Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Scripture Engagement for Worship - Lent 3C

During Lent, I've been experimenting with engaging the congregation in responding to the scripture reading. Inspired by the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, and focusing the Lenten season on "listening for God and listening to one another," I wanted to find a way to practice this in worship. So, here's a bit about what we've been doing:


Lent 3C (March 3, 2013). Focus Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

Introduction to Reading and Instructions for Listening:

This week, we will engage with the images that the text brings up for us. As usual, I will begin with a moment of silence, so that we can center ourselves and be ready to listen. Then I will read the scripture slowly.

Pay attention to the images that come to mind - they do not have to be images in the text, but they can be. After the reading, keep your eyes closed for a moment and just let those images float around in your mind’s eye. See whether one or two images become prominent for you, and consider what God want you to notice.

Next Step:

Leave at least a full minute of silence for people to reflect. Then, invite them, as they feel led, to share the image that came to mind. Be clear that if someone already said "their" image, they can repeat it. The scribe will make a notation of those called out by multiple people. If you are the only one who has a microphone, it can be helpful to the scribe (and to all present) to repeat what each person says. Note - the first few responses were emotions or adjectives, not images - so I had to prompt them a bit to encourage them to name images, but I used everything they said for the word cloud.

Important - Ahead of time, ask a member of your congregation to be a "scribe" to write down people's responses and give or send you the list afterward. Alternately, you can walk around with a smart phone and record responses, but this creates more work later.

Sermon Reflection:

I keep my sermons under 10 minutes so that there's plenty of time for the scripture engagement piece.

Follow Up:


This is the really fun part! After you get the list of words and phrases from your scribe, create a word cloud that visually depicts the responses. I like Tagxedo for its ease of use and variety of shapes. Here's the one I made for the third week. Don't forget to send it by email and post on your social media sites!


Scripture Engagement for Worship - Lent 2C

During Lent, I've been experimenting with engaging the congregation in responding to the scripture reading. Inspired by the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, and focusing the Lenten season on "listening for God and listening to one another," I wanted to find a way to practice this in worship. So, here's a bit about what we've been doing:


Lent 2C (February 24, 2013). Focus Scripture: Luke 13:31-35

Introduction to Reading and Instructions for Listening:

Last week we read the temptation story using the ancient practice of lectio divina - which means “sacred reading.” You shared words and phrases that stood out to you. This week, I’d like to invite you to pay attention to your feelings: I will begin with a moment of silence, so that we can center ourselves and be ready to listen. Then I will read the scripture slowly. Rather than meditating on a particular word or phrase, pay attention to the emotions that the text leaves you with. Sit with those feelings, and share how you are feeling with God. Let us prepare our hearts to listen for a word from our still speaking God...

Next Step:

Leave at least a full minute of silence for people to reflect. Then, invite them, as they feel led, to share the feeling/emotion they are left with. Be clear that if someone already said "your" feeling, you can repeat it. The scribe will make a notation of those called out by multiple people. If you are the only one who has a microphone, it can be helpful to the scribe (and to all present) to repeat what each person says.

Important - Ahead of time, ask a member of your congregation to be a "scribe" to write down people's responses and give or send you the list afterward. Alternately, you can walk around with a smart phone and record responses, but this creates more work later.

Sermon Reflection:

I keep my sermons under 10 minutes so that there's plenty of time for the scripture engagement piece.

Follow Up:

This is the really fun part! After you get the list of words and phrases from your scribe, create a word cloud that visually depicts the responses. I like Tagxedo for its ease of use and variety of shapes. Here's the one I made for the second week. Don't forget to send it by email and post on your social media sites!


Note: I chose a heron for this week because, while the text uses the image of a hen gathering her brood under her wing, I used the following video of a heron protecting her eggs from an owl for the children's time. 



