Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve wishes...

Packed away in the box that holds my Christmas decorations I have an old dog-eared copy of the 1976 Sears Christmas catalog.
The people at Sears called it the "Wish Book" - which is a very appropriate name given that there was no way my parents could afford half the stuff that was in there. As a child all I could do was "wish" when I poured over its pages.
Now, when I take it out at Christmas time and flip through its slick pages the images of Sunshine Family accessories, Johnny Bench catcher's mitts, and life-sized play kitchens bring back all the longings I once felt during Christmases past.
If only...

If only I had that doll. That baseball glove. That guitar with the flames painted on it...
Then I would be cool.
Then I would be happy.
Then I my life would be complete.

This craving for completeness didn't go away when I became an adult.
But the things I wished for could no longer be contained within the pages of the Sears catalog.
If only I had that job. That car. That house. That person whom I had fallen in love with...
Then I would be cool.
Then I would be happy.
Then my life would be complete.

Thankfully I no longer have much of a craving for "things" -
I don't have a longing for top-of-the line computer, a nicer car, or a closet full of designer clothes.
I don't even have a longing for a 5-bedroom house with granite counter tops or a $80K job with a pension plan.
And I don't envy those who have these things, or the pressure they must feel to obtain and maintain such things.
But I still have my longings.

For security. For health. For happiness. For wisdom. For compassion.  For love.

These are the 'things' that top my Christmas list.
Because I am human, and it is a human failing to want more than we have.
But these things also top my Gratitude list.
Because they are already present in my life, in many forms.

So, this Christmas Eve, as I remember Christmases past when I was disappointed because I didn't get the gift I wanted, or couldn't spend the holiday with the person I wanted, or couldn't fathom entering yet another year not living the life that I wanted, I feel the need to move away from "wanting" and to instead focus on what I have already received. 

I am thankful for my health.
For having the ability to heave myself out of bed every morning and move throughout the day relatively pain free. To be able to not just walk, but to run.

I am thankful for the home that I have.
For the roof over my head, for a warm bed to sleep in, and the food that sustains me.
And for the people and pets within it that make it a home. 

I am thankful for the opportunities that I've been given to grow.
To get an education, to do work that I love, to minister to and with others as we do God's work in the world.

I am thankful for the love that has come into my life.
In the form of family, friends, lovers, mentors, and animal companions.

I am also thankful for all the disappointments and losses in my life that have left me broken, but enabled me to grow stronger in the broken places.
For lost jobs, missed opportunities, unrealized dreams and unrequited loves.

And I am thankful for the "conditions" that I have had to overcome in my life to move in the direction that God has called me to go.
For the cleft palate that I was born with and lived with for 16 years, that taught me what it is like to not have a voice.
For the debilitating shyness of my youth that taught me what it is like to live in fear.
For the depression of my teen years that taught me what it means to have no hope.
For the gender and sexual orientation issues that I wrestled with as a young adult, which taught me what it is like to live on the fringes of what society deems "normal."
For the broken pelvis that laid me up for 5 months as an adult and taught me what it is like to lose one's independence and to have to ask for help with even the most basic things.

Most of all, I am thankful for the experience of being human - with all the joy and pain, ecstasy and grief that comes along with it.

Isn't that what Christmas is really all about?
Celebrating God becoming human.
God becoming one of us.
God being born into a creature that is completely helpless and dependent upon the love and support of others to survive.
God experiencing what it means to be one of us, so that we may move closer to God, and trust that God understands our suffering and our rejoicing. 

This is the gift that God has given us, and it is the gift that we open anew every Christmas Day.

We might not find it in the pages of the Sears Wish Book, or stare longingly at it through the glass of a shop window, but we desire it all the same.
We desire to be close to God.
We desire a God that knows what its like live in our skin.
We desire a God that so loves us SO MUCH that He/She is willing to become one of us, and live and die like one of us, to save us from destroying ourselves.
That is our desire, our wish, whether we know it or not.

So, Merry Christmas Eve.
Tomorrow, our greatest wish will come true.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Spaces In Between


The sound of loose gravel shifting beneath my feet breaks the silence as I crest the steep hill leading up to Tiedemann Field.  Tucked away on the grounds of a private school in western Connecticut, this tumbling meadow of soccer pitches and softball diamonds is my sanctuary.  Embraced on all sides by wooded glory, the rustle of fallen leaves and the lonely caw of a distant crow are the only sounds accompanying the slow steady cadence of my own breathing.
It is here in the solitude of a Sunday afternoon that I find the room to stretch my legs, to let my mind wander, and open my heart to God.
It is here that I talk to God.
It is here that I listen to God.
It is here where the veil between the material and the spiritual, at least in my world, is at its thinnest.

When I need to talk to God, to vent to God, to rave and rant at God, I run.
The words tumble out of my head so rapidly my body is forced to propel itself along in earnest just to keep up; turning my thoughts and fears over to divine ears as fast as my legs will carry me.

When I need to listen to God, to feel the presence of God, I walk.
Slowly, methodically, attentively.
Allowing deep longings to rise, quelling the inner chatter, and listening for God in the spaces in between.

Listening for God in the spaces in between.
This is the definition of theology that resonates most with me.

We listen for God, we look for God, we feel the presence of God, in the vague, shadowed spaces that drift in between our existence in the material world and our understanding of the spiritual world.
We search for language, images, and emotions that best describe our encounters with these spaces, in an attempt to bring order and meaning to that which is otherwise indefinable and unknowable.
Theology is the bridge we build between the known and the unknown, between God and ourselves.
For some, this bridge takes on solid unmoving form, with extensive, ornate, often redundant levels, towering towards the heavens while resting on a seemingly sound and sturdy footing.
For others, this bridge to God is strung together with fishing line and cotton thread.
A seat-of-the-pants, cargo-net-like contraption with shaky handholds, unsure footing, and gaping holes in between.
Twisting and billowing in the wind.
Changing form with every gust.
At times sagging beneath one’s weight, swaying dangerously close to the jagged rocks below.
Yet manifesting enough resiliency to spring its occupant high up into the clouds on the rebound.

This is the theological bridge that best fits the way in which I encounter God.
Where language and faith are liquid.
Ebbing and flowing.
Coming and going.
Birthing and dying.
Shrinking and growing.
With a gardener’s eye pruning the excess, the unnecessary, the no longer needed.
While letting the sturdier offshoots spread at will, never quite knowing exactly where they will lead.

