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Reflection July 30

Published on August 3, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 29:20,25; Romans 8:35,37

The suffering that separates us

Our text in Romans talks about separation.  As I was thinking about this text I thought about what I could come up with in everyday life experience that has to with separation.   As I was thinking about I was chipping away at the remnants of the fence post that held up the fence between our yard and that of the neighbors.  That fence is not there anymore and the new one is not there yet.  We are working on prepping for that new fence. It’s slow work.  So here I am working on that which separates me from my neighbor and it doesn’t occur to me that it could have anything to do with the text.  That makes me wonder: how many separations between our fellow human beings and us do we not see?  We may be in the process of shoring up our walls that keep us from knowing others and we may not even know it.  I have known by neighbor for many years. His kids take care of our yard when we’re gone.  But it is interesting seeing that our yards have suddenly become one. I have gotten to know their dog Leo much better as he now roams a much larger territory.  And their fifty year large desert tortoise Rocky comes and checks me out as I chip away on my knees.  I found out they put him in a plastic box on a shelf in the garage for the winter until he starts moving around in the box  around mother’s day.  With the fence gone less separates us. But this is not where we are going as a country and a world.  We fence and wall ourselves in more and more.

Our text in Romans talks about the things that can separate us from God . These things at the same time separates us from each other many times: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword.  One thing overlooked in accounts of the Holocaust is the toil the cruelty of the oppressors takes on the relationships between the oppressed.

The Theologian Willie James Jennings writes:” Suffering separates us. This is its most diabolical work. It draws a circle around us and slowly shrinks our space-separating peoples, then families, working all the way down to the individual body. “ (Christian Century July 5, 2017, p 21). He continues by saying that suffering often becomes the playground of that which is evil. We can certainly attest to that: just look at what has happened in Mosul and what is happening with retribution. Just look at the deranged gunmen in this country who have gone on a rampage. Look at the mindless gang warfare.   Jennings makes a jarring point when he says:”Too often people imagine that forgetting suffering is the antidote to our wounds and the only way to enter a future freed from suffering’s effects. So ignoring suffering has become a skilled practice in the West. “

Friends, you can take down a fence, whether it is a fence in a slave camp or a concentration camp, but over time if you pay attention, you find out that it is harder to get rid of the traces of that wall.  There are all kinds of debris in the post holes and pieces of that which separated people will show up. It may be in the children or in the children’s children.  Of course, there will be a new fence, as we are too used to our privacy by now and we still have this deep animal instinct for marking our territory.  Just like we keep repairing our fences at the churches to keep us from incurring costly damage.   It’s the only way in this current society that we know how to establish a kind of order.  But that doesn’t mean that’s how it was meant to be.

Jacob suffers.  He misses home, but he falls in love and works seven years so he can marry the woman he has fallen in love with. Then he is betrayed and he works another seven years.  Imagine that. Yet Jacob suffers because he has made those who loved and trusted him suffer.  That suffering has separated him from his parents and brother Esau.  Suffering separates.  There is suffering in all our families. People have deep seated hurts and wounds that sometimes they no longer recognize or that were inflicted before they were even born.  And new ones get added or strengthened over time.

Friends, there is suffering everywhere.  Our Buddhist friends remind us of that as they have spent a lot of time thinking about this.

Friends, God know about suffering. There is, in my opinion, a wrong belief out there that God wishes and even orchestrates suffering.  I agree more with Jennings that God turns suffering toward the good.  And at the heart of the Christian faith is the suffering of Christ on the cross.  It looms large and solid on our wall back there.  But as we begin to realize that suffering, in many cases, separates us, the suffering of Christ unites us. It is, when you break it down, the reason we are all here.  Friends, may you know your suffering and may you be conscious of the suffering of others.  May we commit yourself to not let us separate us.  May it, like the cross, unite us. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection July 23

Published on August 3, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 28: 10-19; Psalm 139: 3-7

Where God and people meet

The lectionary readings for today are about two people who are aware of the presence of God. They have a spiritual experience that makes them see that God is there. One of is Jacob. The other is the author of the 139th Psalm.  So I would like to look at some things we could learn from them about engaging with God.   It turns out they all start with A; so you can remember them as Triple A (AAA).  The first is awareness of place, the second is acknowledgment of God’s presence in the moment and the third is accountability for our actions.

Jacob finds himself lost.  He is on his own and he has a dream. In that dream there is a ladder and in that dream he has an experience of God.  When he wakes up he names the place. He names the place after God.  Now Jacob is a guilty man. He had to leave his family because he had betrayed his brother and deceived his father.   So this moment is incredibly important.  So Jacob recognizes that the place where this happens matters.  The Jewish faith is a historical faith.  Places and the things that happened there matter.  The land matters.  Second, Jacob acknowledges God and that God is present with him at this difficult time.  The moment in time matters.  It is a milestone. Finally, there have to consequences. The event is not just there in the place for the event and the place’s sake. Yes, it helps him keep going, but he needs to change. This is the accountability part.