Scripture Engagement for Worship - Lent 1C

During Lent, I've been experimenting with engaging the congregation in responding to the scripture reading. Inspired by the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, and focusing the Lenten season on "listening for God and listening to one another," I wanted to find a way to practice this in worship. So, here's a bit about what we've been doing:

Lent 1C (Feb 17, 2013). Focus Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

Introduction to the Reading & Instructions for Listening:


During Lent we will be focused on listening - listening for God, and listening to one another. One way to listen for God, of course, is to listen to scripture. When I was young, I thought that the Bible was God’s voice being spoken directly to me, and that I had to try to figure out how to follow what it said - after all, it’s right there in black and white. As I grew in my understanding of sacred texts, I came to realize that this, as it sits on the page, is not God’s word. It is a living word, and therefore it must be engaged - we are in conversation with other people of faith through the ages who have wrestled with their experience of the divine. And now we bring our own community and wisdom and experience to the conversation. My sermons during Lent will be brief reflections - and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, I want to invite us to engage with scripture through the ancient practice of lectio divina - which means “sacred reading.” We’ll do it a bit differently each week: here’s how it will work today:

I will begin with a moment of silence, so that we can center ourselves and be ready to listen. Then I will read the scripture slowly. As I read, listen for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that calls to you today. Don’t expect a big epiphany - after all, this is Lent now! Just something that catches your attention - and you don’t need to have a reason - in fact, don’t try to find a reason. Just let that word or phrase catch your attention and let yourself sit with it.
After the reading, I’ll have another moment of silence where I invite you to write that word or phrase down on your bulletin. Take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories, and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during lectio divina, are asking to be given to God along with the rest of your inner self. Allow this inner meditation to invite you into dialogue with God. (Previous instructions adapted from How to Practice Lectio Divina by Father Luke Dysinger, OSB.)

Let us prepare our hearts to listen for a word from our still speaking God...(read text slowly and clearly)

Next Step:


Leave at least a full minute of silence for people to reflect. Then, invite them, as they feel led, to share the word or phrase. Be clear that if someone already said "your" word or phrase, you can repeat it. The scribe will make a notation of those words/phrases called out by multiple people. If you are the only one who has a microphone, it can be helpful to the scribe (and to all present) to repeat what each person says.

Important - Ahead of time, ask a member of your congregation to be a "scribe" to write down people's responses and give or send you the list afterward. Alternately, you can walk around with a smart phone and record responses, but this creates more work later.


Sermon Reflection:


I keep my sermons under 10 minutes so that there's plenty of time for the scripture engagement piece.


Follow Up:



This is the really fun part! After you get the list of words and phrases from your scribe, create a word cloud that visually depicts the responses. I like Tagxedo for its ease of use and variety of shapes. Here's the one I made for the first week. Don't forget to send it by email and post on your social media sites! Have fun!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Catching Up

It's been some time since I last wrote a personal reflection here. I've posted a few sermons from my current congregation, but that's about it. I was looking back at a previous post - A Whole Lotta Delta, and realizing that the amount of change I was going through then was nothing compared to what I've experienced in the last year and a half.

Last January, I moved to Ithaca, NY to begin my first ordained call as the Associate Pastor of First Congregational UCC. My partner Syed also found a job here, as a systems engineer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I went back to Fort Worth for my ordination on Feb 20, 2011, and then Syed and I packed up our home and 2 pets to drive north - a car accident and snowstorm later, we arrived in Ithaca and started to settle in to this next phase of our lives. We bought a lovely home last summer, and we are enjoying all that the Ithaca area offers - waterfalls, arts, music, wine, friendly community, and more.

Not long after my ordination, my dad Steven was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He endured multiple rounds of chemo and ultimately decided to have a stem cell transplant. Sadly, he fell and had a brain hemorrhage when he was at his weakest from the intense transplant procedure, and he did not make it long enough to see whether the new stem cells would make a difference. We said goodbye to him on January 22 of this year - just over 6 months ago.
Pic from my graduation, May 2010

Less than 2 months later, my grandfather Bruce (my dad's stepdad) died after many years with Alzheimer's. Because his disease was so advanced, I felt I had said my goodbyes to my granddad a couple years ago, so his death was less jarring. The bigger loss, for me, was not having my dad there with me to be with us. I was grateful that Granddad's passing gave me an opportunity to be with my family again, as the week or so after Dad's death wasn't nearly enough.

In May, we said another goodbye, this time to our precious cat Silly. She lived with me for over 11 years, and she was around 15 years old. Silly was friendly, cuddly, sweet and curious, and she moved with me from Boston to Texas to New York, even staying for a few months with my parents when I was in seminary. Last month, we brought home a new cat, Sammy, and he's adorable and friendly and fun. I still miss Silly's presence, though, as she was an important companion through many important transitions in my life. I don't know what life after death is like, but in my mind, Silly is curled up in my dad's lap, keeping him company while he watches Stargate.