Theology for me flows in both the mystical and the practical.
I go to church to worship God, to be in community with others who worship God, to experience the feeling of being held up by the hardwearing bricks of scripture, tradition, ritual and sacrament.
But church is not where I go to talk to God, or to listen to God.
Instead, I come to this hilltop sanctuary.
Where leaves tumble across the grass, 
where the wind whistles in baring branches, 
where shadows and sunlight continually shift form and place, 
changing perspectives, 
altering the colors,
blurring the outlines of the world,
and giving me a fleeting  glimpse of the spaces in between.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Psalm 139: I am still with you...

I'm in the midst of writing my Ordination Paper and I've taken to praying this Psalm before I sit down to write. To remember why it is that I'm doing this.

Psalm 139:1-18

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

November Grey

This is a familiar place.
I've been here before.
But not for a long time.

Not much has changed. I have to say.
I would have thought they would have at least redecorated while I was gone.
The sky is still a low, flat grey.
The trees have been drained of color.
Their once vibrant reds and yellows have browned and now lie in a heap on the ground.
And that pleasing crunch beneath the feet has gone as well.
The rain has seen to that.

Darkness comes early.
The light is leaving this place.
But I can't tell if it's receding...or I am.

I have that strange feeling one gets standing in the foot of the surf.
Feet sinking into wet sand as the waves wash in, and then pull out.
You'd swear you're moving along with the wave, as the sand shifts beneath your feat.
For a disorienting moment you think you're being pulled out to sea.
When in reality you have not moved at all.

I've been here before.
As a teen, in my early twenties, and again in my early thirties.
Whenever some unrequited love or desire tore into my life,
sending me spinning out of control,
and leaving a gaping hole behind in its wake.

This is November.
This is pre-Advent.
The time of waiting before the waiting.
The time of fading light, greying skies, and barren landscapes.
The time of dimming hopes.
The time when all the greenery and life that one has lovingly cultivated,
either goes dormant,
or withers and dies right before ones own eyes.

I've been here before.
But I've never stayed here longer than necessary.
December will come.
Advent proper will begin.
Preparations will be made. Hope will once again be anticipated.
The light will return to the world.

But not yet.
For now, I must decrease, so that He may increase.
Another November Grey must be endured.
With all its numbing pain and listless anguish.
For life to be born anew.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pinch me, I'm dreaming...

My friend Marie blogged about experiencing the presence of God in her dreams and it got me thinking about how often I experience God's presence in my own dreams.

Usually I feel God in my dreams as a permeating presence which is there regardless of what it is I'm dreaming about, kind of like a Divine overlay. It's a warming, comforting, presence that comes through as a guiding voice or scripture verses that float through my dreams.
Whenever I have these 'God experiences' I can never remember the exact content of the dreams, I just remember feeling that presence throughout and I wake up feeling very peaceful yet invigorated.

The most vivid God dream I had happened about seven years ago. I was a year into my undergraduate degree and still wrestling with the call I was feeling to go to seminary. Many people were telling me that it was what I should do, but given that I was still just finding my way back to Christ after so many years away, I didn't see how I could be a "leader" when I wasn't sure where I was going myself!
That night I had a dream that was filled with images of churches, religious symbols, clergy robes, and people gathered around me listening to me speak. I remember feeling as if I was comforting them after they had experienced some tragedy. It felt good. It felt right.

Right before I awoke, in a moment of lucidness, I remember asking God directly, "What does this mean? Does this mean I'm supposed to be a minister?"

And the response I received was:
"You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind."

This was not the "yes" or "no" answer that I was looking for, so again I asked, "What does this mean?"

And again I received the same response:
"You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind."

Now at the time I had a vague awareness that what I was hearing was a scripture passage but having spent so many years away from the Christian church, and having been raised Catholic and thus never encouraged to read the Bible myself, this was NOT a passage that I had committed to memory. Yet this is exactly what I heard. It was loud, it was clear, and when I checked my Bible after awakening I realized that it was taken word for word from the Gospels. Which is how I knew that the answer I received to my question did not bubble up from my own consciousness. It came from somewhere outside of me.

The dream, with all its religious symbolism was for me confirmation enough that the path I was meant to be on was leading towards the ministry, but the response I received to my question let me know that entering ministry was not about the religious symbols, the church buildings, the clergy robes, or the 'good feeling' I get when I've helped someone.
It's about God.
It's ALL about God.

All of the other stuff - the symbols, the liturgy, the drive we feel to help and love one another - all of this flows OUT of the love that we have for God.

I needed to be reminded of that.
I was getting so caught up in worries about going to seminary and succeeding academically, and anxiety over whether I had what it takes to BE a minister that I had lost sight of the most important requirement: I needed to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Once I did that, everything else would come much easier.

I am now getting much closer to making my dream a reality, and in many ways I already have.
But I believe that God calls us all to be ministers.
Some of us are crazy enough to want to do it for a living, and choose it as a vocation.
But we're ALL called to love God with every fiber of our being.
And once we do, that love will naturally flow out and feed our desire to minister to each other.
As teachers, healers, counselors, preachers, and administrators of the sacraments.
Regardless of which career path we choose, with God's love in our hearts we all have the capacity to fill these roles for others, in many different ways.

We all have the ability to make our dreams - and GOD'S will for us - come true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wednesday Words of Wisdom

Today's "words of wisdom" relate to the most practiced yet unappreciated art that we learn here in seminary - PROCRASTINATION.
I have two papers due tomorrow, I've had weeks to work on them yet I've barely started either one. Looks like it's going to be another all nighter!
(and yet here I am wasting precious time on my blog....hopeless I tell you, hopeless!)

"Begin while other are procrastinating. Work while others are wishing." ~William Arthur Ward

"Don’t wait. The time will never be just right". ~Napoleon Hill

"Procrastination is like masturbation. At first it feels good, but in the end you're only screwing yourself." ~Author Unknown

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Altar in My World

I posted this picture of my prayer altar on Facebook today.
I had initially grabbed my iPhone to take photos of the steady stream of leaves blowing past my window. Winter made an early entrance overnight and into this morning in the form of sleet here in Boston and snow back home in CT, and I wanted to capture the frenzied dance taking place outside in the quad between the deadened leaves and the unrelenting wind.
Fall, it seems, is hanging on for dear life, as winter is determined to make its mark here in early November. Just two weeks ago the tree outside my window was ablaze in color, turning the white walls of my dorm room orange and red when the sun hit it just right.
Now it stands bare against the gray November sky, letting in more afternoon light, but blocking out less of the world then it once did.

