A Vulnerable Comfort 12-10-17

Isaiah 40:1-11 “Console my people, give them comfort,” says your God: ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart, and tell it that its time of service is ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from YHWH’s hand double punishment for all its sins.” A voice cries out, “Clear a path through the wilderness for YHWH!  Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory of YHWH will be revealed, and all humankind will see it.” The mouth of YHWH has spoken! A voice commands, “Cry out!” and I answer, “What will I say?”—All flesh is grass and its beauty is like the wildflowers: The grass withers and the flower wilts when the breath of YHWH blows on them.  How the people are like grass! Grass withers and flowers wilt, but the promise of God will stand forever. Go up on a mountain, you who bring good news to Zion!  Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to Jerusalem!  Shout without fear, and say to the towns of Judah “Here is your God!” YHWH, O Sovereign One, you come with power, and rule with a strong arm!  You bring your reward with you, and your reparation comes before you. Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs and holding them close, and leading mother ewes with gentleness.

This new season of preparation for the coming of the Christ child always surprises me when it opens with John the Baptist – such an unruly, challenging character. Especially this year, as we begin reading the gospel of Mark – there is no birth story, no wise people, no shepherds tending their flocks. No, the gospel of Mark, in its raw immediacy jumps right into the meat of the gospel with John the B calling for repentance and a new day. I am preaching today more in reference to Isaiah, the passage Cayla read, but this Mark passage helps to define the whole season. So Listen for the word of God for you this day.

Mark 1:1-8  Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God: as it was written in Isaiah the prophet: “I send my messenger before you to prepare your way, a herald’s voice in the desert, crying, ‘Make ready the way of our God. Clear a straight path.’” And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.

December 10, 2017

A Vulnerable Comfort

Excitement is building – and it’s not just among the children. Snow and Christmas lights bring memories of holidays past and sweet times together with family and community. My folks worked hard to make the preparation for Christmas a magical time – watching toy trains in the lobby of a business in center city Cincinnati, sledding in McFarland woods with hot chocolate afterwards, marveling at the exhibits of animated mannikins in the storefront at Shillito’s Department store in town. We had a good time.

My church on Sunday added to the sense that everything was right in the world. Jesus had our back, so we didn’t need to worry about anything. Music was the core of the service then as now. I don’t remember the pastor saying particularly memorable things. So I am surprised every Advent to find a deeper message from Isaiah and John the Baptist lurking in our scripture readings – a message I did not hear very much growing up – a message that is more helpful & relevant to a world that is broken and crisis-filled. It excites me today almost as much as the snow and animated toys in shop windows when I was a kid.

 

The Isaiah text begins with a word of comfort. ‘Console my people, give them comfort!’ comes the word from God – and from Handel. Handel is probably how music lovers most hear these words. Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart. Why do they need comfort though? What was going on?

The leaders of the people of Israel had been taken into exile out of their beloved homeland to the city Babylon, the capital of the Babylon empire. Other prophets, like Jeremiah and the earlier sections of Isaiah had blamed this exile on the people of Israel for their sinfulness and their idolatry. All of a sudden, here in chapter 40, comes a word of comfort and forgiveness. “Clear a path through the wilderness for God. The valleys will be raised up, the mountains brought low.”

We don’t hear the words of comfort and the leveling of the path unless we get the context, unless we empathize with the crisis of the people of Israel, who have been taken into exile and blamed for it. We can relate, though, because we do have some crises. Take your pick. Last week, Nancy raised our awareness of the opioid crisis – suicides and overdoses among a group of friends of her son. Console my people, says the Spirit. “Give them comfort.” I felt agitated at the beginning of the service last week, as Nancy named people who had died or fallen victim to opioids. But by the end of the service, I felt consoled a bit, just by the fact of sitting in the darkness together, by naming the crisis and committing together to keeping it on our radar.