I am going to try to write somewhat regularly here, to remember my dad and others, and to reflect on the process of grieving as a pastor. It's a constant dance between the personal and professional, giving myself space to grieve on my own terms while also being present for others, wherever they find themselves on life's journey.

Now that 6 months have passed, I'm finding that I'm having more good days than bad, although I still carry a deep sense of sadness that intensifies in moments of quiet. I also have profound gratitude for my dad and my family. I am so grateful that last year, my parents came to visit us for Thanksgiving, and that even though my dad was tired and in pain, he thoroughly enjoyed his visit and Syed's smoked meats. It means a lot to me that he was able to see where we live and meet my congregation and just spend meaningful time with us.

I am filled with thanksgiving for my dad's life journey - for his commitment to sobriety, for the ways he struggled to move beyond a troubled childhood, for the difference he made in so many people's lives. He was a complex man, always seeking the better way, questioning and struggling and changing throughout his life. In his memorial service, the minister read statements from those of us who wanted to share, and this is what I wrote: "One of the last times I talked to Dad, he said, 'Mandy? Are you happy?' I told him that yes, I am happy, and that I am proud and thankful to be his daughter. We’ve had our ups and downs, as all families do, but ultimately, I am so grateful for the hard work Dad did to overcome addiction and to become a better husband and father. I remember many late night conversations in high school, when we would discuss deep theological issues, and he taught me that even when humans fail, God’s love is abundant, inclusive, and unconditional. I will miss calling him for insight, but I know that a big part of why I am who I am is because he showed me how to love God and love people, and to love myself as well. He touched many lives and will continue to do so through all of us who love him."

My dad was an introvert and not much of a talker, but when I have joys or struggles in ministry, I sure wish I could call him. Dad had a real sense of what it meant to be the Body of Christ in the world - to be a loving, caring community that transforms people. He taught me to pay attention to issues of justice, and to be open to changing my mind.

My parents (and I) grew up in a tradition that does not recognize women as ministers. When I embarked on this path toward ordination, it was more of a struggle for my dad then for my mom. But in the end, Dad became one of my biggest supporters, and both of my parents served communion in my ordination. I can't express how important and special that was for me.

Much of my life, I think I was trying to win my dad's approval, and when I became and adult and learned to truly "accept that I am accepted" (as Paul Tillich would say), I found I didn't need to seek approval anymore. At the same time, I am grateful that in the end, Dad did give me his blessing. And while I don't feel that I had things left unsaid or undone (at least not big things), I do really wish that I had more time to get to know my dad, more time to share my life with him and learn from him.

Yes, this past year and a half have brought a great deal of delta...and with every change comes both loss and growth. But this time, the losses feel more profound than ever, and though I know that growth will come and is already happening, I think that if I could choose, I'd rather keep my loved ones around and find other ways to grow. But life brings death, and there is no way around that.

So I'll close with a prayer from Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book. And I'll start using this blog more to chronicle my journey. Thanks for those of you who take the time to read it. Blessings to all...

"It is hard to sing of oneness when our world is not complete, when those who once brought wholeness to our life have gone, and naught but memory can fill the emptiness their passing leaves behind. But memory can tell us only what we were, in company with those we loved; it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become. Yet no one is really alone; those who live no more, echo still within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part of what we have become.

We do best homage to our dead when we live our lives most fully, even in the shadow of our loss. For each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world; in each one is the breath of the Ultimate One. In affirming the One, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the Source of life, in whose unity no one is alone and every life finds purpose. Amen."


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sermon for Lent 2A

Sermon text as prepared for delivery at First Congregational UCC in Ithaca, NY on March 20, 2011

Introduction to Text
At many public events you’ll find someone holding a sign reading “John 3:16,” a Bible verse that has taken on a meaning of its own in our culture. It’s easy for us to think we know what a verse or passage means based on cultural wisdom. If we take this verse out of its context, we miss out on a very interesting story. One thing to note in this narrative is the translators’ choice of how to translate the Greek word Pneuma. This word can be translated spirit, breath, or wind. Because this word carries all three meanings, I will use the word Pneuma in this text, rather than the English translators’ choice. When you hear the word Pneuma, know that it means spirit, breath, and wind.

The text: John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Pneuma. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Pneuma is Pneuma. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The Pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Pneuma.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


Will you pray with me?
O God, fill us with your Pneuma. Help us to notice your spirit blowing throughout creation and in every breath we take. And may my words and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.