As I readied my camera phone, a moment of calm settled outside and my focus shifted to the altar on my windowsill. I set this makeshift altar up on my first day of seminary, and other than the summer months when it travels home with me, it has been there ever since. Regardless of the many changes in the seasons that have taken place outside my window during my three years at seminary, and despite the many changes that have taken place within me, my altar has remained essentially the same, with a piece added here and there for good measure.

Cobbled together over many years and from many sources each item on the altar is there for a reason.
  • The framed stained glass with the painted word "SPIRIT" - purchased ten years ago in a gift shop full of *spiritual* knick-knacks in Provincetown, Mass. It's traveled with me through four different moves. And it finds its home in a window no matter where I am.
  • The mosaic cross engraved with the word "HOPE" - bought for me by my wife in shop in Southern California, how long ago, I can't remember.
  • The laminated Catholic Mass card from my father's wake in December 2001. The prayer on the back begins, "Fill not your hearts with pain and sorrow, but remember me in every tomorrow."
  • The Tibetan singing bowl that I purchased just last year for the Blue Christmas service I did at my field placement church. It snowed that night and only five people showed up. But the bowl sang all the same.
  • The dried and whitened palm fronds from Palm Sunday services of two years passed. One (hidden behind the bowl) is folded into the shape of a cross.
  • A cockle shell received in a student led worship during a class my first year at seminary.
  • A conch shell taken from a healing ceremony for a friend who was battling breast cancer many years ago. We were each given shells along with the instruction to place it where we would see it every day and to offer up a healing prayer whenever we did. My friend survived her battle, but I keep the shell as a memorial for those who didn't survive theirs.
  • The acorn, now dried and split, was picked up right here on campus at the end of a walk, two years ago.
  • The dried and curling leaf is the newest addition. I picked up as I set off down the hill on my 2.5 hour *discernment* walk a few weeks ago. I carried it with me the whole way.
  • The painted stone engraved with the word "PATIENCE" is another take-away from that same gift shop in Provincetown. The corresponding Chinese symbol is engraved on the back. Oddly enough, *have patience* is the message that I discerned on my recent 2.5 hour walk. The stone, which has been on my altar for as long as I can remember, has now taken on new importance during my morning prayer.

The remaining four stones are the functional pieces of my morning prayer routine.
I pick them up and finger them in sequence as I move from prayers of thanks and praise, to prayers for healing for others, to prayers of confession, and finally to prayers of petition for my coming day.

The orange and white marbled stone is the first stone I pick up every morning. I found it lying next a stone wall at a CT retreat center in 2005. Its jagged underside and uneven color reminds me of how *unformed* I felt when I found it. I had just made the move into a new church and a new denomination and I remember sitting on that stone wall off in the woods by myself during a church retreat, wondering where it was that God was leading me.
When I pick up this stone in the morning I start off by thanking God for awakening me, for my breath, for my movement, for my senses. My gratitude then moves out from there. For having a safe place to sleep, for the roof over my head, for having access to food, electricity, heat, and running water. For the people God has brought into my life, for the opportunities - and the struggles - that I've been given. For love and joy and Creation itself. And as the gratitude flows, the sharp edges of the stone remind me that love does not exist without pain, and joy does not exist without sorrow.

The flat, black stone is what I hold when I pray for others. Another token received at a student led worship service, its smooth surface is cool to the touch and I tend to rub it between my hands, warming it as I pray. It's wide and flat and serves as a strong stable base to lift up the sorrows and needs of my family and friends, my community, and my neighbors in the wider world.

The dark, round stone is my confessional stone. It has a heft and weightiness to it that reminds me of the burden that I carry with me always. I tend to walk and talk aloud as I *confess* before God, tossing the stone from hand to hand, releasing and receiving the burden as I go. "Bless me Father for I have sinned..." is still the mantra I cling to. This is often the longest portion of my morning prayer routine, as I talk out, and pour out, whatever it is that is darkening my soul. Whether it's a spiritual struggle, an emotional uncertainty, or a physical longing that has distanced me from God. Then I let it go, ask God for forgiveness and guidance, and say the Lord's Prayer. Knowing that I will be repeating this process the very next day...and every day.

The white smooth stone is my favorite. It is hope. As I slip it between my fingers I ask God for strength and courage to complete whatever task lies before me that day. I end my prayer time with the same prayer every morning. The Prayer of St. Francis...
"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury - pardon, where there is doubt - faith, where there is despair - hope, where there is darkness - light, where there is sadness - joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

This entire routine can take me anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and half, depending on how much time I have in the morning, and how much I feel the need to pray.

As seminarians, we're often told that clergy who don't make time for prayer in their daily routines are the ones most likely to burn out.
And that making time for prayer is a practice that should be established in seminary.

Having an altar is a good daily reminder to engage in that practice.
I can't look out the window and thank God for the changes I see in the seasons without standing before that altar, and thanking God for the changes I see in me.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lead us not into temptation...

I've been distracted of late.
While I can't reveal here exactly what has been distracting me, I thought it was worth reflecting on how easy it is for us as human beings to lose focus when we're confronted with distractions, and how during these times of distraction it is that much more important that we stay in conversation with God - to keep us from wandering too far off track.

Distractions are inevitable.
God put us in a world full of shiny baubles that we find hard to resist.
We want, we desire, we covet.
We do these things so often God had to go and make not one, but THREE official Commandments to keep us from losing ourselves in our desires. Numbers 7,8, and 10 pretty much cover the spectrum of bauble desiring, stealing, and coveting.

Shiny baubles come in many forms - the latest techno gadget we can't afford, the bigger house we wish we had, the dream job that we can never seem to find, the unrequited love that tears at our heart.

We want, we desire, we covet.
Material things, experiences, people.

Of course what we're really seeking is security, happiness, and love.
And we think we're going to find it in a thing, in an experience, in a person.
And we do find security, happiness and love in all of the above.
We wouldn't be spiritual beings having a material experience if we didn't; we wouldn't be human.
But while we do derive happiness from things, experiences and people - TRUE happiness can only be found in God.
Loving God. Serving God. Discerning and doing God's will.

Which is why when we find ourselves to be overly distracted by the baubles, we need to ask ourselves, "What is it that I'm seeking? What is it that I'm missing? What is the message that God has for me here?"

Sometimes our desire and God's desire are one and the same.
But we need to pull our attention away from the bauble - the object of our desire - in order to determine whether our will is in sync with God's will.

This semester at seminary I've been learning a lot about discernment and how to put it into practice. There are many ways for us to to discern God's will by listening for the voice of God.
Centering prayer. Walking meditations. Lectio Divina. Clearness Committees.