In Psalm 139 the Psalmist is not having an easy time of it. He has.  There is a subtext of despair and sorrow.  But the author is aware of place, of the limits of the Western sea, of the underworld.  Place matters.  Then comes the acknowledgement of God’s presence. The accountability part follows from this: how must the author of the Psalm respond to this presence of God in this space and time?

Friends, places matters.  We all have our favorite places, places where we feel most at peace, most alive, most fulfilled.  Those places change over time.  We can get used to different places, although maybe not right away.

There was a program on PBS last week about the “ten towns that changed America.”  I think it is relevant to what we are talking about.  Towns were determined by three things (at least): the place where it was built, the time in which they were built and the way they were or were not accountable to their citizens.  St. Augustine’s  in Florida  supposedly is the oldest town in America which is interesting because of most of Florida is so recent. It was set up according the Spanish laws of the Indies.  It was a hot, muggy places on the coast with nothing around it, but central was the church and the plaza, kind of the open living room of the people.  William Penn envisioned Philadelphia as a utopia according to his Quaker beliefs. The Quaker meeting house was at the center and people’s houses on a spacious grid around it with four parks.  It really didn’t develop that way as people wanted to live closer to the Delaware River in small houses, because that is where the money was to be made.  The inventor of the Pullman car designed a factory town outside Chicago meant as a utopia for his workers.  In all of these instances space and time and accountability mattered.  Levittown took us to prefab living.  Did you know there is a second Levittown in Puerto Rico?  Most of the towns in the end did not achieve their lofty goals of idyllic and idealistic living, because time passed them by and accountability to the people was not followed through on.  But many of the people who designed them were religious people who would have known Jacob’s story and the Psalm.

Friends, what are the places in your life that really mattered?  And what did they matter so much?  What was it that gave them such meaning? Where they people you loved or where there people who loved you? Was it a place where you discovered your abilities or your dreams? What are the top ten places that changed your life or your trajectory, your path?  Second, what are the most meaningful times in your life, a time when you changed course, when you became happier or wiser or more determined?  Did you stop to acknowledge God for God’s presence there? Finally, are you accountable to God for the blessings you have and the abilities you have received?  Remember Triple A.  May you meet God along the way and may God give us wisdom.

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Reflection July 16

Published on August 3, 2017 by in Reflections

Psalm 1:3; Matthew 13: 20-24

Receptive Soil

How do we make the parable of the soils concrete?  I have always looked as this passage as encouraging us and our lives to be the soil for spiritual seeds coming from God. This is how that works.  First, We have to be soil that can absorb nutrients.  You all know that soils are different.  Volcanic soil and river soil are often very fertile. But in Sacramento county if you go a ways from the rivers the soil becomes hard clay bad and takes a lot of work.  Second, we have to be soil that is free from thorns and rocks. Third, we must be in a good location to draw water.  Friends, it is quite a jump to go from soil to people. They are so different.  But let us remember we all came from earth.  We are part of the earth and the earth is part of us. In many cultures the location of that earth is crucial.  Let us not forget that.  There is iron in the earth and we when we evolved from earth took on elements of that earth.  There is a lot of iron in our blood and we are told to keep it up by eating certain vegetables.  We cannot separate earth from us and us from earth.  This is why the way Jesus talks makes sense to the people. At the same time he stretches their minds, their imagination and their souls.  We feel the same way. We get it and we don’t get it.  It makes sense and at the same time it doesn’t.   You see the seed is the spiritual, it is faith.  If we are infertile soil for the seed it means we have no eye for God, no desire to search for God.  If there are thorns growing all over the soil then that means that we put obstacles up to faith and spirituality: this could be our busyness or our selfishness or our pride.  If the soil is in the wrong place, nutrients and water can’t reach it.

But there is another level to this parable as there always is in so many of the parables of Jesus.  They seem to be simple mini-stories that Jesus just seems to make up.  But there is so much truth in them.   We assume this parable is about us, but what if it is really about God?  What if it is a key into how God works in our lives, in the world, in the universe?   Maybe the key way God operates is by sowing.  We often get stuck in this notion of God as an authoritarian ruler who micro manages everything. In that thinking all decision have this forceful stamp on it. But what if it isn’t that way?   What if creation is a lot like sowing life and energy which then takes on a life of its own?  What if the Bible is a way of sowing truth and wisdom into the hearts and minds and minds of people who then, limited as they are, pen it down?  What if through the Holy Spirit God sows love and peace in the world?  The success of this sowing depends on how the seed is received.  There have to be planets with the conditions for life to develop.  There have to be receptive hearts who are inspired to write the sacred books. There have to be people who want to act in compassion and love and with commitment.

