Sermon Sept 7, 2014     Reverend Robert Vodra
Matthew 18:15-20
This summer at camp we had our American Camp Association Accreditation visit.  They call it a visit, because it is done by other people in the camping profession, but it is really an inspection.  They normally start with a tour of the camp, and want to talk to some staff, maybe some campers, and see what happens at the camp.  Eventually you sit down with them, and hopefully a big cup of coffee and start in on the paperwork.  By the time the visit happens, I have a 3 inch binder filled with paper, and they want to see policies and procedures for just about everything that happens at camp.
In preparing for the visit, I go through each standard, there are about 500 of them, and see if it applies to us, how it applies to us, if we do it, and how to prove that we meet it.  If it is in one of our handbooks, I copy that page out, highlight it, punch three holes into it, and it goes into the binder, circle “Yes” and then go to my scoring pages and check it off as done.  Sometimes it is as easy as that.  There are a few that do not require anything written, I like those.  Yes, we have two ground floor exits in each of our cabins, done.  And then there are the ones that you have never considered before, maybe they are new, maybe something was written for the last visit and then filed away, maybe they took a “no” on the last visit.  
This summer I found our personnel policies were lacking in many areas.  Truth be told, our hiring is low tech.  I only need a handful of staff, and many return year to year, so normally I can ask returning staff if they know anyone who might want a job for the summer.  We start at $10 an hour, plus give them room and board, which is more than they will make at Walmart or McDonalds.  And while room and board may not seem like that much, just think about how much you would save it you bought no food for 3 months, and never used electricity or water at your own house.  So normally someone knows someone, and we quickly fill all the positions we have.  Of course I do run a background check on everyone, they are working around children so that is important.  
But for our visit they wanted to know how people apply, how we interview, and how we accept or reject people.  I spelled that all out as honestly as I could, which took all about half a page.  And then there was a standard that dealt with conflicts in the staff.  Now I have known that this is a big issue in many camps.  You are working with these others for all your waking hours, and often even spending your time off with them.  There are some you are going to get along very well with, and some you are just not going to click with.  But we had no policy here, so I sat down to write one.  
If you are having a disagreement with another staff member, first approach them privately.  Never do this in front of campers, and try to work it out.  If no agreement can be reached, bring in your supervisor.  If agreement can still not be reached, the whole staff will sit down together to decide on a solution.  Jesus and I came up with the same thing.
We are experts at seeing faults in others, and in all areas of life, not just in our jobs.  And it is not healthy to keep it all inside.  I think that I am pretty normal.  I get along with most people, and when I do not agree with someone I will usually say that.  But there have been times in which I kept what I was feeling inside.  What exactly did that person say?  Am I taking it wrong?  Did I hear it the way that they intended me to hear it?  And I know that is not healthy for me.  And I imagine that I have said things in passing, that I never thought twice about, but someone else may have taken the wrong way.
While this process maybe used as a blue-print for dealing with conflict, it is not perfect.  Each person must have the goal of relieving the conflict, and care about the relationship more than being right or wrong.  
And that brings it right back to church, or the early gathering of Jesus followers who would one day become the early church.  Every minister I know would love to tell the church what they need to do.  After all, we have the training, so we have all the answers.  Everyone goes out every weekend to invite others into the church, everyone who comes in gives 10% of their income, then we have plenty of money to do what we need to do, and what we want to do.  Each of those letters asking for a gift, we would gladly send off a check.  No maintenance is put off, since we can afford to do it all.  And above all, there would be no conflict in the church.  Everyone agrees on everything.  Nobody ever thinks my sermons are too long or too short, too deep or too shallow.  Our hymns every week are our favorite hymns, and everyone who comes into the church also loves those same hymns.  
But anyone who is looking for that utopian community should not come to this church, or any other church.  There will be weeks where my sermon is too long or too short, too deep or too shallow.  We might not only not sing your favorite hymns, but we may sing your least favorite hymn, and 2 you have never even heard before.  We may disagree on the color of the new paint, or the choice of carpet.  And Jesus even provides a way to get rid of those who disagree with us.  Once we, as a community, decide they don’t belong we just treat them like a tax collector.  
But then Jesus reminds us that when we are gathered in his name, he is here with us.  And just two or three of us.  
That is one thing that I take away from today’s scripture.  When 2 or 3 of us are together, Jesus is there with us.  When we want to complain about what this person did, and go to a third party to do it, Jesus is there with the two of you.  Kind of wants me to change what I want to say to that third person about what this other did wrong.  But when I go to that person, Jesus is there with us also.  It is not that we should ignore when someone does something we do not agree with, but if Jesus is with us, we may say it a little differently.  
And really when we do go directly to that person, it is a way of saying “I care about our relationship.” If I don’t care about the relationship, I am not going to go through the work of trying to figure out how to make it work.  If either of us brings in a third person, it is because we care about the relationship, and even if we need to bring the whole community in, it is because we care about the relationship.
And that is how it should be, and sometimes is, in the church.  But often I, and others, will bite our lips.  Even if we don’t agree, we don’t want to cause trouble, which is really saying that the relationship is not important enough to us to speak up.  I don’t want to leave this morning and have everyone complaining about every little thing, but when you have a serious disagreement with another, I hope you will ask yourself, is my relationship with this person worth putting the effort into talking about, and since Jesus is going to be with us, how should I say this so that it will strengthen our relationship in the long run.  

