Monday, November 30, 2009

Sermon -- Advent 1 & The Second Coming

my last sermon at Lostine Presbyterian! enjoy:

TEXTS Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

I’ll bet that over half of the sermons all around the world probably begins with the same words today: What is Advent? The word “advent” means “coming” and it is the name for the four weeks before Christmas, during which we prepare ourselves. We reflect on what it means that God came to earth in Jesus, and we also reflect on the promised second coming of Christ. And there we have it – I’ve said it – the phrase of the day is “the second coming,” so prepare for controversy!
It is kind of inescapable, given the text provided by the lectionary. The prophecy is “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory!” Christians have wondered about this for centuries, and it is actually a rather scary promise. It is not one you tell your kids as you tuck them in at night… we don’t say, “go to sleep, dearie, don’t worry about anything, because Jesus is coming very soon, with tsunamis and earthquakes and a big cloud of glory.” Imagine the nightmares they could have! But unfortunately a lot of Christians do use words like these to terrify people into obedience; and this definitely gives us a bad reputation. For example, take a Halloween phenomenon, which started in Texas in Assembly of God youth groups… it’s called “hell house,” and it is a haunted house taken to the extreme: real-life horrors like suicide and school shootings are acted out in your presence, and at the end of your trip through the house you are offered a chance to say “yes” to jesus. The hope is that your trip through the house will have scared you enough to make you commit your life to Christ. This kind of attempt to quite literally “scare the hell out of them” is just one thing that gives Christianity a bad name.
But we often wonder about the end of the world. You could fill many bookshelves with the volumes that ask when will it happen… is it coming in 2012? Those who think it is in 2012 may have their evidence to show for it, but we might do well to remember how many people thought the world would come to an end in 2000 – remember y2k? And let’s look back in history:
in 1975 the Jehovah’s witnesses forcasted
. In 1948 the creation of the nation of Israel was seen as a sign.
In 1910 Haley’s Comet was as a sign that the world would end within a year.
In 1843, William Miller and his whole group of “millerites” predicted the end, The year 1666 was a real ringer, not only because of the numbers, but as the Black Plague hit Europe, and the Great Fire of London struck.
How far shall I go back? The year 999 was also great for speculation.
We have been guessing for a long, long time.
So, you may be surprised, but I’m not going to preach the “get your crash helmets on” sermon today. I’m not going to try to scare the devil out of you, or prove to you that the signs are right and the end is near. What I want to talk about is not when, or where, or how scary it will be, but instead to emphasize the importance of trusting that Christ will come again in some way at some time.
See the thing is, Christianity would be a little easier if we didn’t believe in any kind of second coming. These are difficult words to imagine Jesus saying. But what is even more difficult is to deal with the fact that the promised coming still has not come. Jesus’ words included these: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” He would have said those in the year 33 AD. But by the time Luke wrote the gospel down, most scholars believe it was at least the year 70 AD So Luke wrote the gospel nearly 40 years later… The people who were adults when Jesus said those words were at LEAST elderly folks by that time, and I do believe that some of them would have died. It seems to me that this verse, about the generation not passing away, really should have been a tremendous scandal to the Christians! And if I were Luke, writing this gospel, I might have just left that one comment OUT, and made things easier for future Christians. But instead of leaving the difficult stuff out, he wrote it right in… and for generations, for centuries, scribes have been copying it over and over again, wondering what exactly Jesus meant, or maybe whether Jesus was wrong. Because by now many generations have passed away, and “all things” have not yet been accomplished. It is hard to trust Jesus’ prediction.

Now other people have had the same kinds of difficulty – we are not the only ones who have ever found it hard to trust God’s statements about the future. And we can even find some examples in the Bible…
There is a great story about the prophet Jeremiah trusting God. Here’s what happened: God told Jeremiah to go out and buy a field in what was then a war-torn land. Jeremiah did so, very obediently, paid the money, wrote up the deed, and displayed it before the gathered people, but then he went home and said, “hey God, what was that supposed to mean? Why would you ask me to waste seventeen shekels of silver on a field that I will clearly be unable to use, since it is on the brink of a violent invasion? What use is it to me, or even to you, God? I look like a fool, standing up in public and making my down payment on something that has no future.” But he put his trust in God’s instructions – he put his money into it too – and he waited for God’s answer. God, I’ll buy this field, but you’d better make it worth something.

I had the same reaction to our Old Testament lesson. Because there were promises made in that lesson, that didn’t seem likely to be fulfilled… listen for a bit. This is Jeremiah 33, and I’m going to go one verse past what Joyce read.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. AND thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the (levitical priests) shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.
So here is God’s future promise: that a king would come up, and would establish an ever-lasting dynasty of peace, with everlasting sacrifices in the temple. And Jeremiah probably believed this. But as the next few generations passed, and kept passing, and the people of Judah were still holding onto that promise, they probably started wondering. Hey God! Where is our promised Savior?? We believed this promise, but you’d better make it worth something.

And it is the same kind of question I have about Jesus’ words about the Second Coming: God, you promised it, so where is it now? -- And, God, are you really expecting us to buy this field – to lay our money down, stand up in public, and declare “I believe in this future, this future that shows no signs yet of being nearer now than it was in the year 1666?”
Jeremiah did buy his field, (and although he himself died in exile,) there WAS again peace on the land. His deed of property DID eventually turn out to be worth more than the parchment it was written on – although it had seemed so unlikely at the time of purchase. It was his statement of faith.
The people of Judah bought their field – they declared their statement of faith in the promise of a future King. They waited for centuries, kept their hope up, and kept looking for a descendant of David to climb back on the throne that had been destroyed. There were many hopefuls that were not successful. And then Jesus came… he came as a very unexpected answer to this promise; he did not wield a sword, or build a palace, or make war like other kings. He was indeed the promised Savior, but most people did not recognize him.
And what about us? We have waited many generations, centuries, millenia now, and have declared that we believe Christ will come again. We say it in the Apostle’s Creed. We have, so to speak, purchased the deed but I know that some of us are slightly embarrassed to have it in our possession and may be holding it behind our backs… yeah, I have this thing… yeah, I basically believe it… but no, I couldn’t explain it to you, and that’s why I’d rather we not talk about it.

I’m going to encourage us all to take it out from behind our backs and look at it, because I think believing in the Second Coming of Christ is an important part of the Christian faith. I’ve got three main reasons for this.
The first reason is: alertness. Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” If something is coming unexpectedly, then we stay awake for it. We have something to live for, and a reason to keep ourselves from getting weighed down by our burdens. I’m not saying “Jesus is coming – look busy!” because we know how long that will keep us going. But when we know that someone is checking on us, we sit up straighter, we are able to focus better, and we check ourselves with our own morals, making sure that we are on the right track. Alertness helps us to do our best and to be accountable.

The second reason is: the mystery of wondering about it. The Bible, in different places, talks about the clouds of glory, and about a slaughtered lamb, and about horsemen and all kinds of things. We wonder about it: what will it really look like? Some people may wonder: did Christ already come, and we missed him? Others may say, “he’s coming already! Not with a great show of lightning, because he’s going to come to the world IN US, through Christ being in our hearts.” There is Biblical basis to believe different things like this. With all these different accounts in play, we may not know how, when, or what this will look like. Having the right answer is not the important thing here – in fact, I’d say acknowledging that we might NOT have the right answer is ITSELF the important thing. We have to stay humble and open in the face of the mystery. We should remember too that at Jesus’ time, people had specific expectations about what the messiah would be, and that he surprised them all. It is important to be open to new interpretations, and be willing to be surprised by God’s creative answer to the promise.

The third reason is that we ought to have a goal outside of ourselves. It is tempting for Christians, especially in such a strong congregation as this, to believe that what God wants of us is to keep things going… to keep the lights on, keep the anthems and the sermons coming every week, maintain our cherished traditions, and make sure what we provide for our grandchildren what our grandparents provided for us. This is all well and good, EXCEPT for when it becomes our primary aim. Then it becomes a false idol. When we feel so comfortable and secure in our church home, we may forget that it is only a temporary home, and that it is not eternal, and as Rick Warren so kindly hammers into us on just about every page of The Purpose-Driven Life, that it really is “not about us.” This is when we need Christ to interrupt us! To come knocking at the door! To burst into our lives and show us that there are far better things in store. We of course may be doing God’s work in our own corner of the world, but God’s plan is for the complete redemption of all creation. Here’s how I look at it:
Christ came and began the work of the kingdom of God,
and we the church, the church universal,
have to continue that work, and advance it,
but Christ will return to complete it.
That work is: spreading the good news of God’s mercy and God’s justice across the world, telling it in words that make sense to all peoples who have not heard it, and building up the Kingdom of God so that it is real and strong. Our work is not just to protect what we have; we are working for a much bigger future goal, and sometimes it takes a divine wake-up call to get us looking farther than our own walls.
It is easy for me to look beyond these walls because I have had to move around so often. I have been in so many different congregations in my life, and trying to stay connected to them – this is both a blessing and a burden. It is particularly a burden right now because I have to move next week, and I don’t want to go! I have loved this time and this work. I love you all so much and you have meant so much to me as you taught me and worked with me for this past year. I will never forget Lostine and my time here with you.
But it is a blessing at the same time, because it helps me to look at the big picture, and I want to invite you to look at that that too. For some of you this is really the only congregation you have ever been a part of. But we the church are part of a much bigger story. The people of God in all times and places are working toward a great future day when the Kingdom of God is AS real on earth as it is in heaven. As I take my exams in seminary, and as you gather on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings to study, we are all working for greater understanding of God’s word. As I pray in some other congregation, and you here, we are all trying to open ourselves to God’s work within each one of us. As I take care of orphans in Uganda, and as you feed the hungry of Wallowa county, we are all expressing God’s love in tangible form, and making the Kingdom of God known.
This is my consolation and what gives me hope: that we are all working for a greater future, we have a goal, and that we are together in that, no matter our physical location. I encourage you to hold fast to that, and to pray for the world. As I often lead in my prayers, we start – family, closest, congregation, county, state, nation, world, church universal, the will of God.
Keep opening your minds to see the big picture with me. And trust that we are all part of the same work in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Insatiable is Not Sustainable

"Black Friday," here we are. Although I am gladdened by generosity to others, and cool window displays (like the one that Joie de Vivre is going to post pictures of, ahem ahem), and Christmas Carols, I am saddened by the glut of overconsumption we experience in our culture, and yes, I'm calling it for what it is. It isn't a culture of a little too much of a good thing -- it's a culture firmly stuck in overdrive.
I'm a big fan of natural products, eco-friendly anythings, replacing the polyester in our lives with some nice bamboo... but still. When we go on eco-kicks, we tend to just replace everything we have too much of, so too much polyester becomes too much bamboo. Down in California (on my recent vacation) I saw an enormous moving van -- I'm not talking a U-Haul size, I'm talking a Major Truck -- advertising "eco-friendly moving company" on the sides. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, because we have now acquired so much eco-friendly furniture that we can no longer fit it in a regular sized biodeisel-powered moving van. Okay, maybe it wasn't quite an 18-wheeler, but it was HUGE. That is a frikking lot of bamboo. Or am I being judgmental to suggest that a truly eco-friendly denizen of this earth should be able to restrict themselves long enough to fit their belongings in a smaller compartment?

In a New Yorker review of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals," as a response to the accusation that vegetarians are sentimentalist about their fuzzy creatures, the quote is printed:

Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?

I think this is spot-on, not just because I "passed" on a very delicious-smelling turkey last night, but because it seems that our moods and whims have come to rule us. We can do all we want to channel our desires into healthier products (bamboo vs polyester) but unless we learn to say "no" to some desires we will never be free of the endless cycle of production, consumption, disposal, and the desperate attempt to cover our own tracks.

For the third year in a row, my family is giving one another cards this Christmas instead of gifts. I know that not everyone's sisters are the brilliant poets that mine are, but I have cherished these cards as much as I would any tangible gift. I commend the practice, and close with the words from St. Suess:
Maybe Christmas, perhaps,
doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps,
means a little bit more.

And for more fantastic slogans of the like, check out

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leaving -- Part III

Any guesses on how many blogs I'll have to write on "leaving" ? This will be a long goodbye. I have never really "done" goodbyes - they usually sneak up behind me, pounce, and sink their claws in at midnight or 2 AM before I have to depart (and nothing is ever packed yet!). Good thing this church really knows how to say goodbye right. They are teaching me.

Today at church I had given the children's sermon, gathered up the little ones, and announced that we would go downstairs for our lesson, when behind me a voice said "Actually Talitha, we need you up here for one other thing." I turned back and the head of our Prayer Shawl ministry was standing with two lay leaders at the front of the church. I herded the children back up, sat down obediently, and received a beautiful prayer shawl. By "prayer shawl" we do not mean that I ought to use it when I pray (although I'm sure the option is open), but that the knitter knit a prayer into each loop and hook. It was laid on my shoulders, and hands were laid on by the whole congregation. I sat there holding out my hands. Five tiny sets of children fingers piled on my left hand, and Junebug's rough and paint-splattered hand took my right, and I took a deep breath as the entire church piled prayers on my shoulders.
Fifteen more days in Lostine; how can I treasure this time enough? I don't even want to sleep.
Then again that may be because my previous patterns of leaving places have triggered me to think - "i'm leaving? when? whoa, girl, better stay up packing!"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ode to the Contra

Sometime back in February I saw a sign for a "community dance -- squares, contras, waltzes" and decided to attend. I remember feeling awkward and nervous as I met new people, and I had been in the county only three weeks or so. But once we started dancing the nervousness yielded to the happiness of doing folk dances I knew perfectly well, and I met a few of my first non-church friends. As the evening went on I offered to sit in on one tune so the other bassist could dance.
Here I am, now, two weeks from the end of my time here. We had a dance tonight, and my position in it was significantly different from that first dance. Tonight I had organized the band, borrowed and set up the sound system; I called 80% of the dances, played 30% of the bass lines, and locked up afterward. We had upwards of 30 dancers, nearly a dozen musicians (despite everyone's earlier insistence that they could not come!), and a rocking good time.
I will eternally be grateful to the Wallowa County community dance group, for they welcomed me, invited me to try calling, challenged me to do more, and finally just gave me a push and said "you can do it." I admire them for running such a truly wonderful dance (nearly monthly, and always with live music) and keeping it populated by so many young people -- in such a small rural county! They are talented, committed and unabashedly FUN people.

I am also grateful for the gift my parents gave me, by rooting me in folk dance. Whenever someone asks how I came by so much dancing knowledge, I explain the scenario: imagine me at 9 months old in a car seat at a folk dance, plopped down underneath the piano, as my mom plays the pedals with one foot and rocks my seat with the other. The music and dance is in my blood! And this has given me an "in" in so many places... when I went off to college I already knew someone in the area (the ladies on the morris team, which I joined, of course)... when I studied in Prague I found respite from the challenges of conversing in Czech, by Scottish Country Dancing which needed few words... I am grateful for being part of the dance community. The folk world is a blessedly small one: tonight a visiting musician from LaGrande and I compared pasts, and discovered that many years back (and in different years) we both were taught how to morris dance by the same person. Beat that for non-biological family connections!

Some days I have to rack my brains to come up with a gratitude list.
Tonight there is no such problem.
Thank you for dancing!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Anti-lectionary rant

I had not been using the lectionary much at all this year, excepting personal prayer. Lostine is in the practice of doing book studies instead, taking a few weeks or months to work through one book of the Bible bit by bit.
But we're using it for Advent, so I'd better get ready...
and WOW
what a horrible set of verses I have to preach on.
And I call them horrible because the first thing that comes to mind is "but that isn't true!"
Jeremiah 33:14-16 is all well and good, but I can't keep from going on, to 33:17-18, namely, the promise that David will have an everlasting dynasty sitting on the throne, and that the temple will have an everlasting succession of priests making perpetual sacrifices forever and ever amen. And, um, that didn't happen.
The same problem again in Luke 21:32 ..."Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." But a generation DID pass away, and new things are STILL taking place. Hello? an interesting promise, clearly unfulfilled. Are you scandalized by this??? I'm scandalized!!!
Now I probably will do a bunch more research -- this sermon is more than a week away, of course -- and in my sermon will narrate the struggles I tracked, through context and the history of interpretation, to arrive at a nice conclusion about how these verses are not only true (in their own way) but helpful. Fight with the context, resolve the issue, then tell the story... that's how I preach. This is easier when we are in book studies or theme units, because you tell the same story about historical context every week, and by the time you get to the middle of the minor prophets, everyone knows what the theme of "exile" means to the Hebrew children -- so you can abbreviate. When you get four unrelated texts, as in the lectionary, that's a lot of context to fill in just one sermon.
But I wonder whether the "people in the pews" -- not just in Lostine but in any future parishes too - want to wrestle with these enormous Biblical scandals with me. Whether week after week of "can you believe the Bible says this???" is a healthy diet, or whether I should mix in some blander fare such as the emotional take: "well how would you feel if Jesus told you the Kingdom was near," and the poetic take, "have you ever seen a fig tree sprout beautiful little green leaves..." and of course the old preachers' standby, the Dictionary Sermon: "as we all know, a branch is a piece of a tree. But you don't know what I know which is that in Hebrew, "branch" actually also means _____ (insert preferred theological concept here)..."
But I really can't find it in me to abuse our Holy Word like that.
And this is why I imagine I may end up in the lecture hall rather than in the pulpit all the time. I'm not promising, just guessing where this line of reasoning may take me...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Leaving - part II

Well, that was very a well-thought-through theological reflection, wasn't it?
On the other hand: and straight from the gut:
I am going to miss this place something serious... these mountains, this land, this church, and all these people. It really hasn't quite hit me. Tears in a parishioner's eyes this morning, and public acknowledgments both before and after our final Amahl performance tonight, and a couple more casual acquaintances saying "I guess I won't see you before you leave," and when is it really going to make sense that I am leaving this amazing place and people? Nothing in me is ready for it. It may end up being one of those brace-for-impact crash leavings.

twenty three more days, and I fly the nest on little snow-tired suburu wings.

In sung form:

David LaMotte's Farewell Show at The Grey Eagle - "Song For You" (11.29.08) 5/5 at Listal
For Pete's sake don't listen to him chat for 4 minutes. The song starts around 4:15. David LaMotte, "Song For You"

On Leaving

Word has been getting around that I am leaving soon. Two parishioners have taken off on month-long vacations and said their goodbyes to me already. A preteen at church wrapped her arms around me recently and said authoritatively “you can’t go.” And I have it on good word that when they found out about my impending departure the little neighbor kids cried. (“Real tears,” the mother said, as if to underline the injury I’d given to their young senses of permanence).
This is all too familiar for me. I have been in many short-term ministry places, from the house church in Prague where I studied abroad, to my 5-month and 3-month stints in Uganda, to counseling at summer camp which is, by definition, a temporary community. There are many places where I’ve been invited to “stay;” to make my temporary home a permanent one. But I have kept moving, drawn forward by the next adventure or “call.” And while I accept that God has called me to several and varied places, I wonder if it is an intrinsic part of God’s call that I must keep moving like this, or whether at some point I will actually get to “stay.”
There is, of course, a missiological model for my transitory ministry. The Apostle Paul was on the road for many years, and had close ties to churches in many cities. Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher, and according to Matthew his last commission to the disciples started with “Go” (Mt 28:19). Christians have been on the move ever since, seeking “unreached peoples,” going on crusades, making pilgrimages, and sometimes even intentionally adopting the lifestyle of uprooted poverty.
The Presbyterian church is not as uproot-happy as, say, the United Methodists, who typically relocate their pastors every three or four years. A PC(USA) pastor who finds a good fit in a church may stay for decades, if everyone is happy with the arrangement. Still there are many elements of temporary ministry in our current setup, from the 1-year YAV program, to 1-year internships, to the temporary and rapidly shifting community that is a seminary. Demographically speaking, Americans move around more than the people of most other nations do; but Christian leaders seem to move a lot more than even that. Is this according to God’s call, or is it a convention we invented for ourselves?
What I am specifically uncomfortable with is the division of space and time between the pastor and the parish. We have on the one hand a population of solid Christian non-pastoral leaders who will stay with the congregation, maintain it, minister and be ministered to in it, and hear a call to make it their spiritual home in the name of God. In Lostine many of these people will belong to the same church for their entire life. On the other hand is the pastor, who belongs to a certain group either privileged or cursed (depending on your attitude) with frequent Uprootings and Sendings, who consider this moveability to be sanctified by the call of the same God.
I appreciate the call to uproot, both because of the example of the early Christians and because it reminds us well that nowhere on this earth can be our true home. Relocation is a spiritual practice that continually challenges me to travel light – quite literally to be sure all my worldly possessions fit in a station wagon – and to keep free of idolizing the non-essentials. Being a stranger in a new place is also a spiritual discipline which opens our minds and humbles us. Yet I feel that most of the other Christians in the congregation do not identify with these spiritual practices much if at all, and I am uncomfortable with this division.
One question is about the relative worths of doing maintenance work vs. new development. My clear bias is toward development, which lends itself to an outsider-led, short-term model. I have not a little scorn for doing long-term maintenance work myself, because I have seen several pastors spending much of their energy on propping up near-dead congregations. When a project at Lostine has come to rest entirely on my shoulders for maintenance, I tend to panic at its non-sustainability. I hope and pray that my bias against doing maintenance will not lead me to declare myself “finished” with a congregation prematurely, or to jump ahead of God’s call. Gentle maintenance must surely have a place in a healthy congregation too, and provide a reason for a pastor to stay in a call for more than a few years.
The counter-question, however, is whether new development work, led by outsiders and done on a short-term basis, ought to be reserved for pastors, or whether other folks with non-preaching inclinations ought to also be “called” out of their home congregation to bring their skills and energy to help another congregation. As a church that confesses the priesthood of all believers, saying that the only difference between the elders and pastors is whether they “rule” or “teach,” I wonder how we could learn to share the burden and blessing of relocation more evenly, but I do not have an answer to this.
A Biblical comparison may shed light on this question. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and Paul always traveled with companions. With the exception of married clergy couples (two ordained persons who often take a job that one person could do), this is scarcely the model in the church today. The lone-wolf model has personal implications in terms of burnout, but worse implications for the shared nature of our Christian vocation. The question arises, “is Talitha called to go to Uganda” but a better question would be, as a community, “are we called to send people to Uganda,” and if Talitha is particularly willing to lead this venture, “whom else can we send with her?” I wonder if an approach more in this line would share the uprootings more equally between those with theological gifts and training, and those with other giftings. It would require much more rigorously interdependent communities, and would hopefully bring those communities into closer touch with one another.
The clergy/lay divide is one of the aspects of “church” as we know it that frustrates me most. During my time in Lostine I have felt in many cases that the work is wonderfully and equally shared. Pastor Steve is not the center of the church, and people joyfully step up to do their part. So now my awareness is shifting; Lostine is a great example of the church as it could be, but I am going back out into the great institutional maze of “the church as it is,” which sets me apart as a leader and gives me the privilege and burden of relocating.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Clerical Collars

yes those beautiful things: aka dog collars.

Invented, according to wikipedia, in 1827. A mere extension of the practice, since 1215, of requiring clergy to be specially dressed while out in public, for the purposes of easily identifying them.
Are there rules about who gets to wear them? I know, everyone's just jostling in line to get one of these stylish things around their necks... well the Catholics clearly have rules -- priests, bishops, deacons, seminarians under certain circumstances and approvals. Protestants are a little more relaxed, and most of us allow women into the club. But nevermind those conventions. I looked it up in the PC(USA) Directory For Worship - the darn things aren't even mentioned once.

But there is one cardinal rule, as passed down in pastorly coffee klatches: "never wear one in an airport." Catholic or no, you will hear confession all day long. You will have no private space or time. Everyone will want to tell you the reasons why they do or do not attend church, or what denomination is better than another.

I am CONSIDERING a grievous infraction of that particular rule. Between a CPM meeting in December and my appointment to appear before Presbytery in January to be upgraded to Candidacy (assuming I don't get caught in the heresy-filter before then), I plan to do little other than ride the train around seeing friends. I'm talking major train journeys here... across the nation several times, courtesy of Amtrak's "USA Rail" month-long pass. And the idea is to make this into an exercise in ministry. Wear the collar, sit in the cafe car, drink tea and look out the window, see who wants to talk.
This exercise might
(A) cut down on the skeevy guys hitting on me
(B) create great confusion as to my identity (keep in mind that I still manage to look around 19 years old) (plus, does anyone really know what "seminarian" means?)
(C) make me very tired of talking to people
(D) be an amazing, blog-worthy adventure in Meeting America

What do you think?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sermon -- peace, fruit, st. Augustine and the Holy Spirit.

I should try harder to come up with titles for my sermons.... or to focus on ONE thing not FOUR. In any case, here it is:

Galatians 5:16-26
secondary passage: Isaiah 32:11-18

I want to start off with my honest opinion on this text: I’ve had some discomfort with it. Today is a Sunday we are supposed to be celebrating Christian Peacemaking efforts, and we get a text that sounds a lot like an inner war. It says: “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you intend to do.” And what this seems to tell us is that that there is a war within our own selves, between one’s physical body and one’s personal spirit, or soul – between good and bad within us. And this passage from Paul could certainly be used to bolster that idea, that we have a war inside, and we have to get on the right side: to overcome our physical nature and make our higher spiritual nature conquer it. Ra, ra, ra, fight fight fight!
This may sound true. Many if not all of us sometimes experience life as an internal struggle, where part of us wants to do something, and part of us wants to do something else, and we end up doing something we didn’t really want to do at all. We know what it feels like to try to conquer and overcome part of our own self.
But thinking about the soul and the body this way just leads us down a very dangerous road. It has brought some people to believe: “I should fast, I should starve my body in order to conquer it.”
Some people think: “I should deny all my human desires, and punish myself for even having these desires. I shouldn’t want anything.” It leads to the bad line of thinking, going back all the way to good old St. Augustine, that “sex is bad,” and even that “bodies are bad,” because they tempt us with physical desires. In this modern world that line of thinking may be foreign to you, so to get us in touch with it I will read an excerpt from St Augustine’s confessions: in this particular section he talks about the problem of food, but rest assured that he writes exhaustively about the temptations of ALL of the five senses. Read…
"For hunger and thirst are in some sort pains; they consume and destroy like unto a fever, unless the medicine of nourishment relieve us. This much hast Thou taught me, that I should bring myself to take food as medicine. But during the time that I am passing from the uneasiness of want to the calmness of satiety, even in the very passage doth that snare of concupiscence lie in wait for me. For the passage itself is pleasure, nor is there any other way of passing thither, whither necessity compels us to pass. And whereas health is the reason of eating and drinking, there joineth itself as an hand-maid a perilous delight, which mostly tries to precede it, in order that I may do for her sake what I say I do, or desire to do, for health’s sake. (Confessions X,31)

Augustine was tormented by trying to put his body into subjection.

Do you see the problem, then? Paul’s words about the flesh and the spirit could really be taken down a very wrong road, blaming all our problems on our bodies and our natural desires, and imagining that salvation would be to be set free from our bodies and our desires. Now it’s true that our natural desires do take us into this recklessly divisive place where we hurt each other… because – they do. As Steve has said on occasion, “do they teach a class, Selfishness 101? No, it comes naturally.” But here’s another problem. Guess what… the more refined and spiritual parts of ourselves – our brain, our heart – aren’t always that much better. Somebody could sell all their possessions, move out into the mountains and live a very strict life of simplicity – praying all the time, no drinking, no dancing, no fancy food, no creature comforts – a very focused very spiritual life – and you might say that their spirit or at least their brain is what is controlling their life. They are clearly not living according to the “desires of the flesh,” but this person might still be very unhappy, judging others, angry and resentful, and clothing these angry thoughts in religious words about how they are on God’s side, and everyone else is wrong. Many religious people – monks, nuns, priests – through the ages have come to realize that simply denying our desires does not remove our problems.
So I struggled with this text for a while. A lot of the books I read about it seemed to say that yes, Paul thought there was a war within us, where our bodies were bad, and our souls were good, and we should pay attention to our souls and disregard our bodies, that’s the moral of the story, body vs soul, take it or leave it – I’d rather leave it, because that’s not how I experience life. If it weren't Scripture I would just leave it. It doesn’t make sense to me. My heart is just as bad as my body, if not worse.
And the turning point in my understanding was so minor it’s barely even worth talking about. This is NOT an exciting scholarly breakthrough at all… no Greek or Hebrew was involved... it’s not even a change of a word, or a letter or a single punctuation mark. The turning point for me was when I noticed the capital S on the word Spirit. I don’t know how it is written in your Bibles, but I found a capital S in mine, and I am going to propose that in this section we really HAVE to read the word “spirit” with a CAPITAL S. It is not my spirit or my soul which is opposed to my flesh, it is The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, it is God’s own self, that last 1/3 of the trinity.
If that is true, then there is not a war between MY body and MY spirit – it is the contrast between me and God. It’s not “my good side” versus “my bad side,” it’s all of me – body, mind, spirit, good and bad – vs “the Holy Spirit living in me.” Yes, there still is fighting within my own self. But even the “good side” of me is not “good” enough to win that fight – because I am human and flawed. Paul really wants us to contrast our whole identity, as we used to know it, to our new identity as Christians who have the Holy Spirit living in them.
The good news here is that even though there may be a war going on within us, we do not have to fight that war. We are not out to conquer our own, old, natural selves, our lustful bodies that cause us so much sin and suffering – we let The Holy Spirit do that work. The Holy Spirit is what can lead us away from the bad and toward the good.
I guess we need to stop here and talk about the Holy Spirit a bit, which is not something we do very often. Just as a frame of reference, there are 591 hymns in the red hymnal. The hymnal has about 50 hymns about God the Father, 120 about Jesus Christ, do you want to guess how many are specifically about the Holy Ghost?
there are twelve. That’s about 2%.

