Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am grateful to be in your presence this night. This time last year I was preparing to move here. It is a blessing to be in your midst.
Tomorrow we journey to our older daughter, Catherine’s apartment- she is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. She is, I assure you, not listening to the gospel. She is indeed fussing about the table, considering the bird and concerned about appearances. At least based upon the many conversations we have had. And between now and next September we have a lot of wedding planning to do. These words feel very different in this season of our lives and  of busy ness and preparations for Thanksgiving into Christmas and  beyond. It could be easy time as a  frenzied slide of days and expectations. Perhaps some of us here tonight are thinking about all those preparations in our own lives. In the midst of whatever is filling your head, rest assured I will not preach as long as Jesus did the day he uttered these words. In the midst of the sermon on the Mount where he talked long enough people probably were  wondering about dinner.
We gather here on this eve of the holiday in our country called THANKSGIVING. And I can’t help but think it is misnamed. In part because I think it frequently is framed in the category- of thanking God for lots of food,  where we roll out the door of homes and restaurants, stuffed. Our thank you at times feels perfunctory- or just the expected thing to say. “Thanks!” can be superficial. I hope what we really approach God with is gratitude.
I was reading this past week, what someone wrote- “I believe gratitude doesn’t come to the front door all dressed up and bearing Thanksgiving pies- rather, it slips in through the kitchen door like the plumber did when the pipes were clogged just before my daughter’s  wedding that was to happen at our home... You never know what gratitude the sound of a flushing toilet can bring until you’ve seen one overflow three times during the week of your daughter’s wedding.” That plumber was a life changer.  An agent of gratitude.

“ My deeper  point is that gratitude is not the same thing as giving thanks (for us in our culture). It comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended up differently, and often does. Gratitude is surviving the worst thing you can imagine  and realizing that you are still standing.”
Many of us with more than a few miles on the car in our lives have had these moments. The ones where we get out of our head and what we consider our worries, because we have seen the profound place of gratitude. Where we can stop, pay attention, and deliberately behold and appreciate what comes to us only as gift and grace from God.
Given the history of those Pilgrims who were devastated by winter, disease, famine, conflicts and shock, being alive was not just about
 “ thankful,”  it was about gratitude.  Overshadowed by economic development,  a day of Thanksgiving was not a national day until, after years of petitioning Sarah Josepha Hale, at age 74, convinced then President Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to declare a National day of Thanksgiving. A day to recognize blessings in aftermath of a bloody battle at Gettysburg and the despair that the war raged on.

In October of 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation beginning with these words:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields ad healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…” he goes on to list blessings in the midst of adversity.
To speak these words in the midst of turmoil and fears,  is indeed a statement of gratitude. Yes there was turmoil and unrest, but look at blessings still.  The prophet Joel has just finished speaking to people who are asking where God is in their distress, only to hear in the midst of it, don’t be afraid- the Lord has done great things. And what they hear is that pastures will become green, trees will bear fruit, and life will have richness, not because it looks that way in its fullness today, but because the Lord who has been faithful and provided, will continue to do so.
While personally and in our world, we may have worries, it is right to stop and give thanks and behold moments of gratitude first to praise God for them. Those things that only God could have brought forth, and we remember them so that when we are tempted to worry we are reassured of who God is with us and for us and will be. A God who not only provides material things, but shows us more. Both in the the love and  grace and mercy of Christ. And in the things brought forth by God through the gift of community- in both celebration and consolation.
Tomorrow regardless of the world's worries or the state of the mashed potatoes, I will be grateful that after a year of travel abroad, our younger daughter is back in the States, my husband is recovered from significant surgery and our older daughter is making her way in the world. Joys indeed amidst life changing stories.
 And yet Christ, in the gospel, wants to draw us deeper. Into remembering that the God who provides these moments, is so trustworthy, that we can devote our energy not to worry, but to living lives of praise. Being people  whom God uses to bring moments of gratitude and life changing stories for  others. Right before this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has told the people they cannot serve two masters- they cannot put their wants first  and place God first. It is here that he tells them not to worry- since God will provide, seek God’s kingdom first. We can’t tend the relationships with God and others when worries distract us. Don’t worry-  Show love and  grace and mercy to others. Show the gift of community to others. This is the kingdom that God desires for all God’s children.
 At the beginning of  his sermon, Jesus said that the downhearted would experience God’s kingdom; the mourners would be comforted; the meek would have a place; the hungry would be filled. Mercy would be shown, God would be made known and the peace would be lifted up.
At the beginning of my message, I said that “Gratitude comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended up differently, and often does.” Gratitude for God’s blessings hopefully leads us to know that the story can end up differently and should for those who are struggling.

 It doesn’t have to be grand, just come from the heart- It can be offering a word of encouragement; a phone call to someone you haven’t talked to or seen in awhile;  feeding the hungry with good things; making peace with someone, maybe simply giving time to really be present with someone and thank them for what they mean to you.
As one new to the community here this past year, I am grateful to God  for you and pray that  God bless you this day and always. As you gather in  gratitude for the immeasurable blessings we are shown by God’s hand,  I encourage you to pause and reflect on how God has been at work in your story. Then  ask God to show you how you can be an agent of gratitude so others can experience the kingdom- God’s life changing story.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2015

Usually on this Sunday I am trying to figure out how "King" is a term with relevance but this year as our world has had a lot to say.  These end times readings ring out differently. One person wrote this past week, " There’s a war going on, in case you haven’t noticed.  There is the war “out there”–the one with bombs and guns and blood and death.  But there is also a different kind of war going on that is also deadly.” ( Jill Clignan- Practicing Families)
  It's true- A clash in our interactions that makes everything be about polar opposites- Hate versus love.  Strife versus peace.  Fear versus courage. And no in between.
That’s our world talking.

“ while it would be so easy for me right now to sweep my arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare that the sky is falling and the world is ending, I choose, instead, to stubbornly look with hope at the life right before me, to believe that God has not yet given up on His will being done on earth, as it already is in heaven."
That’s kingdom talk.

And that’s when  I remember what Jesus says to Pilate- "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my followers would fight. My kingdom is from another place."
Earlier in the gospel of John, we hear the disciples say, "you talk about your place Jesus, but we have no idea how to get there."
That's us a lot- we don’t know how to get to the kingdom.
And Jesus’ response is – "you do know, because you know me. You know what I have been about, and you know God’s will."
 But knowing his disciples and how hard it is to follow,  elsewhere in the gospels, he tells them that  no matter what life brings, no matter how impossible it seems, here’s a prayer- pray like this.
And he taught them the Lord’s Prayer. I can rattle it off in three different versions almost without thought. And sometimes it’s just rote. Sometimes that’s a comfort that I have it internalized, but other times, I suspect I rattle it off quickly  because when I slow it down I remember- "your kingdom come, and your will be done" is not addressed to my desires, but to the King.
Our King and Lord.
I can pray for the kingdom to come, but here on earth, that’s an awfully tall order.
That’s probably why later on the prayer says,
"Lord,  lead us not to be tempted otherwise. Because YOURS is the kingdom."
 Christ is the ruler of the universe and the kingdom IS. Not will be, but IS now.

 And that’s what Jesus tells Pilate that he came to testify to this truth- God’s truth. THE ONE THAT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE THE TRUTH OUR WORLD DISHES OUT that sucks us in to playing the game of fear, and mistrust and hate. The one that tempts us to believe that  fear and mistrust and hate and struggle are what  it takes to rule.
If I am being honest, this week, and I am,  I cannot easily stand here and profess that I see Christ as the ruler of the universe, and the kingdom breaking forth.
I suspect that  it is so hard to see so often because we fall into the pattern of our world, the pattern  we all have a lot more experience with.

I tell you this not because I am now going to dissect and pontificate about the actions of others. This really is a confession and maybe it's yours too.  Because I don’t follow our King as I should.
 I wish I could more deeply live out what I pray when  I say Christ is the King- the ruler of the universe. That I want Christ's kingdom to come.
And that Christ's truth would meet the truth of my life and it would be obvious that I get that Christ’s kingdom rises above this world.

 We all get caught up in the fight between hate and love, and struggle and peace. And the biggest thing of all I am fighting isn’t evil, in the end, but fear.
Fear of others.
And fear that I know I am not living as one who acknowledges Christ on that throne.
Fear of what I would sacrifice or face if I lived that truth of that place that is not this world.
Maybe that’s why there are 365 places in the Bible where God’s people hear, “Do not fear.”

We are called to practice the truth of Christ and walk in the light. But, truly, sometimes the darkness is so attractive. But what really has me thinking and worried is when we say we cannot help one group of people because another group needs it more, but then we don’t help them either. And there’s nothing stopping us.

We find ourselves at odds and fighting in so many ways.

But you know what Jesus’ opponents hated was when he helped the wrong people. When he raised the dead, when he healed the sick, when he freed the captive, and prioritized the needs of the least. When he promised paradise to the criminal and food for the hungry. And salvation for all. Yes, all.

And when he commanded, yes commanded- our king commanded one thing of us- LOVE.
Love your neighbor as yourself. By the way, everyone is your neighbor. Love them enough to share daily bread, and forgiveness, and the life of the kingdom.
And he promised that the Spirit would give us the truth to prove the WORLD wrong and would give us the power and wisdom to do so.
So that our faith and what propels our actions and beliefs would be based upon this. That we would enact the kingdom of Christ.
Jesus our king and Lord, the ruler of the universe commands we love one another.
And the hardest part of all, is that there are no disclaimers, no fine print, no exceptions. No exceptions about Christ’s love nor about his power.

 This is the hardest part of all- swearing my allegiance to this gospel with no exceptions. And believing that Christ really is the ruler of the universe- no exceptions.
And  our king,  showed power in a cross. And keeps trying to set us free even as we keep holding on to rulers and kingdoms that deal death and pain and destruction. With Christ  telling us to take courage – he has conquered the world. And we are no longer of that world. We don’t have to be in that world- What a beautiful thought!
No exceptions. We don’t have to get sucked into the world’s talk and even better- because one more thing has  no exceptions- grace.
In the face of all of my shortcomings- I get to keep my citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. We all do
Because Christ our King is a gracious king.
And this kingdom that rises above our world  is for real.

Christ IS the king. We have a place in his kingdom, thank God.
And our King calls us to kingdom living.
What should the kingdom look like?
I’ve been asking people
And here’s what I have heard from some of you.
The shelves at the food pantry would never be bare- we’d feed the hungry all the time no exceptions
We wouldn’t only remember certain people at the holidays- we’d care about them all the time- no exceptions
People who are sick would be able to be cared for and not jump through so many gosh-darned hoops- no exceptions
We wouldn’t use one group’s needs as a reason not to help others- we'd help them all!
And  the poor, and the sick, and the elderly, and the oppressed, the veterans, the homeless and any one with any needs would be our business.
There’s a lot to think about there
 And it’s the work before us as workers in the kingdom of God.
A lot of people will say that our world today isn’t the same. One person said to me in fact, "we don’t live in Jesus’ world." But we do! It was scary then and is scary now.
But the truth and good news is that we do- it is a challenge but also a blessing.
And while it challenges us to try to live out our king’s command and what it would do to our economy and business as usual, guess what?  If we did so,
In the extreme, doing the business of  Christ’s kingdom would put the other one of our world out of business.
 Imagine despair, and suffering and injustice and struggle put out of business!

And so this day  while it would be so easy for me right now to sweep my arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare that the sky is falling and the world is ending, I choose, instead, to stubbornly look with hope at the life right before me, to believe that God has not yet given up on His will being done on earth, as it already is in heaven."
 Because Christ’s power shines brightest in our dark places. That cross shows power in places we think it can’t be possible.
And you are my co-workers.
And our only job is LOVE- that’s speaking the kingdom and lifting high the cross as we lift others to life.
 May the Spirit guide us, reassure us and  help us to  commit ourselves again to honoring Christ the King- our  Lord and Savior of the universe, with our lives.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Long and Winding Road

Tomorrow a year ago began what seems like a whole different life. It had already been a turbulent time of emotions as my family and I discerned that it was time for a new call in ministry, with it's attendant mixed emotions of beginnings and endings. It was already a time of great excitement for a new opportunity and sadness of having to announce I was leaving a place, especially since I detest goodbyes. I thought that was the hard thing- having preached and been called to a new congregation on Sunday and having to announce our departure on Monday. But then Tuesday happened.
On Tuesday morning the phone rang and a woman speaking a mile a minute said things like "ambulance" "hospital" and "collapse." Speaking so quickly and repeating it rapid fire that by the third time I interrupted to ask who she was and why she was calling. "Oh, your husband, it's your husband."
Fumbling in numbness I threw myself together and actually beat the ambulance to the hospital. So when I asked in the ER reception area and they told me there was no one here by that name, my chaplain brain kicked in and I assumed that if there was no live patient with his name that meant only one thing. A chaplain was going to call me with news I did not want to hear.
As I repeated where the ambulance was coming from, they found him, but then my clergy ID was insufficient to go to the ER. I was told I had to walk back outside and through security. Even the security guys were saying it was not necessary but they made me leave and walk outside and around to another entrance and then wait for a visitor sticker. So much for that encrypted clergy tag.
I made it back into the unit and they were bringing him back from tests. It had been so hard to be lost and separated and told I couldn't go past a simple door.
After awhile they decided that because his blood pressure was coming down and he had no chest pain they were sending him home for an outpatient stress test. But as I listened to him describe his symptoms they suddenly rang a bell " my legs felt like concrete" was exactly what his mother said before her heart attack that ended in a quadruple bypass. And the advocacy training of law school kicked in. If his condition might me genetic, so could the symptoms. And I learned how hard it is to be heard.
Apparently I was persistent enough without being irritating.
They ran more tests. One test result, and only one was enough to keep him longer.
And run a test again.
And when that one thing still seemed odd, they decided not to send us home.
That is why my husband did not die at home.
So they decided to perform a heart catheterization the next day.
It took longer than expected.
And when the cardiologist came out he looked astounded.
As "this is is the worst case of coronary artery disease in someone so young" spilled out like a tsunami, followed by " he should have died on your recent vacation with all that hiking." And then- scheduled for surgery followed by- we are keeping him alive until then with a ballon pump.
Time sure feels different when keeping someone alive is at stake
And staying the night was not helpful.
To this day I thank God that our neighbors who happened to work for the cardiologist, swooped in. And our other neighbors mobilized.
It all felt like all I did was ride the wave.
I let family know and deputized people to tell others. There are only so many calls you can make.
And they all feel like it's not real
Having been somewhat self sufficient and used to being the care giver, I realized I simply had to let go. And when a pastor colleague asked what she could do, "Be my pastor" spilled out.
God bless Eileen for sitting with me all day and praying with Michael and I.
In the days and weeks that followed where a steady stream of people and demands emerged, I was always exhausted but also always provided for.
Both by our new church and our neighbors especially. Even people who barely knew us, sustained us- you sustain the weary with a word- has forever changed meaning for me.
Our new congregation could not have been more gracious- from packing and moving us to feeding us and helping at every turn. How odd to show up as the shepherd for others yet needing such shepherding.
Here is the part that followed- the grief part. Yes, Michael survived. Thanks be to God! And yes, we are very happy! But I can tell you that it took a full eight months for me to begin to feel like I wasn't in a fog. Simple things felt gargantuan.
The simplest task like measuring and hanging curtains was a mess. Trying to put rooms together- something I love, felt almost impossible.
And perhaps most of all, taking care of myself, which initially was put on hold, suffered as we waded through adjusting not only to a new place, but a new life.
Of sorting out meds, and falls in the night. Of facing depression and naming griefs.
While both having careers dependent upon poise and focus.
And having to navigate what it takes to move from survive to thrive.
A few months ago I actually sat myself down and pronounced that taking care of my physical and spiritual health needed to happen and made steps to do it.
Reconnecting with my spiritual director, making retreat. Attending to all those appointments- mine, not his. And getting back to the gym.
I have never been a coordinated sort, but after finally getting in decent shape it had all fallen away over most of the year.
It was very hard to stop feeling guilty and sad about how all my hard work had evaporated and the 20 pounds had crept on.
And at 51, going on 52, no small feat.
I give thanks for my mutual ministry committee for gently encouraging me and for my trainer, Lisa who has been willing to work with a person who already had a curve in my spine, and war wounds of fitness in a knee and shoulders. And who would work with someone who will not be the "buff gym success story."
She helped me get over myself and just start working back. And I give thanks for Betsy who bugged me when I did not show up for spin class. She spins to get over losing a son. I could surely get over getting to keep a husband. Boy is grief a powerful thing.
When I got to walk "energetically" with Michael in a 5k for Betsy's son, it was victory!
I have farther to go to get back to the me I was a year ago. And yet in some ways I am infinitely wiser and stronger. Maybe the me I was has been resurrected- and born anew!
Not the least of which is realizing it was my back that needed to be stronger in my training. For years I was always in pain even after training and told myself I just needed to work harder. That was how my ministry felt sometimes too. Work harder.
Turns out I didn't need to work so hard- I just needed to let others guide me.
Maybe this is a story about managing grief, or about accepting who I am. Maybe it's about telling that no matter who you are or what you face, you can work through it with faith and patience with yourself.
Probably most of all it's about seeing how much God carries us through others- not to show our weakness but to demonstrate how God strengthens us. I cannot even imagine how we would have carried on without God in so many people.
I finally am getting the last of the parsonage together- 11 months later. The old me would be horrified. The new me is just grateful that so many people have shepherded us on the long and winding road. We absolutely knew God has called us here. We give thanks and hope there is much more of the road together to come.