The moments I treasure

“Harry” at the Blessing of the Animals in 2017

Looking back on Sunday

Psalm 8

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

The moments I treasure as a pastor are not the big things: a great worship service, a program that succeeds, a rousing concert or delightful children’s program.   What vibrates sweetly in my heart are the small things: A gesture of compassion and generosity from someone in the parish that you learn about later. Coming to make a visit and finding a mom with a guitar, her two small children, and three of her children’s friends singing to a shut-in. Or arriving at the home of a sickly and self-obsessed woman to find a member of her same age on her knees washing the kitchen floor.

Last Sunday was our commemoration of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals. We hold our service on the front lawn and this year we were short of our usual number of volunteers to help bring out chairs and set up the space for worship. At the Oktoberfest celebration the evening before, I asked a young man if he could help, but he had tickets and was taking his sister to a 49’rs game in the morning. To go get his sister, he couldn’t make worship. Nevertheless he came early on Sunday and helped us set up.

Simple things. It’s in the simple things that goodness shines. It’s in the simple things that all the preaching and teaching seems not to be in vain.

It’s a tough time to be church. All of us are affected when evidence of clergy abuse surfaces or hateful messages are broadcast. All of us are affected when the news talks continually about churches and preachers wedded to Trumpism. The Christian witness to compassion and sacrifice doesn’t resonate when Twitter is alive with rage and outrage. Sunday worship seems a pale form of entertainment to an entertainment culture. And the church’s respect and ties to the faith, prayers and hymns of the ages don’t resonate with a society focused on novelty.

It’s a tough time to be church. And most preachers don’t know how the faith is shaping the daily life of its members. We don’t see bedtime prayers or soup taken to a neighbor. We don’t see acts of courage that stand up against hatefulness. We don’t see acts of compassion to strangers or generosity to those in need. We hope the voice of Christ is echoing through our members’ lives, but we don’t always know. So those moments when we get to see little acts of kindness and generosity are very sweet.

It makes up for the bug that flew up my nose during the blessing of the bread.

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Images: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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One more thing about naming the stars

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Saturday

Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

Just as the notion that God names the stars – the spiritual realities affecting human affairs – is “a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day,” so also every act of kindness, every word of truth, every noble deed, every act of love is also named and known. No mercy is missed, no forgiveness forgotten in the heart of God.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKarte_kl_5.4.2014_ON_(Mittel).jpg By Utz Schmidtko [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

A priestly people

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“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.””

Watching for the Morning of June 18, 2017

Year A

The Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

The First Lesson on Sunday declares that if Israel abides by God’s teaching, they shall be a priestly people. In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends his followers out as heralds and agents of God’s reign. Though the language is different, the substance is the same: a priest mediates the connection between people and God. In the Old Testament this was about the reconciliation (forgiveness) and fellowship with God established through the sacrificial system. In the New Testament it is mediated through allegiance to Christ and participation in the Spirit/reign of God.   In both you are restored to a community bound together in praise and service of God. And in both there is a word spoken that announces the reality of reconciliation and fellowship – a priestly/prophetic word, spoken on God’s behalf, that the sacrifice has been accepted, that reconciliation is at hand, that the hearer now abides in the grace and life of God. “The grace in which we stand”, says Paul in the reading from Romans for Sunday. The debt has been forgiven. Reconciliation has occurred. Peace that has been established. This is our calling. This is our identity. We are a priestly people – or, at least, meant to be a priestly people reconnecting the world with the source and goal of life. Every cup of cold water. Every healing hand. Every kind word. Every confession heard. Every kindness lived.

It is a great honor to be a priestly people. In a world where so much is torn and divided, we have the privilege of joining the realm of heaven with the realm of earth.

Preaching Series: Abram

The narrative of the flood last Sunday set before us the mystery that though the earth is filled with violencebecause of human beings, God suffers for his world and delivers it. But the people that get off the ark are no different than those who got on. And now we will hear how humanity’s rebellion continues in the building of the tower of Babel. But then come the first notes of a new mystery that follows the line of Seth down to Abram. It is a line that seems to dead end with Sarai’s barrenness – but God speaks a strange and wonderful promise that, from the line of Abraham, God will bring blessing to the world.

The Prayer for June 18, 2017

Gracious God,
you bid us pray for laborers to be sent into your harvest,
to a world in need of your healing and life.
Help us to fulfill our calling as intercessors for your world
and bearers of your grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 18, 2017

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” – Brought out of Egypt and now before God at Mt. Sinai, the people hear and accept God’s covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.” – A hymn of praise as the community enters into the temple courts and are summoned to acknowledge and serve God.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8
“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” –
having established that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that God justifies all by faith – by their trust in God’s promise – Paul declares that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 [9-23]
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – The twelve are appointed for the first mission: to be heralds of the dawning reign of God in the towns and villages of Israel. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ten

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Friday

Genesis 18:16-32

“For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

There are so many wonderful lines in the readings for Sunday. This is one of them. In the face of the terrible violence of Sodom and Gomorrah – a violence that will be revealed when the men of the town encircle Lot’s house and demand to have his visitors turned over to them that they might abuse, demean and rape them, a show of their dominance and power in the ancient world. In the face of that community renowned in the ancient world for its arrogance, wealth and power, God declares that if he finds ten “righteous”, ten people who show faithfulness to others, he will not destroy the city.

