Monday, November 26, 2012

New Blog!

 For those of you are still checking back to see what's happened to me....first of all, Thanks! ;)....and yes, I have started a new blog where I'm posting my sermons and reflections. You can find it here:

The Journey continues!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sermon: "What Would Jesus Pray?"

Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
May 20, 2012
Seventh Sunday of Easter – Ascension Sunday

“What Would Jesus Pray?”

John 17:6-19

The world is changing.
For most of us the world that we grew up in as children and the world we’re living in now are vastly different. And that’s true for us whether we’re 80-years-old, 60-years-old, 40-years-old, or even 30-years-old.

If you’re under the age of 30 you may not be able to fathom living in a world that did not have cell phones, 800 TV channels to choose from, and the Internet, where the information contained in a billion libraries is right there at your fingertips.

Those of us over 30 may be prone to fits of nostalgia when we hear that most people in their twenties have never used or even seen a typewriter, a rotary phone, or a vinyl record album.
Meanwhile, my 86-year-old mother is still baffled by the VCR, as it continuously flashes 12:00 at her from across the room.
Things are changing so fast that the technologies we’re using today will seem antiquated in just 5-10 years. An editor at a Laptop Magazine recently compiled a list of things that will be hard to find or obsolete by the time his newborn son enters middle school.
Wired internet connections, computer hard drives and keyboards, landline telephones, movie theaters, DVDs and compact discs, and dedicated digital cameras and video recorders are all being replaced with multi function hand held devices like smart phones and instantly accessible media stored on a cloud on the internet.

Technology aside, we’re living in a world that has hit the accelerator in regards to change - as we cope with increasing choices and decreasing attention spans, increasing population and decreasing resources, and an ever widening gap between those who have power and wealth and those who do not.

How do we even begin to keep up with a world that is changing so fast?
This is a question that many of us in the church have been asking of late –
in this church and in churches across the country and the world.

With a few exceptions, most mainline Protestant churches like ours are wrestling with dwindling attendance, dwindling resources, and dwindling relevance in the wider culture.
Our churches are bleeding.
They’re bleeding money, bleeding people, and bleeding energy to those things in our lives that hold higher importance.
And while those of us who love and value our faith communities form committees and have discussions about what kind of band-aid to put on our churches to control the bleeding, the world continues to change around us.
People continue to drift away or drive by our historical buildings without ever feeling the need to stop and take a look inside.

Now let me stop right here and assure you that this is not a stewardship sermon.
This is not a sermon that is intended to nudge you into digging a little deeper in your pockets to ensure that 15, 10 or even 5 years from now, we will still have a viable and vibrant UCC church community here in Amherst.

And this is not a sermon that is intended to prod us change-fearing folks into adapting to the culture around us. I assure you that there are no immediate plans to install video screens in the sanctuary or throw our 18th century hymns out the door.

And despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted of the current state of our churches in this ever changing world, this sermon is not intended to amplify our anxiety or get us to act by tapping into our individual and collective fear of what is to come.

This sermon is not about any of that.
So if you’re feeling anxious right now, I invite you to take a deep breath, and relax.

This is a sermon about prayer.
It’s about the prayer that Jesus prayed to God on our behalf just before he left his disciples and left this world.
And this is a sermon about discipleship.
It’s about what it means to be a follower of Christ in a world that is always changing and always challenging us to maintain a foothold in both THAT world and THIS world -
The world of scarcity, and the world of abundance.
The world of fear, and the world of courageous compassion.
The world of self-preservation, and the world of sacrificial love.

When Jesus had his disciples gathered around him on that Thursday evening before his death, he knew that the time for teaching and training had come to an end.
The twelve men who sat before him and the many followers who had come to know him were about to have the rug ripped out from underneath them big time.
In 24 hours, their leader would be dead, their loyalties would be questioned, their lives would be threatened, and the money that had been flowing freely to support their cause would trickle down to almost nothing.
In 24 hours the world would close in around them and their response would be to hide away in a locked room and keep the world at bay, until the resurrected Jesus came to them and coaxed them back out.