In comparison to Jesus, who lived his life on earth, and had specific things written about him… the Holy Spirit is, well, vague. It’s hard to get in touch with it. You can’t really define the spirit, or put your finger on it. But I believe the Holy Spirit is something we all experience, from within, in our own particular way. Some people may say that the Holy Spirit was the voice inside that led them to turn their lives around toward God. Some people say that the Holy Spirit shows them how to understand Scripture. We also know that the Holy Spirit prays within us, especially when we do not know how to pray.
I believe ALL of us, whether we know it or not, have the Holy Spirit living within us. It is a promise that Jesus made to us – that the Holy Spirit would be with us forever.

And one way we can tell the Holy Spirit is with us is quite similar to the way I (a city girl) would tell one tree from another. I’m sure some of you (who grew up in the country!) can tell by looking at a tree, what kind it would be – but I, lacking this wisdom, just wait and see what falls off its branches. When the Bible talks about fruit, this is one of the meanings it has. So when Paul says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc.” he is telling us that these things indicate the Spirit is within us. The fruit that the Spirit produces in us is the “proof of the pudding,” so to speak, the final say. Evidence that the Spirit is there.

And another meaning of “fruit” is what we heard from the Old Testament Lesson Joyce read to us: it is a blessing from God. Joyce read from Isaiah about an episode in which God threatened a punishment of drought, and famine – UNTIL, Isaiah said, “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field becomes a forest.” He said “the fruit of righteousness will be peace,” and he’s talking about the blessing that only God can give, expressed in this case through nature’s abundance toward us. God’s blessing is fruitful fields, justice, peace.
So the fruit of the Spirit can mean “the proof that the Spirit is there,” or it can mean “God’s blessing through the Spirit,” but there’s one more meaning that “fruit” can have. And this comes from contrasting it to the “works of the flesh.” In the two original lists the “works of the flesh” are compared to “the fruit of the Spirit.” And the “works” are all actions, things someone could DO. The “fruit of the Spirit,” however, are not actions- they are states, the results of the Spirit’s presence within us. Works, on the one hand, take, well, labor and effort. When Paul talks about the works of the flesh, like quarreling, factions, sorcery… you could imagine this effort and agitation working really hard to produce these harmful actions. Fruit on the other hand certainly does take some effort on the part of the tree, but you never see a tree sweating. From our view it is effortless, natural, abundant. I’m thinking back a few weeks ago when every fruit tree in this county seemed to suddenly produce at once. Apples, pears, and plums were falling off the trees, rotting on the ground. Whenever I made a call to visit someone, I’d get asked “would you like a bag of apples?” “can I give you a few boxes of plums?” “how about some peppers?” I would go home loaded down with everyone’s harvesttime generosity. The gifts of the Spirit are like that – “can I give you a few boxes of plums?” “really, I have so much, I want to give you more.” When we follow God’s call, the fruit of the Spirit overflows in our lives. It is like we heard in the anthem: Peace is flowing like a river, flowing out from you and me, flowing out into the desert, to the places where it is so badly needed, setting captives free.

There are many manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit, but today we focus on Peace because of the peacemaking offering. It is a time for us to think about peace, look at the tree that is our own congregation, and ask ourselves if there is fruit dropping off the branches, and if not, what we might do to increase our yield. Peace is not something we should have to force, or fight for – it’s fruit, not work, remember? Peace is not about forcibly compelling people to stop hurting one another; it is about growing together in a way that allows each person to exist without being troubled. As I said with the kids, it’s important to have fairness if you want peace. Children have a great sense of when something is FAIR or not. Whenever we treat someone unfairly we decrease the likelihood of being able to live peaceably together. Are we treating one another fairly – making room for peace?
This is a time for us to look at ourselves as a national and an international community, and ask if we have placed any logs in the stream that ought to be a river of peace. Wars, arguments, and political disagreements clearly divide us from one another and block the flow of peace. But even if there is no active fighting, like I mentioned with the children, if you simply separate the fighting parties, you don’t have peace, you have quiet. The Berlin wall was torn down many years ago, but there’s a wall dividing Jerusalem even now. A wall dividing a city does not make for peace at all. Those kinds of walls block the path of peace, settling just for “quiet” instead.
Sometimes we stick logs in the stream because we just don’t want to look at something. The bulletin insert today talks about a church that paid attention to the migrant farm laborers who were being abused by their employers. But how many churches just looked the other way and chose not to “see” these migrant laborers? Sometimes we try to control where the flow of peace will go, keep it with “my people” not those “other people…” but the congregation featured in the bulletin insert was willing to let the Spirit take them wherever they needed to go.

