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September 17, 2015, 9:51 AM

Prevenient Grace

Proverbs 1:20-33, CEB
Wisdom shouts in the street;
    in the public square she raises her voice.
21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
    At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:
22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
    mockers hold their mocking dear,
    and fools hate knowledge?
23 You should respond when I correct you.
    Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
    I’ll reveal my words to you.
24 I invited you, but you rejected me;
    I stretched out my hand to you,
    but you paid no attention.
25 You ignored all my advice,
    and you didn’t want me to correct you.
26 So I’ll laugh at your disaster; (Ha!)
    I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you,
27         when terror hits you like a hurricane,
        and your disaster comes in like a tornado,
        when distress and oppression overcome you.
28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer;
    they will seek me, but won’t find me
29         because they hated knowledge
        and didn’t choose the fear of the Lord.
30 They didn’t want my advice;
    they rejected all my corrections.
31 They will eat from the fruit of their way,
    and they’ll be full of their own schemes.
32 The immature will die because they turn away;
    smugness will destroy fools.
33 Those who obey me will dwell securely,
    untroubled by the dread of harm.”                                         
Mark 8:27-38, CEB
27 Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
28 They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”
29 He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” 30 Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives?38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One[b] will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Prevenient Grace
Thursday afternoon our Oneonta District hosted the yearly orientation meeting here in the Embury Room and Fellowship Hall. All district clergy were required to attend, and all lay leaders were invited to come as well. At one point we shared in Holy Communion, forming a large circle around the Fellowship Hall. After we had joined together in the brief liturgy, our district superintendent, Rev. Jan Rowell, and our district lay leader, Anna Buell, served Communion to us, moving from person to person around the circle. Jan encouraged us to lift up songs to join together in singing during this holy time. After all, we are the singing Methodists, it is what we do.
And that is when it got awkward. One person started singing “Sanctuary,” and many knew it and joined in. But then, another person began singing a song I had never heard, and only a few others knew and could sing along, while the rest of us shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably, wondering how there could possibly be a hymn we didn’t know.  And then another unfamiliar song was lifted up, and then another.  We need, across our denominations and generations, to teach our songs to one another. (Our District is offering such an opportunity on September 26 in Cobleskill as I mentioned during announcements)
Finally, someone started singing deeply familiar words, …”Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a” whole bunch of United Methodists! The relief in the room was almost palpable, the comfort of familiar and beloved words.
“Amazing Grace” is a comfort. We sing these beautiful words at funerals, during times of stress and difficulty, when we are gathered in worship. We listen to them on recordings from a variety of artists across the years. “When we’ve been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…” This hymn is a comfort. Its words—“sweet,” “save,” “lost and found”—whisper of gentleness, softness. The song is a loving caress, a musical hug for our souls. However, that is not how the song got its start, and its author, John Newton, had experiences with God that were anything but sweet, soft or comforting.
Newton had a rough teen and young adult life. When he was finally rescued from an abusive situation in Sierra Leone by a friend of his father, he took up the position of a sea captain on a slave ship in the 1740s and 50s. He was not raised with a religious education and in his own records he speaks of his conversion to Christ as happening on May 10, 1748. He speaks of God getting his attention through a violent storm that almost took his ship and his life, and starting him on the path of faith. Amazing grace, but not gentle. Through a series of experiences with the divine Newton moved from the life of a sea captain to the life of a priest in the Church of England. He composed hundreds of hymns, of which Amazing Grace was penned as a sermon illustration and a personal narrative. By the end of his life, he had become the person we would imagine writing this beloved hymn, but along the way his encounters with God and God’s amazing grace were a little rough. Grace was not usually gentle with Newton, but it was always present, right where he was, seeking him, reaching out for him, pursuing him, until he turned to reach for grace.
At first glance, amazing grace seems to have little to do with our scripture readings for today. Jesus is abrupt and confrontational—not appearing terribly grace-filled—as he addresses Peter, the disciples, and the crowd. “Get behind me, Satan! You are not setting your mind on God’s thoughts, but on human thoughts!” “If anyone wants to come after me, they must pick up their cross and follow me.” All this talk of losing your life—some hard words. And then there is Woman Wisdom…she is not happy! Is there grace here? Absolutely! There is grace all over the place!
Woman Wisdom is a personification of an aspect of God, a little like the Holy Spirit. She speaks for God. She is knowledge of God, relationship with God, God’s way of living and being in the world. She is that which all God’s beloved people should be longing for, seeking out, pursuing. We should be growing in Wisdom. But that is not what is happening. Wisdom has come out of the religious centers. She has left the Temple precinct. Why? No one is seeking her. No one is pursing Wisdom. So, Wisdom has come to seek and to pursue God’s people. She has come looking for us.