I often go off on long walks with Jesus, picturing him walking beside of me, or just ahead of me, as we have a conversation. The rational mind may be inclined to think that both sides of the conversation are coming from within oneself, but experience tells me otherwise. The Jesus that walks beside me often offers insights and startling responses that I had never considered. I've come to trust the process, and to trust that this is the way that God has chosen to speak to me.....Because I have chosen to listen.

The bauble still dangles before me.
The desire is still there.
God's will regarding the presence of this desire in my life is still to be determined.
But as long as I keep my focus on God, and stay in conversation with God, the bauble itself is less of a distraction.

Through the practice of discernment, the very presence of God and my acknowledgment of God's presence has gifted me with the security, happiness and love that I desire.
It hasn't negated my human desires, but I don't believe that it is God's intention to do so.
God gave us the created world and God gave us each other.
God wants us to find security, happiness, and love in the created world and in each other.
We are created in the image of a Triune God who lives in relationship with Godself.
We in turn were created to live in a Triune relationship with God, Creation, and each other.
We can't live in relationship unless we first desire relationship.
Desire is not an evil thing.
But it can easily trip us up and lead us away from God if we're not careful.

Therein lies the difficulty of living this human experience.
Shiny baubles abound.
Some we're allowed to have, because God wills it; others we are not, because God knows it is not what is best for us.

So I will continue to discern, I will continue to listen for the voice of God, I will continue to shift my gaze off my distraction so that I may better see the messages that God has dropped along my path.

What about you?
What shiny baubles are serving as a distraction in your life?

God may call us to embrace our desires, or God may call us to let them go.
And if we truly love God, we must accept God's will even if it contradicts our own.

And at no other time is the following phrase more appropriate:
In the meantime, me and Jesus.......we have a lot of walking to do.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

I was told by several people today that I need to blog more. And since I'm into that whole "God is still speaking" thing, I decided I'd better heed the suggestions (and their possible divine origin) and actually do it.
Besides I have a paper to write and a whole Communion liturgy to memorize for class tomorrow which means it's time I honor one of the original purposes of this blog: Procrastination.
I'm not home, so I can't clean the house to avoid school work so blogging is the next best thing (why didn't I think of this before??.....*sigh*.....two years of dorm room time gone to waste).

Seriously, I have a terminal case of "senioritus" this semester. I've gotten into the bad habit of starting papers at 10:00 pm on the night before they're due. So far I've managed to keep my head above water but looking ahead to the next two weeks I see a tidal wave a'comin' and if I don't get my act together I'm in real danger of getting washed out to sea.
(how dramatic.....and take note of all the lovely water imagery. You see, this is so much more interesting than writing a paper).

I have paper due next week for my Satan class that involves interviewing members of my congregation to document their beliefs about the Devil and the existence Hell. So far, every response I've gotten has been: "Yeah, I don't believe in either one.....and by the way, WHY are you taking a class on Satan in seminary?"
So now I have the pleasure of writing a 7-10 page paper on "Yeah, I don't believe in either one." Wish me luck with that.

Of course, this is not surprising. The UCC specifically, and New England mainline churches in general, are not known for espousing a fire and brimstone theology that holds that sin is punished via eternal damnation and that evil is personified in the form of the Devil. Heck, on the rare occasions that the UCC Statement of Faith is read in worship one can just feel the tension in the room as the congregation says in unison (through gritted teeth): "We...resist the powers of evil."
Evil? What is this "evil" of which you speak, and what power does it have? Evil, you see, is all in our minds. It possesses only the power that we give to it.

"Evil" is not a word that is typically part of our liberal Christian vocabulary (unless we're using it to describe George Bush or Sarah Palin). So it's not surprising that we have so little to say about it. We may talk about the evils of racism, classism, sexism, poverty and oppression, but we don't ascribe these things to some outside force. We blame them on the evil that exists within. Evil is the byproduct of our own God-given free-will. We are the cause of evil, and the potential to do evil exists within each one of us. So any "war against evil" is essentially a war against our own humanity.

Geesh, now it sounds like I actually AM writing a paper.
So I may as well go and be productive. That Communion ritual is not going to work its way into my brain via osmosis (ahhh, yet another use of water imagery...did you catch that?)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon: "Mustard Seed Faith"

October 3, 2010

World Communion Sunday

“Mustard Seed Faith”

Luke 17:5-10

Since Pastor Cindy is not here today, we’re taking a hiatus from our weekly journey through Genesis and returning to the lectionary and the Gospel of Luke.

But if you want, when Cindy gets back you can tell her we got past page 9 in the Pew Bible so you can skip over all the begetting that happens in Genesis chapter 10. As in Noah begat Ham, and Ham begat Canaan….

That is unless you want a sermon on begetting….

While we’ve taken a side trip into Genesis in the past month, Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem that began in the Gospel of Luke way back in June has continued in the lectionary. And this week we hear the opening verses of the final leg of that journey.

Along the way Jesus has continued to instruct his followers on the difficult demands of discipleship. And at this point the disciples have had more than a few opportunities to put what they’ve learned into practice. They’ve been sent out by Jesus to cure diseases, to cast out unclean spirits, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

And they ran into a mountain of opposition along the way.

They encountered diseases and unclean spirits in people, in the social structure, in the empirical government, and in the religious ruling body that were seemingly resistant to any cure or are too ingrained to cast out.

And at this point they’re realizing how big of task it is they have before them.

They’re starting to doubt whether they have what it takes to do what it is Jesus is asking them to do.

They’re beginning to lose hope that they will be able to continue Jesus’ ministry after he is gone.

And they’re questioning whether their faith is BIG enough to counteract all of the evil forces in the world.

And who can blame them.

There are a multitude of evil forces in the world – and whether we believe that evil is an entity unto itself, or that it’s simply the byproduct of humanity misusing the gift of free will, we can not deny that it’s difficult not to feel weighed down by the sheer volume of negativity that surrounds us.

Violence, war, poverty, oppression, discrimination, fear, hate, ….the list itself is overwhelming.

But the one thing that can counteract evil is LOVE,

Love that finds expression in the form of HOPE and FAITH.

The words hope and faith are often used interchangeably.

And while they are two sides of the same coin they are also quite different.

Hope stems from desire - we desire a particular outcome and if there is a possibility of it, we hope for it.

Faith is not a desire, but rather a knowing….it’s a belief IN something or a belief that a particular outcome will occur – it goes beyond desire, beyond the need for empirical proof that it is real.

It is born of an inner knowledge or certainty.