If our eyes are open at all, we may see another crisis in this season. Every year at this time, in fact, we may be at least a little distressed by the materialism and commercialism that distorts our sacred holiday, the cooptation of one of highest holy days on our Christian calendar. We enjoy the music and the family togetherness. Still, I personally wish it was easier to have more of the family togetherness and less of the compulsory shopping, more of the peace and spiritual connection, and less of the worry and wrapping, more awe and wonder and less obligatory spending. Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Forgive us our December excesses. May the glory of God be revealed so all God’s people will see it together.

Speaking of all people seeing God’s presence together? It seems like our people are more divided and polarized than ever – by religion, by race, by political party and belief and leaning. It begins to be difficult to imagine us seeing anything together. Every day seems to bring a new crisis or revelation – of sexual abuse or offensive political policy. And yet on Wednesday, we gather together at Zion Baptist for a Hanukah candle lighting – spanning several cultural boundaries – May the glory of God be revealed!

Opioid crisis, materialism & commercialism, polarization – these are just a few of the ways that we might relate to Israel’s feelings of exile & crisis that Isaiah is addressing, the feelings of not being in the comfort zone we expected to be in at this stage of our lives. Isaiah’s particular words of comfort may sound a little strange when we look at it carefully. “All flesh is grass” he says. The grass withers and the flowers fade. Everyone dies. How’s that for words of comfort? But this can be a word of comfort for people in crisis, particularly for people in exile, oppressed as the people of Israel were. It is a word of equality. Poor and rich alike will be reclaimed by God. “All flesh is grass.” We use these words sometimes in funerals and I do find them comforting as we connect with and relate to the Living God – whose word outlives us all.

Isaiah closes his reassurance to Israel: “Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to Jerusalem!  Shout without fear, and say to the towns of Judah “Here is your God!”” No wonder we read these words at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of this season of hope, waiting, and anticipation. Like John the Baptist, like Isaiah, we are ready to name the crises, and we are even more ready to live into God’s inspiration to take them on. “Here is your God!”

All flesh is grass, but God’s word is forever. The Spirit’s presence is always. God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s steadfast love will get us through every crisis, every trial, even exile, even death, even opioids, even endless stuff, even division and polarization. We’re in the right place for reassurance for all of these and more. – to know God’s call and to feel the sweet reassurance of God’s grace, to know the Child of God is on the way! This is God’s good news.

Responsive Hymn 2089 Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice

Hope in the Darkness 12-3-17

Isaiah 64:1-9 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would shake before you! As fire kindles the brushwood and the fire makes water boil, make your Name known to your adversaries, and let the nations tremble before you! When you did awesome things that we could not have expected, you came down, and the mountains quaked in your presence! From ages past no ear has ever heard, no eye has ever seen any God but you intervening for those who wait for you! Oh, that you would find us doing right, that we would be mindful of you in our ways!  You are angry because we are sinful, we sinned for so long—how can we be saved? All of us became unclean and soiled, even our good deeds are polluted. We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. No one calls upon your Name, there is none who clings to you, for you hid your face from us and delivered us into the hands of our sins. Yet you are our mother and father, YHWH, we are clay and you are the potter, we are all the work of your hands. Don’t let your anger go beyond measure, O God, don’t remember our sins forever, for we are all your people.

I love the first Sunday in Advent, probably more than Christmas. It’s the beginning of the journey – the year long journey with Jesus. We finished with last year’s journey with the gospel of Matthew last week. Today we begin a new journey with Jesus in the gospel of Mark. We begin as we sit in the darkness – some of the darkest days of the year. We wake up and it’s dark. We go to sleep in the dark. We imagine ourselves looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. We stay alert watching for a new time, watching for signs of God’s coming.

Mark 13:24-37 “But in those days, after that time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will fall from the sky and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Promised One coming in the clouds with great power and glory;

then the angels will be sent to gather the chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “Take the fig tree as a parable:  as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Promised One is near, right at the door. The truth is, before this generation has passed away, all these things will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass sway, but my word will not pass away. “But as for that day or hour, nobody  knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Only  Begotten—no one but Abba God, Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake!  You do not know when the appointed time will come. “It is like people traveling abroad.  They leave their home and put the workers in charge, each with a certain task, and those who watch at the front gate are ordered to stay on the alert. So stay alert!  You do not know when the owner of the house is coming, whether at dusk, at midnight, when the cock crows or at early dawn. Do not let the owner come suddenly and catch you asleep. What I say to you, I say to all, stay alert!”

