Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Memorial Homily

Last night our church hosted a memorial service for the daughter of the former pastor, who died of suicide two months ago.  Her service was eight hours away, where she lived, and we wanted to do something for  former parishoners and colleagues here.
It turned out to be a beautiful and powerful service, a  perfect blend of pastoral leadership (including the mom and her husband as well as four others of us) in music, word, and ritual.  So many gifted people in ministry!  My contribution was to host and to preach a short homily.  Here it is:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s very self will be with them;  God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
~ Revelation 21:1-4
 Many, many years ago, I heard the late Unitarian Universalist pastor Forest Church preach at Chautauqua.  “Why do we have religion?” he asked.  The answer? “Because we live and we die.”
We live and we die, and we have to make sense of those twin realities.
For those of us whose lives have been marked by the suicides of people we cherish, the entanglement of life and death becomes the question that relentlessly stalks our days and claims our nights.
“Choose life!” the Bible tells us.  And most of us do.  All of us here have seen how joyously people choose life when they are married, when a child is born, when labor work is satisfying and fruitful.  And all of us have seen how tenaciously people cling to life even as they gasp their final breaths, how they long for one more day, or even one more minute.
But the choice for life is not always as easy, or natural, or hope-filled, as it might seem.  For some, illness makes of death a release from pain and trauma.  And those of us left behind are called to delve into that dark place in which we can understand, a bit, where our loved ones found themselves, marooned on islands of despair and longing, no longer able to see even a sliver of light at the end of tunnels that curve and swell and twist and turn and finally narrow.
And then – what becomes of those of us who would have done anything, anything at all, to preserve the lives of those precious to us?
We start looking.  Where are the answers?  A  and T and E, I know that over time, you will find your own ways to live with the loss of S, and your own ways to live with the paradox of the stunning beauty of her flower-filled life entertwined as it was with  the searing pain of her illness.  I myself can offer only one small Biblical interpretation which has helped me.  It comes from Mirslav Wolf’s book The End of Memory, in which he suggests that the new heaven and new earth held out as promises to us, the final fulfillment of the kingdom which has already come among us, this new reality in which every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more -- this will be a reality in which even the memory of these hard things will be no more.
It sounds shocking, at first, and kind of horrifying.  Memory no more? We all want to retain our memories, don’t we?  Our memories of all of it, the good and the bad, the joy-filled and the heart-rending -- our memories which remind us of all that has made us who we are today?  We don’t want to lose our them, not even the reminders of tears and mourning.  We cling to our memories as if they are ourselves.  Who we are.  People of compassion because we have suffered, people of determination because we see what might be,
And yet . . .  and yet . . . and yet, what if we are made for more?
What if we are not, as Wolf says, merely “the sum of our past experiences?”  What if we are called to leave our heartaches behind and to receive ourselves as the people we were originally intended to be?  People created for a garden? People created entirely for love?  To remember and to know S, gardener, animal lover, daughter and sister and friend, as most fully and joyously her beloved, precious self?
It’s hard to imagine, tonight, when the loss is so great, that compete transformation lies ahead.    That there will come a time when the heavens and the earth, even the tangible earth on which we live, will be transformed  by the love of God into a mass of extravagant color and growth, into a garden in which brokenness and death will be no more, a garden in which life will flourish without recourse to the past. 
Here, we live and we die.  Sometimes the combination seems harsh beyond comprehension.  But the promise is for life.  Even when our capacity for this existence is crushed by illness and battered by sorrow, the promise remains.  Life for S.  Life for us all.  Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Sermon for Visioning Day

And God said to Noah, "Make yourself an ark.” . . . 
God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. . . . Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
                                                                                                ~ Genesis 6:13a, 14a; 8:1-12, 9:8-1
Do we feel, sometimes, in the church, as if we have been hit by a deluge?  Trampled by a tumultuous storm? Submerged in the depths?
Everything has changed.
Our culture used to be a culture in which, for Christians, church was front and center. Stores closed and it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.
Our city used to be a booming little city in which people all had jobs during the week, whether in industry or at home, and thronged to places of worship on Sunday mornings.
Our congregation used to be a lively home for hundreds of people, where children learned about faith and adults sang in the choir and all enjoyed regular fellowship.
Our numbers used to be high: 1,000 people in worship on Sunday, two services, filled classrooms.
Our funding used to be a given. Run a stewardship campaign and the pledges poured in.   
Did we even ask questions about what and who we are as a church?  Not so much, I think.  Our successes were obvious; our future, assured.  
And then the skies darkened.  The wind blew. And the rains came pouring down. 
The culture changed.  The congregation changed and dwindled in number.  The money began to dry up. 
Does it feel as if a storm has hit?  As if we are rocking back and forth and side to side in a leaky ark?
And yet: God offers us a rainbow, a sign of promise.  God calls us out of the ark and into a new world, a world longing for God’s promises of life and love.