Jesus had already given the disciples a prayer to sustain them through this challenging time - The Lord’s Prayer:
      Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
      Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

But as a parting gift Jesus also offered a prayer FOR the disciples.
On that Thursday night, Jesus prayed to God in their name:
Father, these are your people.
You gave them to me and I have cared for them and now I give them back to you for you to watch over. 
They know everything you have given me is from you.
I am not of this world – this world of fear and scarcity and selfishness - and as my followers they too are not of this world, but they must continue to live in this world even when I am gone.
I’m not asking for you to take them out of this world but to guide them and protect them as they do your work and live as truthful and grace filled people in your name.

Jesus prayed this prayer not just for the disciples who sat before him on that Thursday evening, or for those who would witness his resurrection and gather to see his final ascension into heaven 50 days later.
Jesus prayed this prayer for us – for all who come together and gather in his name.
Because he knew that being a disciple of Christ would always be a precarious balancing act. It will always be about straddling the divide between the world that tempts us to give in to fear and self-preservation, and the world that calls us to act out of love, and a sense of abundance.

In this world where the Kingdom of God is both here and not yet here, there will always be a tension between the church and the world that contains the church.  
The church is intended to be an enclave, a recreation of the Kingdom of God on earth, a foreshadowing of what is to come, a place where we actually live and behave as if the Kingdom has arrived and all barriers have been eradicated between us, and there is enough to go around for all.
But in the outside world this Kingdom does not yet exist, so there is a constant push/pull going on inside of us as we struggle to live in both worlds at the same time.

And it is so hard for us to maintain that balance.
Jesus told his disciples: "The world will hate you as it has hated me."
Hate is a strong word, but here it is an appropriate word.

A world that is built on a foundation of fear, distrust, and scarcity is one that benefits those who have learned to manipulate those fears for their own gain.
If you plant a group of Christians in that world, Christians who really act like Christians and seek to live out of love and abundance rather than fear, then you now have a group of folks who can’t be manipulated by those fears, and they, like Jesus, come to be seen as a threat.

This is not an easy path that we’ve signed up to follow here.
We may come to church for the fellowship, or the music, or the children’s program, but what we’re trying to accomplish here goes far beyond all of that.
We are world straddlers building a community based on love in a world that is dominated by fear. God calls us to live differently in the world.

The disciples locked themselves away because they feared they were not up for the challenge of being seen as outsiders who threatened the status quo.
Jesus prayed to God to give them the strength to carry on in his name.

In many ways our designation as outsiders has not changed.
Over the course of 2,000 years the church has had times when it has become the status quo, most often when it has adopted the ways of the world rather than challenged them.
But the church has also experienced many lean times as well, when folks tire of the incessant balancing act or find that the church is not challenging them enough and they begin to look elsewhere for ways to live out God’s Kingdom in the world.

The world is ever changing. And the church is ever changing. 
But fear not.
The church is not dying. It is evolving, just as it always has.
What form it will take next we cannot say from where we are standing right now. 
But like the disciples, as we huddle in the locked room wondering what we’re called to do next, and who we’re called to be as God’s people, we have Jesus’ prayer to sustain us:

Creator God, as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. Sanctify them in the truth. I speak these words so that they may have my joy, made complete in themselves. 


Monday, March 12, 2012

One journey ends, another begins...

It’s official, I am no longer “….in transition.”
Yesterday I was blessed to officially be called to the position of Associate Pastor of the Congregational Church of Amherst, New Hampshire.
I had a whirlwind weekend of meet-the-candidate events in which I met hundreds of warm, friendly, funny, and caring folks. What an amazing congregation this is!
What an amazing trip this has been…and what an amazing ministry this will be!

And today is my birthday.
There is something serendipitous about celebrating my first call and transitioning from “The 45-year-old Seminarian” to “The 46-year-old Associate Pastor” on the same day. ;)

I started this blog back in January of 2007 as a means of documenting and reflecting upon my journey through seminary.
I haven’t yet decided what form this blog will take next. I may continue it here with a new name and a new format, or I may retire this five-year recording of my journey and begin anew. Either way, the journey will continue.