For example, I have faith in God, and I have faith that God will always love me no matter what.

I can’t prove that God exists, or that God loves me, but I know in my innermost being that God is a very real, very palpable force in my life, and I feel God’s love in a very real way even if I can’t explain how or why I do.

Faith is born on an inner certainty.

In contrast,

Hope is born of uncertainty.

You desire a particular outcome but you’re not certain it will turn out the way you want it.

For example, I hope that more often then not my WILL and God’s WILL will line up, but I know from experience that doesn’t always happen.

Hope and faith, while different, are linked together.

Hope, when expressed with faith, recognizes that God is involved in the process even if we can’t predict the outcome.

We may hope that things will turn out a certain way, but we have faith that regardless of how they turn out, God has our best interests at heart.

Hope without faith is simply wishful thinking, and we’re more likely to be disappointed or devastated when things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped.

But what’s even more dangerous is when we link our faith and the outcome of our hopes as if they had a cause and effect relationship.

This happens when we start believing that if our hopes do not come to fruition, then it is because our faith was not strong enough to warrant God’s favor.

I witnessed a glaring example of this linking of faith and hope only just recently.

This semester at seminary, I had a class assignment in which we were required to attend a Worship service at a church that is outside of our own tradition, to help us get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t in the context of Christian Worship.

So last week, I attended a contemporary Worship service at a local non-denominational Christian church. It’s a church that I would say falls on the more conservative or evangelical side of the theological spectrum. Using Pastor Cindy’s scale of Biblical interpretation, it is likely that the congregation at the church I visited has a higher percentage of biblical literalists then we have here at King Street UCC. But while the sermon I heard there last week may not have resonated with me theologically, I could identify with the theme of the service – the theme was Hope.

At the end of the service, members of the congregation performed what is known in evangelical circles as a Cardboard Testimonial.

About 12 members participated, and one by one, they walked out on stage, each holding a hand-written cardboard sign naming a struggle or affliction that once overwhelmed them – “Diagnosed with Cancer at Age 40” - “Unemployed for 17 months” - “Addicted to Cocaine.”

As each person reached the edge of the stage he or she then flipped over their cardboard sign to reveal the grace they had received from God - “Cancer Free at age 45” - “New Job for Higher Pay” - “Total Life Transformation.”

The congregation applauded after each reveal and it was a very powerful display for a group of folks who seemed desperate to hear the message that hope can be found in God’s grace regardless of how dire one’s circumstances seem.

In this case Hope goes hand in hand with Faith –

Having faith that God will be there for us when we’ve hit rock bottom. Having faith that God will lift us up and help us overcome whatever challenge has befallen us.

Of course we HOPE that God’s presence in our life will result in what we would name as a positive outcome – but what if it doesn’t?

And therein lies the danger of connecting hope and faith.

As powerful as those cardboard testimonials were, and as much as I stood and clapped as each person triumphantly revealed the grace that had entered their lives, as much as I wanted to shout “Hurray for you, you had hope, you transformed yourself, you survived!” ….. I couldn’t help but think of those who have hope, who have faith, and yet DO NOT feel touched by God’s grace.

What about the person who has been out of work for more than 17 months and has not yet found a job – is their faith not strong enough for God to reward them with work?

What about the person struggling with addictions who hasn’t yet garnered the strength to seek help – is their faith too small for God to notice that they are in need of a transformation?

What about the 40-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and does not live to see her 45th birthday – was her faith too meager, too inadequate, for God’s healing Spirit to descend upon her?

Testimonials are wonderful. They make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and make us feel hopeful that if someone else overcame a hardship that is similar to our own then we can too.

But in encouraging these testimonials we are treading into dangerous theological waters.

It’s as if we are holding up a giant faith-ometer and measuring how much faith it takes to receive God’s grace. God’s love. God’s forgiveness. God’s approval.

We just don’t get it.

We still don’t understand that God’s love and grace is given to us at no cost, and it requires no effort on our own part.

It doesn’t matter how many prayers we say, or how many people we have praying FOR us.

It doesn’t matter how many hours we volunteer at our church, or how much money we put in the collection plate.

It doesn’t matter how fervently we call on God to help us, or how many good deeds we do in God’s name.

God’s grace is there for the taking, regardless of what we do, or say, or pray.

But we so want to believe that that is not true.

We want to believe that we have some control over our fate.

That there is something we can do to influence God, to get God’s attention, to make God approve of us so God will reward us with a new job, a new life, newly restored health or prosperity.

God is GOOD.

And that is what we say when we get that new job, that new life, or have restored health or prosperity.

But God is still good even when we don’t get those things.

It may just mean that God has other plans.

It means that our will and God’s will are not always one and the same.

It means that there is no way for us to know the mind of God.

And the size of our faith has nothing to do with the answer we receive to our prayers.

Jesus’ disciples were worried that the problems of the world were too big for their human sized abilities.

So the disciples said to Jesus, "Increase our faith!"

And Jesus replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

Here Jesus is not scolding the disciples - telling them that their faith is too small, that they lack even the tiniest amount of faith necessary to perform miraculous deeds.

On the contrary, he’s telling them that they already have it within them to do the things that God has asked them to do.

All it takes is the smallest amount of faith, a faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, to be in touch with the power of God.

And the disciples already had that faith – they had proven that when they answered yes to God’s call to become disciples.

And we all have that same faith as well, that same power of God with in us.

We all have that mustard seed faith.

Whether we’re clergy or congregant, whether we’re life-long Christians or stepping back into a church for the first time in years, or the first time ever.

Faith does not come in sizes – small, medium, and Grande!

Faith comes only in one size. You either have it, or you don’t.

And if you’re talking to God, if you’re asking for God’s help, if you’re arguing with God because you feel as if you just can’t get a break, and its not fair, and why can’t God send you a little good fortune for a change…and you’re starting to doubt whether God is even listening…

If you’re doing all those things, if you’re living in relationship with God then you have faith.

And that faith is plenty big enough to uproot a big old mulberry tree and replant it in the middle of the ocean.

It’s big enough to move mountains.

It’s big enough for you to enact the change in the world that you want to see.

Because you see, we may feel as if we have no control over what happens in our lives, and in many cases, we don’t. Some things we just have to leave up to God and trust that God will provide for us in the long run.

But there are plenty of things that we do have control over, and that’s where the power of our faith comes into play.

Even if we can’t change the circumstances of our own lives, we can change the lives of others.