Conversation Question: What does God promise us when the storms come?
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
                                                                                                            ~ Luke 24:1-5
At the core of Christian faith is a great mystery: out of death comes life. After a flood, a rainbow forms in the sky. After all seems lost on a cross, light shines forth from a cave. 
We usually hear this story, about the first day of the week at early dawn, on Easter Sunday itself.  And then we kind of forget about it.  We get busy with our meetings and our meals, with our finances and our food, and we forget.
So let’s remember for a moment.  The heartbroken women at the tomb, as we are heartbroken when we ponder what seems to be the death of the church.  The women perplexed by the rolled-away stone and the vanished body, as we are often perplexed by the church: What happened?  Where did everyone go? The arrival of the unexpected: two men in dazzling clothes, who terrify the women.  How do we respond when it seems that we are confronted by the unexpected?  Are we anxious, afraid?  Terrified, even?
And then the question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen.
We forget, when we are busy with our meetings and our meals and our finances and our food, that we are called to live resurrection lives.  We forget to look for the living not among the dead, but among the living.  We are so accustomed to being hobbled by loss and dismay that we forget that we have been set free by love.
If we feel discouraged and disoriented by changes in our church, then we are right at the heart of Christian transformation.  And at the heart of Christian transformation we are called to peel off the trappings of death and turn toward the light of new life. 
Conversation Question:  What would a resurrected church look like to you?
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
                                                                                                                                ~ John 21:15-18
Do you know what the word ‘mission’ means?
We tend to think of a mission as a plan, or an assignment: something we are supposed to DO. 
But the word mission comes from the Latin mittere: to send.  To be on mission is to be sent.
The Bible is one long story of mission, of sending.  God is always sending people out to serve others.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with narratives of people called and sent.  The prophets, sent to call the people back to God’s justice.  Moses, sent to lead his people to freedom.  Noah, sent to build an ark and prepare for a new world.
And then: God sends Jesus, to love God’s people and to trounce death.  And God and Jesus send their Spirit, to energize the people to proclaim the God news: The Kingdom of God has come among you!  And God keeps sending: the apostle Paul, the other disciples, other people across the centuries, and yes, even: us.
Our final passage today is about sending.  About Jesus sending, starting with Peter.  Jesus is with his disciples on the beach, in one of his many appearances to them after his resurrection. And what does he say? Feed my lambs, Jesus tells Peter.  Tend my sheep; feed my sheep.
Rainbow-covenant life and resurrection life are not only about us.  We are not called to mind only our own business, tend only our own field, mind only our own sheep.  This might mean some radical changes for us as a church.  To Noah, God did not say: Build and ark and then live there. To Peter, a fisherman, Jesus did not say: Build a new warehouse and a shop on the beach, buy a new boat and some new nets, and get back out there to do what you did before.  To us, Jesus is not saying: Save the building, buy some curriculum, and invite people to come in and do with you what you’ve always done.  Jesus says: Feed my sheep.  Get out there and look for my people – that would be all people – and care for them.  Be a people in mission!
Conversation Question: What sort of service to others excites you?
Today we are all about: a storm, an ark, a rainbow ~ a grave and a resurrection ~ and a sending forth.  As we continue with today’s gathering, think about what we have before us:
You all have animals on your table, who represent the storm, and the ark, and hope for the future.  We have a rainbow, which represents God’s promise of new life.  We have an empty cross, which represents resurrection life. And we have a question: how do we respond?   Take your animals home with you and remember to ask: How are we going to feed God’s sheep?  Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Day of Prayer

Despite an early morning warning ticket for a dimmed headlight, I made it to church by 7:00 today to open up for the Day of Prayer in which we are engaging as preparation for our Visioning Day tomorrow.   Folks have signed up for half-hour slots; I'll return at 6:30 for the last one.
Sadly, to my way of thinking, many people elected to spend their half-hour at home.  Of course, several are elderly and/or live at a distance, and I'm glad that we've included them.  But quiet time alone in the sanctuary offers a different way of holding the community in prayer, and a different way of remembering and looking ahead.
Our sanctuary is ringed by a series of banners, and I spent some of my time praying with the words (underlined below) and pictures on the banners.  So, did the next person to come in, our clerk of session ~ without a word being exchanged between us! I wrote my prayer into the journal we've left out for that purpose:

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Orchardist: Book Review

A couple of nights ago my in-person book club met to discuss The Orchardist, a novel by Amanda Coplin.  Two pregnant sisters, on the run from the man who has enslaved them to prostitution, find a home and a short-lived peace with another man, whose Eden-like life brims with the fruit of his flourishing orchards.  Not everyone survives, and the first deaths occur early in the book, after which the remaining lives unfold despite the black cloud under which they begin.  It's a gorgeous, expansive, heart-rending novel.

Well, that's one viewpoint: mine.  We were quite divided.  I found it to be a narrative which immediately pulled me into the lives of its characters and the Central Washington State landscape of the turn of the last century, despite the sparse prose and even sparser conversation of the laconic folk who people the story.   Yes, there is horror and bleakness and heartbreak; it's not a jolly story.  But I saw tremendous courage and resiliency and moments of redemption in the lives of each of the characters, in even the numbed and remote Della, dealt so many devastating hands in her tormented life.