In the meantime, I have two weeks to pack up my life and move it 200 miles north to Amherst, NH. Then I will hit the ground running with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday services, followed by my first Sunday preaching as the new Associate Pastor, and a 5-day youth group mission trip to New Orleans. Somewhere in there I’ll come up for air and let you all know how it’s going.
Stay tuned!
Amazing things are yet to come! 

Sermon: "What a Fool Believes"

Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
March 11, 2012

“What a Fool Believes”

                              1 Corinthians 1:18-25                              
  John 2:13-22

The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.
- Sir William Osler

When I was 11-years-old, I had a reputation for being a radical and a troublemaker.
In reality, I was a painfully shy Catholic school girl who wouldn't dream of wearing non-regulation knee socks, let alone call attention to myself by questioning the status quo.
But unknowingly, that’s what I did.

Our fifth grade class at St. Martin of Tours parochial school had been given an assignment to write letters of welcome to the newly elected Pope, John Paul the first.
While my classmates wrote formulaic "Good luck on the new Job" letters, I rather innocently used my letter to address a few concerns that I was stewing over at the time.
I asked the Pope why I, as a girl, could not serve at the altar during Mass like my brother, and for that matter, why couldn't women be priests?
I then took it a step further and asked the Pope why gay people weren't welcome in our church, when they were just people like everybody else?

From my 11-year-old perspective, I was just pointing out a few inequities that the new Pope might not have been aware of given his busy schedule.
But to the nuns who ran our school, I was attempting to overturn a table laden with tradition and belief that I had no business being anywhere near.
Needless to say my letter was not included in the batch that was mailed to the Vatican, and I went from being largely ignored as the quietest kid in the class to being singled out as the class troublemaker. 

(As a side note, Pope John Paul the First did die in office a month later, but I can honestly say that my letter had nothing to do with it!)

It is ironic, that as a child asking the question: “Why can’t everyone be included?” I suddenly found myself standing on the outside looking in.
I felt like I was no longer welcome in the church built in Jesus’ name.

Which is one reason why today’s gospel text resonates so strongly with me,
because this text is testament to the fact that sometimes it’s the quiet ones who end up causing the biggest disruptions, and that there are often dire consequences for tipping over tables that others feel compelled to keep in place.

We can only imagine what Jesus’ disciples must have been thinking that day...
as they stood there, slack jawed and not quite believing what was happening right in front of their eyes. 

It was as if a man possessed by demons had been set loose in the Temple.
This was not the gentle rabbi they had come to know.
The man of peace who claimed that the MEEK shall inherit the earth…
The man who urged his followers to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to beat their swords into ploughshares, in defiance of their every human inclination to raise their voices and their fists in anger.

And yet there he was, their beloved and compassionate teacher, running amok amongst the moneychangers, screaming until he was red in the face, flailing his arms and knocking over tables, and causing a near riot in the Temple Court. 

“What has gotten into him?” They must have wondered.

On this day of all days, on the eve of Passover, in Jerusalem, on the doorstep of God’s Holiest of Holy dwellings, with throngs of people milling about - a prime audience longing to hear a message about God’s unconditional love and grace -
Why did he not climb up ON a table and speak to the people instead,
Why did he choose to do something that would make him look like even more of a fool than the Roman and Jewish leaders already assumed he was?
Why did he do something so disruptive that it would likely get him arrested, 
and possibly get him killed?

And as WE know, that’s exactly what happened.
Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple ultimately set in motion a chain of events that led to him breathing his last breath upon the cross.
A cross that at the time stood as a symbol for all those who were foolish enough to question the status quo without having the power to back it up.
And the people of Jerusalem, Jew and Gentile alike, could not help but wonder,
What kind of Messiah was Jesus to meet such a foolish end?
And what kind of fools were the disciples for following him?

Despite the tragic results, the story of Jesus and the moneychangers IS one of my favorite Gospel texts, partly because it’s one of the rare occasions where we get a glimpse of Jesus’ human side –
which makes this a very fitting text for Lent.