Like the disciples, our teeny tiny faith gives us the power to cure disease, to cast out demons, to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

We do this every time we sit with a sick friend, help a loved one find their way out of hopelessness and despair, or share our experience of God’s love and forgiveness with someone who desperately needs to have both in their lives.

We are a people who share a mustard seed faith.

A faith that is small when it is planted within us, but grows beyond our wildest dreams when it moves outside of us.

There is much evil in this world. There is much that is broken and diseased.

But when we ask God to increase our faith so that we might fix that brokenness, the answer we receive is that we already have all the faith that we need to do so.

When we call out to God and say, “Why don’t you DO something?”

God responds, “I did do something. I made you.”

We are called to become the answers to our prayers.

And we are called to serve each other in community.

Which is what we do every time we come together around this table...

(proceed to Communion)

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Stolen Moment

I spent the summer covering for my pastor during her 3-month sabbatical. When she returned she gave me a box of books that she had left over from seminary. On top of the box was a folded green stole. "Someone left this here," she said, "and I already have one this color so I though you might want it."
And thus begins the story of how I acquired my first stole.

I had imagined being presented with my first stole at my ordination...a gift of love and hope for the future lovingly made by my home congregation, or someone special in my life. Hand-stitched, ornate, and extraordinary in the fact that it would be my first - a symbol of a milestone moment in my life.
But instead my first stole came folded atop a box of musty ordinary swatch of cloth presented in an ordinary moment.
The lesson here: as much I want to romanticize this journey that I'm on, it's still all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary happenings in life.

The stole is now draped across the garment bag that holds my pulpit robe, and hangs on the door of our spare room. Every time I catch a glimpse of it while walking down the hallway, for a split second I wonder why my pastor's robe is hanging in my home. Then I realize that it is my robe. My robe that now has a stole draped across it that I have not yet earned the right to wear. Every time this happens my breath catches as I contemplate how my identity is about to change. I've been given a glimpse of the future, and it feels right.

At this time last year I was preparing to put the robe on for the first time. I bought two in preparation for my Field Ed placement, only to be told when I got there that "Field Ed students do not robe at this church." It was the ultimate in ironies. I felt like I had finally adjusted to the idea of wearing a robe, after resisting it on a previous occasion, and now I was being denied the opportunity to adopt the authority that the robe represents. The kicker is that I knew the previous Field Ed student at this church had worn a robe on several occasions as had other students.
The pastor objected to students wearing robes because he believes the robe is a sign of ordination, not just the stole...and he chose to enact this new policy with me.

The funny thing is, after spending two months assisting in worship and doing children sermons, he abruptly changed his mind right before I was to preach my first sermon. He had decided that I was "worthy" of wearing a robe.

It felt good to put it on. To feel its weight on my shoulders. To try on the role of "pastor" and realize that despite all my insecurities, it felt right.
By the end of the spring I was leading worship all on my own at my Field Ed church, a first as I was told by long-time members. That coupled with the opportunities I had to do pastoral care and lead an adult ed Lenten series gave me the confidence I needed to step into the role of interim pastor at my home church this summer.
Now I see that robe and stole hanging on the back of the spare room door and I realize how far I've come, and how close I am to achieving what it is that I've been working close I am to having the opportunity to answer God's call and making God's work my life's work.

But you know what? I don't need the robe or the stole to validate the choice I've made to pursue the ministry. Spending the summer as a substitute pastor gave me all the validation I need. Leading worship every week, presiding at my first graveside service, visiting congregants in the hospital, driving them to doctor's appointments, sitting with them for hours after they've learned a loved one has died, and just hanging out with them and catching up during coffee hour. That's what ministry is about, and I loved every moment of it. The congregation was gracious enough to pay me for my services, but I would have done it for free. That's how I know that I've made the right choice.

My first stole may not be the one that I'll end up wearing at my ordination, but it's definitely not an ordinary stole. It gave me the opportunity to look into the future and to embrace what is to come. That's a lot of power for a swatch of green fabric.
Once again, the ordinary gives life to the extraordinary.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Emporer Has No Clothes

Awake at 5:58 in the morning with my head buzzing and the adrenaline flowing.
Must be time to go back to school!

Here I am back on my blog, knocking down the cobwebs and dusting off the "Open for Business" sign. It's been ages since I've posted anything here that wasn't a sermon. I'm still blaming facebook for it's ability to entice me with short status updates and the lack of the need to go deep with each posting. It's all about quantity, not quality. On FB I can post my daily witticisms and be off and running in a flash. It's hit and run writing. Never mind that I waste hours checking everyone else's status updates and playing Frontierville. FB takes less thought then blogging.

I also blame paper writing and sermon writing. They both sap the creative bug right out of me. If I'm reflecting as a requirement in my daily doings why come here to reflect more?

But I fear the real reason why this blog has been silent is because it's lost its anonymity. Too many people know about it. My family. My friends. People at school. People at church. People in my denomination who are geared to decide my fate in the ordination process in the not too distant future.

It began to get freaky to walk into a family gathering or into church and have people reference something I wrote on my blog. I felt exposed. As if they knew my deepest wonderings and fears while I knew nothing about theirs. I felt as if they had an unfair advantage. I was standing naked before them while they remained fully clothed.
I also feared saying something, or complaining about something, that I didn't want certain people to hear. My online diary suddenly became a very visible act of confession.

It was fine when my daily readers were all fellow bloggers. People who did not know me and who were not apt to know the people or situations that I was writing about. We commiserated in our commonalities because we had the protection of distance and anonymity.
But I'm not sure I want the people I share a pew or a classroom with knowing the deepest longings of my heart.

Which is why this blog has been silent.
Sermons are different. Sermons are crafted for others to hear, and the focus is rarely on me.
But how do I reveal my insecurities about entering the ministry when I know pastor colleagues, some who will decide my fate, are reading my blog?
How do I explore (or rant about) a seminary experience when I know my fellow students are visitors here?
How do I express dissatisfaction with a church, or a pastor, when I never know who will be listening?

Perhaps I just need to forge ahead uncensored and lay it all out there for others to see. To be true to myself and my experience.
Or perhaps I need to change the nature of this blog and prepare for the day when as a church pastor I can no longer hide behind the protection of anonymity.

Why did I tell people I know about this blog if I wanted to keep it as a safe haven?
Because I didn't realize at the time that I needed it to be that.
It came up in conversations, links were sent out in dribs and drabs. I shared it with a chosen few and soon I had no control over who had access to it.
I wanted to share. I wanted people to live vicariously through my experiences. I wanted people to read my sermons and offer their feedback, both complimentary and via constructive suggestions for improvement.
I wanted to bare my soul in a way that my introverted tendencies kept me from doing in real life.
And in doing so I have become closer to my family and my friends who took the opportunity to say "I loved what you wrote, I feel the same way!"