John Wesley had a term for this. He coined a name for God seeking us until we turn and seek God. John called it Prevenient Grace—that grace that is reaching for us before we even know to reach for it. Woman Wisdom is embodying God’s prevenient grace…but why is she so angry?
Spending some time with Woman Wisdom these last few weeks reminded me of something that happened during the Baltimore riots. Following the death of Freddie Gray, the city of Baltimore erupted into riots, which became increasingly violent. A mother watching the riots on the TV at home suddenly recognized her son in the crowd. Caught on multiple cell phones, this mother traveled down to the rioting crowds, found her son, and began knocking him side of the head and screaming at him, finally chasing him down and dragging him out.
Now I’m not going to critique parenting choices, but I want us to take a moment and stand in her shoes.
            Why are people rioting? Because a young black man is dead.
            Why did she go down to the riots? Because her son, a black youth, was in the midst of a violent
            What emotions probably prompted her to risk herself in the riot to retrieve her son?
            What other emotions were fueling her anger and her outburst?
Though we might come to different actions and conclusions ourselves, I believe we can understand the love and fear that drove her actions and anger.
Can we see some of the same in Woman Wisdom? Scripture has given us this beautiful personification, do we see God using human emotions to convey the urgency, the criticalness of Wisdom’s work? Proverbs also says, in another chapter, that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But, can we also ask, does God fear for us? As God, through Wisdom’s eyes, sees us pursuing everything but God’s Wisdom is God afraid for us? God’s love for us is beyond our understanding. God’s love for us takes form in Jesus to walk among us, die on a cross and rise from the dead.
Can we say that Wisdom’s anger is Wisdom’s desperation to turn us back to God. She sees us being lost to the world, becoming vulnerable to despair. She knows that life has its ups and downs and everything in between. She knows that disaster hovers nearby. What will happen to God’s beloved people when the storms of life happen, when we are tossed to and fro, and we’ve left our anchor behind? How will we weather the hurricanes and tornados of life without the Rock beneath us? And so Wisdom leaves the Temple of the sacred and enters the hallways of the everyday—making them sacred by her very presence. She comes seeking, pursuing, reaching out, until we hear and turn and seek her—Prevenient Grace! Amazing Grace!
Wisdom seeks us where we are, where God wants us to be growing in wisdom, in our every day. Wisdom seeks us in the marketplace…Hannaford, Price Chopper, Southside Mall. Wisdom seeks us in the streets…Main Street, Chestnut Street, our street. Wisdom seeks us at our centers…Fox Hospital, the Foothills, SUNY Oneonta, Hartwick, Oneonta Middle and High School, Riverside, Greater Plains, Valley View…
Wisdom seeks us urgently, desperately, frantically, because…Jesus has asked us a question, praying we have the wisdom to answer—Who do you say that I am?—and we must answer with all that we are:
            our work and school selves
            our play and extracurricular activities selves
            our home selves
            our out-running-errand selves
            ALL of who we are!
Everything, absolutely everything, we do and say and live proclaims who God in Jesus is for us. What message are you living this week?
Wisdom is shouting in the streets; in Muller Plaza she raises her voice.  Above the noisy crowded hallways of Oneonta High School she calls out. In front of city hall she has her say.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

September 1, 2015, 1:55 PM

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Genesis 1:1-5, The Message
1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
        And light appeared.
    God saw that light was good
        and separated light from dark.
    God named the light Day,
        God named the dark Night.
    It was evening, it was morning—
    Day One.
John 3:1-9, CEB, revised
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
Veni Sancte Spiritus
As I was reading and studying the Genesis scripture for this week it struck me how much birds are a part of my life. My mom had an abundance of bird feeders outside the kitchen window throughout my childhood and adolescence. The breakfast table had a perfect view of the feeders and every morning we would play “name that bird;” the chickadees and sparrows, the tufted tit mice and juncos, the aggressive blue jays, and comical nuthatches. My love of birds carried over into my summer months.  On warm, sunny days, while the cows were in the pasture, my dad would throw open all the barn doors and let the summer breezes blow through, the those winds would occasionally bring in a bird as well. The bird would get trapped and lost, so I would patiently stalk it, but it tired. I would catch the bird in my hands and show my mom before letting it free outdoors. I caught a Baltimore Oriole, an indigo bunting, and even a tiny hummingbird, that hovered helicopter-like above my hand before shooting away.
Mom would stop often when we were out to point out a great blue heron winging by, or a kingfisher perched above a stream, a red-tailed hawk soaring overheard, and the elusive and captivating eagle. We raised chickens when I was young and I still remember entering the warm coop in the cold of winter and hearing the soft clucking of the hens on their nests. We raised turkeys too, but my memories of them are quite different. We even had a mother duck who hatched both a baby duck and a baby goose. What a variety of birdlife there is! And each bird evokes different thoughts and feelings. Sparrows speak of simplicity, and the everyday. Hummingbirds are a flash of beauty and fragility. The blue bird sings of happiness (bluebirds on my shoulder make me smile-John Denver). The crow is brooding and disruptive. The hen depicts nurture and motherhood. The goose is protectiveness. And the eagle speaks of soaring high, of might and grandeur. Such diversity! Can we see why the image of birds is used within our scriptures, especially in Genesis, to depict the Holy Spirit? How varied the Spirit can appear! She hovers, mother hen-like, over creation’s waters, nurturing the new life about to burst forth in such abundance! She is the everyday sparrow who flits around us, always present. She is the fast and unpredictable hummingbird, flashing past in beauty. The Spirit is the bright and joy-filled blue bird, the startling and disruptive crow, the protective goose. She lifts us high on eagle wings. How varied is that Holy Spirit!
Is it any wonder that the words in ancient Hebrew and Greek for Spirit are also the words for wind and breath? Ruach in Hebrew, Pneuma in Greek—feminine nouns both. God’s Spirit blows wherever she wishes. The wind imagery takes that visual of the bird and expands it, for who can control the wind? One theologian friends refers to the Spirit as the ‘wild child’ of the Trinity. Breath, breeze, gust, storm—it is hard to wrap words around the Spirit. Perhaps we must speak of her as we have experienced her.
When have you experienced the Spirit as breath; intimate, gentle, life-giving? (pause) When has the Spirit been a soft and refreshing breeze in your life? (pause) When has she, autumn-like, been a gust that pushes you forward more quickly than you wanted to go? (pause) When has the Holy Spirit stormed into your life and transformed the landscape in a great rush, and yet reminded you that she is as close as each breath, giving life and love? It is hard to wrap words around the ‘wild child,’ for the wind blows where she wills, but we can see her passing.
So I have homework for you this week—some assignments. Pay attention. Birds are flitting all around you every day. Pay attention to them. When you see one, stop. Take note of the bird. How does that little feathered friend help us imagine the elusive and ever-present Spirit? Think about it for a moment, and then pray, “Veni Sancte, Spiritus-Come, Holy Spirit.”
The wind moves around us every day—soft whispers, gentle breezes, startling gusts, mighty storms. When creation’s winds touch you, stop. Take note. Close your eyes and just feel that air move over and around you. What does it whisper to you about God’s awesome Spirit? Think about it for a moment, and then pray, “Veni Sancte Spiritus—Come, Holy Spirit.”
And finally, let us dedicate two minutes each day to breath, and nothing else. Put aside the to-do lists, the calendars, the latest book we are reading. Put aside our devotions for a moment. Turn off our cell phones and tablets and laptops, our televisions and radios.  For two minutes let us sit comfortably—or stand or lay down—and just breath…in…out…in…out. Focus on that life-giving air that moves into your lungs to nourish your body, and then out to mix in the air. And at the end of those two minutes pray, “Veni Sancte Spiritus, Come, Holy Spirit.” Tell me next week how these simple changes to your routine changed your perspective, and perhaps, changed your life. Invite someone else to try these assignments as well—a spouse, child, parent, friend, co-worker, neighbor, even stranger.
So let’s get started, now! Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes, or find a spot on which to let your eyes rest. Focus on your breathing. Take a long steady breath in slowly. Let the air expand until it feels like it is filling your lungs. Hold it a moment. And then exhale in one long slow, steady stream until your lungs feel empty. Let’s repeat that a couple of times in silence.
And now repeat after me: Veni Sancte Spiritus…Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Come, Holy Spirit…Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

August 18, 2015, 8:24 AM

Have You Met This God?

Psalm 19 (selected verses, feel free to look up & read whole psalm)
1Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
    the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.
The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
    reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
    making naive people wise.
The Lord’s regulations are right,
    gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
    giving light to the eyes.
12 But can anyone know
    what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
    Clear me of any unknown sin
13         and save your servant from willful sins.
        Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless;
    I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.
14 Let the words of my mouth
    and the meditations of my heart
    be pleasing to you,
    Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
John 5:19-23
Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders, “I assure you that the Son can’t do anything by himself except what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him everything that he does. God will show him greater works than these so that you will marvel. As the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too does the Son give life to whomever he wishes. The Father doesn’t judge anyone, but God has given all judgment to the Son so that everyone will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him.
“Have You Met This God?"
Psalm 19! C. S. Lewis proclaimed it “the greatest poem in all the Psalter.” He went on to exclaim that Psalm 19 is “the greatest lyric in the world!” “Heave is declaring God’s glory (Ps. 19:1):” meteor showers, the infinite stars across the expanse, the spinning of the planets and galaxies, the colors of the cosmos as we are able to look deeper and deeper into the universe. “The sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork (Ps. 19:1):” the glory of sunrises and sunsets, the clouds in all their colors, size and diversity, and the rainbows, that hang like jewels in the sky after a storm. The wonders of creation give us glimpses of their Creator. Oh, we know this God!
“The Lord’s instruction is perfect…the Lord’s commands are pure (Ps. 19:7, 8).” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul…and love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matt. 22:38).” Page after page of stories depicting followers of God stepping out in faith, and in doubt, getting it right, getting it wrong, but remaining in relationship with God. The prayers and songs of the faithful, not only in Psalms, but across scripture. And, of course, the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…better than much gold…sweeter than the dripping of the honeycomb. Oh yes, we know this God!
Psalm 19 ends with the God who forgives. God forgives both the accidental wrongdoings and the purposeful sins (Ps. 19:12-13). God is our Rock and our Redeemer (Ps. 19:14)! We know this God sung about in Psalm 19! Hallelujah! We know this God! Praise God!
And then the author of the Gospel of John raises their hand, “Umm, excuse me, hold up a second. There is more to God than Psalm 19. Have you met THIS God? Have you encountered this God, revealed in the trouble-making ministry of Jesus Christ?” Have we met the trouble-maker God? the agitator God? the offensive God? Have we met this God?
In the beginning segments of John’s Gospel, Jesus is causing trouble, causing a ruckus. People are talking. The religious leaders are angry. Jesus seems to have some trouble remembering the rules, handed down from generation to generation, interpreted by learned leaders. He forgets boundaries. In chapter 4, Jesus crosses out-of-bounds to the region of Samaria. While in Samaria, he breaks social and religious protocol and speaks to a woman in public, right in the center of town at the well! And not just any woman, a Samaritan woman of ill repute! She has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. Jesus?!
Jesus does then cross back over into proper territory, returning to Galilee, but he then turns around and breaks another rule, healing the son of a Gentile. And not just any Gentile…a government official!! They are the oppressors, the occupiers! I mean, come on Jesus! There are clear and steadfast rules, God’s rules! Get with the program!
That brings us to Chapter 5 and maybe things are turning around. Jesus and his rag-tag group of so-called disciples (people no respectable rabbi would ever call) enter Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish festival. Now we’re talking. Home territory and observing holy days. Maybe now Jesus will tow the line. Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem through the Sheep Gate, an entrance relatively close to the Temple precincts. Just inside the Sheep Gate is a pool called Bethsaida, which means ‘the house of shame and mercy’ or ‘the house of disgrace and grace’-Bethsaida. There is a legend about this pool, this house of shame and mercy. It is said that from time to time an angel of God comes down and ‘troubles the waters,’ stirs the waters, agitates the waters. When that happens, the waters take on a healing property and any who first enter the water will be restored, made whole. Therefore the five covered porches that surround Bethsaida Pool are crowded; with the blind and lame, the ill and infirm, the crippled. All are hovering, waiting, anticipating the stirring of those waters. In fact, one man has been waiting by those waters, crippled and lying on a mat, for 38 years!
It is into this crowd that Jesus moves; a purposeful Jesus, an abrupt Jesus, an almost rude Jesus.  He marches right up to that man, the one who has been laying there for 38 years and says to him, “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus doesn’t want to assume. He doesn’t know why that man has remained there for 38 years. The man quickly clears things up. “I try to make it to the waters when they move, but I have no one to help me. I never make it in time.” “Get up!” Jesus commands, “pick up your mat and walk!” And he did! That man who had laid their 38 years unable to move stood up, picked up that mat and went marching off! Hallelujah! We know this God! Praise God! God brings restoration to God’s people! Did I mention that it was the Sabbath?
You see, there are very, very clear rules about the Sabbath. It is a day of rest, to be strictly respected and honored, a gift of rest from God. There is to be no work on the Sabbath. The religious leaders have shared the detailed instructions—what can and cannot be done, how far one can journey, what tasks are absolutely forbidden. Carrying a mat through the streets of Jerusalem on the Sabbath is work, and the newly restored man is quickly noticed by the religious leaders. The quickly confront this man and in the course of some exchanges they learn the true source of the rule breaking…Jesus!
That’s it! They have had it! First the Samaritan woman, then the government officials son, and now this! Breaking the Sabbath, and causing others to do so as well! Who does this Jesus think he is?! So they confront Jesus head on. “You broke the Sabbath! You keep referring to God as your father! Do you think you are on equal footing with God?!”
The passage above from John, chapter 5, is Jesus’ answer. “Do you think you are on equal footing with God?” And Jesus replies, “Well, yes. What God does, I do. My Father raises the dead and gives life…me too. When you see me, you see God.”
  • You thought it was some simple carpenter messing with the Sabbath laws? It is God, breaking God’s own rules, because you put them above people!
  • You thought some rabble-rouser was claiming authority over life and death? It is God, causing trouble to redirect your focus!
  • You thought some human would-be revolutionary was strutting around offering healing and restoration? It is God, troubling the waters!
God the Agitator! God the Rule-Breaker! God the Offender! Have you met this God?
Creator, Instructor, Forgiver, Rock and Redeemer, Trouble-Maker! The One who offends our sensibilities and breaks the status quo! I think I met this God recently.
I was in San Antonion, Texas just a few days ago, with a few other members of First UMC Oneonta. We were attending the joint convocation hosted by Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA). In fact, the theme was ‘Gather at the River.’ I thought I was ready for God to trouble some waters. We were all gathered in the beautiful sanctuary of Travis Park UMC, had just finished a fabulous worship service with an absolutely awesome sermon by Rev. Sarah Thompson Tweedy; an ordained elder in the UMC who is open about being lesbian and suffering the consequences of that. We were on a high as the Rev. Vicki Flippin took to the pulpit, one of the leaders of the convocation. She began to speak of…pain and anguish, anger, heartache. It took me a few minutes to catch on.
Throughout the morning various attendees had been, from time to time, hanging posters from the balcony—about love and acceptance and a church for everyone. I thought it was nice but wondered why they were preaching to the choir. But now it became apparent. As was the custom of every convocation, the area bishop for the place where we gathered had been invited to greet us and say a few words. This year we were gathered in the Rio Texas Conference, a conference that had not been kind in recent years to their LGBTQ members. And there stood the bishop, Bishop Dorff, a tall and stately man, white hair, lovely suit. He stood a few steps behind Vicki, ready to share a few words.
And the protestors began to move. There is a small sub-group of RMN within the denomination called “Love Prevails.” Their primary purpose is to disrupt proceedings within our UMC. They have disrupted meetings of the Connectional Table and sessions of various annual conferences. They are fairly controversial in the UMC, and even for some in RMN. Many members of Love Prevails were present at the convocation. As the bishop prepared to step to the pulpit, the protestors took their positions. Most knelt silently at the altar rail, some with gags tied around their mouths, to protest the unspoken policy of the UMC, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” One woman was standing in front of the first pews. She held two larger posters in front of her, but I couldn’t read them as she was moving about, trying to decide where to stand. Suddenly she made her decision and marched up the stairs, crossed in front of the altar and stood just beside Bishop Dorff. We could read her signs from there:
            “Friends lay down their lives for their friends.”
            “Dorff is no friend to LGBTQ people.”
I snapped a picture and posted it to Facebook. The reaction was almost instantaneous. Several clergy friends were offended by this woman’s actions. I have to confess I was unsure how I felt. As I defended her (and us) on Facebook there was a war brewing inside me. Part of me wanted to defend her right to protest, but the child that learned “all I needed to know in kindergarten” was shouting; “be polite, be respectful, be nice!” My seminary ethics professor said the word nice was the worst four-letter-word in the Christian vocabulary—a ‘status quo’ word. The bishop spokes words we had longed to hear bishops saying, and we all prayed he meant every word. The protest ended after some singing and praying. The convocation continued. I decided I was uncomfortable with the woman and her signs, had no problem with the silent protest at the altar rails, and moved on.
And then a member who attended posted the woman with the signs’ blog on my Facebook page. The Rev. Dr. Julie Todd is an active member of Love Prevails and has been present at many of their disruptions of denominational gatherings. She was the key disrupter at one session of the Connectional Table, where Bishop Dorff was present. Bishop Dorff spoke directly about Julie’s disruption of the meeting and referred to her actions as ‘a movement of the Holy Spirit.’ He gave her disruption credit for some of his own change of heart. This Trouble-Making God stepped all over my sensibilities and fractured my status quo.
Did I catch a glimpse of the Trouble-Making and Offending God in the sanctuary at Travis Park UMC?
Do we see this God in the faces of Love Prevails?
Is this God standing in the protests in Ferguson on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death?
Is this God singing in the voice of the UMC pastor outside the police barracks demanding to know the circumstances of Sandy Bland’s death?
And when we realize we have indeed come face-to-face with the Rule-Breaking, Water Troubling God revealed to us in Jesus, what will we do?
What will our response be, when we must confess we have met this God?!

August 4, 2015, 10:18 AM

Shemu'el (God Hears)

1 Samuel 2:1-10 (and all of 1 Samuel 1) 
Hannah prayed:
I’m bursting with God-news!
    I’m walking on air.
I’m laughing at my rivals.
    I’m dancing my salvation.
2-5 Nothing and no one is holy like God,
    no rock mountain like our God.
Don’t dare talk pretentiously—
    not a word of boasting, ever!
For God knows what’s going on.
    God takes the measure of everything that happens.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
    while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
    while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
    while the mother of many is bereft.
6-10 God brings death and God brings life,
    brings down to the grave and raises up.
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
    God lowers, God also lifts up.
God puts poor people on their feet again;
    God rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
    a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God’s;
    God has laid out God’s operations on a firm foundation.
God protectively cares for God’s faithful friends, step by step,
    but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
    No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
God’s enemies will be blasted out of the sky,
    crashed in a heap and burned.
God will set things right all over the earth,
    give strength to God’s king,
    set God’s anointed on top of the world!
“Shemu’el (God Hears)”
I have been really enjoying our summer sermon series and spending time with biblical figures I first learned about in Sunday School as a child. It has been such a joy to meet them again and hear their stories with fresh ears, from different perspectives: Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Joshua and Ruth, and digging deeper into their stories than I ever have before. So, it was with eagerness that I prepared to encounter Hannah, a figure often overlooked in the midst of the saga of Samuel, King Saul, and King David. But, it didn’t go so well.
Don’t get me wrong, there were good commentaries and articles about Hannah’s story that were informational and thought provoking. However, I also ran into a lot of struggling theologians. Some simply retold me the story. A few tried to embellish the details to make the story more 21st century friendly, which was not helpful. And then there was this one that brought me up short. I read the article, re-read it, and then turned to the inside cover of the commentary to see when it was written—2009. I looked at the author, a rather well known theologian that I have read other materials from at different times and enjoyed. But here is what he said of Hannah… “The truthful pastor must admit that Hannah, as a congregant, would drive them crazy. She is needy, dramatic, challenging, and insistent.”
It is very troubling to see Hannah characterized this way. It diminishes her story, belittles her plight, and makes light of her situation. Just look at all the recurring themes within Hannah’s story that connect her to the stories of other remarkable women in scripture. As we learn of Hannah’s barrenness we are reminded of Sarah. When Hannah lifts her voice in song we hear Miriam singing on the shores of the Reed Sea, and leading other women in dance and worship. As Hannah addresses God directly she mirrors Hagar naming God in the wilderness. When she displays her insistence we hear Ruth speaking to Naomi. As she stands up for herself with courage we hear echoes of Esther. Hannah’s story foreshadows the barren Elizabeth who will give birth to John the Baptist, and Hannah’s song echoes underneath Mary’s Magnificat.
These stories of women pop up in the midst of a decidedly patriarchal culture for a reason: because women were tremendously vulnerable with no rights, finding security and protection only from the men in their lives; because women were systematically marginalized and oppressed with no voice, literally sold into marriage; because women were literally the ‘least of these’ with valued assigned based on their ability to produce male heirs. Every time God moved through women, God proclaimed God’s self as the One who loves the marginalized—the widow and the orphan. Every time God moved through women God shone divine light on the injustice in their lives. Every time God moved through women God highlighted their actions and their voices that despite all that was stacked against them they acted, and spoke. They believed and trusted. They embraced hope.
Hannah is in a horribly vulnerable place. Her life is absolutely dependent on Elkannah, her husband, with no safety net. If he were to die, she would be left with nothing. Elkannah’s sons by Penninah would inherit everything, and Penninah’s torment of Hannah leaves little doubt whether Hannah could depend on mercy from her and her children. Men were usually quite a bit older than their wives. If and when Elkannah dies, Hannah will be completely bereft.  She is not being needy or dramatic, and she has every right to be insistent. Look at how alone Hannah is in this story. If she doesn’t speak up for herself, who will? Her co-wife, Penninah, is against her. Elkannah’s only response to Hannah’s weeping and sadness is, “Why are you sad? Aren’t I better than 10 sons?” The priest, Eli, is accusatory and lost. If we read further into 1 Samuel we see Eli is as barren as Hannah. No, Hannah must pray for herself, plead for herself, groan for herself.
Hannah’s story is critically important because it is repeated too many times across our world today. Thousands of Hannahs plead for security, stability, safety, protection, shelter…hope…life. Too many times their cries and demands are dismissed, diminished, and belittled by those who have never had to stand in their shoes. “They need to get a job…or a better job.” “Move to a safer, better place…just not here.” “Be patient.” “Perhaps you should just be satisfied with less.” “It can’t be as bad as all that.” “Well, we need to take care of our own first.” And if their cries become louder and more insistent, they are accused of being needy and demanding and rude.
But God hears! Hannah assures us of that as she names her son Samuel—Shemu’el—God hears. God hears…not a needy, dramatic, challenging, insistent, difficult ministerial burden. God hears a frightened, desperate, despairing yet hopeful child of God. God hears…and in these first chapters of the first book of Samuel, God pleads for us to do the same.
God asks us to hear the call for volunteers; listeners at Caring Connections, hands to provide nourishment and empowerment at our hot meal ministries, hearts to sort donations at Family Services. God pleads for us to hear the need for resources; back-to-school supplies for struggling families, nonperishable food items for area food pantries, money and supplies for disaster relief. God urges us to hear the demand for advocates to speak to our government officials and corporate executives on behalf of the last and the least. God implores us to hear the yearning of the marginalized for someone to please stop, and see them where they are, to hear their story, and to love them enough to walk with them into a new future.
If we open our ears to hear and our hearts to respond, then together we can join our voice with Hannah’s in the joyful song of the Beloved Community, the Commonwealth of God, the Kingdom…
            I’m bursting with God-news!
            I’m walking on air!
            I’m laughing at those who stand against me!
            I’m dancing my salvation!
            Nothing and No one is holy like God!
            No rock mountain like our God!
Thanks be to God! Amen!

July 29, 2015, 9:23 AM

חֶסֶד (Chesed)

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17         
1-2 One day her mother-in-law Naomi said to Ruth, “My dear daughter, isn’t it about time I arranged a good home for you so you can have a happy life? And isn’t Boaz our close relative, the one with whose young women you’ve been working? Maybe it’s time to make our move. Tonight is the night of Boaz’s barley harvest at the threshing floor.
3-4 “Take a bath. Put on some perfume. Get all dressed up and go to the threshing floor. But don’t let him know you’re there until the party is well under way and he’s had plenty of food and drink. When you see him slipping off to sleep, watch where he lies down and then go there. Lie at his feet to let him know that you are available to him for marriage. Then wait and see what he says. He’ll tell you what to do.”
Ruth said, “If you say so, I’ll do it, just as you’ve told me.”
13 Boaz married Ruth. She became his wife. Boaz slept with her. By God’s gracious gift she conceived and had a son.
14-15 The town women said to Naomi, “Blessed be God! The LORD didn’t leave you without family to carry on your life. May this baby grow up to be famous in Israel! He’ll make you young again! He’ll take care of you in old age. And this daughter-in-law who has brought him into the world and loves you so much, why, she’s worth more to you than seven sons!”
16 Naomi took the baby and held him in her arms, cuddling him, cooing over him, waiting on him hand and foot.
17 The neighborhood women started calling him “Naomi’s baby boy!” But his real name was Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.
Breaking…Krumping…Locking…Popping…Jookin’. Does anyone know what these are? (pause) What if I said, instead, swing…ballet…contemporary…ballroom? Dance. All of these, from Jookin’ to Ballet, are forms of dance. I am a HUGE ‘So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD-dance competition)’ fan…HUGE. I have watched avidly since season 2, and it is now in its 10th year. I love the variety, the talent, the choreography, the teamwork. What took me by surprise when I started watching, and has enthralled me throughout the 9 years I have watched, is the elevation of the new forms of dance most commonly seen in street performance. Until I watched SYTYCD, I thought break dancing, hip hop dancing, and club dancing were cool, but not to be held on the same level as studio dance, stage dancing. What I have learned is that those self-taught street performers and alleyway dancers have been completely underestimated. They are incredibly talented and what they do is inventive, artistic, purposeful, and extraordinarily difficult. Street performers have won the entire competition!
This type of dancing is evolving so fast and incorporates moves that are so new to the dance world that new words are needed. This has given rise to those awesome words—krumping, popping, breaking, jookin’. A word has been commandeered to cover the entire genre of self-taught or apprenticed non-studio dancing—‘Street.’ I think, in the near future, we are going to need a brand new word as, even now, this ‘street’ dancing is moving to studios and crews that are teaching the next generation. As they move from the street to the stage, what word shall we use to speak of this style?
That is a cool aspect of being human; when we have a new experience, new trend, or new phenomenon, we create new words. Ancient writers wished to differentiate God’s love from forms of human love and ‘agape’ was created, a new word used to speak of divine love. ‘Charis,’ translated grace, is the overarching word for all the unconditional gifts God pours upon us. Today however, instead of lifting up new words, new songs, new movement in the life of the Spirit, I want to give new life to an ancient and little known word that is critical to life with God in the Hebrew Scriptures—Chesed (חֶסֶד).
This little word that is extremely difficult to translate turns up almost one hundred times in the books we call the Old Testament. Sometimes it is translated “loving kindness.” Sometimes it appears as ‘steadfast love,’ or ‘loyalty.’ One ancient rabbi proclaimed that the Law, the Torah, begins and ends with chesed—in other words, it is the underlying principle of God’s instructions to God’s people. Chesed is the word used to capture the mutual relationship between God and God’s people, to speak of God’s love, God’s kindness and mercy, God’s constant and abiding presence, God’s commitment to God’s creation. A worship meme online coined Chesed—the love that will not let you go. Psalm 136 proclaims boldly, “Give praise to the Lord for the Lord is good. God’s ‘chesed’ endures forever.’ God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Today we have in front of us the Book of Ruth, a tiny little story that is set in the early years of Israel’s settlement after the Exodus. Ruth is just four short chapters long and details the story of a widowed and bereft woman, named Naomi, her daughter-in-law, a Moabite, name Ruth, and a prominent leader in the city of Bethlehem named Boaz. In short, Naomi with her husband and two sons move to Moab from Bethlehem as the result of a famine. In Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women, and after a time they both die, leaving widowed women behind, but no children. Naomi decides to return to her homeland of Bethlehem and urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families to see if they can remarry and make a new life for themselves. One daughter returns to her family, Orpah, as is expected of her.  Ruth, however, refuses. In perhaps the most famous lines of this little book, Ruth proclaims;
“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. Boaz enters the scene as a wealthy and well-respected leader of Bethlehem, who also happens to be related to Naomi through her husband. After a few encounters and a ‘town meeting,’ Boaz marries Ruth and takes in Naomi. As we see in today’s reading, the story of Ruth ends with much restoration, redemption and rejoicing.
There is much that makes this seemingly tiny story significant, not the least of which is that Ruth is King David’s great-grandmother. But one piece often overlooked is the frequency of the word Chesed, and the ways in which it is seen in this story. God is only perceived as acting in two instances in the book—God brought food to the people of Bethlehem in chapter one, ending the famine; and God gifts Ruth with a son in chapter four. Otherwise, though God’s name is invoked in prayers, blessings, and conversation, the main action is these three main characters; Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth. And their actions are loaded with Chesed!
One of the central themes of Ruth is that God’s beloved community, peaceable kingdom, comes to fruition through the faithful actions of extraordinarily ordinary people. God’s Chesed is glimpsed in the actions displayed by those who rise above and beyond normal expectations.  Naomi’s one daughter-in-law returns to her family home at the urging of Naomi, and nothing negative is said about her. It is what is expected. But Ruth rises well above what is expected, in fact she shatters expectations in favor of loyalty and love, commitment and kindness—she chooses radical Chesed above even the letter of the law. Boaz does the same, echoing Ruth’s actions. He showers Ruth with generosity beyond any expectation on her behalf and Naomi’s. He takes a foreign widow as his wife, shattering societal expectations of marriage to non-Israelites. Ruth and Boaz both reflect for the community of Bethlehem, and all readers of the story, the essence of God’s Chesed.
This tiny four chapter narrative about the small city of Bethlehem and three simple, ordinary people provides a microcosm of God’s glorious promise of the beloved community. Stepping away from cultural details of an ancient society that do not reflect our cultural lives, we can see the overall proclamation of Chesed, the underlying principle of God’s kingdom. That proclamation in the Book of Ruth states:
  1. No one is left destitute, not even foreigners, not even enemies.
  2. Loneliness and despair must never be ignored-Ruth endures Naomi’s bitterness until she finds hope again.
  3. Children and the elderly are valued, at a time when that was not always the case.
  4. Insiders and outsiders must reach across the ‘divide’ to become one, all labels cast aside.
Chesed! Beloved Community! Ruth’s story calls for us to commit ourselves to this work of creating the beloved community, of being a people who embody God’s chesed for all the world to see.
I think that is what I see when I watch SYTYCD. I see validated and esteemed dancers who have given their lives to ballet or tap or jazz and all the years of training. I see these dancers who are considered the ‘insiders’ reaching out and across the divide to dance alongside the outsiders. I see overlooked and disregarded self-taught performers, inventing it as they go, reaching across the divide to be pulled onto the stage by the insiders. Together they create something new, something wonderful—rooted in dance’s history, reimagined for the future. Ah, Chesed! You surprise us in where you reveal yourself to us. May you reveal yourself through us as well.  Amen!

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