A few weeks ago I received a little bag of seeds from a non-profit. It asked me to plant them, because these seeds can grow into flowers that attract honeybees.  I have been meaning to do that.  If I keep them in the little bag, the soil cannot receive the. The soil in my yard and I have to cooperate with the people who harvested the seeds and the people who send them.

I have been reading the biography of New Englander Robert Lowell, one of America’s greatest poets. The book is called “Lost Puritan.” Robert Lowell had a troubled life and he wasn’t a particularly nice person.  He was very fragile but when he was an adolescent he showed it by beating his friends into submission, even when it came to poetry believe it or not. But Lowell as a young man recognized that God wanted to use him to sow beauty into the world.  In the thirties he said he saw God as: ”an infinite and ever-present power, always working objectively on man (sic) for what is good.” (Paul Mariani, Lost Puritan. P. 50, New York: Norton, 1994).

Friends, do you see what this mean?  If God is a sower, God’s success is determined largely by us.  Our effort matters a lot.  And we are defined by God’s decision to sow.  This is crucial.  It is a partnership.

Friends, can a spiritual seed grow, can faith flourish in your life, what is in your soil type and how do you care for the soil?  How far are you from the water?  How does your garden grow? May God’s Holy Spirit find a place to grow.  May the garden of your life flourish.  Thanks be to God.

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Reflection July 9

Published on August 3, 2017 by in Reflections

Matthew 11: 16-19; 28; Romans 7: 15, 16

If it isn’t one thing, it’s the other

In Matthew Jesus brings up one problem and in Romans Paul brings up another. First, Jesus tackles the issue that you just can’t make some people happy. Sometimes we try to be helpful, but it is misinterpreted or considered too little, too late.  Sometimes we should have stayed out of things altogether.  Second, Paul brings up the problem that he is not happy with what he himself does.  So Jesus talks about people being disappointed in us and Paul addresses the problem of us humans being disappointed in ourselves. Jesus roughly quotes people complaining: “We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance…..John the Baptist came neither eating or drinking, and they say ‘he has a demon;’ the Son of Humanity (i.e. Jesus) came and they say, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  In others words, these people complain that the ones associated with Jesus, including Jesus Himself, do not do what others do.  Can’t make them happy.  We know that feeling.

Friends, in his letter to the Romans Paul again looks deep inside his soul only to find out that he wants to be what God expects of him, but his flaws make him “do the things he doesn’t want to do.”

So much of our lives, friends, is spent on doing what people expect of us or ask of us.  So much energy is spent on what people are thinking of us.   And so much time is spent on being disappointed with ourselves. And these things are intertwined.  What we do and what people complain about influence each other.  Sometimes we’re not even sure why we do what we do. So often we twist ourselves in knots to try to accommodate to some vague or unreasonable expectation. We then, to quote Paul, “do what we do not want to do.”

Now you may think: “ah he is telling us to be assertive and put our foot down and let people know we are in charge of our own lives.”  No, not exactly.  What I want to do is point you to a number of verses in today’s lectionary reading in Mathew’s Gospel and soak up the words of Jesus:”Come to me, all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In the next verse He is more specific:”rest for your souls.”  What I want do is draw a connection between the complaints others have about us, real or imagined, and finding rest for our souls.  I think this is crucial you see.  Assertiveness only goes so far, it is really just a technique and in our complex that often just doesn’t work.  No we have to go deeper than that.  Finding rest for our souls, what is that about then?  And how does that help us with the opinions of others?  Well, it has to do with letting go, letting go of the demands.  It has to do with accepting ourselves as flawed, limited individuals who happen to have specific gifts and talents, but perhaps not the ones people expect of us. It has to do with loving ourselves, not because we are great, for we are not, but because we are deeply loved by the Creator.  But we have trouble really connecting with that love, for it is in our head, but we haven’t quite absorbed it.  It doesn’t quite get from our heads down to our heart or to our gut. “God loves us, yeah ok, I know, what am I making for dinner?”  We must continue trying to connect with that love.  I myself haven’t given up trying. The more we are connected to that love, the less we will need the approval of others, the more we are changed. Religious author Brian Doyle who passed away just a month or so ago-which is a great loss- wrote of a profound spiritual experience he once had and the consequences it had.   The experience changed him but also kept things in place. This is what he said: “Let it go. I still have a job and kids and my mysterious wife and a bad back and a nasal mutter and too many bills, nothing’s changed outwardly. I didn’t drop everything and hit in the road hunched over and mooing prayer and song, and there are still all sorts of things quietly muddled and loudly screeching in my life…(but) something broke and something healed… But then he talks about how God intimately knows us and he says:” Whatever else you hear today, whatever else you read, whatever else happens in your life, whatever way your heart is bruised and elevated today, remember that.” (Let in go,” in “best Spiritual Writing 2013, p.8/9, Philip Zaleski ed., New York: Penguin, 2012).  The key is understanding that God truly knows us. Friends, the road to authentic living that moves us away from the expectations of others about who we should be and the focus on our own disappointments with ourselves, that road leads through the keen realization of God’s love for us. Only then will we find rest from the heavy burdens of the mind and the heart.  Thanks be to God.