It’s during Lent that Jesus’ humanity comes to the forefront.
During these last weeks of his life, he’s no longer standing up there on a mountaintop, with a heavenly light shining down upon him as he warns us about all the difficult things we must do to follow in his footsteps…
During Lent, Jesus is down in the trenches with us.
With his face turned towards Jerusalem and the fate that he knows he can’t escape.

This is a Jesus who shows emotion in a way that we don’t see during Ordinary Time.
Not only do we see him turning over tables in anger,
We feel his sadness as he celebrates his last Passover Supper and reveals that one among them will betray him.
We feel his disappointment as he rebukes his friends for falling asleep when he needed them most.
We hear him cry out in fear, as he begs God to take this cup of suffering from him.
We watch him staggering helplessly down the road as his mother looks on, knowing that he can do nothing to take away the tremendous grief he sees in her eyes.
And we’re hanging on that cross right along side him as he feels the pain of his physical wounds…and the pain of his emotional wounds, as he cries out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

And this whole chain of events begins with an outburst of anger in the Temple.

I love this text, because it’s through the expression of his unbridled humanity that Jesus sets an example for all of us who have ever felt powerless to enact change in our world.

But what changes was Jesus hoping to bring about by upending the tables of the moneychangers?
What exactly were the people doing in the Temple that day that made him so mad? 

As with any text, this one is open to interpretation,
but let’s consider three possible sources for Jesus’ anger. 

The most obvious is that turning God’s House into a marketplace was a form of idolatry and blaspheme.
A Temple was meant to be a place where the people worshiped and praised God, not a place to make a profit at the expense of those who came to worship.
Jesus was angry because the people had allowed greed to shift their focus away from God and onto themselves and their own material needs.

Another interpretation holds that Jesus was not angry with the people in the market, but rather his anger was directed at the people in charge – the Temple Priests and the Roman government who were working in cahoots to profit from the sale of goods and the payment of the Temple tax. 
Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous. 
Roman officials appointed the chief priests and the priests were expected to serve the interests of Rome. Jesus’ anger here could be seen as a statement against imperialism and the influences of the state on religious matters.

A third possible interpretation proposes that this text is not about the irreverence of turning the Temple into a marketplace, or the separation of church and state, rather it’s the presence of the moneychangers themselves and the system they represent, that causes Jesus to react in anger.

As I told the children earlier, the moneychangers were there to exchange the various local currencies for coins that could be used inside the Temple.
In addition to paying the Temple Tax, these coins could be used to purchase animals to be used in the Temple’s sacrificial rites.
Participation in these rites was the only way to receive absolution for one’s sins, and it had to be done by a Priest, in the Temple, in Jerusalem.
If you were poor, sick, disabled, elderly, or widowed, and couldn’t travel to Jerusalem, or couldn’t afford to purchase a sacrificial animal, your sins would go unforgiven and you would forever feel alienated from God.

Perhaps this is what made Jesus so angry.
The tables of the moneychangers were blocking the people’s access to God.
And much to his disciple’s chagrin, he risked his reputation and his life to symbolically and physically remove the barriers that stood between the people and the healing presence of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

Regardless of which of these three interpretations resonates most with us, the message is the same – If we’re going to live our lives by walking in the footsteps of Jesus it’s inevitable that we’re going to run into tables that we’re called to overturn, and we’re going to run the risk of looking like fools while doing it.

Whether we’re speaking out against the materialistic greed of our surrounding culture, pushing back against the corrupting influences of power, or working to remove the barriers that separate us as a people,
there will be those who have a vested interest in keeping those tables undisturbed, and to them we are but fools for attempting to mess with them in the first place.
On those occasions, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus our Lord and Savior, the man we revere, the God incarnate that we worship, was in his time seen by many to be a complete and udder fool, and those who followed him, well they were the biggest fools of all.

As Paul wrote in his first letter to the people of Corinth, the foolishness of the cross is our legacy. Two thousand years later Jesus is still asking us to believe, think, and do things that seem crazy to the outside world.
Turn the other cheek, forgive your transgressor, LOVE your enemy, extend hospitality to strangers, aliens, and foreigners, live in community with those who are so different from you they swear the sky is pink when you know for a fact it’s blue.

