste of the first night chicken dinner.  She smiles and begins to sing to herself,
This is the day that the Lord has made
I will rejoice and be glad in it
This is the day
This is the day
That the Lord has made.
Within a few minutes, the car pulls off the highway onto the dusty dirt and gravel road toward camp.  As the car bounces down the road, Mary wakes up.  “Mom, do you mind? I know it’s a church camp, but I don’t need your bible thumping down my throat before we even get there!”  Janet smiles and stops singing.  “That’s one of the songs I sang as a camper Mary.  Maybe they still sing it.” She responds.  Once the car stops, Mary leaps out and rushes over to the check in tables.  Already a group of campers have formed to swap stories and catch up on what happened this past year.  As Janet walks over to the check in table, it is clear Mary has re-joined her tribe.
            After registering, Janet walks over to the group of parents and families gathering on the other side of the parking lot.  Sharing a laugh and a story with the parents, Janet knows she too has rejoined her extended family. The first day of camp has always been a coming home of sorts for Janet and Mary.  Too soon it seems, it is time to go and leave the teens to their sacred week at camp.  In the goodbye circle for families, the camp director Jessi starts to teach the call and response song that will build the camp’s central theme.  “This is the day!” Jessi calls out.  As the circle of parents and teens respond, Janet looks across at her daughter and smiles, Mary smiles back.  Mary’s expectations of her future and Janet’s memories of past are both welcome if they can only live in the present. This truly is the day to rejoice.        

As we travel back to THIS space, bouncing back down the dirt road of camp memories in our minds, we return to our space here on the hill, where the openness of camp is present, but where we are also engaged in all the realities of community.  How many of you have been to camp? Worked at camp, or taken your children there?  How many of you resonated with Mary? How many of you have felt like Janet?  As I’m sure you’ve guessed, that sacred place holds a lot of memories for me. Just as in the previous story, camp was my extended family.  Camp, and in particular, church camp was where my theology came alive and I met some of the best friends, and my wife.  Just like Mary in the story, I too have spent many days at camp avoiding God, theology and the divinity in process around me at the CHURCH camp I loved to call home. Content instead to marvel at the spaciousness and beauty of my surroundings, I tried really hard not to go deeper than that.  But when I did, I must say, I was a Holy Spirit girl.  I could take or leave the male God in the clouds and the suffering servant on the cross, but the creative unpredictable still speaking Holy Spirit and I, we were buds.  Church camp was where I connected to that unpredictable spirit.  It seemed like the rest of the year we heard about Jesus and God, but at camp, in the wilderness, that is where we celebrated the formless part of the trininty, the Spirit.  Camp also provided me with a social group that would challenge and support me through the rough years of High School.  Back in those days, the days that existed before Facebook and unlimited texting plans, that one week at camp was your chance.  Your only chance to be with these friends who were as close as family.  You might write letters, but the rest of the year, we were strangers, returned to our school lives, our separate homes, and individual concerns.  But there, we were in a place outside of time where we could meet as equals when the world might put us at odds.
With no news from outside, and no contact from my family, we had the TIME to see things differently.  In our Phillipians text we are told to Rejoice in the Lord always.  On the first day of camp, that’s easy.  Rejoicing here is easy, stress has been lessened, the world’s concerns were far away.  So rejoice we truly did.  Rejoice in the God of tears and triumphs.  Rejoice in the love of God we felt in our community.  Rejoice in the God who felt so present in the green trees and swift running water.  Rejoicing in answered prayers for relationship and love. 
Our reading says, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me.” Answered prayers are certainly times for rejoiceing.  What would it be like to live that way all the time?  Freeing sure, but also potentially painful to be that open and vulnerable.  So what happens when we leave that safe space of openness and freedom, when we have left the spiritual retreat transformed with rejoicing on our lips? When you walk out the doors of your retreat space wherever that might be, to re-engage with the world, the news, the injustice we temporarily put out of our minds?  How do we rejoice in a broken world? With protest and revolution in the air of North Africa, rejoice is tempered by reality.  How we rejoice matters.  It can take more work to find the means to rejoice in these days, when worry comes so easily to our minds. When prayers are not answered, in what do we rejoice?
In the passage from Phillipians, we are told not to be anxious, but to present with prayer, petition and thanksgiving our requests to God.  It is significant to me that the call to rejoice comes in the benediction to Paul’s letter from jail.  In a time of fear, the community at Philipi needed to hear a word of comfort, and oddly enough that word is it gets better, rejoice in the Lord Always!.
Does that phrase ring a bell for you? Several months ago, in those emotional days after the publicized string of gay teen suicides, the campaign for It gets Better sprung up as a response to all those LGBT teens who feel alienated by communities, friends, and families, and who continue to feel alienated.  While I respected the desire to respond, this campaign bothered me.  Ethically and theologically.  What was it that we, the adults, those who know better, are telling these young fearful lonely teens?  That the life and death situation they are facing isn’t as big a problem like they seem to think?  Are we telling them that their justice must be delayed?  That’s a pretty clear eschatological statement truthfully.  It GETS better just isn’t enough for me.  The truth is that nothing just GETS better.  We must make it better.  For anything to GET better, requires that we work. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.   In a sermon this past Advent, Rev. John MacIver Gage, a UCC minister from New Haven, Connecticut added his own interpretation.  If it does it is because men and women just like us for centuries before us have hammered at it daily and continue to BEND the world toward justice, and peace, and compassion. No, things just don’t happen to get better, but require the work of people dedicated to promote justice, and people who can trust in the community to BEND that arc.  This is where rejoicing comes into these hard times. 
We are told in the psalm text that The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; To create a community of rejoicing in this hard world, requires that we meet God’s call to create justice peace, and community with a definititive YES.  We must be willing to be the unlikely stone that holds up that building even when we cannot see that potential in ourselves.  And yet, there are times when our work to BEND that arc just isn’t enough.  When all we do to make things better hasn’t helped, we must trust in the HOPE of that arc, the HOPE of times getting better.  Quite possibly, the arc is so long, that even with the daily hammering and BENDING of the arc, we might still not see the bend, and so we must trust that God’s will is on our side, bending and hammering alongside our every action.  And so it might be with the It gets better campaign.  While on its surface, the sentiment expressed troubled me, many of the messages available highlight the need to find the support needed right now.  Not delayed until adulthood.  Support Right now, AND with the hope for a future that is brighter.
As future ministry leaders, as people of faith, as people in this interdependent world, we too need support.  We need the support of community and support of a strong prayer life constantly in discernment to do justice. My yearly communion with the Holy Spirit at camp was part of my prayer life and part of what kept me ready to rejoice.  In our discernment we must reach out to the divine, and more than that, we must reach out to the God reflected in those around US.  In our reading today did you hear the subtle shift from me to we?  Half way through the reading, it shifts from “I will give God thanks,” to “Lord save US! Lord grant US success.” Our individual thanksgivings are always related to the thanksgiving of others.  For all to succeed, interdependently, we each must do our own rejoicing so that all the earth can rejoice with US in success.  We have to be the camper on the first day of camp, and camper on the last day of camp, filled and ready to engage. 
To build a community that is ready to rejoice always, we must do God’s work in the world, we must rejoice in good times, and bring others to rejoicing in times of injustice.  To rejoice, we must promote interdependence and hope.  In HIS Letter from jail to a community struggling, Dr. King gives the encouragement his community needed.  He writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  That garment of destiny is sewn and decorated from the work we do when we are on spiritual retreat and when we are engaged in community.  It is up to us to embroider that garment with informed rejoicing made out of stitches of justice, hope and compassion now. Not at some future date, but today.  It’s all we’ve got.  Rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice.  This is the day that the Lord has made.  Lord grant us success.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Immersion Closing Worship Piece: For the CIty who came together around our mission