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Reflection July 2

Published on August 3, 2017 by in Reflections

Psalm 13: 1,2,5; Matthew 10: 40, 42

Meeting God in God’s Children

The author of the Psalm is distraught. In the face of misfortune and enemies the writer of the Psalms wants to know: “God, how long will your forget me?” “Forever?” the poet wants to know. But toward the end of the Psalm the tone becomes hopeful.  Trust is back.

Friends, we don’t like admitting it, but we have all struggled with the idea of a God Who seems hidden, especially in the midst of sorrow like the sorrow the author of the Psalm so keenly struggles with. This is one of the lectionary readings.  The other passage we have in our program today is the reminder from Jesus that whenever we welcome someone we welcome Jesus Himself.  Also the small act of kindness we show another human being will be noted. There is even a kind of reward for it.  As so often with lectionary readings it is a hard to see a connection at first and maybe none is intended. However, perhaps there is a bridge between the two.

On Masterpiece mystery there is a program called “Grantchester.” It has a bit of a silly premise: a strapping young Anglican priest who is a WWII soldier with a lot of trauma and a lot of guilt works in a sleepy parish near Cambridge in the fifties with a judgmental housekeeper and an awkward apprentice. He is in love with a young woman who was bullied into an unwanted marriage and now has a baby and has left her husband. The priest’s best friend is a police inspector who solves murders of which there is at least one an episode, unrealistic in civilized rural England.  The priest prefers dealing with the sordidness of crime and is good at solving them because of his empathy, but he avoids his own demons. However, at the end of each episode he stands in front of his congregation in full vestments and gives a general moral lesson. Somehow his connection with people and their problems has brought him closer to understanding God.  Friends, this may be what we can learn from putting these two Bible passages side by side: that through our connection with troubled or sorrowing human beings we can come face to face with God.

We have heard a song which I have presented to you as a spiritual song (Vonda Shepard –Song from Ally McBeal:”I know him by heart”).  A young woman dreams of a love she has never meant but nevertheless feels close to.  It is a bit how we feel about God. We can’t see God, but we know God is there. “Even though we’ve never been together, we’ve never been apart.”  It expresses the sentiment of knowing and not knowing God at the same time, being with God and not being with God at the same time. It strikes a chord, literally.

Friends, the Psalmist wails about God being hidden before catching himself (or herself).  Jesus tells us that the stranger is Him.  The thirsty one is Him. The Hungry One is Him. The sorrowing one is Him.  There is the bridge between the two: we do not see God because we don’t see our neighbor. This is an important realization as the health care of the most vulnerable Americans hangs in the balance this weekend.

Last Wednesday I attended a meeting at the offices of our neighbor the Guadalupe church.  Besides me there was the police captain, the Priest, his assistant and a head of code enforcement.  It was about the vendors who were removed in April. I told them I thought it was very harsh and that we have no objections to the vendors, but that we also do not want to be a cause for people getting sick from the food. It was an interesting meeting: everyone was trying to do the right thing from the perspective of the organization they were representing. Of course it would have been right if the vendors were represented.  But there was a sense that the humanity of these vendors mattered as did the humanity of other people who pay steep fees.

Friends, the Christian faith is a social faith.  It is not a lonely faith. It is best not adhered to in private. Sure we can pray to God in private. Jesus even tells us too, but the heart of our faith beats in the interaction between people. Not in crowds, but in “communion.” That which we just celebrated is not called that for nothing.  The same is true of the other Sacrament: Baptism.  Also, the Bible is always reminding us of our relationship to others.

Friends, our message today is simple.  We know God is there, we are never apart, but it can feel God is hiding sometimes, as if we are forgotten. Friends, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor in a world of pain. God is there.

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Reflection June 18

Published on June 29, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 9:22, 23; Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:31,32

Coming to terms with “Dad”

We have just heard the song “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (Tea for the Tillerman, Coqueiro Verde Records). The two people take turns speaking or singing.  The father wants the boy to relax, to take it easy, even though that may not come naturally at this time.  The son just wants to get out, frustrated as he is about the father’s unwillingness to understand him:” From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen” and “All the times that I cried keeping all the things I knew inside, it’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it.” In some ways it’s an easy transition from the father figure in the song to the father figure in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The young son wants to leave and experience the world, asks for hi inheritance and squanders it.  The father welcomes him home with a feast, upsetting the faithful son in the process. We could imagine the father in the son doing the same, although he may not be quite so forgiving.  Then there is the reference to a drunk, naked Noah who gets covered up by his sons in Genesis so his “nakedness” will not be seen.  Noah of course is a towering figure in their lives.