We are only 3 chapters into the gospel of John - the first chapter sets up some important themes around belief in Jesus, who immediately gathers some disciples to follow him. In the second chapter, Jesus is portrayed as a miracle worker who can change water into wine (although he only seems to have done it because his mama insisted), and as a zealot seeking to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. He is a complex figure, to say the least.

Then we come to Nicodemus, a spiritual leader in the Jewish community. Has he come to question Jesus in order to test or trap him, as the Pharisees seemed fond of doing? Or to mock him? Or perhaps to gently suggest to Jesus that he ought to calm down a bit and act a bit less sensational? Or is he a genuine seeker?

We will never really know, for as soon as Nick’s words of praise - whether sincere or not - come out of his mouth, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Wait. What? That’s not what I came here to talk to you about. But what do you even mean? “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Seriously, Jesus, you are making no sense here!

But Jesus goes on, determined to push Nicodemus to consider a more basic truth - the way to recognize the reign of God is to be born from above - and in order to better understand what is meant by birth and belief in the context of John’s gospel, we can look back at John chapter 1.

You may be familiar with the opening of the gospel - “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This one was with God in the beginning.” This Word, or Logos, of God, then becomes flesh and dwells among us. And all who receive the Logos - who believe in his name - are given power to become children of God, to be born of God.

And in today’s text, Jesus says that we must be born of both water - which my college Greek professor insisted was referring to baptism, but which I think refers to the waters of the womb - and of the Pneuma, the spirit which is our very breath. Born of water - born of the flesh and blood and fluid of a mother’s womb. And born of Pneuma - the Spirit of God, who blows like wind throughout creation, and whose breath gives life to our flesh in every moment. It is not that our flesh and spirit are two different natures, but that we carry within us that which the Word, or Logos, also carried within himself - both the water and the spirit.

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus continues and they begin talking about belief, and we might wonder what being born of the Pneuma, or spirit, has to do with belief. In the English language, we tend to think of belief as acceptance of something as true. When someone tells us a story that seems far-fetched, we might say, “I don’t believe it.” But we also use it, as the Greek language did, to mean placing our confidence in someone or something. We might tell a child, “I believe in you,” meaning, “I have confidence in you.” And the Greek word for belief, pisteuo, can also mean to commit to or to place trust in.

So, again, what does this have to do with being born from above? When I think of being born, I think of my niece Maaida, at whose birth I was present. When Maaida was placed in her mother’s arms and brought to nurse at her breast, she believed in her mother - she felt complete and utter trust that her mother would hold her and not let her go, and that she would be cared for.

One of the lectionary texts which we did not read today was from Genesis 4, about Abram and Sarai, or Abraham and Sarah. One of the names for God that Abraham fondly used was El Shaddhai - which some scholars translate “God of many breasts.” Like Maaida looking to her mother, Abraham looked to God as his birth mother and his nurturer.

In the world we live in today, it is easy to forget how to be born from above, how to have that childlike trust. We have only to turn on the television, open the paper, pull up the news online, or look at Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds to be reminded that our earth and many of the creatures on the face of the earth are suffering. The U.S. has launched military strikes in Libya, whose people are being abused at the hands of an unrepentant tyrant. Wars continue to rage in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Japan, where there are no words for the devastation brought about by earthquake and tsunami, races to contain the radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

And in our own community, loved ones are ill and dying, there are people without enough food to eat, and young people are suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
I don’t know about you, but all these things and more leave me with a heaviness in my heart and a sense of great sadness.

And I find it easy to be a person of flesh - to ache with sorrow for our hurting world - and to wonder how we can ever get ourselves out of this mess. But to put my trust in God - to be born of the spirit - is a harder thing to do. Nicodemus had a hard time grasping it, too.

A lot of contemporary theology is pretty horrible. Consider the governor of Tokyo, who said that the tsunami was divine punishment. Unfortunately, a theology of “you brought this on yourself” is all too common - when people think God is going around punishing every evil deed or thought with unspeakable destruction - is it any wonder that we have trouble being born of the spirit?

But every once in a while I come across some pretty good theology - this time in music. Natalie Grant, a Christian singer, has a song called “Held.” I’d like to share with you the lyrics of the chorus, which, I think, illustrate what it means to be born of the Pneuma -

This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know
That the promise was that when everything fell
We'd be held

Even when it seems the world around us is falling apart and there really are no good answers, even when we’re not sure what we can believe in the sense of accepting as fact, we can have pisteuo - belief that is a deeper trust. The wonder of God’s promise is that we are loved, and that when we allow ourselves to be like children, born from above, resting on God’s bosom, we will truly be held. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on March 20, 2011 


Text: Matthew 6:24-34, Inclusive Bible

No one can serve two superiors. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and Money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothes?

Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, “What are we to eat,” or “what are we to drink,” or “what are we to wear?” Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.

Sermon:



Will you join me in prayer? O God, we come to you as children, with quiet hearts, seeking comfort at your breast. Enfold us in your mothering arms and fill us with your peace. And may my words and our meditations bring you joy. Amen.
          I first welcomed our dog, Sadie, into my life when she was about 10 weeks old. A friend of mine found her, sitting on the curb at a gas station, looking like she really wanted someone to take her home and take care of her. She was malnourished and flea-ridden but also cuddly and sweet, and when I saw her picture on Facebook, I couldn’t say no, and she quickly became one of the family. Many of you will meet Sadie, and when you do, you should know that she is very anxious around new people and situations. Whether it’s because she was abandoned or because of her genes or some combination of things, all I know is that she is inherently distrustful of people she doesn’t know, and you have to be patient with her in order to gain her trust and affection.
          Now, I know people are not dogs and dogs are not children, but many of us know the kind of bond that can develop between human and dog. Because I have worked hard to establish a strong bond with her, Sadie looks to me when she is nervous or anxious. Like a little child going to hide between its mother’s skirts, Sadie sometimes tries to wedge herself between my legs, where she feels protected.
          When Sadie is anxious like this, my heart goes out to her and I want to coddle her. When she was younger, it was difficult to take her to places like the pet store, because she would tuck her tail and cower and dart around at the smallest provocation, or she would stand in a corner and growl and bark at every person who passed by. Watching her, I thought, this is no way to live, running around afraid of everything! So I sought training so that I could be a better parent for her.  I learned that giving her positive attention in her anxiety will only encourage her to remain in a fearful state. What she needs is not for me to fuss over her but rather to help her redirect her focus. The dog trainer had me take her to public places and to have her sit and make eye contact with me. Every time Sadie made eye contact, she got a treat, and she had to build up to holding eye contact with me for longer periods of time. Even though there were people walking by and all kinds of frightening things happening around us, when Sadie’s focus was on me, she could remain calm and at peace.
          In this passage in Matthew, I imagine Jesus looking out at his disciples – we know he is addressing them and not necessarily the entire crowd, because he uses the phrase, “You of little faith.” I imagine him seeing them and feeling a father’s love and protective instincts, wanting, on the one hand, to gather them up and hold and comfort them, and knowing, on the other hand, that what they needed most was to redirect their focus.
          And Jesus’ words really hit home for me. I want to react and say, what do you mean, stop worrying? Do you see what this world is like, and what’s going on all around me? There is a crazy and violent dictator killing people in Libya. There are homeless people walking around on Ithaca Commons. There are people without clean water. Our elected leaders at every level are making cuts to needed services in the interest of saving money. And Jesus responds with, don’t worry?
          When I was in 5th grade, one of the top hits was, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. You probably know it well: Here’s a little song I wrote… and then the part of the song that makes me a little mad…
Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don't worry, be happy
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy
          At first glance it feels like Jesus’ message is the same as McFerrin’s – hey, don’t worry, just be happy. When you worry, you frown, and that brings everybody down. So just be happy! But that seems rather shallow to me.
          I did a little research on this song and found that it was inspired by words from Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba. The full quote reads, "Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you." So, rather than a flippant response to troubles that abdicates responsibility, Meher Baba offers a challenge to trust in God’s love.
          When we read this passage, it’s tempting to see it as a release from responsibility for the challenges in our world. Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources. "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable," Beard told the Minnesota Post. "We are not going to run out of anything." It may seem like Beard is taking Jesus’ message to not worry to heart, but he actually misses the whole point.
          Jesus’ words in Matthew are not an easy or flippant “don’t worry, be happy,” but a challenge to radically reorient our lives. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice. The ultimate challenge here is not to brush off all responsibility and go about life in a carefree, who cares manner, but rather to seek God’s face and let our lives be guided by right relationship with God.
          Like Sadie learning to look to me when she feels afraid and take her cues from me, we have to train ourselves to refocus on God. And in this passage, I think Jesus gives us some clues about how to do that. Jesus reminds the disciples to look around them…look up at the birds of the air, flying overhead. Look down at your feet, at the wildflowers. See how beautiful they are! Just look around you, at all the ways God provides.
          Look at this community, at each other’s faces. Look at all the ways God caring for this church. Look at the youth, many of whom are getting ready to take to the skies to travel to Back Bay Mission to serve others. And our outreach and endowment committees, who work to support clean water projects. And our leadership event tomorrow night, where we will have the opportunity to take a look around us and see God’s continued care and focus on God’s vision for our community.
          Reorienting our lives toward God’s purposes does not mean that we never think about money, or that we should become nudists or stop enjoying food – it means that we seek first to be in right relationship with God, through one another. It’s much easier said than done…but just as I have to continually remind Sadie to look to me for security and guidance, we can help each other. Let us move into 2011 with renewed trust and faith that God goes before us! Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany 3A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on Jan 23, 2011

Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Inclusive Bible)

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he went back to Galilee. He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town near the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, the way to the sea on the far side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
As Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, he watched two brothers – Simon, who was called Peter, and Andrew – casting a net into the sea. They fished by trade. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of humankind.” They immediately abandoned their nets and began to follow Jesus.
Jesus walked further and caught sight of a second pair of brothers – James and John, ben-Zebedee. They too were in their boat, mending their nets with their father. Jesus called them, and immediately they abandoned both boat and father to follow him.
Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kindom of heaven and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses among the people.

Sermon

Will you join me in prayer? O God, you tell our hearts to seek your face, and it is your face we seek. Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, our Rock, and our Shelter, Amen.

          I was raised in an evangelical church in a denomination very prominent in the South, including Texas, where I grew up. When I was 14 years old, I went to a weeklong summer camp at Lubbock Christian University. While I have many memories that speak to my love, from a very young age, for God’s church, it was at this summer camp that I first experienced what I would describe as a “call” to ministry. There was no lakeshore, and I wasn’t fishing. Well, I wasn’t fishing for fish! Like many 14 year olds, I was fishing for boys, and there was one boy, named Tilden, on whom I had a HUGE crush.
          One night after a worship service, a missionary from Africa said that he would be talking about his experience if anyone wanted to stay. Well, Tilden was staying to hear this missionary, so of course I had to stay too! I listened to this man talk about sharing the good news about the light Jesus brings into the world, and I was transfixed. I came away from that weeklong camp with a vision of myself traveling to Africa to save the lost. You see, in my childhood faith, only those who were Christian – and we had a very narrow definition of who was a Christian – could go to heaven. And I felt a deep yearning in my soul to share my faith so that no one would be excluded from heaven.
          In our Gospel story today, five people experience what may have been their first sense of “call.” Now, I know you can all do the math, and that there are only 2 pairs of brothers, which adds up to 4 people. But Jesus is the first to begin to live into his own identity and calling. Before this scene in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has had a remarkable start in life. His birth was heralded by astrologers or magi from the East. Then his family fled to Egypt, and when they returned to Israel, they decided to make their home in Nazareth, on the Sea of Galilee. Jump ahead to when Jesus is a young adult, and his cousin John is making waves by baptizing and preaching repentance –calling people to redirect their lives in line with God’s purposes.
          Jesus responds to John and is baptized by him. Matthew continues his theme of pointing to Jesus’ identity as God’s Anointed – the Messiah. Like the Magi, John recognizes who Jesus is. And then while Jesus is being baptized, the spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice declares that Jesus is God’s beloved child. Jesus carries this knowledge with him into a time of testing in the desert.
          And so we come to our story for today. The narrative begins in an interesting place – “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” Then it goes on to say that Jesus moved from Nazareth, where he had grown up, to Capernaum. Matthew, who loves to quote prophecy, draws a parallel between this move and the prophet Isaiah, who said that the Gentiles in Galilee “had seen a great light – on those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I’ll return to that later. But for now, I want to point out this sentence that comes after Jesus’ temptation, after John’s arrest, and before Jesus calls the disciples: From that time on, Jesus began proclaiming the message, “Change your hearts and minds, for the kindom of heaven is at hand!”
          This is where today’s story begins – Jesus recognizes his own identity and begins to live into his vocation. Vocation, from the Latin vocare or “to call” is described by Frederick Buechner as "the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet" (from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC).  Jesus had found that place, and his next task was to set out and find people who would join him.
          I shared with you earlier about the first time I remember recognizing my vocation. Determined to live into that, I went to a Christian university and majored in Bible and Missions. In my childhood faith tradition, many women, myself included, who felt called to ministry, saw that as a call to missions, because the mission field is a place where gender boundaries in church leadership are not as strict.
          When I was 19, I went with 5 other students to live with missionaries in Togo, West Africa. This summer internship was a bit unique, because rather than being expected to share the Gospel, as we understood it, with the local people, we instead spent most of our time learning from the Eve people of southern Togo – they taught us about their language and their culture and how God was moving in their lives.
          One thing about Togo that I vividly remember is the beach – the water is a lovely sea green, and just out on the horizon, you could see where it drastically changes to a deep blue. This was where the continental shelf begins, so the water quickly becomes very deep. I learned that there is a rich supply of fish right along this line, and the Togolese people, like the fishers of Jesus’ day, use nets for their catch. Often when we hear Matthew’s story, we think of fly fishing or rod and reel – using bait to catch just the right fish, and cutting the line if it gets snagged or you don’t like what you’ve caught.
          But this scene by the Sea of Galilee – which was really a large, freshwater lake, is not an idyllic scene like we might imagine right out of A River Runs through It. Like in Togo, fishing was tough work, and it involved large nets that could get snagged or torn and that didn’t allow for discrimination in choosing which fish to catch. In Togo, if the net gets caught on something, people risk their lives to swim down and free it. They could get caught in a current, or attacked by a shark that has come to feast on the trapped fish.
          While Simon, Andrew, James, and John did not have to deal with sea sharks, their fishing trade had sharks of its own. New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer describes life for Galilean fishers: “At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus' disciples, were caught in (Herod) Antipas's conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” ("'Follow Me': The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels," in Interpretation, April 2005).
          And those of you who have been down to Back Bay Mission, or who know anything about fishing as a profession, know that it is dangerous, bloody, back-breaking work that can be profitable but can also be bankrupting or even deadly. Last summer Syed and I were in New Orleans not long after the beginning of the massive oil leak that devastated the Gulf Coast. Even then, restaurant owners spoke of their fear that they would not be able to sustain their business.
          At the same time, there was a remarkable resilience that was born out of having taken risks and lived through challenges. There was a sense of, “We made it through Katrina and Rita, and we can get through this again together.”
          Jesus knew that, like John the Baptist, these two pairs of brothers were no strangers to risk. They had faced the hardships of the fishing life, and they had found a way to survive and even thrive. Jesus chose these men to be his companions and disciples because he knew that they could weather the storms that were sure to come.
          This congregation is no stranger to risk. You have lived through changes of pastors; you have started new ministries and developed a plan for growth and leadership development. You have declared yourselves to be open and affirming. And, you now stand in a place that holds some financial risk.  Yet you also have incredible resilience and spirit – you know you’ve got the strength to get through these challenges together.
          Here we stand on the threshold, the liminal place, beside the Sea of Galilee, near the Finger Lakes, with the opportunity to heed Christ’s call: “Follow me!” This liminal place can be filled with darkness – and this is where I get back to Isaiah’s prophecy about darkness and light –  for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
          This image had great power for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel. When I was in Togo, most people in the village of Tabligbo did not have electricity.  If we needed to walk anywhere in the dark, we needed a flashlight or other light source to safely travel. Without light, we could have stepped on a green mamba snake, or fallen into a hole, or been attacked by a person or animal. Light was our security and our salvation.
          Today’s Psalmist (Psalm 27) wrote, “God, you are my light, my salvation – my fortress and my hiding place.”  Jesus calls us to take great risks, but he also promises to accompany us and light the way. We are called to cast our nets wide, to make room for all God’s beloved, to find where the world’s deep hunger and our deep gladness meet. We are called to join in Jesus’ ministry of healing and caring; and sharing the Good News that the kindom of heaven is not something that we have to strive to “get into,” for it is already here, among us.
          We are in a place where the path forward may seem dark and unknown. A wise friend once told me that sometimes God gives us just enough light to take the next step. And then the next, and then the next. May we seek together to discern that next step, knowing that the light of Christ will continue to show us the way. Amen.