Yet all of us here signed up for this, voluntarily, having been baptized into Christ’s community, and having chosen to be a part of this church.

What a crazy and difficult path it is that we’ve chosen to walk together.

And as someone who is new to this particular congregation, I can’t wait to hear all of your stories and the tales of foolishness that led you here to this community of Christ.

When I was 11-years-old, I questioned why everyone was not free to participate fully in the church built in Jesus’ name.
At the time I had no idea that this question was considered to be volatile, or that there would be consequences for asking it.

Sometimes we knock over tables intentionally, and other times we unwittingly trip over them and push them aside.

We don’t know if it was part of Jesus’ plan to cause trouble in the Temple on that day, or if he was acting on pure impulse.
But regardless of his motive, in the midst of the chaos of the Passover crowd, he chose to do something foolish.
He approached the tables of the moneychangers, placed his fingers beneath the edge of the first table he came to….and he lifted.

For a split second the barriers that had been set up between the people and God became airborne - and when that table came crashing down, we were set free.

Jesus was aching for us to understand that God’s love is unconditional, there is no barrier between us and God….and that is true for all of us.
And if the only way that Jesus could show us that Truth was by tipping over a few tables…an act of defiance that would ultimately lead to his death…then so be it.

How many tables are we willing to tip over in the name of love and truth?
How many do we leave undisturbed because we fear the consequences of claiming that truth as our own?

The tables of the moneychangers have not gone away. Some of us continue to hold onto them as if the church, our belief system, or society itself could not exist without them.

In Jesus’ time it took the strength of the Son of God to overturn the tables outside the Temple.
Yet we may be surprised at how many of those tables we can turn over ourselves...with God’s help….if we just place our fingers beneath the edge…and lift.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down...

Ash Wednesday

It’s an odd tradition isn’t it?
To walk about with a darkened smear
in the center of our forehead
visible to all eyes but our own.

It’s supposed to remind us of our mortality,
our finiteness,
because most of us tend to tuck death away
in hospital rooms,
funeral parlors, and the back alley recesses of our minds.
But while we may be reminded in the moment,
when the cool sticky smudge is traced above our brow,
it doesn’t take long for us to forget once again.
Until an inadvertent brush of a misplaced lock of hair,
or a glimpse in a restroom mirror
reminds us that something is different;
that something is where nothing usually is.

When I was young it was harder to forget.
We’d slowly rise from our pews
and line up behind each other,
tugging nervously at our school uniforms
and craning our necks to see what was happening up ahead.
The man we called Father was bigger then.
Taller, wider, casting a shadow that kept us safe
and confined.

One by one we stepped before him
and felt the touch of his thumb upon our head.
It was foreign for me
to feel this touch.
Priest. Male. Authority. God.
It was humbling,
as it reminded me of everything I was not,
and I could not return to my seat
fast enough.

But a reminder of the touch was left behind.
For the rest of the day
we’d point and giggle,
our eyes darting from one face to the next,
noticing which marks were darker
and which were more grey than black,
noticing that some took the shape of an obvious cross,
and others were simply an indistinguishable blur.

The reminder stayed with us throughout the day,
through recess and Social Studies,
through afterschool play and homework,
through dinner and TV time,
Until our mothers wiped it off
with soapy water and kisses just before bed.

But now,
I barely have a chance to feel its presence.
Rushing to an evening service,
the transition to the darkened, quiet sanctuary
from the world outside
is jarring.
The rituals, the music, the liturgy,
the lining up to receive the burned palms 
from a celebration a year in the past,
all carry so much more meaning for me now.

Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.
The words sink in
as I hear them repeated
over and over again.
You are mortal.
You are finite.
You are made of the same 
ordinary substance
that God used to create the world.
And yet you are so much more.
You have been graced
with the ability to rise from the ashes,
and be reborn
into something new.