Friends, we deal with different characters and situation in the two passages and the song. All three have to do with fathers and all three deal with children having to come to terms with their fathers.  All children have to do that at one point or another: deal with “Dad.”  We all at one point or another have our “Daddy” issues.  For some of us it may the inability to connect with our father on an emotional level. There is a kind of distance perhaps.  Others have to deal with the reality that they never had much of a father to begin with. Others may be very happy with and grateful for the father they have or had, but maybe they are still trying to please him, “make him proud,” so to say.

It has been almost forty years since I lost my father.  That’s a lot longer than I knew him.  I can’t say he left a lot of unresolved issues, just a lot of conversations we weren’t able to have.  But even if the relationship is not that big of a problem, we still have to process it. For sons and daughters that will be a different experience.  It is necessary for us to mature well.  Also, it is necessary for us in how we deal with God.  Now you know I have been trying to nudge you away from the ancient concept of God as “Father,” as God does not have a gender, but our culture still has a long way to go in the area. Calling God “parent” may help quite a bit, but we can still think of a parent as male especially if that parent is God.  Calling God “mother” can resolve a lot of problems for us, but who’s to say we don’t have “mommy” issues?

John Cobb is a slight man in his eighties or even nineties.  He grew up partially in Japan as the son of Methodist missionaries and he has written about Buddhism and Christianity.  John Cobb is one of the most Christian men I have ever known. He was my professor of theology at Claremont.  I almost knocked him over catching a football once and I could have done serious damage to him. He just smiled.  In class I would nod off and he would just smile.  He moved into communal living with students and young teachers because he believed in it, even though he was a Southern gentleman who was way too private for that. For many years he dealt with a wife with Alzheimer’s disease.  He is one of the leading Christian voices in the climate change debate.  Although he is a liberal theologian who is very supportive of feminism his last book was about “Abba,” not the Swedish pop group in loud clothes, but Abba, the word for “Dad” Jesus used to address God. To my surprise Cobb argues that we should keep thinking of God as father, because of the intimacy of thinking of God as “Daddy.” An interesting point, because if we cannot be intimate we God, how can our faith be satisfying or meaningful?  And this especially a problem that men have.  We have been taught not to be emotionally close to another man.  In the promo of Cobb’s book, he writes:” The church has emphasized ideas about God that have marginalized Jesus’ understanding of his spiritual Father, his Abba. We commonly think of God as a demanding lawgiver and judge, an omnipotent ruler, or an ultimate philosophical principle. None of these works well today.” (Jesus’ Abba, The God who has not failed. Fortress Press, 2016).

Friends, where are you with Abba, dad, daddy, father, whatever that means to you?  I recommend you figure that out, for when you hear “Heavenly Father,” what you think or feel most likely will have something to do with how you will receive those words. May Abba be with you and give you peace!

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Reflection June 11

Published on June 29, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 1:1,2; Matthew 28:18,19

Probing the Mystery

Imagine wanting to imagine God.  What would God be like? I think we have all done some of that.  Humanity has done this since the beginning of time.  Here are some of the things we would expect of a being we would want to call God.  You would want God to be strong, you would want God to be kind and just and merciful and you would want God to be there for you. In millennia’s past peoples found it hard to see God just one being. It was as if the divine task just was too big for one God. So it was for the Greeks and Romans.  There was a god of love, a god of creation, a god of war etc.  They just had different names for them. The ancient Hindus saw God as atman as one origin and being, but there were still many: gods, Vishnu, Hindu, Shiva, Hanuman, Ganesh. Traditional Southern Buddhism and Japanese Zen avoid the idea of God or gods but gods are part of Chinese and other Northern forms of Buddhism.  What all these religions all understood is that God is so much greater than the ability of humans to explain God.  Our thoughts and our language cannot contain God. That is why in the English language we still talk about God as “He.” So our understanding of God is always going to limited and incomplete.  The Bible shows us a lot, but even there we have to read between the lines and also remember that although the texts are inspired they were still written down by human beings centuries before printing presses. Today is Trinity Sunday so we are talking about that difficult concept of God again: “Father/Parent, Son and Holy Spirit, Three-in-One.  There are different ways to explain the Trinity, as various theologians have shown.  Today I want to explain the concept with the words Power, Love and Presence.