But then people I barely know, or who have power over me, began finding there way here.
And I went silent.

In reality this is probably much to do about nothing.
I've been posting my sermons for a year and a half but with no comments left in that time so I doubt if anyone I know still visits here.
Which may mean it's safe to come back.

I welcome family members and those I felt close enough to share this link with.
And with distant acquaintances and denominational bigwigs alike being subjected to my inane Facebook postings, I'm slowly losing my fear of letting it all hang out.
Since my fundamentalist Christian and Republican facebook friends have graciously put up with my lefty liberal status updates without any dire consequences, I should have no reason to fear doing the same here.
I am who I am.

So, excuse me while I run about with my Swiffer duster, pulling up the shades and opening the windows to let some fresh air in here.
I have one more year as the 40-(something)-year-old Seminarian, and looking back at my initial posts from 3 years ago I realize now how valuable this venue has been for my growth.
I have to write about my I will never forget how far it is I've come.
Put out the welcome mat.
Things are about to get real busy around here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sermon: "Comfortably Numb"

August 15, 2010

Anniversary Sunday

“Comfortably Numb”

Luke 12:49-56

When I was in the 4th grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Rogo.

She was one of the few lay teachers in our Catholic Elementary School and she stood out from the nuns in that she actually seemed to enjoy being around children all day.

Mrs. Rogo was a soft-spoken gentle woman; she was caring and compassionate and she had seemingly endless patience as she taught social studies, English, and math to our overcrowded class of 35 ten-year-olds.

The nuns made me nervous but I always felt comfortable around Mrs. Rogo.

One day we came in to class to find brand new textbooks on each of our desks. It was 1976, and in the spirit of the Metric Conversion Act, it had been decided that we were all going to learn the metric system.

But having spent most of our young lives learning about pounds, yards, and quarts - measurements we could visualize just by looking at a football field or a carton of milk – try as we may, the abstract numbers of the metric system just would not settle in our heads.

For weeks Mrs. Rogo went over the same chapters in the textbook, again and again, to no avail. Finally, one afternoon as she set us to work on yet another metric conversion problem sheet, our kind, gentle and patient teacher reached her breaking point.

As I struggled to complete my worksheet I could hear Mrs. Rogo moving up and down the rows of desks looking at the children’s work and offering her disapproving comments. Finally I felt her settle just over my left shoulder, as my pencil hovered nervously over the answer sheet.

I had no idea what I was doing, so in a panic I wrote down a number, any number. Well, it must have been the wrong number, because kind, gentle Mrs. Rogo grabbed me by the elbow, pulled me out of my desk and dragged me up to the blackboard. There, with anger shaking her voice, she explained to the class once again, the proper way to do metric conversions using me as the example of how not to do it.

I was mortified and terrified.

And although years later I came to understand that teachers are human beings and they have bad days just like the rest of us, my image of Mrs. Rogo as a kind, gentle, endlessly patient teacher had been forever tainted. And the comfort I once felt in her presence became tinged with fear.

I imagine that in light of the gospel text that we heard today, many of us may feel the same way about our teacher, Jesus.

The angry, divisive words that we hear in this text appear to be incongruent with what we know about Jesus.

We know Jesus to be a kind, loving, compassionate, peace-loving teacher who came to bring harmony and balance to the world.

So when the Jesus in this text talks about bringing fire down upon the earth, bringing not Peace but division…setting mother against daughter, and father against son…

It just doesn’t make sense to us.

And when Jesus goes on to call his followers hypocrites because they’re not understanding what he’s been trying to teach them, we feel chastised as well, it’s as if he wrenched us out our seat by the elbow and dragged us up to the blackboard in frustration, because no matter how many times he’s told us why he has come, we still don’t get it.

These words - this behavior – they don’t FIT the profile of the Jesus that we’ve come to know and love.

So what do we do with this text?

We could choose to ignore it, like many modern day Christians do.

In fact, while perusing some of my favorite preaching websites online this week, I was surprised to see quite a few pastors state that they will not be preaching on this text today. Apparently this text is too difficult for YOU the congregation to understand, or it may be too disturbing for you to hear.

Or it requires a sermon that many feel would be too heavy for a summer Sunday in August.

Apparently we check our brains at the door when the temperature rises above 80 degrees.

In reality, pastors don’t like to preach on this text because it makes pastors uncomfortable too. The ranting and raving that Jesus does in this text doesn’t fit our image of the kind, peace loving Jesus either.

So when this text comes up in the lectionary its tempting to just tell the congregation:

“You know, Jesus is having a bad day today, he’s a little stressed out. He’s ranting on about fire and division and he’s calling his followers hypocrites. Why don’t we pay a visit to Isaiah this week and see what he has to say, and then we’ll come back and check on Jesus next week. Maybe he’ll be calmed down by then.”

But skipping over this text because it makes it makes us uncomfortable, is like being absent from school on the day that the teacher teaches the class the one thing that is the key to understanding what was taught during the entire semester.

If we skip over this text, then we miss the point of the gospel.

The point of the Gospel is that God is going to radically change our lives, and it’s going to take some upheaval to do that.

The gospel, the Good News, is that this world is not as God intended it to be.

And that with God’s help we have the power to change it.

As we heard last week, by following Jesus’ example we are doing our part to bring on the Kingdom of God. A new creation, a new earth, where God’s radically inclusive love is received and shared by all equally.

But while the goal is a peaceful, equal world, we can’t get there without experiencing an upheaval in the current status quo, we can’t get there without feeling a shift in the power structure, we can’t get there unless the marginalized are lifted up and the privileged take a step down.

And we know none of this is going to happen without conflict.

We can’t get to peace without first experiencing division.

And the gospel itself will be the dividing force.

In Jesus’ time, the nations surrounding Palestine did experience peace, but it was the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana. For centuries Rome kept the peace throughout the known world, but they did it by conquering and oppressing all who stood in their way. The nations were not fighting each other because Rome had them by all by the throat.

This was an outward peace that was held up by internal injustice and oppression; this was not the kind of peace that Jesus spoke of bringing.

This was the kind of peace that he came to overthrow.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And while the author of Luke chooses to use the word “division” rather than sword, the meaning of the text is the same.

Jesus has come to overthrow the peace of Rome - the peace of any empire that rules through injustice and oppression - and the Gospel will be the weapon he uses to do it.