It’s a powerful indictment of the city that God could not find ten. But, more importantly, it is a powerful declaration of the power of goodness.

It is not hard to catalog the ills of our world. There have been some terrible examples of terroristic violence. Nice. Istanbul. Orlando. Brussels. Paris. Santa Bernardino. Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones, we have all become witnesses of police violence. What these communities have always known is now visible to all. And we have also become witnesses to revenge killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. David Duke feels emboldened by the times to run for senate. The upcoming games in Rio have revealed some of what is being dumped into the seas. Flint reminds us of the terrible consequences of our neglect of the poor. The noble art of governance is reduced to name-calling.

The news coverage tries to “balance” all this distress with an occasional feel-good story of individual triumph or kindness, but those stories don’t offset the litany of woes that begin the hour.

But then comes this simple line: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

Ten good people living ordinary lives is enough to save a city. Ten.

We often feel helpless before the onslaught of the news. But God declares that ten good people is enough. Such is the power of mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, courage, hope. Ten will save a city. Our small acts of kindness are not lost. They are lights in the darkness. Contagious lights. Inextinguishable lights. Lighted by the one who is the light that enlightens all the world, the one who embodied God’s mercy, the one who showed God’s faithfulness, the one who shines like the sun.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHoly_Embers.jpg By Eric Vernier from France (Holy Embers) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doing the good

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Thursday

Galatians 6:1-16

9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

I don’t know why this translation chose “doing what is right” instead of “doing the good”. Yes the word can mean what is right and proper and good, but the phrase “doing what is right” tends to make me think about rules, whereas “doing the good” makes me think about people and relationships. “Doing what is right” is about social and ethical norms. “Doing the good” is about being a gracious and healing presence in the world.

Paul has spent his whole letter arguing against the a definition of righteousness based on the observance of social and legal norms. He has argued fiercely that it is fidelity to the mercy of God and a life governed by the Spirit to which we are called. In this very passage he declares that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  Social customs and laws belong to the tribe of Israel. Fidelity to the God of Mercy and Life belongs to us all.

It’s very important that we not get confused about what God seeks. Even the Mosaic Law is more a collection of examples and precedents for the just and faithful life than a legal code. Legal codes invite us to parse and define them. So we read that we are to love our neighbor and set off on a discussion about who, exactly, falls in that category of neighbor. Are people from the next village neighbor? Are the elite families in Jerusalem neighbor? Are the Romans neighbor? Are the Samaritans neighbor? And we know how Jesus answers this question – or rather steps beyond it. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan and simply asks who showed himself a neighbor.

The translation “doing what is right” is grammatically acceptable – maybe even grammatically proper. But it is theologically misleading. Our responsibility as human beings is not to be right, but to be good.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg  Maximilien Luce [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He sees

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Thursday

Luke 7:36-8:3

44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

Jesus is talking to Simon, but he is turned towards the woman who was washed his feet with her tears. If it is a typical banquet setup where the men are reclining, it means Jesus has turned from leaning on his left side with his legs bent so that the woman is behind him, and rolled onto his back to that he faces her. From that position his back is to Simon. Although he is speaking with Simon, the woman has his full attention. She has his face, his eyes, his heart.

And the question Jesus asks Simon is so simple, “Do you see this woman?” So much hinges on his response.

“Do you see this woman?” Or is she to you just another thing one scurries by on the street? People often avoid the homeless like you would a dog, or a trash fallen from a garbage can. We pass people without seeing. The mind registers a category not a person. A sales clerk. A police office. A waiter. We don’t consider that they are coping with a sick child or an empty house. We don’t consider that they are bearing burdens of shame or sorrow. We don’t consider that even standing there might be painful for them. They are as things to us. It’s why frustrated passengers seem so willing to curse an airline ticket agent. Years ago, on a flight home from college, a flight attendant (a stewardess, then) leaned over to ask a woman in the window seat if she would like something to drink. When the woman didn’t respond, she asked again, a little louder, but the woman continued to look away, as if looking out the window. The man in the aisle seat then spoke up and said, “My wife doesn’t speak with servants.”