December 3, 2017

Hope in the Darkness

Superman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter (whoever that is), Batman, and Wonder Woman – the Justice League is made up of all the superheroes a 10 year old boy could hope for – all the superheroes from DC comic books. The movie that came out a couple weeks ago got pretty poor reviews, but I heard enough about it that I was reminded that there was a time when I saved my pennies to buy every comic book I could about these characters.

Does anybody else here remember geeking out on comics or superheroes like that? I’m afraid to admit how into it I was way back when. I think there was a longing in my heart for super-powerful people to make things right. I know, in fact, that was part of what was going on. I didn’t even know how messed up things were, but it seemed like we could really use someone who was invincible, speedy, who could handle anything.

Maybe that’s why these superheroes through these films are popular these days again. People are longing for easy answers and all powerful solutions. That’s what Isaiah was longing for. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would shake before you!” He longs for the superhero God he read about when he was little, the One who parted the Red Sea and smote the Egyptians. He chastises God for not taking care of things the way that the God of his youth purportedly did. You feel that don’t you?

We long for that God too! Where was that God at Auschwitz? Where was that God at Hiroshima? Where was that God on 9/11? Where was that God when the tax bill passed this week? there’s plenty of times when you can imagine hoping for that kind of God! Isaiah all the way back then was mourning the loss of the God of his dreams. He accuses that God of hiding. He even blames God for the sinful ways of humanity – saying it’s because God is hiding that people are acting so badly(!)

 

(slow) On this the first Sunday of Advent, we sit in the darkness and notice this hidden God. We look forward to Jesus’ coming. A lot of times we hope for a superhero Jesus, like Isaiah hoping for a superhero God. We’re waiting for Jesus who will make everything right miraculously and immediately. It’s a real, but unrealistic hope. I’m suggesting we turn our hopes in a slightly different direction.

This Sunday, we may learn from Isaiah and Mark a different kind of hope in the darkness, a hope for a God who empowers, rather than a God who is the superpower. I read about a book this week named If the Church Were Christian by Quaker pastor Philip Gulley. He suggests 10 ways the church might move toward being a more authentic, hope-filled witness in the difficult world we live in.

He suggests that 1) we think of Jesus more as a model for living than an object of worship; more honored sibling, than superhero; 2) Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness. 3) The work of reconciliation is to be valued over making judgments. 4) Gracious behavior is more important than right belief. 5) Inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers.

6) Encouraging the personal search is more important than group uniformity. 7) Meeting actual needs is more important than maintaining institutions. 8) Peacemaking is more important than power. 9) We work toward caring more about love and less about sex. 10) Life in this world is more important than the afterlife (eternity is God’s work anyway).

All of these suggestions to me imply an empowering God rather than a superhero God – and there really is an argument in the church about which one we are anticipating and expecting. These 10 suggestions for the way the church could act in the world make a lot of sense to me at the beginning of Advent. And they fit where I see Isaiah ending up in his passage. After hoping for the superhero God, he ends his passage praying to a parent God, the potter who molds the clay. He says, “Yet you are our mother and father, YHWH, we are clay and you are the potter, we are all the work of your hands.” We respond to the love of God not by trying to be superheroes or wishing for superheroes in the world, but by being present to God’s love in the darkness, and being God’s presence for others.

Our awareness of people who are far from home during the holidays, living alone or trying to get back home, our awareness of global migration and the people it effects helps us to be present to folks who are hurting – just like the holy family was as they traveled for the census as they fled to Egypt after the birth. We’re praying especially for people from Haiti today, people who have temporary protective status who are being sent back home. Can we be the church for people who are facing their own periods of darkness? Can we be the church for each other in a hope-filled, God-filled darkness?