The Gospel, the good news, this seemingly innocuous text that we read from every week that tells us how to be Good Christians, is the weapon that Jesus deems strong enough to overturn an Empire.

This book that tells us to be nice to each other, and to be caring and compassionate in all our interactions.

This book that tells us that God loves us all equally, and that we are meant to share all that we have equally.

This book that tells us that we are to love each other as we love God and ourselves.

We may find it hard to believe that this little book has that kind of power.

But then again, we’ve heard the Good News of the gospel so many times, and seen so little of it put into action, that we’ve grown numb to its power.

We’ve become comfortable with the words and the stories of the gospels, but in our comfort it is often difficult for us to draw a connection between what was happening in Jesus’ world and what is happening in our world.

For many of us, the gospel is not the Good News, it’s the Old News.

And we have trouble seeing how the Gospel of Jesus, which was considered radical in the face of first century Judaism and the Roman Empire, can still be considered radical in the face of 21st century individualism and the American Empire.

Yet I dare you to walk into any corporate headquarters or local mom and pop business and say:

“Sell all that you have, and give the money you make to the poor”

I dare you to walk onto the floor of the house or senate during a debate on immigration legislation and say:

“We are called to welcome the stranger and the alien into our home.”

I dare you to walk into any law enforcement facility, military base, or defense contractor and say:

“If someone should strike you on your right cheek, turn your other to him as well;” “Bless those that curse you, do good to those that hate you;”

and “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These teachings of Jesus are just as radical and have the ability to arouse just as much division in our time as they did in his time.

In first century Palestine, practicing Christians could get themselves in a lot of trouble just by professing these beliefs let alone living them out. Professing Christians were kicked out of their synagogues, had difficulty participating in any civic duty that involved serving the government, and were often disowned by their families. Father turned against son. Mother turned against daughter. Divisions could not help but occur between those who had embraced Jesus’ message and those who had not.

So Jesus was not speaking out of character when he said he had not come to bring peace but division. And he was not speaking about division just in his time but in our time as well.

We can hear the frustration in his voice when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” But he knew that it would take years for such a fire to take hold.

The fire that Jesus pledged to unleash on this world in the form of the gospel is not an all consuming fire but a cleansing fire, a baptismal fire.

A fire that burns off all the destructive aspects of our nature, the selfish drive that keeps us from living in true relationship with God and each other.

The gospel has a power that many of us fail to recognize.

In its words we can find the strength to overcome not just our personal struggles but our communal struggles as well. But we must use that power wisely.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

The gospel is not a flashlight but a fire. It can warm and it can burn.

The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide.

The gospel is not pabulum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not to be feared.

When I started this sermon series at the beginning of the summer, my goal was to scrape away some of the fear of the gospel that comes from our inability to see it as a coherent, relevant story. My objective was to take Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem as presented in the Gospel of Luke and to lay it out in a continuing storyline, to help us to see that these stories are not just floating in space, they’re connected to a time, and a place, and a people. And it is through that overarching story that these individual stories are connected to us.

It was eight weeks ago that we first set foot on the road to Jerusalem.

With Jesus’ words still ringing in our ears we set off into no-man’s-land carrying only the clothing on our backs. We had no pack. No extra pair of sandals. No money purse. We were told to rely on the kindness of strangers. We were told to accept hospitality where it was offered and where it was not we were to shake the dust off our feet and move on.

On the road we encountered the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, and the Foolish Rich Man.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, ran us through discipleship boot camp, and opened our eyes to the promise of the coming Kingdom of God.

When we set off on this road at the beginning of the summer it seemed as if we had all the time in the world. We had time to wander from place to place, meandering towards Jerusalem taking the most indirect route possible. Along the way, Jesus used his teachings to poke us out of our comfort zone, to get us to think bigger, to act more graciously, and to give more out of love.

Today we stepped into Jesus’ shoes and caught a glimpse of the road that lies ahead for our beloved teacher.

We heard the edge in his voice, we felt the impatience in his demeanor; we saw the fear in his eyes.

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. Which means he knows the hour of his death, resurrection and ascension is hurtling towards him and there is nothing he can do to stop it. There is no more time to waste. He needs his disciples to understand the urgency of his message, and he needs them to understand it NOW.

He needs US to understand it now.

I’d like to imagine that the people who built this church 180-years-ago understood the sense of urgency found in the Gospel of Jesus.

Why else would they have come together to form an intentional church community, as strangers in a strange land, many of them immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who struck out to find a new life in the new world.

Why build a church out of hand cut boards and stones carried from far away fields if one didn’t have a sense of urgency that God wanted it to be built? Why would they travel miles across rut-strewn dirt roads in the dead of winter to worship in this space if they didn’t feel God calling them to do so?

In our church’s heyday in the mid 20th century, it may have been easier to understand why people joined this community of believers. With the Sunday School overflowing and the church expanding to accommodate the growth, mainline Christian denominations like our own experienced the biggest surge in membership since the Great Awakening. But during that time, membership and regular attendance at a place of worship was the societal norm, as was ensuring that one’s children had a religious education.

Now, some 50 years later, those who seek membership and attend church on a regular basis are the exception rather than the rule.

So I turn the question towards you.

Why do you come?

You, like the immigrant pioneers who built this church have come here of your own free will. You have bucked the trend of the secularization of society and chosen to be a part of this faith community.

What is the sense of urgency that brings you here on a Sunday morning, whether in the heat of August or the bitter cold of January?

What is it about this community, this faith tradition, this being a part of something that is bigger than yourself that drives you to participate? To want to give your time and energy and money to help sustain it?

Whatever it is that brings you here I am almost certain that somewhere at its core is the Good News of the Gospel.

The Good News that God’s love flows out of this church and into the community.

The Good News that the love of God is present in the people who come here.

The Good News that this is a place where you can bring your pain and your struggles and lay them at God’s feet and at the communities feet, and feel safe doing so.

The Good News that even if you’re not ready to commit to a church community, or organized religion or any of this Jesus stuff, God still loves you just the way you are.

But know that once we hear the Good News and welcome it into our lives, we’re going to change. It can’t be avoided.

Old ideas and understandings are torn down and new ones rise in their place.

We become bigger people, better people, and our capacity for love and compassion expands.

And before we know it we’re not the only ones changing, as our world begins to change around us.

That’s the power of the gospel.

Who knew such a little book could do so much?

In the hands of small group of disciples it created a new faith.

In the hands of small group of Danbury homesteaders it created this church.

Now it’s in our hands……what will we create in its wake?

How will we use the Good News to change the world?