Other than physical threat and personal loss, there are three important things we dread and hate as humans: one is feeling powerless, second is feeling unloved and third is feeling lonely.  The idea that we have no way to influence and change our own lives or the lives of others, the idea that no one cares about us and the idea that we are alone in the world are deeply upsetting to us.  Just experiencing one of those can make us completely miserable.  And we have all lived long enough to have an idea of what that feels like.   When things are going badly in our lives, when we see cruelty and injustice we believe God should eradicate, when we feel lost and alone, we can get deeply unhappy.

The Bible teaches us that God is powerful, that there is a power of creation.  It also teaches us about God’s undying and perfect love for us.   And, as we celebrated at Pentecost last week, the Bible teaches us that God is present with us as Holy Spirit.  All three of those ways God is at work involve one thing: energy.  When we have power, we can apply our energy in some away that we can use the energy of those below us to do things that will make a difference. When we have show love, we use the energy of compassion to make another human being or other human being feel cared for. When we are truly present with people, we use the energy of our bodies and our focus to make another person not feel alone or lonely.

But, friends, the energy of power, the energy of love and the energy of presence may all use and need energy, they are still separate things. You can have power without love, you can have love without any power to speak of, you can be present without significant love and without power.  One does not necessarily mean the other or demand the other.  However, when we use faith we can combine the three in one, we can connect the dots.  Now in Christian theology we believe that the most perfect power possible, the most perfect love possible and the most perfect presence possible are contained in one being, the One and only God, Three in One. Does it fully explain the mystery of God?  Of course not. God can never be held in something constructed by people as God is beyond explanation.

I don’t know if you ever heard of the expression:”Your God is too small.”  What this means is that people are talking about God as some vengeful, judging, destructive being who would like to do nothing more than punish us or a God who is ready push aside whole groups of people because of what their origin or whom they love.  Or even worse a God who condones killing innocents. We make God unattainable by making God small and petty just like we are at our worst.   That is why so many people do not fall I love with God, because we have trouble showing how big-hearted God is.

Friends, people need an answer and a remedy for their powerlessless, for their feeling unloved and for their loneliness.  May we offer them the one God of power, love and presence Who has room for all of us. May that give us solace.

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Reflection June 4

Published on June 29, 2017 by in Reflections

Genesis 11:7; Acts 2: 1-4

Holy Humility

I have watched very little tv television one the past three weeks or so. I would recommend it. But then one evening last week I was channel surfing for no particular reason and I found it overwhelming.  You should try it sometime. Flip channels not according to your interest of the ten or so networks you are most drawn to, but just from one to then next. It is a whole different experience: you find news channels bending the news to the liking of their targeted viewing audience, history channels that deal only with past military battles, channels that only show program where people are shooting each other, channels that have nothing but a bunch of overdressed women argue with each other over innocuous things. There are religious channels that are so polished with speakers I have never heard of preaching to an audience of thousands in some arena followed by a speaker of extreme politics who warn us of the World Court of Justice snatching you and me out of our beds. These are just a few examples. If you flip the channels in quick rotation it quickly adds up as a whole bunch of noise. Imagine someone who has been in seclusion or exile for twenty years turning on a television in this day and age. How profoundly alienating that would be! He or she would have no idea what the talk was all about. This made me think: how can we communicate our faith in a when media communication is so diffuse and fragmented? How can we discern the Holy Spirit speaking to us with all of that noise? My point today is that the key is humility.

Friends, in Acts faithful followers of Christ speaking different languages are gathered in a place where they hear the rushing of a mighty wind. It is a different kind of noise. I have always like the sound of a stiff wind, but then I have never been in a hurricane or a tornado fortunately. I would like avoid that. Wind as a whole clears the air. It also makes you feel humble in the presence of nature’s power.

The story in Genesis of the people building the tower of Babel. They wanted to show they were greater than God. They were on the same page. But then suddenly they could no longer understand each other. The building stopped. Pentecost does the opposite: it makes the people speaking different languages suddenly understand one spiritual language they receive: it is the language of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost is the remedy to Babel. The power of this experience can only have filled the Christian disciples present with awe and humility in the witnessing of God’s power.

Friends, today the English language is becoming the language of the world. But this does not mean we are genuinely communicating with each other. We are all on our own channel. Pentecost reminds us that we need humility. Well, how can that humility take shape?

First, we can get out of the way. The Bible makes it very clear that God’s  Holy Spirit will work as it wishes where and when it wishes. It is important that we get out of the way.  After the Manchester massacre a few weeks ago, the singer Ariana Grande whom the victims had come to hear, issued a simple compassionate statement of horror. This prompted a positive editorial in the New York Times about the person Grande is. She is never on the news with bad behavior and seems to have no need for extreme media attention. Nevertheless she has 150 million social media followers. The author praised her for encouraging her teenage girl followers to good self-esteem.  In a sense she does what she is good at and then gets out of the way. She stayed out of the way of the care givers that came into action after the tragedy. Now I don’t know much about the singer, but the principle is good: we must do what we are best at as followers of Christ and get out the way of the Holy Spirit.