“Do you see this woman?” If Simon could see, so much would be different. But he doesn’t see. He doesn’t consider. She is a sinner. An “it” for those who have read Martin Buber. And Jesus must be no prophet or he would not let her touch him. Jesus is an “it”, too, to Simon

But Jesus sees. Jesus turns towards the woman. He receives graciously her signs of gratitude. He sends her on her way in peace.

“Do you see this woman?”  So much depends on our answer to that question.  And so much happens because Jesus sees.

And because he sees us.

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The reference is to Martin Buber’s book, “I And Thou”

For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A125ed-magdalena2bunge2bpies2bde2bjesus.jpg By 125ed-magdalena2bunge2bpies2bde2bjesus [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Keep on

Thursday

Philippians 4:8-9

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait as the apostle Paul

9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I am fine with this verse until you get to the words “in me”. I want to urge all my folks to keep on doing the things they have “learned and received and heard and seen” – the things they have learned about Christ Jesus, the things they have received from the Holy Spirit, the message of grace and life they have heard, the examples of God’s love and mercy they have seen in others and in their own lives. I want all the people of my parish to keep on doing these things.

It’s the phrase “in me” that gets me.

I don’t want to be an example. I am too aware of my frailties and failings. Too often, those who have put themselves forward as examples have turned out to be hypocrites. Hypocrisy is a charge that sticks easily to the church. I don’t want to go with Paul, here. I want to go with John the Baptist who points to Jesus and says, He must increase, but I must decrease.” Or maybe the words of Paul when he writes that he is a world class sinner and unfit to be an apostle.

No, I don’t want to point anyone to myself. I want to point them to Christ. And to saints I have known whose lives were worth emulating: the people I discovered in a neighboring church kitchen turning a dozen loaves of bread into sandwiches to take down to the Cass Corridor – that section in downtown Detroit where everyone warns others not to go. Turns out, they did this every week. They took Jesus at his word when he spoke about feeding the hungry and acts of mercy and kindness. Let me point to them, not to myself.

Or to Jim who would drop anything to go to someone’s aid. He offered to drive me from Detroit to Springfield Illinois when he heard that my daughter had been killed there. Or to Gubby who could always be found washing dishes behind the scenes. Or to the elderly woman I found washing the kitchen floor of one of the most selfish and disagreeable people I have ever me. I learned she brought groceries each week and cleaned M’s kitchen because her husband had been a friend of M’s husband.

These are saints. These are holy men and women. These are living examples of God’s love. But me…I am just a sinner trying to live by grace, trying to stay rooted in God’s love and mercy.

And maybe that’s what Paul means when he says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” I hope so. For I do know that it is there, when we inhabit the realm of grace, when we live in the light of God’s measureless kindness, that the rest of that sentence makes sense – for there the God of peace is with us.

 

Image: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Full of sap

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Date Palm in Egypt

Friday

Psalm 92:12-15

12The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

We have a much different prejudice about the elderly. And, perhaps, they themselves think they no longer have an obligation to live charitably and fruitfully.

There was a wonderful, elderly Norwegian woman at my parish in Detroit everyone called Tanta Hanna.   She was not so much the sweet, kind grandmother as a sharp, delightful character. She announced at a circle meeting – in theory a women’s group for Bible study and service, but long since become a monthly meeting of friends – elderly white women in a congregation whose neighborhood had long since become poor and black – she announced, after a remark that was more blunt than polite conversation usually permitted – announced, “I’m 90 now and can say whatever I want.” The rest of the group laughed and said “Tanta, you’ve always said whatever you wanted!”

We do seem to have a stereotype in our culture that the elderly are past their prime, no longer able to make a contribution, and are expected to be – and somewhat excused for, or at least dismissed for – being crotchety and bigoted.

It is not so in the scripture: In old age they still produce fruit.”

I have known and continue to know people like this, people who, late in life, are still rich with the fruits of the Spirit. Long ago there was an elderly woman in a nursing home I went to see whenever I felt discouraged. She had everything about which to complain, but was a wondrous, grace-filled presence. I can still see the nursing center in my mind. The fact that I can picture the front of the building and the interior path to her room, reminds me of how great an impact she continued to have on the world around her.

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I knew another gentleman.  The clergy in the inner city tended to laugh at him. He was, in a way, comical. He was hospitalized at the end of his life for some period of time – and the nurses all came to his funeral. He had filled that hospital wing with joy. Visitors ended up singing hymns. No one on the floor escaped his kindness, joy or faith.

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I have heard people say “I did my time,” referring to their work in the life of the congregation, “Now it’s time for someone else to do the work.” I understand. But the remark often makes it sound like the work of a congregation was an obligation and a burden, and now it is their time to be served rather than serve. “It shall not be so among you.”

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I also know people who, in their old age, are still growing and learning and bearing rich and abundant fruit. I pray I may be one of them.

Photo: By B. Simpson Cairocamels (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons