preachsirmons

Archive for the ‘Relationality’ Category

God as Father

In Father, Jesus, Matthew, Relationality, Trinity, UCC Annapolis on June 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

A sermon reflecting on the idea of God as Father, existing within the Trinity. For Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. Delivered June 15, 2014, at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Text: St Matthew 28:16-20

Lilian Daniel, a UCC minister known for her sharp witticisms, recently wrote about the approach of Father’s Day:

If all you did was watch the news in these weeks leading up to Father’s Day, you’d think that when men hit middle age, they suddenly become twittering twits with the self restraint and judgment of a starving cobra at a rat convention. Lately in the news, we’ve seen tale after tale of men behaving badly.

We are well aware of the idea of fathers bumbling about, or being deadbeats, or missing in action, and so many other things. The behavior of these non-restrained middle-aged people does not reflect fathering so much as individuals who have forgotten that they live in relationship with each other. Fathering does not exist without something to father in the first place.

In addition to being Father’s Day, the church also celebrates “Trinity Sunday.” The Trinity reflects the dynamic that God exists in active relationship. The historic formulation of this is “Father-Son-Holy Spirit.” Rather than see these as locked terms, however, we can dig into the relationship between these “names of God” that the ancient church, a product of a patriarchal time, might have been trying to convey:

-”Father” is the historic understanding of the aspect of God that calls to us. It’s not a gendered term.  . . . . The LGBT community is opening up what it means to be a father-figure, making us all aware that we each have, at times, a responsibility to be father figures.

-”Son” is the historic understanding of that aspect of God that responds to the call. Jesus came and showed us what this response looks like. His response continues to encourage us to respond today. And today, we understand the church to be not just a gathering of people on Sunday mornings, but the “body of Christ”, real and present in the world each hour of every day – and you are it – responding to the call of God that comes from the world.

-”Holy Spirit” is the awareness of that call from God and response from God moving all around us. We awaken ourselves to the real presence of God in the tension of these relationships, calling and responding in all corners of the world, as thick as birdsong in the morning hours.

At different times in our lives, we experience and participate in these aspects of God. At times we will be the ones who call others, whether it be the people in our household or around the world, to use their gifts and talents and be held responsible and accountable for their actions and behaviors. That call may not always be an explicit one, of course – it may be a slow, quiet call that emerges as a father cares for a child. How this is done can be very different. The voice of the father can be distant, cold and far away; or close, near, and helping in life.

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980

Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Inside the cracks between the words of this poem we hear echoes of anger and dislike. This is a father who wakes up in the blueblack cold and makes the world habitable – who polishes shoes so that the family can go out into the world beyond the walls of the house. Yet, the father is so disliked that no one says, “thank you.” It is doubtful whether the words “I love you” have been shared with him or by him.

Yet, this father still calls his children into the household and equips them to face the world. This father calls them to deal with the “chronic angers” of the house. We share this cold and distant fathering image of God, too – a God who does not feel a “very present help in danger,” as in Psalm 46. This is a distant God who demands of us to become ourselves in a world full of angers and hurts, of woundedness and trauma, death, disease, pestilence: a habitable world, but very inhospital. We’d rather that this God did not exist at times: we don’t want to praise the creator who pushes us into the fray. We don’t even like that there is a fray that we have to respond to! {{In the past we’ve tried to blame ourselves for this state of the world, saying we were the cause of the fall and sinfulness.}} Our feelings toward God in this case are nearer to Psalm 88: “you have caused my friends to betray me, my companions to shun me.” We’d rather not have to hear the call of this God demanding us to rouse ourselves and go into the world, giving up our own comfort to meet the needs of the world.

And yet, this father still calls us: and the writer, though harboring rebellion, still responds. Even by ignoring the call of God, we are responding to that call and affirming that a relationship, even if not a good one, exists. The story of Jonah, infamous for being trapped in the belly of a fish, is the story of a prophet called to share judgement on the city of Ninevah. He doesn’t want to do it – he would need to go outside of his comfort zone, outside of where he wanted to be. Granted, in trying to escape his responsibility of the call he goes all over the world, only to discover that God’s call is still reaching to him.

We can respect that distance. Psalm 8 praises a God who seems far away, but has earned that respect.

Fathering, as I said, comes in many different ways of being in relationship, however. It does not always come from a cold and distant God who calls us to respond to an angry world. Often, the father image of God calls us to respond by guiding us in ways to celebrate life despite hardships. Out of poverty comes this poem by Suzanne Rancourt, called “Whose Mouth do I speak with.”

I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum. He worked in the woods and filled his pockets with golden chunks of pitch. For his children he provided this special sacrament and we’d gather at his feet, around his legs, bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside. Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol. We had no money for store bought gum but that’s all right. The spruce gum was so close to chewing amber as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote and how many other children had fathers that placed on their innocent, anxious tongue the blood of tree?

Here is a father so close to the children that their skin “stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing.” When Jesus prayed what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he used the Aramaic term “Abba,” which we have called “Father,” but more accurately is “Daddy.” It’s a closeness in relationship, a relationship which does not distantly call, but is right there sticking to us, forging that relationship intimately by placing the “blood of tree” on our very tongues and helping us to taste the world and learn not to fear it.

We need both of the figures of the father image of God: a distant call that draws us out of ourselves, and a closer call that journeys with us as we traverse the boundaries of the known (store-bought gum) into the unknown (blood of tree). In doing this, we can develop a whole image of God as Father that is both present, and distant.

As children we need this sort of development – a distant call as found in Psalm 88 and Psalm 8, and a closer call, such as in Psalm 46, to guide us. We won’t always like what we receive from those calls. But when we respond to them, as the Body of Christ, we find that we are able to mature and grow up into the people we are called to be. Jesus has been partaking the role of the “Son” in our gospel accounts, responding the the parent and showing us how we could respond, too. However, through response Jesus grows and matures, too, until we get to that final chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. Here, Jesus has now been “given authority” by God. He now gives the disciples the Great Commission to go and share his love through that relationship to all peoples. In responding, they too will grow and mature to the point where it will be them issuing the calls, and another generation acting in joyous response. Today, we are all called to respond: some of us will be the ones making the calls into our church, community and world; others will be responding; some will be doing both. And in that dynamic of call and response, we can feel the presence of God surrounding the world and engaging with its chronic angers, taking joy that we can taste the world and be fully awake and alive to it. Amen.

 

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On being a living grove together

In Acts, Churches Together, Jesus, John, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on June 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm

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On the first Sunday of each month, we share in an intergenerational service which offers an interactive “sermon-story”. Shared here are the notes I complied beforehand to help guide it, but the message itself is forged amongst us when we gather together. 

Key text: Acts 1:6-14

Read up first on the folk tale of the bundle of sticks.

It’s easy to break sticks individually. It’s much harder to break piles of sticks. And yet, this parable goes a little further than even that: take a bunch of sticks that we pick up, and pull them together. Do they fit comfortably together? Do they rub up against one another? Do you think them a “natural fit” if bound together? No! In fact, they’re very much like we are – each of us is different, and when we place ourselves in a group together, we’re bound to have our differences and things that make us uncomfortable with one another. And yet, if we remain bound together, what happens? We become unbreakable from whatever in our world might try and break us.

But I have a problem with this parable, as wise as it may be: the problem is, sticks are dead. They’ve fallen out of trees, or been plucked from them, and they have no life in them. They’re only changing into decay, and not growing more and more as one another. So, I’d like to propose a different way of reading this story: rather than have groups of sticks, what if we had groups of trees – living, rooted plants of all shapes and sizes growing in a forest grove? What about that? The winds that howl through the world have less chance of uprooting a forest than they do a single tree. And groves provide habitats for all sorts of ecosystems: what sorts of things might live in the ecosystem that a grove might form?

Large animals.

Small animals.

Plants.

Bugs.

Fungi. Did you know that one teaspoon of good soil contains two miles of fungi networks? All of that life comes possible when we grow together, because we create diverse and rich communities that enliven and strengthen us.

Today is the day we celebrate when Jesus leaves earth. Does that sound like something we should celebrate? Why do you think we do it, then?

Holy Spirit – when it comes, Jesus tells us that we will be his witnesses – the people who share his story and live in the ways he has taught us – to “all the ends of the earth.” Does that sound good, or does that sound scary? It’s probably a bit of both! It’s good because it means that how Jesus lives, we too may be able to live. We can, like a forest grove, come together and develop rich, deep communities that foster all sorts of life to all sorts of people, plants, animals and things unseen. And, we can enjoy that life together. That, to me, sounds heavenly!

But it’s scary, too: the disciples, and now us, are called to live like Jesus. Before he left, they thought they could simply follow Jesus, and have him tell them what was right, and what was wrong, and how to live good lives. But now that he’s gone . . . who can tell them those things? Who?

But I think that ultimately, it is exciting. Most things that are exciting and worth doing are both good and scary, like rollercoasters. Being together as a church should be both good, and scary. What are good and scary things about being a church to you?

As Jesus leaves, he invites his disciples to put their roots down into a community and enrich that community, and grow together as guided by the holy spirit. To become entire rich, fertile ecosystems capable of making and sustaining life together. And I think that’s what we should be. The disciples, after hearing all this, went and prayed. Perhaps the words of Jesus in John’s gospel were echoing in their ears as they prayed: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“That they may all be one” is the slogan of the United Church of Christ. And by becoming one organizing full of rich life of all different varieties, we, too, can grow to be strong and fertile people of the world.

 

Being a good friend

In Authenticity, Fear, Jesus, Job, Lent, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on March 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Preached at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis on Sunday, March 23

Job 24:1-12; 25:1-6; 25:1-4, 9-14

Last spring I had an invitation to join in a roundtable discussion in Cambridge regarding the model that an organization, called ARMONIA, was using to “transform poverty into life” in the poorest parts of Mexico City and the far-flung parts of the Oaxaca Province in Mexico. The organization’s founder and director, Saul Cruz, was at the table, and he told us that he wanted us to come and be missionaries to his Mexico City complex. He wanted our churches to send youth groups and adult study groups to ARMONIA. That was not surprising. What was surprising was that he wanted us to come to learn from them how to be missionaries in our own communities – not theirs. Saul, you see, had been a fairly well off psychologist in Mexico City about 21 years ago now. He and his wife both had successful practices. They had good friends, good cars, and a good condo in which to raise their kids and live the good life. Yet Saul was fighting a nagging feeling that something was not right. Through a series of circumstances, he realized that he was called to build a community center in one of the most dangerous parts of towns, rife with drugs and poverty. Together with his wife, they began piecemeal to move into the community and, through the community network, build a community center with the local community, run by the local community, and for the local community, while they became a part of that community. He literally took what had been a rubbish dump and turned it into a place of life. He didn’t want experts coming from far off lands to dictate what was good for the people there. They knew what they needed. Today, several similar centers are around Mexico City, each with the goal of lifting people out of poverty and engaging them with a new life.

At first he was afraid of making this transition. Yet his faith compelled him to do something that made him engage with people, and to let go of all the certainties which he had, up until then, spent his life making. Now, he teaches people from America and Britain how to do the same thing. Churches go to ARMONIA secure in their faiths and secure in their doctrines. They come ready to dispense this goodness and their efforts to make life better for that faceless mass of people, “the poor.”

They leave shaken to their very core in the certainties of their faith and their life. The assumptions that they once held so dear are gone. They have engaged with poverty by getting to know people, and they cannot explain it away as some judgement from God for some sin. It’s so big that they have trouble even blaming it on systemic global injustice. Saul told all of this to a room full of theologians, people who are very adept and talking about troubles, but sometimes lack the empathetic ability to actually understand and engage with these circumstances from anything but academic levels. We were told this by a man who followed Jesus’ call to be Christ to others, and on faith and faith alone went and did it. As a future minister, I had to ask myself: how can I help people let go of their fixed beliefs and find faith – and the courage borne of such faith! – to be and do what God is calling them to do?

Counter this to another story I heard of a missionary trip to Tanzania not too long ago. A group of teenagers went to build a school, having raised money from their church for such a project. They arrived, and each day they built up the walls of the school in the hot sun using concrete blocks. Each night they went back to their dorms, tired and fulfilled with missionary zeal. The person who related this story to me discovered on the last day of her two-week trip that each night the local community went to the schoolhouse, tore down their walls, and then built them right back up to where they had been. Why? Because suburban-raised teenagers tend to know nothing about building concrete walls. The locals, glad to accept the gift, also wanted to make sure it was stable but not insult the giver. The terrible sadness in this entire “mission trip” was that there was never any interaction between the people: the youth arrived secure in their faith and literally built up unsound walls to sustain it each day. Had it not been for that accidental revelation at the end of that encounter, she would never have been challenged in her own beliefs of her goodness. She never would have had to confront the real poverty of the people. In the end, she realized that she never really engaged with them or got to know them. She arrived with her beliefs, and never once had to let go of those and go by faith alone.

A person can believe anything, but faith: well, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11.1, AV).  Faith is the ability to let go of the certainties of control, to not look at a person in a different situation and judge them based upon what you believe to be certain. It’s the ability to let go of certainties and take up the call of God on your life to engage with one another without judgement. Unlike Job’s friends.

Our reading this morning comes from the end of the conversation with Job with his three friends. Job has been stricken with terrible torments: his children all have been killed in the disastrous collapse of a building. On the same day, some raiders from the north stole all of the cattle he had, robbing him of all wealth. He gets stricken with suppurating sores from the ends of his toes to the top of his head. In response, he sits in an ash heap, with a broken fragment of pottery, a potsherd, and is silent for seven days. He is joined in this commiseration by his three friends. When they see him, they do not recognize him, so stricken is he. Upon seeing their friend, they tear their clothes and they throw dust on their heads. They make themselves uncomfortable. And they sit, for seven whole days, in silence with Job. Such compassion! But at the end of those seven days, Job opens his mouth, and what he says scandalizes them as much as it might scandalize us today:

“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ (3.3) . . . Why did I not die at the birth? (3.11) . . . Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? (3.23) . . . Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.”

Blasphemy! From the mouth of one so supposedly pious as Job! He wishes not for his life to end, but for it to never have existed! He does not curse God – Job never curses God – but he curses near everything else. In so doing, he casts doubt on the wisdom of God as far as the friends are concerned. By cursing the very day he was born, cursing his own birth (!), bemoaning that he has human comprehension (light) and yet cannot make sense of his pain, he is telling his friends that something is awry with God’s finely wrought plan for the world.

Job’s doubt was shocking to his friends because their doctrinal system of understanding was that if something bad happens to a person, he or she must surely have deserved it. They have three assumed beliefs which they brought with them to this travesty. The first two are ones that we are probably familiar:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is just and good.
  3. Job is good.

Therefore, if Job is not guilty, how is it possible to explain what befalls him (Gutierrez 21) unless we doubt the first two? The friends assumed that Job was in denial about what sin now was causing him pain. They believe that to be good friends to Job, their task is to make Job understand the first two points and accept the fallacy that he is not to blame. It never occurs to them to actually engage with Job outside of these fixed assumptions and actually trust the experience and viewpoint of their friend. Rather than open themselves to Job, they impose upon him their own viewpoint of how the world is, and of how God is. Not because God is actually like that, but because if God were not, it would destroy how they understand the world.

Job can’t accept their view of the world and God as correct. He’s righteously mad at God. He provides a litany of injustices that the all-powerful God permits: “[The poor] go about naked, without clothing; hungry, they carry the sheaves” – implying that they will not eat any of the bread made from those sheaves! “Among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil” – for the profit of the wicked but not themselves! “They tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst. From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God charges no one with wrong.” Where is this justice, Job asks his friends, of which you speak so certainly?

Bildad’s response, the one we read, is a last-ditch attempt to save his falsely pious view of the world. He hides behind his version of God. He declaims Job as being irrational at not accepting what is the prevailing wisdom about God. Job will have none of it: dripping with sarcasm, he charges the pious Bildad of dispensing not God’s wisdom, but his own (“with whose help have you uttered words, and whose breath has come out from you?”). Job concludes by acknowledging that no one can know God’s justice: God is a mystery, because the world is obviously not operating on just principles, and he’s mad at God because of this.

Part of our resistance to letting go of the concepts of a mechanistically just God is because we are afraid of letting go of the way our life is now. Like Job’s friends, we don’t want to let go and literally let God because we don’t want to give up our jobs, our way of life, or our friends. Like Saul Cruz of ARMONIA, we have goals of doing great things with this life, and a normal professional life demands that we control and organize that life. Plus, we like things the way they are. We’ve spent our lives striving for things to make just enough sense that we can manage them, and manage them we’re going to do. This is the view of Job’s three friends, and doubtless was his own view before this disaster knocked him from his false position of believing he could make sense of the world. Like the teens on the mission trip building shaky walls, he really was not aware of the world and the people in it, and just how weak his own structure was. (potsherd)

There is not reason to despair. We are held in this world when we do let go of false certainties and go by faith. Our needs will change when we follow what Jesus is calling us to do in the world and stop trying to substitute those with material needs and wealth. Jesus says, in the Gospel of St Matthew Ch. 11, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus never says that you will not have a yoke, nor a burden: but by going with the grain of God’s call upon your life, the burden goes from impossible to light, from death to life, from war to peace. It is a way that engages with each aspect of life. In that old way of life, you judged others not to make their life better, but to keep yours secure. That was the real failure of Job’s friends, as much as it was the teen missionary group building shaky walls: their action was designed to make them more secure in their beliefs, rather than challenge those by living and acting out in faith.

One Great Hour of Sharing is a campaign designed to have wealthy western Christians donate money to people in need throughout the world. It only works if we disengage from any sense of superiority in the world and re-engage as the people we are called to be, taking up Jesus’ yoke and developing the character through trial and suffering as urged in St Paul’s letter to the Romans. God’s world does not make sense: there are homeless people in this County living in a tent city they call the Death Camp down on Rt 198. It’s not pretty, but what brought them there must defy our simplified explanations of just treatment. We must challenge ourselves to be people of faith, as Saul Cruz’s ARMONIA program does, and not build shaky walls of belief absent of relationship with God’s people. We must trust God even when angry at God at the way things are, and take on the yoke Jesus offers us. This faith-based, rather than belief-based, life brings abundant life and makes us good friends to one another. Amen.

Lead us from death to life: a re-orienting faith

In 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Fear, Matthew, Progressive Christianity, Radical Welcome, Relationality, UCC Annapolis, Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Texts: Deut. 30:15-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; St Matt. 5:21-37

I can imagine the people wandering the desert having listen to Moses. There he is, telling them about this fertile land that they’re supposed to be heading for, and he gives them all these stiff rules that they have to follow. They’ve been slaves for a really long time! They know how to follow rules. Wasn’t this Moses guy supposed to lead them to freedom? And yet here he is, handing down commandments and telling them how to act. It really is not cool. Plus, they’re stranded in the wilderness anyhow, right? So why would they actually want to listen to this guy about life right now?

Moses is telling the people traveling in the wilderness to follow the commandments which he has handed on. This comes as no surprise to us, really: in our lives and our work we are always told to “follow the rules”, and the fear of death used as the reason is surprisingly common. Or some sort of threat is given as to why we must follow the rules. A “Do Not Enter” sign on a road, for example, motivates you by fear of death and an accident to not drive down that road. The IRS threatens penalties and taxes for breaking the rules. The great thing about such rules is that normally we have no trouble following them. We comprehend them, and we therefore obey them in part because it is in our self-interest to do so. Making decisions about which rules to follow becomes all the more difficult, however, if what we should be doing is not in our own immediate self-interest.

Moses is making a hard case saying that “you will live and thrive and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering” if you “command the commandments I’m giving you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws.” I suspect he’s making a hard case because “loving the Lord your God” and obeying God’s commandments are not actually in one’s immediate self-interest. And indeed, if we were to study the Jewish Torah, which is loaded up with protections of widows, orphans, respect to neighbor, respect to illegal aliens, Jubilee years where all debts are forgiven, prohibitions against garnering up an excess of wealth, and so forth, we might have to agree: this book is NOT in our self-interest. The people are about to enter a land which is fertile, a land in which a person can make a really fantastic amount of money. They’re crossing the threshold of death – which is represented by wandering the wilderness to the East of the Jordan and where they’re entirely dependent upon things like manna – to life, a fertile land “flowing with milk and honey” that can be sustainably developed for life to continue peacefully in community forever. And yet, Moses warns that even this bountiful place of beauty can be overcome with greed and destroyed. The place of life can become a place of death. The “other gods” he warns about don’t have to literally be other gods – they are anything in the lives of the people that focus them away from God’s own beloved community, a community with rules that don’t protect the privileges of private citizens, but instead focus upon justice for the poor and the oppressed. Moses is convinced that the only way possible for the already fertile land to remain a place of life, and not a place of death, is if the people follow the commandments which prevent them from privileging themselves over the needs of a neighbor.

Moses makes it look clean and straight-forward. But we in this very church know that life is not clean and straightforward. Even the very best of intentions can become exploitative of our neighbor. However, in a community that practices neighborliness and keeps on practicing it, trying to be “good” regardless of how difficult, trying to “obey the commandments by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and keeping God’s commandments of justice and peace, it might be possible to cultivate an ethos of being good that is not motivated by immediate negative fears, such as death or a penalty.

In 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small Protestant village in the middle of France, began saving about 5,000 Jews. To borrow one quote, “never was a Jew turned away or turned in” in the course of the war. The people of this community had routines and they had ways of hiding the the refugees. They helped their refugees garner false identification papers. Their community, tightly knit, welcomed in the strangers who came and stayed united despite the obvious threat of death looming over their heads like swords of Damocles. They interwove their lives with them; some were killed for the mere suspicion of harboring Jewish refugees, including one clergy person. They heard stories of nearby villages that were completely destroyed by the Nazi SS for sheltering refugees. Yet they continued to patiently harbor and shelter and assist refugees in escaping. After the war was over, no one outside of the community spoke of it nor did they speak of it. I was not until the late 1970s that a man who as a child had been harbored there began to inquire about it. The response he received was different: “How do you call us ‘good’,” they said. “We were doing what had to be done.” You can see them shrugging their shoulders as they return to the task at hand.

For the people of Le Chambon there was no dramatic interpretation of Scripture or theological explanation for what they did. They did what they did because it “had to be done.” But what compelled them to do it, risking life, limb and community to save complete strangers who were not held in high esteem by the majority of Europe at the time? For them, it was out of a habit of neighborliness – a sense of being and doing what God required of them every single day, as a community. They had been doing this for a long time, never dramatically, but always because it “needed to be done.” Becoming a community is not something which happens quickly. I say “community” as while I know that many see this church as a family, I like to think of it as a beloved community, with people from all walks of life that lays out a extravagant welcome, and can talk openly and safely with one another without threat, jealousy, harm or pain.

But: This is not a point at which we can arrive quickly. It takes years of patient growth, practicing welcome and developing as new people come in, former people leave, and approaches to issues evolve. When St Paul writes to the Corinthians, he refers to them as “infants in Christ”, a newly-formed community that was still exploring what it meant to be a church. Yet whatever prompted the letter to the Corinthians convinced him that they were not a growing congregation: they had not matured, and were still plagued with in-fighting and jealousy and strife. He does not give up on them: he prays for them without ceasing, and gives thanks for them. He urges them, however, to change their ways, and to re-orient themselves in the spirit of the good news to love and serve God, rather than be slaves to their own self-interest.

This is the crux of the Jesus message. The citizens of Le Chambon knew this message, and had been living as the beloved community for many years. They had matured into “spiritual people” whose values moved away from themselves and toward God: that is, God’s world and God’s people (who are all people) who were in need. They disobeyed the human laws of Vichy France and put their lives on the line for complete strangers when others like them were dying, and the vast majority was fearfully cowering for their own lives. The people of Le Chambon lived in such a way for such a long time that they no longer even needed to be told to obey the commandments in the didactic style which Moses employs in Deuteronomy, or the disappointed pastor in St Paul does when he enjoins the Corinthians to cease being vindictive to one another. Their long-term faith journey re-oriented them away from the selfish concerns of avoiding death to focusing on fostering and flowering life. It only became noticeable to the world when a crisis fell upon them: but before that, it had been there, being practiced in the ordinary everydayness of life. It did not require a crisis to happen.

In order for us to be a people of faith, we must put away those relics of our selfish times. In the beginning, we will need rules and regulations to help guide us. But as we evolve and grow as a people of faith, we become more confident of how to navigate the path in front of us and assure a just and peaceful and welcoming community that knows, implicitly, the right thing that God is calling us to do in that time, in that place. We need to do it as a community: it cannot be done alone. This again is why I so strongly believe we need a church, even against those arguments that one can “find God on a morning stroll through the woods.” True, divinity is present everywhere, as a Unitarian prayer goes, but as it continues: “but in certain places and certain times we feel a speciality of presence: may this be such a place, and such a time.”

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us what happens when we go beyond the structures that held us up in our faith infancy. We no longer just say “killing is bad”; we say “anger is bad,” and saying terrible things about one another is bad, just as bad as killing. It is so bad that if you come to worship with anger in your heart, Jesus tells you to get up, and go back to the person with whom you are angry and be reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and be able to worship God in the sanctuary with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and indeed, with your entire being. How many of us came into worship with hatred in our hearts for someone, something? And yet, who here is ready to leave? You may. There is no shame in following the teachings of Jesus. Come and worship God reconciled with one another. This is what it means to pass the peace: we remove anger from our hearts, and take away hard feelings.

Living in a community and growing in faith together will make it possible to not even need to rely on the basic commandments, but will make it possible to go beyond the commandments. Our Scripture readings, though from old documents that have lived with communities in very different times, continue to help guide us, calling to us to live out the good news of Jesus. We have received the commandments, but we can hear in these Scriptures where Jesus wants us to go: beyond the commandments. We move from the self-interest that exploits our fertile lands and brings death and re-orient our community to the sharing in the journey that leads to life. We pray for our communal faith to so occupy our bones that we find when a crisis DOES happen, we can respond in the same manner as the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne: “We were doing what had to be done”.

Amen.

Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

8 Carvel Circle

Edgewater, MD 21037

http://www.uccannapolis.org

(410) 266-8596 x200

We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together

In After Pentecost, Jesus, Luke, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on October 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Sermon given at the United Church of Christ of Annapolis for Sunday, 6 Oct 2013

St Luke 17.5-10

Our good friends in Cambridge, England, Andrew and Susanna, begin each meal together with a simple blessing: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together.” During the blessing, guests join hands and intentionally look at one another. Three things are acknowledged in this blessing:

  1. Being. I, as an individual, exist, with all my thoughts and emotions.
  2. Here. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment. This is an event, no less nor more than any other event, but I am awakened to the moment of this particular event.
  3. Together. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment, alongside other people, whom I see and affirm.

Through the three-fold process of the prayer, we are drawn to intentionally reflect on our own existence and recall that that alone is special; we then move along to expand our awareness to the place, all of those things that signify what “here” might mean during that event. And then, we go even further by growing aware of the people that we are with in that place and affirming that they are there with our eye contact and/or hand-holding. The entire three-fold activity is held together by a unity of thankfulness: we give thanks for each stage.

Thankfulness is one of the most profound of human activities, and yet one of the easiest to forget. Turning back to our Greek classics, those ancient heroes who forgot to thank the gods for their good fortune and instead decided it was solely their own skill that led them to safety or success would quickly find themselves no longer in the good graces of the gods. This was less because of any Greek idea of a bunch of angry gods, but rather the result of a society that saw gratefulness as the binding force of all that existed in the culture. Gratefulness for this culture was not something that was given after the fact, as in the proper response for a favor; rather, it was something that existed already in the world. It was a given that one would be thankful for the existence of another person, because in ways one might not even begin to understand, one was dependent upon that other person and always and already owed them. The heroes owed their success and good fortune to the fabric of the world and community in which they lived.

The most sinister of characters would be that person or group of people who felt that they owed no one anything, or worse, that the world owed them. To them, life in the community was a balance sheet of favors and debts. They would be guilty of what Gary Snyder called “stinginess of thought” in our worship preparation reading. Living a “good life” would be one where nothing was owed on either side of the balance sheet. In today’s world this is a phenomena we are accustomed to witnessing, played out on the grand stage of politics, healthcare, housing, minimum wages, our monthly bills, and interpersonal behavior. So often our system of rewards is based not upon a general, always-present thankfulness for one another, but rather a system of merit decided by those in positions of authority over another: did this person deserve this reward, or no? The thanks is restricted only to those who are deemed deserving because of a certain action, and not in the general sense of just being people interacting with our own household.

In that ancient world, where no one pretended to understand the complex web of interconnectivity between one another, to be always in a state of thankfulness was to be demonstrating some sort of faith. In our society today, we recognize God in a general understanding of thanking God when something just works, or a person recovers from sickness, and so forth. We do not presume to know how it works, and even when it can be easily explained, we just know that something happened that made it work. The choral response we sing today following our pastoral prayer, “Thank You, Lord”, reflects this sentiment.

Though Jesus was probably not drawing from the ancient Greeks, something of this understanding of faith arising from constant thankfulness is apparent in his short parable given in response to the apostles’ request. They ask: “Increase our faith!”. It’s one of the most ludicrous demands in the New Testament. It is a demand for miracles, for acts of unquestionable proof that Jesus is the son of God. It is not thankful for Jesus’ presence amongst them, but is rather a demand upon him to serve them. It is a selfish demand for Jesus to make a spectacle of himself in order to purchase their belief in God. Indeed, this is often what churches feel they need to do as they begin to discern how to grow or be more dynamic or vibrant: they feel that people are demanding that we as a church “increase their faith”. In response we feel obliged to put on spectacular displays for them. And so we are tempted to slick things up without a due regard to substance. That does not mean that a church should not have a party: lest we forget, Jesus’ first miracle is to provide the means to keep the Wedding at Cana going – and back then, weddings went on for days at a time. These activities bind community. Nor does it means that a church should not change in order to be more relevant. But what it does mean is that the church should not have a party for the sake of having a spectacle. Nothing a church does should be for the mere sake of appearances. Jesus answers the apostles’ demand with a substantive response, which is similar to that unity within my friend’s table prayer: to paraphrase, he says “increase your thankfulness”.

Jesus poses a question which assumes that the apostles, the very ones who are supposed to be living in the Jesus Way and showing this to all people, are slaveowners. They are in a position of authority with control of the lives of other people. The question assumes that they feel that it is perfectly natural to live in this hypocritical structure, with them as followers of Jesus, and their slaves as servants who have their own, different and subordinate, ways of doing things. Their lives are lived in a balance-sheet mentality; even their comment, “increase our faith,” suggests that they want that aspect of their lives increased so as to offset some other imbalance. They don’t see that by not living lives of thankfulness they are slaves to their own system. They don’t see that Jesus is teaching them to break out of thinking in those ways!

How often do we thank the postman, or the people laying asphalt to create roads, or the people collecting the garbage and recycling of our homes? Teachers? The people operating the networks that keep the internet and electricity in place? Those treating our wastewater or trying to solve the ecological challenges of the Chesapeake Bay? How often do we thank God for all the things that come together to make our lives possible? True, we pay people, perhaps grudgingly. Let’s face it, though: that transactional activity is not much different than slavery in the sense that one would provide the basic needs of a slave, in return for the slave to function as required.

In order for one to have even a modicum of faith in Jesus’ eyes, that “faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus wants the apostles to show how thankful they are for others who interact in their lives. To show this thankfulness, Jesus directs the apostles to how they treat the invitations to their dining table. Is it a place where all can eat together? Or is it a place where only an exclusive few are able to eat? Is it a place where some are standing behind the chairs actively serving the guests? Today is World Communion Sunday, and together with Christians around the globe we will sit at Jesus’ table. It is open to all; it is, as my friend the British-Caribbean theologian Michael Jagessar calls it, “a table with no corners.” It is a place where Jesus expresses his thankfulness for all of us, and selflessly feeds us with the spiritual food that represents the substance and lifeblood of his own life. It is a perpetual example of thankfulness for us to emulate.  In response to this meal, we give thanks to him. This is a thanks that is so much more than a thank-you note. It is a thankfulness that fills the core of our very being, overflows, and is demonstrated by how we act.

How we act upon thankfulness is evidenced every time we break down the structures that perpetuate inequality and mere transactional zero-sum relationships. We give thanks to Jesus and this meal on the communion table every time we give thanks for the lives of our sisters and brothers, those we know, and especially those we do not know, when we affirm that we love them in thought, word and deed. When we recognize how inter-connected we always and already are in our lives, and we are moved to give thanks, we thank God for it. It’s an emotion we can share in common with those ancient Greeks, and an emotion we give thanks to Jesus for reminding us about in this parable, in his life, and in his own open invitation to the table.

So much in our world drags us back to zero-sum thinking. It’s hard to pay an electricity bill with thankfulness. Those whose are furloughed in our congregation from the shut-down, and the many of us directly affected by it, will have trouble getting back to work on thankfulness. Zero-sum structures are part of the fabric of our society, and balance sheets keep us out of a lot of financial trouble. They can be approached prayerfully. Jesus recognizes that there will always be those structures. Yet he refuses to acknowledge that these need to dominate our approach to life together. He wants us to put mutual appreciation and thankfulness in front of our thinking, and let the balance sheets follow such an approach.

He also reminds the apostles that if we only do that which we’re required to do, our lives will end in “zero sums” ourselves, and we will count ourselves as “worthless slaves who have done only what we ought to have done,” no more, no less. In contrast, a life lived out in thankfulness overflows in meaning. When thankfulness overflows, we are able to find meaning in our own being. We can give thanks for being. We are able to open ourselves up more to the place in which we are: we can give thanks for being here. If we can give thanks for being here, we can go so much further and give thanks for being here, together. We find that the prayer itself is a table with no corners, for it works itself around in a circle. Because we can give thanks for being together, we are able to find in the affirmation of ourselves from one another meaning in our own individual being. It is a cycle of building up that continues, and can only be achieved in the feeling of mutual thanksgiving. That is what we do in this church every Sunday, if not every day.

And so, I ask us now, from where we are sitting, to reach out our hands and join them with those around you. Let this be a beginning of a mutual appreciation of one another. Some of you won’t know the person next to you, but know that your life is as connected to them as it is to a parent, a partner, a child: as we prepare to approach the table which Jesus has joyfully prepared for us, which is put together by so many hands in the Body of Christ around the world, let us say our prayer as we take in the space around us, and the people around us: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together. Amen.”

Bibliography: http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining (2011)

 

 

 

Breaking the rules: a reflection on locating the sacred in relationship

In 1 Kings, Authenticity, Churches Together, Doubt, Holy Ground, Little Baddow Chapel, Progressive Christianity, Prophetic, Relationality on June 16, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Delivered at Little Baddow Chapel (URC) on Sunday, 16 June 2013

Key Text: 1 Kings 21

You are also welcome to view this sermon delivered as a video on Vimeo.

The Bible teaches us in many different ways. Sometimes, it appears to be very straightforward: the Ten Commandments seem like a clear-cut summary of how we should behave toward one another. The codes of Leviticus appear to lay out laws that everyone should follow for a just and ordered society, although many will convincingly assert that some of those laws are out-of-date or written for an entirely different time and place then today. Even then, they are not irrelevant, and we should look to the overriding spirit of those laws to create social cohesion today. But as often as we get clear-cut instructions, we also receive stories as a way of teaching us. Many of us have grown up with stories full of rich characters and bright imagery. These teach us lessons and morals to help us discern how we should interact with one another for the good of all human flourishing. Today’s story from first Kings is such a lesson. It tells of what happens when unbridled power is held to be the highest human value, and also how God raises up prophets to speak truth to that power.

We have encountered this story before, when we were learning about the “Bad Girls of the Bible” in our series last November. Then, we focused on the character of Jezebel. We learned that she is not to be treated as evil incarnate. We learned instead to think of her as someone who had been taught that her highest values should be the authority of the state, of which she as Queen was a functionary. We took pity on Jezebel. She was a smart woman who dedicated her life to the ruthless pursuit of making her husband a great king. She misunderstood that greatness does not come from raw power and might, and we focused on how important it is to hold in our own lives values which reject power and might as right and to teach that to others.

Stories are excellent because they contain so many messages and teachings. Today, we are not going to focus so much on Jezebel. Too many wrong-headed sermons have been preached to denounce her, often misunderstanding the facts. Fortunately we can approach this story already with a different understanding. Today we will look at the relationships between Ahab, Naboth, and the prophet Elijah. We will look at where they place their value and how they assign values, and therefore what they determined to be sacred and profane. This should give us pause to think about that which we hold valuable: that which we hold sacred, and that which we hold as profane. How can we share our values by speaking truth to power at times when society respects and values raw, unbridled power over meek and humble relationships to one another?

Let us turn, then, to our story. Did Ahab’s offer seem fair and equitable to you? He is offering Naboth a better field for a generous payment. By the laws of our society, particularly eminent domain laws which stipulate that for the government to secure land, it must offer fair market value, this is a good deal. Given some ancient ideals of monarchy, no such fair deal needed to be made: the king could have simply taken the property on a whim, backed by the raw power to which a monarch was entitled.

Naboth refuses to sell. When he says, “God forbid I sell the land,” there is nothing in that statement that is equivalent to our own modern day usage of the phrase “God forbid.” He really means it, more like “God forbids it.” An active, visceral no. Why would he say this? It is so much more than his personal preference: he does not say “I would rather not” or “I am holding onto the land for my children’s sake.” What he says does not even imply that he particularly likes this vineyard. Not his own will, but God’s, is holding him back from selling the land.

Naboth’s land is part of his tribal inheritance. The ownership of land in our scripture reading today is not determined by individual deeds that can be changed by sale or gambling matches or whatever. Nor is there any guarantee to Naboth that the land he might have received in exchange from Ahab would be in his own tribal group. The Israelites held that the land is decreed to them by God, through community tribal groups that make up the entire nation. Naboth therefore does not see himself as the owner of the land. The owner is God. Naboth sees himself as the steward of this particular patch of land, held in covenant with God to be treated with responsibility while he makes a living off of it through his vineyard. Because the land does not belong to him, Naboth cannot see how he could actually sell the land. He would not even be able to contemplate exploiting the land for his own use now, leaving nothing for the future. Naboth’s view may well have been that he wanted to sell the land: he could have used the money or gained greater wealth from the a better vineyard as promised by Ahab. But his injunction against the sale has nothing to do with his own desires. Envying after more wealth by swapping the land for something else would be a lack of trust in the covenant God has made with him and his entire community.

Before going on, I think we should pause and consider this point. It is not just what Naboth wants as an individual that motivates his decisions. What motivates Naboth is a consideration of the community’s good over his own. Naboth’s world did not have the individual ethic that fuels so much of today’s activity. Everything was held in trust, covered by the covenant relationship with God to the community. There was no imagination of a right to privacy, or that his land was his land and therefore only between him and God to determine how to dispose of it. His covenant relationship with God, mediated in his community, forbids him from selling it. It guides how he decides what is valuable, and therefore that which is sacred and beyond monetary value judgements. All things do not have a price.

Yet in our world, so many things are increasingly geared toward us as an individual and not as a community. We think we are able to determine that which is sacred on an entirely individual basis, with no communication with our community. A few years back, our computer folders became prefaced with “My”. Our electronics frequently begin with the letter “i”, indicating their very specific nature of being owned by an individual. “Smart” applications are designed to tailor shopping activities to our individual interests so that our resources, time and money will be funnelled in specific directions. The very fact that what is considered “intelligent” in machines is the ability to cater to an individual human being should give us pause.

Because of this individual catering, we are increasingly able to imagine that we live in our own bubbles of privacy. This makes us think that our decisions have no impact on others, or even that we have no responsibility to one another in how we make use of our individual time and talents outside of creating happiness for our own individual selves. As Naboth’s tale is showing us, this is an illusion. We live in community, and that communal ethic informs how we determine our values.

How we determine our values comes from where we place the sacred. At one time in human history, the ground of the sacred was thought to literally be the ground: God appeared to Moses in a bush that burned but was not consumed, and told Moses to take off his shoes, for he was standing on holy ground. But the ground itself was not what made it holy: what made it holy was that it was where God made a covenant with Moses, thus elevating the relationship between God and Moses as that which is holy. The land which Naboth owned was sacred to his tribal family. By association with that relationship, it is holy ground. It is holy ground because it represents a relationship between God and God’s people. It is not holy because someone decreed it to be so. It is holy because it is itself a relationship between the people of God and God. The relationship between people and God, a relationship which is lived in the way we treat one another, exceeds any value we could otherwise assign it – especially monetary value, the terms in which Ahab thinks, and perhaps which we are also tempted to think.

As people of faith, we are challenged to see the world in a new way: to value that which is around us not on monetary, measurable worth, but rather to look at value based upon how sacred it is; how integral it is to being the ground of our relationships.

Ahab’s behavior is both poor leadership and poor citizenship. He ignored the importance of land as the ground of the covenant relationship of God with the people, and tried to enrich himself at the expense of others. When we remove ourselves from the ground of our shared life, we are unable to understand the needs and lives of the people right next to us. A church in this sense needs to be a team working to counteract this individualistic tendency in our society. To counteract that tendency and become a group turned toward community, we must ourselves always work in concert with one another, even and especially when we disagree with the opinions of another member. This is acting in ways which make where we worship and where we work into sacred places. And Oh, when we do this, we stand as a light on a hill for all to follow! Not because we are more saintly than any other person, but because we recognize the importance of relationships between ourselves and each and every person that moves in our community. We demonstrate this in our speech and our actions. We make this real when we take stands in big and small ways for justice and for peace and for love. We make this real when we look to our church finances and prioritize them in this holy sense. To put it in context of this passage, it is when we become like Elijah.

Elijah speaks truth to power. At the end of our story, Ahab is enjoying the benefits of his vegetable garden. He did not ask Jezebel how Naboth came to die: he appears to assume that ignorance is bliss, and thus blissfully enjoys the vegetable garden that was once Naboth’s vineyard. God raises prophets in this world to speak truth to power: Elijah was that person. He confronted Ahab, and Ahab repented bitterly for the actions which he did not instigate, but by which he benefitted from ill-gotten gains. Today, through and in Christ, the church is that people. Where Elijah removed the feigned ignorance of Ahab, we are also called to make apparent those things in our world that are ill-gotten. I know you can think of a few things we need to make apparent: clothes that are produced by child labor and/or in unsafe factories; banking sectors making money off gullibility; fruit growers cheated out of contracts for lower supermarket pricing; coffee, tea and cocoa laborers paid poor wages for our enjoyment over something as innocent as a cuppa. When we spend our money and time to enjoy something, we need to realize that we are doing so much more than a simple transaction: we are covenanting with the whole chain of logistics which brought that good or service to us. Is that chain holy? Is it profane? Does it respect the people who participate in it? Does it give them enough? Or not enough for them to flourish as human beings? Are we willing to point out to the powerful of our world systemic injustices that keep people from having enough? Are we willing to go without in order to protest injustice in our supply chains?

As a church we understand how relationships are holy in and of themselves and therefore make things, such as land or a church, for some place and some time, holy. We as a church live those relationships as we act like Elijah, speaking truth to power when the holiness of a relationship is breached for individual selfish gain. As we go out into the world everyday, and as we gather in this place every week and more often than that, let us make sacred space together, in the presence of God and each other. Amen.