Second, we can let go of the credit. The work of the church is never about us. We are not in control of what happens to the church. We cannot take the credit for the good that happens in our congregation or because of our congregation. We are not responsible for the results of our ministry, only for the work that we do and the effort we put in. There are some churches these days that advertise themselves as “being spirit-filled.” I don’t know how you can say that. We are not in control of God’s Spirit.

Third, we can be humbly present, show up, be ready to listen to what the Holy Spirit calls us to. There is a popular song these days with the line “Holy Spirit you are welcome here.”That’s a good thought.

On vacation Carolyn and I found ourselves on a quiet beach and I decided to take a walk to the next beach. I saw that two young couples were already there. One couple was sitting down and relaxing and the other were locked in an embrace. I was going to make sure to stay out of their way. But then as I got closer, I saw the young man slide a ring on the young woman’s finger, with the expected excited reaction on the young woman’s  part. Something told me I should go over there and be the first to congratulate them. I told them I was a minister and offered to say a prayer for them. I also took twenty pictures of them and made them reenact the proposal for the camera.  It turned out they were church going people who saw my presence there as affirming and enhancing their story. They waved off my apology for invading their privacy. Now we could argue whether this has anything to do with the Holy Spirit. I do not presume to be the judge of that by any means, but it illustrates the point. We have to be humbly present when the Spirit calls. Then things can happen. May God’s Spirit work among us here.


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Reflection May 14

Published on June 8, 2017 by in Reflections

Acts 7:58, 8:1a, 9:4,15; II Corinthians 12:9

Dimensions of an apostle

We are not like the apostle, Paul. Practically everyone here would not be comfortable being called an apostle.  Our mind is on mother’s day and the emotions that brings out in us.  Yet in today’s lectionary reading the apostle Paul is not an apostle yet. In fact he is the opposite of an apostle.  He is a persecutor. This text catches Paul at his lowest moment morally.  He is instrumental in the killing of a blameless disciple.  What I want to focus on today is the reality of this one person being so different within the text of the Bible.  In all fairness, chances are that Saul, as he was called at this point, was very committed to the cause of religious purity. Chances are he didn’t go from being evil to angelic.  One thing that is constant about Saul/Paul is that he is always very committed to the principles of his faith.  But as we have seen in history committed people can lose their way, they can distorted.  Ben Ferencz was a 27 year prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials. He prosecuted not the extermination camp administrators, but the SSrs who killed Jewish men and women in cold blood on the streets of Russia and Ukraine. Ferencz says that a lot of those soldiers did not start out as savages, war made them savages.  Ferencz became an anti-war activist and was instrumental in the birth of the world court of justice.

Friends, Saul wasn’t a war criminal, but there was something of the savage in him.  But the story takes a positive turn just two chapters later in Acts.  Saul finds himself on the Damascus road; he is blinded and he hears Christ speak to him, wondering why Saul is persecuting Him. This is the turning point.  Saul becomes Paul who will eventually die in Rome as a persecuted Christian, suffering the fate of his own victims. This is one of the great transformations in human history.  But Paul is still Saul and Saul is still Paul.  He is still committed and his fervor for one cause becomes the fervor for another.  But what is different is his spiritual evolution, how Paul surrenders himself to the grace of God and how he overcomes his ego.  Our text in Second Corinthians shows us that Paul.  So here we have it, friends, three men in one, Saul who persecutes and condemns, Saul/Paul  who converts and Paul who humbles himself.

A few years ago there was a short Spanish film entitled “Aquel no era yo” or “that wasn’t me” about a child soldier in Africa who has to come to terms with his cruel past and learns to speak about it.  The film reminds us that people can be shaped to do terrible things under the influence of others they either trust or fear or both.  It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that saves Paul from staying Saul.  Paul hints at his own suffering in his letters.  He speaks of the thorn in his flesh, some physical ailment it seems, but could it be that the thorn is his past?  Fascinating  thought.

Friends, we did not persecute or condemn like Paul.  We did not have his kind powerful conversion experience.  We will never reach the stunning wisdom, humility and willingness to sacrifice Paul has made.  But the dimensions of the apostle are also in us, just to letter extent.  We have a condemning, judging side; we have a part of us that can change from selfish and mean to compassionate and good, sometimes in the twitching of an eye; we also have a side of faith to us that can cause us to becoming people of humility.  Judging, changing, humbling.  These are dimensions of us, friends.

The point here is what we can learn. We know that God calls us to become more like that Paul in Corinthians.  He is still the same person, he is just a converted and transformed person.  He is troubled by all the issues we also struggle with like annoyance and insecurity and the desire to control.