Some of our group liked the book, or at least the writing.  A few were in open revolt.  They want cheerfulness, heroism, and happy endings in their novels,  No one minds a challenge, but the end result needs to convey unambiguous triumph.  I found the characters compelling despite their refusal to be transformed into success stories.

I suppose that our various reactions are even more intriguing than the novel itself.  There's an entire story there.

A Random Friday Five

Random ~ just what I need to overcome a sluggish start to the day!

The questions come from Rev Karla:

1. If you could sneak away anywhere this weekend, right now, all expenses paid,
where would you go and what would you do?
I've been reading the Inspector Gamache mysteries for weeks now, and I have developed an intense hankering to spend some time in Montreal.  So count me as packed and headed to the airport.
2. What is for lunch today? (one of the very first FF I ever played asked this.)
No idea.  Not feeling so good, so maybe nothing at all.
3. Along that first-FF-I-ever-played theme, what are you wearing today?
It's suddenly chilly out there, so . . .  black pants, a given, and a jacket or sweater.
4. Along the Today Theme, what are you doing today?
Mostly, I am putting first or final touches on too many things, but in midafternoon I get to teach my college class on religion and law.  Today we are discussing an article written about a Jesuit priest about his calling to teach law, so I'm looking forward to that conversation.
5. Along the random theme, what is your favorite scent, and why?
I have no sense of smell, so scent is a foreign concept to me.  I am guessing that I would like the smell of wet leaves on the ground in the fall, though.
Enjoy your day!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Church? Small Church Visioning - 3

It's one of those Big Questions, the answers to which people struggle to articulate.
Why get married?  Why have children?  Why become a lawyer, or a farmer?  Why participate in the life of a church congregation?
Over the course of my own life, my own answers have looked something like this:
Because my parents made me (age 9).
Because the nuns made me (13). 
Because it was a boarding school rule (15). Until I learned to circumnavigate it (16).
Because I wanted to be part of a community in service to others (30).
Because I wanted to go to a lecture and concert every week (35).
Because I wanted to know who God was (40). Is.
Because it was one aspect of my growing spiritual life (45).
Because it was the place where my own gifts flowed most freely outward (50).
Because I wanted to be completely alone in a place in which others were praying (55).
Because I wanted to be part of a community of worship (60).
I've served two congregations, and I ask people from time to time why they come to church.  Often, they don't really know.  Or it's a boarding school rule (even though they've never seen an actual boarding school). 
But they seem to want to be together, and to be offered a dose of hope each week.
Maybe that's enough.  Maybe that's everything. Maybe that's all you need to be propelled out into the world for the people God loves.  (All people, that would be.) 
But I think we are going to have to do better in how we understand and articulate and conduct ourselves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What's Size Got to Do With It? Small Church Visioning - 2

About  month ago, I invited a young seminary student to preach for my congregation.  About to begin her third, and final year of her formal education for ministry, she spent the summer as an intern at my nearby home church, the church which I left for ministry. Her great passion is for small churches, little churches like the one in which she grew up, and she and I had had a wonderful, far-ranging conversation back in June. ("What are you doing at my home church?" I grumbled.  500 members, 250 in worship each Sunday, a beautifully maintained and well-used building, and many extraordinary ~ really ~ opportunities, in music and education and outreach and social justice and . . .  and  . . .   . "We need you at the church I serve!")

When she began to preach from our pulpit, and began to articulate her love for small churches, I felt an almost imperceptible wave of . . .  surprise?  discomfort? confusion? what, exactly? . . .  run through the congregation.  Oh! I realized, for the first time: They don't think of themselves as a small church!  They spread themselves out across this huge sanctuary and think of themselves as the church they used to be.

I have since confirmed the truth of that realization with others, leaders both outside and within the church.

Does it make a difference?

Well, church experts commonly distinguish among churches by size.  Size affects relationships within the congregation, expectations of the pastor, programming for the congregation, and outreach to the world. It need not affect vibrancy; your congregation, building, and budget can all be large and your church dead, or they can all be small and your church alive with the Spirit of God.  But those major attributes do, I think, need to match up with one another.
What did Margaret Mead say? "Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world.  In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."
But it's hard for a small group of people to change anything when they are wedded to large burdens, such as a huge building, or a set of expectations no longer viable, or an attachment to past practices inexplicable or of little interest to anyone else.
I'm not unsympathetic to the longings, nor am I unaware of the challenges. They affect us on micro-levels, too.  My husband and I own  a large and beautiful and demanding home, wonderful for a family of five with lots of family and friends of all ages moving in and out ~ but what do we do with it now?  It's difficult and expensive to make changes ~ and not only in financial terms.  How much more challenging for a congregation, even a small congregation, with its many visions and memories and voices!
But we need to be aware of who we are now, and who we are called to be, and what our sizes ~ numbers, building, budget ~ are and are not.  "Know thyself."  First step.