You see most religious people, including priests and pastors, lay leaders and regular religious folks – most people still imagine God to be elsewhere, hidden out there somewhere. I think Isaiah and Matthew too, in his way, were starting to shift from understanding God as not “out there”, to understanding God as “in here.’ [Richard Rohr]  God is with migrant people, wherever they are. God is with us in our movement and our stillness. God is molding our lives even now, as Isaiah points to with the image of the intimate image of God as potter and people as clay.

This is what Christians are talking about when we talk about the Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with Us, God born into our world – God moving into the neighborhood, as Eugene Peterson puts it. This is what we mean by Grace and Holy Spirit – that God is not elsewhere and heaven is not later. We have to experience this for ourselves. This is what we are looking forward to and this is what we have available to us here and now.

Even today, as we wait, we experience God’s presence in the darkness, and know real grace; we are clay, you are the potter; we know the Spirit; we know what Christians are talking about when they say, here take this bread. Eat, drink and know Christ’s presence – here, now, right here, right now.

Communion Hymn: 3141  Holy Darkness

Heritage of Faithfulness: 140 years 11-19-17

You may recall that we celebrated our 140th anniversary last year as well. The year to celebrate has been shifting a little bit on us. We used to celebrate the anniversary from the time of the dedication of the building in 1879. A few years ago, we decided to celebrate from the time the first group came together from Radnor Methodist Episcopal Church to found a church in Bryn Mawr. That may have been in 1876, the year of the centennial of the United States, but the papers that Carolyn found have a founding date of 1877, so we called last year the beginning of our 140th anniversary celebration and we have been having a low key celebration all this year, ending with today’s luncheon – the conclusion of our 140th anniversary.

God brings us together for a time such as this, to be a community of caring for each other in a time of uncertainty and anxiety. It has been a good year of witness in these difficult times. Today we have much to celebrate. Our assigned reading for today from Matthew continues a series of head-scratching readings that seem to contradict what we usually think of as Jesus message. I ask you to consider that this passage may be a description of an abusive landowner rather than a celebration of good business.

Matthew 25:14-30 Again, it’s like a wealthy landowner who was going on a journey and called in three workers, entrusting some funds to them. The first was given five talents, the second two talents, and the third one talent, according to each one’s ability.  Then the landowner went away. Immediately the worker who received the five talents went and invested it and made another five. In the same way, the worker who received the two talents doubled that figure. But the worker who received the one talent instead went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried the money. After a long absence, the traveler returned home and settled accounts with them The one who received five talents came forward bringing the additional five, saying, ‘You entrusted me with five talents; here are five talents more. The landowner said, ‘Well done!  You are a good and faithful worker.  Since you were dependable in a small matter, I will put you in charge of larger affairs.  Come, share my joy!’ The one who had received the two talents then stepped forward with the additional two, saying, ‘You entrusted me with two talents, here are two talents more..’ The landowner said to this one, ‘Cleverly done!  You too are a good and faithful worker.  Since you were dependable in a small matter, I will put you in charge of larger affairs.  Come, share my joy! Finally the one who had received the one talent stepped forward and said to the landowner, ‘Knowing your ruthlessness—you who reap where you did not sow ad gather where you did not scatter—

and fearing your wrath, I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here is your money back. The landowner exclaimed, ‘you worthless, lazy lout!  So you know that I reap where I don’t sow, and gather where I don’t scatter, do you? All the more reason to deposit my money with the bankers, so that on my return I could have had it back with interest! You, there!  Take the talent away from this bum and give it the one with the ten talents. Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have. Throw this worthless one outside into the darkness, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth,’

Nobody here has been here for 140 years. Let’s take a moment of silent reflection on our history with God in this church.