Does the person who condemns and judges in us stay forever? Can we ever completely get rid of that part? Do we backslide into that way of viewing other people?  Are we open to change for good once we open our heart to transformation?  Or do we slide back into judgmental thinking. Once our faith in God matures and we become more humble, can we sustain that? Or do we go back to inflexibility and arrogance. Perhaps all we can expect is that through prayer and reflection we can shrink the dark and destructive part of us and make the lighter side of us grow.  It is a question of reconfiguring ourselves.

Friends,  let us look honestly at the condemning and judging part of us, the part of us that is open to change and transformation and the part of us that committed to humility and a reliance and God’s grace. May we become better people.  May God give us wisdom.

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Reflection May 7

Published on June 8, 2017 by in Reflections

John 10: 3-6: I Peter 2:25

Finding the pepper in a stale text

A Frontline program (PBS May, 2017) follows a researcher who tracks where fish is caught in the pacific and where it goes.  He also commits to eating only fish and no land meat up to three times a day for one year.  All the Omega-3 fatty acids are supposed to improve his brain strength.  After a year he does feel slightly healthier and more energetic, but according to a physician the brain-boosting power of the fish is offset pretty much by the mercury they find in his hair follicles. Omega-3’s are good for the brain and mercury is very bad.  So he tells the audience what fish to eat. The other good affects of fish on heart and blood pressure show no detectable change.

Friends, how would you like to eat fish twice a day?  I wouldn’t like it.  I like sashimi and had it the other day, but if I would have to eat it four days in a row I probably wouldn’t touch it for four months after that.  The experience gets old. Now sashimi doesn’t taste good if you do not mix the wasabi into the soy sauce to mix it in.  I didn’t realize the other day that I had mixed in too much wasabi, but it didn’t hit me until the piece of tuna had half disappeared.  That’s when the kick came.  Rice and water to the rescue!

The text today is a little bit like fish. First, if we hear too often, like eating fish too often, it goes stale to us. Its taste is diminished.  Second, the tuna may have great texture but it is nothing without the mild kick of wasabi.

Friends, there is nothing wrong really with the text the way it is written, other than perhaps that Jesus is both shepherd and gate (which may be a result of his quotes being merged).  The way Jesus tells it, it’s good.  The problem with it is what the Church has done with it over the centuries.  The Church has turned it into something bland, Jesus as the protector, the one Whose voice we the sheep all know. It’s like sashimi without any wasabi.   We have to remember that Jesus spoke this to a larger audience who felt oppresses and marginalized and hopeless in the midst of corruption under Roman rule, but also to a minority of his followers who did not feel secure as a new movement.   As the Church flourished between the third and twentieth centuries, most people in majority Christian countries felt included in the sheepfold. It was comforting to hear this message, but not particularly earthshaking. The centuries turned it bland.  Now Christianity is in crisis in the west and in Europe on the wane. It is till powerful in this country but it has been hitching its wagon to ideologies that exclude rather than include.  One of those ideologies has just pushed for a health care bill that passed the house, a bill that allows for insurance of many but leaves one group vulnerable outside the gate: really sick people.  As if being really ill is not horrible and frightening enough.

Jeffrey Gallagher, a pastor in Tolland CT, has found the kick in this passage as we reexamine it in this new time Gallagher talks about how the gate could be something that keeps people out.  Many people feel left out or alienated by the church.  He says that a young woman who has just come out to her family may listen to this text and hear something else.  “She too is fixated on the sheepfold. ‘There are many sheep inside,’ she thinks, ‘and I’m not one of them.’ And there’s a barrier to getting in-the church wants to keep me out. I’m not good enough. I’m not good enough: I haven’t been faithful enough. God doesn’t love me for who I am. The sheepfold will never be for me, because I’m the one the gate the gate in intended to keep out. So she slips out before the benediction, as quickly as she entered, realizing, once again, that the church is not the place for her.” (Christian Century, April 12, 2017, p.21).

Friends, in the world of His time on earth Jesus needed to tell people they were safe with Him. The sheepfold, the corral, needed to be secure.  Our question with this text as a Church as a nation with so many churches is to ask:”who are we keeping out and how can we be welcoming to people who want to come in?”  Being inclusive does not just mean: everyone is welcome, we also have to ask:”who are we keeping out?  That is the spice, the pepper, the kick in this text.   This passage is not about being nice and comfortable within the walls of our church, it is about expanding the sheepfold and opening the gate to all Who fish to come in. When we examine Jesus’ words, you will find He talks about that more than once.  Children, the poor, the lame, the sick, the mentally ill, the oppressed, the possessed, even the dead are included in His sheepfold. May we never forget that.  Thanks be to God.

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