On being in relationship with God

In Churches Together, Little Baddow Chapel, Luke, Micah, Process Theology, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, Science/Religion on January 28, 2013 at 11:08 am

The following was given at Little Baddow Chapel (URC) on Sunday, 27 January 2013 for a United Village Service of Thanksgiving, combining the voices of our Church of England, United Reformed, and Roman Catholic congregations to give thanks for the voluntary work that continues to occur in our village. 

Texts: Micah 6.6-8; Luke 24.13-35

Do you know that there is no such thing as substance? Hard matter? That might come as a surprise. However, everything in the universe is defined by relationship, and not by hard matter. You might say: but atoms are hard matter. Certainly they appear to us to be hard matter, but they themselves are made up of subatomic particles, which are made up of quarks, which are made up of energy. And what attracts that energy together into patterns which become atoms and then form into other things, such as a block of wood, or water, or your own body, is relationships that exist at every level. All substances are merely temporary patterns of energy, which can change as new relationships form and use the energy differently (a simple explanation is here). Friend, you are entirely made up of relationships from your top to your toe, and most of them you probably aren’t all that aware of. Think about your consumption of food and water: when you eat, you are bringing in something that has been formed by different energy patterns into your body to form new relationships with your body to strengthen and give you fortitude for another day. You might even be able to go so far as to say that you are engaging with that biscuit, and that relationship between you and the biscuit will forever have some impact on you because of your shared energy.

Crazy stuff. But why would this be important to theologians, and more importantly, why would this be important to us? It reminds us that what is most important in the world is our relationships. Whatever conception we have of self, and of community, is based entirely upon the relationships which we hold. Whenever that structure changes, whether that be death, disagreement, or new friendships, our own personal understanding of self changes, too. It stands, therefore, that you are never the same person day-to-day. Your identify has changed, even if only a little bit, from your interactions each day between persons and things. Sure, the bulk of your personality, formed by both the chemical relationships in your brain and the ones you had with others as a child continues to be largely and recognisably the same, but each time you engage with other people and places, you are changed. Somewhat.

Unlike chemicals, human beings are uniquely situated to be able to have some idea over how they deploy their energies to create relationships. In the past ten years, people have been talking about “networking” and “social networking” as if they are new things. But for as long as human beings have been communicating and working together, or working against, one another, we have been “networking” because we’re mimicking the very way that the universe works – in relationship with everything.

So let us re-visit that Emmaus Road story. Two people are traveling back from Jerusalem, where some amazing things have been happening. Jesus of Nazareth, who “showed himself a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and the whole people,” had died. He was the one who they had hoped would set Israel free, free of its bondage to the Roman Empire. They wanted him to free them from Roman bondage in the fashion of a warrior king, to bring on almighty divine wrath and smite the Romans. But this was not how Jesus lived, was it? This was not what Jesus preached. He was the one who engaged with the people and gave them a hope that there was more to their lives than the daily drudgery to which they were subject, creating wealth for a powerful empire in which they had no say. He lived what he preached, he walked alongside the people. He did not raise up an army to confront might with might. When arrested by the forces of the government, he resisted not, and he died. For three days there was no hope amongst the people, and this is true amongst these two people. They have heard of a resurrection, but they don’t believe such things. Who would? The man is dead, their hope is dead, they’re returning to work with downcast faces.

But they have learned something. Their relationship with Jesus has changed them. They walk and converse with this complete and utter stranger. They bear their hearts to him, and tell him of their hopelessness. They could not let this stranger wander off into the night alone. They invite him in, they welcome him, they feed him. Their hearts are broken because what they had wanted did not happen, but the message Jesus came to teach them had already changed them. They couldn’t ignore loneliness, and they formed a relationship with this stranger. And as he broke their bread in their home, they see him no longer as a stranger, but as Jesus. They recognized that what mattered about Jesus’ ministry on earth was not some military might overthrowing the powers that be, but affirming their own lives in relationship with one to another.

“What does God require of us,” our reading from Micah asked. Was the response ceremonies and liturgies? Was it even coming to church? No; it was instead a call to vocation. To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. When God calls us, how do we respond? How do we think we should respond? Does it mean we should be kinder to people, get more involved in church, change jobs? Some go into ordained ministry, but perhaps that is a cop-out. After all, an ordained minister gets to do all of those things as a profession, while everyone else has to do those things and live the hard life of reconciling that with the so-called real world, where there is drudgery and toil and where love simply does not pay the gas bill. So when God calls, can we even comply?

This is our challenge as a people. Our lives are full up ever more with obligations. The idea of drudgery and toil eats up the time of ourselves and our loved ones. We are left asking, how on earth do I have time to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly?” I cannot give you concrete answers. What I can do is do what I think is my vocation as a pastor, which is to discern the Word of God in our community, and speak that Word into the community. Recall if you will the first verse of the Gospel of St John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus embodied the Word, and he spoke and lived that Word. And Words form the basis of our relationships with one to another; Words are what we use as we enter into covenant one to another, whether that be in a church community, where the relationship is geared toward worship. Words are what we use when we form relationships with any one of our other volunteering communities, which respond to the call in ways which brings life and vitality to our community by reaching out to the dispossessed, the new, the unwelcome, the hungry, the cold, and people in any other form of need.

So this is what I discern for us today. I am not calling us to take on more work. I am not calling on us to do any more than we already do in our lives. Goodness, can we possibly do that? Instead, I am calling upon us to remember that we are all in relationship to one another. That our lives are holy in that sense, because whatever we do, whether we think it or not, impacts the lives of everyone and everything around us. If you occupy your day balancing corporate books, or serving people at the pub, or delivering mail, or looking out for the public good, or serving in a medical capacity: whatever it is, know that you are serving God through them. You are serving God because you are impacting your neighbour, your friend, the unknown, because you are in relationship with them. That is the difficult thing about faith, I think: you come to church weekly, or when you can, and you are reminded of how much you are connected to one another, because so often we forget. Whatever our individual offices in the world, our mutual vocation is to serve God through them (Taylor 2001). Martin Luther, that great Reformer of the 15th century who shook up the church, made it clear:

Look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them. You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes. None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have many as preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools and other implements in your house and estate, and they shout this to your face: “My dear, use me toward your neighbour as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.”

We give thanks today for those who have heard the call and answered it in this village. We give thanks today that we can see and we can hear the Word in our lives, and be drawn ever closer into relationship with one another. We give thanks that we can discern that the very pattern of the universe is based upon relationship, and that we can be in relationship one to another; and that to be in relationship in such a mutually loving way is to be in relationship with God.

Amen.