Veteran’s day is coming up this Wednesday. It is an important time set aside to honor those who have seen the worst of this world, and those who were sent to the places where there really is NO peace. This year I invite you to pray not only for our veterans and for our active soldiers, but to pray for our enemies, and for the whole world. Pray that the peace flowing out of us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may have no obstacles to bringing peace to the whole world. And if you see an obstacle, do what you can to remove it. Jurgen Moltmann said that participating in the kingdom of God is a matter of “seeing the world as if it were put right and then acting as if it were true.” May we see the world put right. May we truly see the river of peace flowing from the Spirit through us and all over the world – and may we act as if that were the only thing that mattered.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On Sermonating and Tweeting

My friend Josh declared on facebook this morning that he was going to be a "Desert Father" for the purposes of writing his sermon, i.e. forcing himself into seclusion to better focus on the word. Inspired by these high ideals but far from the desert, I called myself a Library Mother, gathered my books around me like children, and (gasp) turned off the modem for 5 & 1/2 hours today.

then i had things to say
urges to post
funny comments that needed to be laughed at
i picked up my phone, looked at it
thought about activating Twitter for the phone so I could have access
told the cat my funny comments and got no reaction

Conclusion: living alone is hard enough. I think I will Not Opt for Solitude as a lifelong practice.

annnnd here are all the funny things i wanted to say: because i wrote them down. internet is back on again. If I'd had twitter on the phone, this is what would have summarized my day.


Thank God for a TDNT in the church library, and why didn't I look there before...

excuse me, WHO refers to the Holy Spirit in the masculine?? LONG standing tradition has (it) as a (she).

Has now gone through disorientation and new orientation, with soul vs Spirit, one's spirit vs The Spirit. ψυχη vs πνευμα (nothing to do with he-Spirit vs she-Spirit, i still hang with she-Spirit)

looped a lowry and i'm only halfway done! is a double lowry loop an acceptable sermon form?

TWELVE SONGS about the Holy Spirit in a collection of 589 hymns. TWELVE.

Monday, November 2, 2009

on vacations and face time

Trains, planes, and several automobiles got me around all last week for a vacation of a particularly satisfying type. Growing up in NYC has of course taught me to point and laugh at tourists; therefore I did very little tourism and did not wear a fanny pack. Mostly I looked at scenery, read books, and talked to people. If you don't want the detailed report just skip on down to face time in the last few paragraphs...
I drove to tri-cities, washington, and stayed overnight there with a friendly couple who regularly visit the Lostine Church. I took Amtrak from there to Portland, spending my morning on the train in conversation with a friendly Methodist, and my afternoon browsing delightedly at Powell's bookstore! The whole of Wallowa County libraries could fit in one room of Powell's.
Another train took me down to the Bay Area, and I befriended a beautiful young Buddhist who insisted he only needed about 4 hours of sleep because he meditated so much. He wanted to know whether Jesus was killed because he was an activist or because he was a True Philosopher. He also multi-tasked very well (not my expectation of a Buddhist) on iPod touch, blackberry, and laptop while talking with me.
Back in the Bay Area I helped Noribug babysit (really hard work playing with an adorable baby) and checked in with some past and future housemates. I spent the evening in a Christian Community house in Oakland, eating, talking, cooking, baking. Drove down to San Diego before traffic-time hit, walked on the beach with friends, ate out, had a few beers, talked, talked, talked.
There was an epic wedding the next day, of two lovely young people who have no idea what the future holds for them, who chose Ruth's words to Naomi as their wedding text, and who really know how to throw a good dance party.
I drove to LA and had a sister-day: cut her hair in the backyard, picked up shells on the beach, swam in the Pacific in our clothes. Partied with a high school friend that evening (she dressed as a rainbow, I as a black-and-white optical illusion (cross your eyes and I disappear?)) and took off again in the morning. The flights back to tri-cities were my only antisocial time. Airports are not "my" territory. No one chats, no one smiles, everyone listens to their iPods, the food is nasty. I gritted my teeth and got through the experience remembering what my dear fruitarian boyfriend used to say: "just remember we weren't created to fly like that."
Also, the people were not of my demographic on the plane. The folks sitting across from me on the first plane talked about all the caribbean islands they have been to. My seatmate on the second plane had just gotten back from Hawaii: I judgmentally assume she'd returned from the stereotypical vacation that costs a lot of money, pampers you, gets you to see "the sights."

My vacation was all about "face time." All about looking folks in the eye, saying "I've missed you!" and catching up, dancing with them, teasing them, eating drinking and laughing with them. Other people vacation to see a destination -- I vacation to see people. I am looking forward to celebrating my next semester break (between finishing this internship and starting back up at seminary) with an unlimited Amtrak pass. I am hopping from city to city, investing in my social circle. My friends are my treasure.