November 19, 2017

Heritage of Faithfulness: 140 years 

Nobody here has been here for 140 years. Noni has been here about half of that time. That’s why I asked her to say a few words at our luncheon today about her memories and her experience at St. Luke. That’s why I have lunch with her every Tuesday that I can – because I want to respect the elder of this church and listen to them, because their history and their perspective is important in the world and in this place. As we celebrate our 140th anniversary today, I invite you to think back on the people of the church who have helped you to be who you are today.

Not just this church, but the church – remember today all the people who have shaped you and changed your life because of their dedication to the Living God through the community of the church – the Sunday school teachers, the youth group leaders, the camp counselors, the parents, the preachers, the singers, the Bible study leaders, the grandmothers, the pray-ers, even the complainers and the whiners. We give thanks today for God’s community through the ages that sustained and formed the institution through which God works in strange and mysterious ways.

Lives are changed, lives are moved and shaped through the work of those people that makes a place for the Spirit, and a way for the Spirit to live in us. Lives are changed because we have a place to explore our fears, and test our faith, a place where we can learn to sing and dare to speak, a place where we can meet other people and work together to do more than we could possibly do by ourselves.

We are the church, we do these things not because we are so great, but because a force beyond us is working in our midst and making things possible that we could not do by ourselves. We go to a church because we like what happens there – we like the music, the people are nice, somebody remembered our name, or we heard something that got us thinking. We come to appreciate and value a church where we meet God, where we are challenged in our faith, where we grow and stretch in the grace of Christ and the nudging of God’s Spirit.

 

Our assigned passage for today, for instance, once again, may seem just a little bit off, a little different than what we might expect from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The usual interpretation would work if we were a fire and brimstone kind of church where we constantly tell people they are going to hell unless they do everything right  or believe the right things. When we take seriously Jesus’ message of grace and the consistent refrain, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” this passage which seems to reward the best off and punish the worst off seems particularly out of place.

Believe me, I would not have chosen it as a passage for our anniversary celebration. I take it as a challenge to hear what God is saying to us today. So here is what I hear. The story tells of a wealthy landowner who takes off for a while, and while he is gone entrusts him workers with part of his wealth as a kind of test of their loyalty, ingenuity and faithfulness. This story is not an allegory. The landowner is not God. It’s a story and it doesn’t work to make the landowner into God, because the landlord is nasty.

The first thing you need to know to understand this story is that a talent is huge amount of money. A talent is worth 10-15 years worth of wages. When the landowner gives a talent to the workers – or 5 or 10 talents, it is a symbolic amount of money. An eye-opening amount to make people pay attention to this story. The first two servants invest the talents and end up with twice as money to give back to the homeowner when he returns.

The point of the story, of course, comes when we see what the third worker does. The more common interpretation is that the third worker has timidly buried the talent in the ground and gives the talent back cowardly without interest, and gets thrown into outer darkness for his lack of imagination and drive.

This may be a fair interpretation, but the truth is that burying money was an accepted way of doing things in those days, and this passage may not be moralistic, but descriptive of the exploitation of the people. It describes a landowner who is harsh and punitive and a worker who was resisting that exploitation by not abiding by the landowner’s scheme.

That changes our perspective on the passage quite a lot and may be a bit of a reach. It makes sense to me though, as being more in line with what Jesus teaches. Either way the passage is promoting courage, commitment and ingenuity. With the second interpretation, it adds a value of non-cooperation with injustice, no matter our economic status.

At our luncheon today, several people are going to speak about how their lives have been changed through God’s grace in their ministry and work at St. Luke. I may be putting that more strongly than they were thinking about it- but I would argue that all of us are here not because we can’t think of anything better to do on a Sunday morning, but because God has grabbed our lives and put us to work, put us to ministry. We know that we need to be part of what God is doing and this is a place we have found to remind us of who we are and what we need to be about – a reminder of the courage, commitment and ingenuity that God brings out in God’s faithful people.

My life has been changed by God through the ministry in this place and I am deeply grateful for the grace and encouragement all of you have shown to me as I keep stumbling forward in my attempts to be faithful. St. Luke is a place that has been given it’s share of talents and has risked putting those talents to work for the children of this community, for the exuberant worship of the Living God, and for care for all of God’s people.

You will receive a few examples at our lunch today. I just want to give you one example that happened this week. I invited a POWER Metro people to come together Monday before last to talk about racism and how we as POWER Metro would use all of our talents to combat racism wherever we see it.

About 25 to 30 people came to the meeting including Rev. Greg Holston, UM minister and director of POWER, Rev. Robin Hynicka, pastor of Arch St. UM church, a couple rabbis, pastors, and a bunch of laypeople, especially from St. Luke. Pastor Robin described the work that POWER Philly has been doing to challenge racism in the Philadelphia context and the training that white people have been doing over the last couple of years to deepen their commitment and courage.

Toward the end of the meeting Rev Holston challenged the group to take it on themselves. He said we can’t go out of here this evening without signing up for our next steps together. At that point, I realized I hadn’t even put out a sign in sheet for people, so I started one and sent it around the room. As people began signing the paper, Pastor Robin began to talk about how the work against racism is a life-long commitment that people have to be prepared to take on. The person who was getting to sign the sheet at that point stopped and said, “I don’t know what I’m signing up for here.” and she passed the paper on.

As the paper went around, some signed and others didn’t and people continued to discuss what it would mean and what kind of commitment it would take. As we reached the end of our time, with that question still hanging in the air, brother Keith Nunnelee raised his hand to have the last word, and I will never forget what he said.

He said, “I grew up in Mississippi. I spent the first 19 years of my life learning racism every single day. I figure I owe at least the next 19 years to the process of fighting that racism.” It was a moment of the Spirit. One guy on the other side of the room asked that the paper be passed back over to him so he could sign in, giving his life to God’s work in the world.

God works through this church to make life-changing moments like that happen. God has been working through this church for 140 years, in all kinds of different ways to make life-changing moments like that happen, moments of courage, commitment and ingenuity, moments of grace, love, and of fighting injustice, moments of faithfulness, inspiration, and goosebumps. moments of tears, and joy, and love.

I thank God for the chance to be part of this ministry. I thank God for every single person who has shared that journey with us, whether for a few weeks or for 70 years. This is God’s good news.

Responsive hymn  62 All Creatures of Our God and King

11-12-17 Ready to Live

How do we live in hope in tenuous times? How do we prepare ourselves for God’s future when there seems to be so much evidence that things are getting worse rather than better? Maybe these are questions we all are trying to answer these days. This passage from Matthew brought the questions to the fore for me. We have been reading these difficult passages about weddings and end times for weeks now, passages that don’t seem totally compatible with what we usually think of as Jesus’ message. Yet, we listen, we are always listening for God’s message, God’s inspiration. So listen today for God’s word to you from Matthew 25, starting from the first verse.

 Matthew 25:1-13 Then again, the kingdom of heaven could be likened to ten attendants who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party.  Five of them were wise; five were foolish.

When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes, the bridal party!  Let’s go out to meet them!’

Then all the attendants rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’ While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish attendants returned, they pleaded to be let in. The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’ So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.

November 12, 2017

Ready to Live 

A year or two after I graduated from college, I was invited to a wedding, the wedding of dear classmates from my school, the second wedding of that era. There would be many more. “Of course, I’ll be there,” I told them. “Wouldn’t miss it.” When the day arrived, I put on my best shirt, my festive purple shirt with the collar practically out to my shoulders. (It was the 70’s style, do you want to see it?)

I put on my white bell bottom pants, and probably sandals, and I headed out to the highway to hitchhike(!) down to DC. When I got to the highway, I looked at my watch and calculated the time. As I waited for a ride with my thumb out, it slowly dawned on me that hitchhiking was not the most reliable form of transportation, and that I would likely be late for the wedding.

As were the foolish bridesmaids in our reading from Matthew for this morning, I was not only late for the wedding. I missed it altogether because I foolishly did not plan ahead/ I remember that I finally got a ride into Wilmington and took a train from there, in time only for the party after the wedding. I had not remembered this foolishness for many years, and I’d rather not remember it, but sometimes reflection on a Bible passage leads to introspection and self-sacrificing connections. (and my advancing age is making me less protective of my pride.)

You see, the bridesmaids in this passage – it actually says ‘virgins’ in the Hebrew, but we choose to call them bridesmaids – they were waiting for the wedding procession. A wedding in Palestine in those times lasted for days. There was a big party and a procession. These 10 women, five foolish and five wise women, were waiting for the procession outside the house to light the way for the bridal party. The lamps were bowls of oil with a wick in the bowls.

Since the bridegroom was late, everybody fell asleep. When they awoke to sounds of the bridegroom on his way, the five foolish women, according to the tale, did not have any oil left in their bowls. They asked the five wise women to loan them some oil, but those five said they didn’t have enough, and told the foolish ones to go buy some more oil – in the middle of the night.

Now we might look at this passage and say, “I would have lent them some oil. It’s a shame that they will miss the party.” I imagine Jesus would have said the same thing. as we were studying the passage though, we thought of some present day analogies. We thought about the chargers for our phones. I know that I have told people in my family, “Get your own charger! That one is mine and I need it to charge my phone, now. I need it so I will have my phone charged for tomorrow. Ready for whatever happens.”

So I can’t say that I would have been quick to share my energy source with other people who foolishly didn’t plan ahead and bring their charger – or their oil with them, even if it meant they couldn’t get in to the party. And I can’t really complain that my foolish lack of preparation kept me out of the wedding.

The passage says with some finality, “The door was shut.” The five foolish maidens had missed their chance. Many of us can remember a time when we missed our chance, when a door closed, when we were trying to get somewhere or accomplish something and we didn’t make it. It can be a despairing kind of feeling.

 

This passage has an air of finality and warning about it. Matthew meant it as an allegory for the end times, for the return of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar thinks the parable was probably not told by Jesus but by the later community of Matthew which was waiting for Jesus return. It was a warning to people to be prepared and to be on guard for that day. It could be for us an early Advent story, since we so often skip to Christmas, and by all signs in our society, our time of waiting and anticipation has already begun.

My despairing hitchhiking heart goes out to those 5 bridesmaids who did not bring enough oil to get into the party – and to all of us who have faced closed doors in our lives, dead ends where we thought there was no way forward. I know that I learned my lesson in my youth and found better ways to get to important events, and planned ahead better. I imagine people hearing this story and deciding they would live their lives within the growing community of the Way, the Way of the Living God.

In spite of the feeling of finality in the story, though, I find myself needing to hear a bigger word of hope from this passage – knowing that God makes a way out of no way, that God is making a way around the shut doors of our world. God has made a way for the women who have been abused and misused, and are just beginning to find the strength and the encouragement to tell their stories. The door that was shut is opening to a new healing.

This morning, I found myself asking God – what happened to those 5 foolish women after they got locked out of the party, and God showed me some pictures of one of them climbing through a window out back, one of them dressed up as a man to get through the door, and three of them pinky swore to each other that they would never get married. Two of them stayed together the rest of their lives and one of them was by herself. Some people called her foolish to the end of her days, but she was actually quite content in relating to the world on her own terms.

God is opening the door to people who have been shut out of the world or shut out of the church, whether through abuse or neglect or because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, or because of names they were called or mistaken things they were taught. Even if some of the doors of our churches close for good, I am quite confident in the presence of the Living God in our communities, reopening ways, reopening paths for our children and for our friends and neighbors to find redemptive love, healing, and renewal.

Responsive hymn      2220 We Are God’s People

Crossing Over 11-5-17 All Saints Day

Joshua 3:7-17 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’ Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord— the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

All Saints’ Day is a wonderful holy day, a beautiful celebration of life and death. Christians know that death is not failure. Death is not a bad thing. Death is not even the end. It is an end, but not the end, and today we celebrate God’s love that is stronger even than death. I studied the Joshua reading for today. It does not refer to death, actually, but the image of Crossing Over, crossing over the river Jordan, crossing over from life to death, has symbolic significance for talking about the end of life’s journey. Let’s talk about it some more after we hear Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount bless all of our loved ones in the passage known as the Beatitudes. Listen for the Word of God for you this day.

Matthew 5: 1-12 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for   theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

November 5, 2017

Crossing Over

[Each person receives a small stone at the door to the sanctuary.]

Did you all get a stone? Please hold the stone in your hand for a bit during the sermon, remembering any loved ones you want to remember today. My stone today of course is for my mother. Would like to tell somebody whom you’re holding a stone for real quick? Turn to a neighbor and tell them whom you are remembering. I ask you to hold a stone today thinking about the tribes led by Joshua crossing over the Jordan River on dry ground, as we remember those who crossed over from life to death.

I also ask you to hold a stone in honor of the Jewish tradition of laying a small stone on a grave when they visit a loved or respected one who has died. Do you know why they do that? Nobody is totally sure, but some possibilities are that when the tradition started, the gravestones were actually made out of a pile of stones. Visitors added stones to the mound to show we are never finished building the monument to the deceased loved one.

Another reason people leave a stone is tell other visitors that we were there. It suggests the continuing presence of love and memory as strong and ensuring as a rock. The rock is a reminder of God’s presence too, the Rock of Israel, whose love is stronger than death. Some people also leave a note in crevices in a headstone, and the stone may have been a way to hold down a note when there was no crevice. When the note blew away, only the stone was left.  I visited a graveyard this summer in Massachusetts where they had graves on a hill call “Author’s Ridge.” Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau were buried there, and people left stones at their graves, but many people also left pens or pencils as a tribute.

One other possible meaning of the stones that I will mention is an ancient tradition. Shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. Some days they would go out pasture with a flock of thirty, on other days with a flock of ten. The shepherd would carry a sling over the shoulder and in it keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in the the flock, as a reminder of an accurate count. When we place stones on the grave, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in God’s sling. So today as we hold these stones, we are adding the name of our loved one, the pebble of the soul of our departed to God’s sling.

 

God is often associated with the land for the Hebrew people and in the Bible. Our passage for today from Joshua may sound a little familiar because it is so resonant of the story of the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea on dry land following Moses. Though that story appears earlier in the Bible and is more prominent in our memory, some commentators say this passage from Joshua might actually have been written earlier and been the model for the Moses story.

Moses, you will remember, led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea into the wilderness, but after wandering 40 years in that wilderness, he died before the people went into the promised land. That job was left to Joshua, who led the people across the Jordan, again with God’s help. God stops the Jordan from flowing when the people step into it with the Ark of the Covenant. Later, after our passage, God instructs the 12 tribes of Israel to take big rocks from the riverbed and stand in front of the Ark of the Covenant protecting it from the waters. They take these 12 large rocks onto dry land as a monument and memorial to actions in helping the people of Israel in their journey to the promised land.

 

We all have our ways of remembering, our ways of memorializing and honoring our loved ones. I think of my mother every Saturday morning when I used to call her on the phone on my morning walk. I sometimes call my brother or just hold her in my prayer during that time. Peter was telling me a few weeks ago about how he honors his father as he takes his sons fishing up in the Poconos in the place where his dad took him. I know Nancy honors her father on Sundays out in our memorial garden.

So we may use our stones today in a memorial ritual. As we bring them to the communion rail today, we may place them there as a monument to God’s grace, God’s love which we know is more powerful than death. As our loved ones have crossed over into the mystery on the other side of the river, we continue to celebrate their lives in and among us, and with God as part of the great cloud of witnesses. We break bread even today for them. We may leave the stones as a way of asking God to number them in God’s sling, or we may take the stones with us as a part of our personal memorial to place on a grave, or to hold in our sling.

Dedication of Memorial Gifts

Responsive hymn 3108 I’m Tradin’ My Sorrows