Sometimes I am the one
doing the repeating.
Slipping my thumb into the oiled ash
and marking those who line up before me.
A cross for one.
A circle for another.
But the words remain the same.
Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.

As I too receive the mark
I begin to wonder what it looks like.
Is it light, or is it dark?
Does it say to the world,
“This person is unique
because she bears the mark of Christ!”
or does it say to the world,
“This person needs to be reminded
of her own limitedness.”
Do I look as odd,
as branded,
as out of sorts,
as the rest of the faces
gathered around me in the pews?

As I exit into the cool night air
the silence closes in on me.
And I begin to forget, again.
At home I go about my nightly routine
and take my one and only glimpse of the mark
just before I wash it off
and retire to bed.

Lent is a season
of reflection and remembrance.
Forty plus days of looking inward,
and moving outward,
as we become intentional
about acknowledging our connection to God,
to each other,
and to this world
that was created from dust,
and to dust it shall return.

I sometimes wish
I could bear to wear that mark
for more than a few hours,
for more than a day.
That I had the faith,
and the discipline, and the courage,
to receive the mark
every day
for the 40 plus days of Lent.
To awake each day
and forget that it’s there.
Until I rub the sleep from my eyes
and look down at my fingertips,
and see the darkened residue
of oil and ash
that marks me
as a beloved creature
of God. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Call Waiting...

You see that pretty (awesome) church in the picture above?
This is the Congregational Church of Amherst, New Hampshire.
They have just over 600 members, a fabulous music program, lots and lots of kids, an active youth group, a dedicated group of volunteers who participate in community outreach, and a heart and soul desire to “welcome, transform, and send” all who walk through their doors seeking God, grace, and the “good news” that none us is meant to stagger through this life alone.

 If all goes well, and God willing, on March 11th I will be leading worship in this lovely church and afterward the congregation will take a vote on whether to call me to be their next Associate Pastor.

In the meantime, my life for the next month or so will be immersed in a swirl of packing, purging, planning, prepping, and praying (…with a modest amount of panicking thrown in towards the end).

But as this time of transition passes, I trust, as Julian said:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Fur is about to Fly....

The cat doesn't know
that her world will soon be turned upside down.
This spot on the footstool cushion feels familiar
and safe,
in the sun and out of the sun,
the day passing as many days have before.
The house is quiet,
apart from the occasional banging
coming from the workmen in the apartment downstairs.
She is unaware of the "For Sale" sign
that has been pounded into the soft ground
outside the window just below.

The cat doesn't know
that soon there will be boxes,
Boxes to explore and launch herself into.
Boxes to rub against and cut into with her teeth.
Boxes left half full and taped tightly shut,
stacked neatly, waiting to be carried away.
On each side black marker will announce
its destination:

The cat doesn't know
that familiar pieces of furniture will soon disappear.
The dining room table that she perches on
to better oversee the dishing out of the evening meal.
The brown sofa that she summits in one leap
and quickly moves into the warm and vacant spot
when the phone rings,
or there is something else
to be tended to elsewhere in the house.
The many bookcases,
overflowing bookcases,
that fill the small room where the afternoon sun
forms rectangles on the carpet
in just the right spot. 
It will all be gone.
Whisked away
to another home,
another state,
another universe,
waiting to be explored.

The cat doesn't know
as she shifts on the stool cushion,
before curling back up against the legs
that always seem to be there.
Except when they're not.
And soon "when they're not"
will be the new paradigm.
The cosmic shift in her reality.
After a flurry of movement and men,
the house will go quiet.
The footstool and its soft cushion will be gone.
At least for a while.

The cat doesn't know
that the nearly empty house will only be temporary.
As the weather warms, the men will come again
and pick up the last remaining boxes.
Boxes marked:

The cat doesn't know
that she and her carrier
will be the final item to collect.
As she crouches unsteadily in her plastic cage,
swaying down the walkway,
remembering that trips like these
always end up in the same place,
her eyes will be the last to see
the house that we once called home.

But right now,
she doesn't know.
The sounds, the smells, the warm cushion,
the shifting legs that cause her to stir,
are all as they should be.