I wrote this spoken word piece  for the closing worship of my intercession immersion course this January.  My inspiration comes from Ntozake Shange's Choreopoem quoted in the first section.  The Choreopoem is the foundation for Tyler Perry's movie adaptation For Colored Girls, where he put a plot line onto Shange's  poetry in a really powerful way.  Thanks to all in my class the past two weeks who took a journey together.  
Much love!

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poem or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine/ this ain yr stuff/
now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self
somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff

From For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange

we leave today,
a part of something real,
just glimmering in Divine mind.
Hope. Craving for justice.
Bags-packed-next-project-in-mind-always-something   more   to do.

The poet said somebody almost walked off wid alla her stuff.
what i gotta do i gotta have my stuff to do it.
i gotta have me in my pocket like a good woman shd
They can't do nothing with those memories, those pieces of who she is.

But WE are doing something with anothers stuff.  Your memories and stories became part of MY story.
Somebody has given me more of their stuff than they know they did.

I'm walking away with pretty ribbon wrapped boxes stuffed with
your words.
God words
God speak
I'm walking away with luggage cards of you back into the world we never left.

Bishop said they were sisters & brothers forever because they displaced water together.
We are sisters-brothers-siblings forever because we have displaced assumption together.

Elders with rock bands & kids with chants and old school hymns.
No longer separate individuals but
a joyful WE.
Jubilee granted,
Hospitality earned just be being we,
The Edges of ourselves Gathered,
Radical responsibility learned,
Hope returned.
I got myself more in my pocket now than I ever knew I could

No one can walk off with my stuff without me giving it
Permission given without asking,
take from me what you need
I need something from you too,
I need to become WE.

Are you ready to choose the fruit of life and  leave that old fruit of otherness rotting on the ground?

What I gotta do I gotta have you to do it.