Mason Church Sermon on November 18, 2012 by Jami Boyle

                                    LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR

I like to imagine Jesus as a young teenager totally transfixed by Rabbi Hillel, the compassionate teacher.  You too have probably had someone in your life who inspired you when you were a teen.  For me it was Mr. Raes, my trigonometry teacher.  It wasn’t Mr. Raes’ knowledge about math that captivated me—Lord knows—rather it was the way he presented his knowledge of the subject.  He was patient and he worked hard to get his students to understand.  In my school year book I wrote that I would be a math major in college.  When I read that line today—will major in math—I laugh out loud.  But not quite as loud as my husband who knows exactly what kind of relationship I have with numbers today.  The point is, I was so inspired by Mr. Raes’ kindness and gentle spirit that I longed to emulate him.  Intuitively I knew the path he was on was the path I was meant to walk.
Although they lived more independently under Roman rule than they had for generations under other foreign rulers, the Jewish people were an oppressed people.  Consequently the Jewish community kept to themselves in order to protect their livelihood, their faith and their religious practices from those determined to undermine them.  By the time Jesus was a teen the temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt three times, having been destroyed by previous captors.  Then, less than forty years later, the Romans would again destroy the temple, only this time to never be rebuilt.  So it’s understandable how distrust of gentiles was never very far from their minds and, I believe, for that reason first century Jews were never as free as they longed to be.  On top of these political complexities most neighbors of the Jewish community were pagans. What did pagans know about the God?  Pagans worshipped many gods, not one, and certainly not Jehovah.  I imagine Rabbi Shammai portrayed a typical Jewish teacher’s personality in first century Jerusalem.  I mean who wouldn’t have thought that gentile was trying to ridicule him? “Hey, teach, tell me the meaning of the whole Torah while standing on one foot.”   This is what makes Rabbi Hillel’s response so provocative, and, as I like to imagine, for Jesus deeply intriguing.  You see it’s very likely Jesus would have been taught by his religious leaders to mistrust gentiles and to protect himself by shunning them.  But this was not Rabbi Hillel’s instruction.  So, knowing the Jesus we know today, particularly his inclusive nature, it is easy to see how Rabbi Hillel would have had a great influence on his life.  Rabbi Hillel was a model of compassion for all of God’s creation. Rabbi Hillel inspired Jesus’ to live his life according to God’s two greatest commandments.
On Sunday afternoons one of my favorite activities is to work in the garden while listening to the public radio show—This American Life—on our hand-held transistor radio.  The show is hosted by Ira Glass and is about dramatic real life stories and what people do to work through those situations.  Each week the program chooses a particular theme, putting together three or four different stories reflecting that theme.  Some people say This American Life is like movies for radio.  
One of the broadcasts I liked the best I heard three years ago, a show with the theme of “Neighbors.”  The first story in the broadcast was about a twenty-six year old man named David Rothbart who did an interview with Fred Rogers, the Fred Rogers of the PBS show: Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. When David was four he had had an opportunity to visit with Fred Rogers, an encounter that made a lasting impression on him.  So when David was asked to put together a story about neighbors for This American Life, Fred was the first person he thought of.  David wondered what advice Mr. Rogers would give him about how to be a good neighbor in the area David was currently living in, a place he called “the 1800 block of West Auguila,” an urban renewal site in South Chicago.  
The story opens with David explaining some of the problems in his neighborhood.  He tells about his upstairs neighbor Julie who bangs on the floor with a broom to let David know when he’s playing his music too loud.  David tells Fred that he and Julie have an agreement that there will be quiet hours after 10PM but confesses he has played his music from time to time anyway.  We learn from Julie, who was also interviewed for the program, that it’s the base sound that drives her crazy.  She tells David: “Sometimes I’m so paranoid I’ll hear that boom, boom, boom, sound just as I’m falling asleep that I’m convinced it’s already started even though my husband says he doesn’t hear anything.”  What was Fred’s response to this?  “Good for you Julie!”  Fred says enthusiastically, “I hate loud music.  I always uphold a person’s right to silence.”  David makes a weak attempt to claim it’s his space and that he has a right to play music when he wants. Fred suggests the obvious; headphones.  But then he softly reflects on how David is getting to know Julie better (now that David’s done this interview).  “Once you know her,” he says, “she’ll be less aggravated or you’ll turn down your music.  A neighbor,” muses Fred, “is the invisible architecture that links people.”
David then shares another neighborhood problem with Fred; it’s about Mike who fixes cars on the street.  Mike lives across the street from David’s apartment building.  For some reason David’s landlady doesn’t trust Mike (I can’t help but notice Mike has an Hispanic accent).  Mike tells David his landlady is convinced he has stolen her dog.  “That dog is so old,” says Mike.  “Why would I want to steal an old dog like that?”  Mike goes on to say he thinks the woman is senile and that he feels sorry for her.  So Mike gave a dog to his sister to give to the landlady and the woman accepted it.  “She wouldn’t take from me,” said Mike,  “so I asked my sister to help out.”  Fred was touched by this story.  “What a tender heart,” he said, “What a fine young man this Mike is, someone you would like to know.”
Then David gives Fred the hardest neighborhood problem yet.  He tells Fred about the boarded-up building next door and how there are several guys who hang out there most of the day.  For the most part they are low key but they do drink beer and occasionally you can smell pot being smoked.  David finds out from the guys that they used to live in this neighborhood, when they could afford it. But because the apartments have slowly been renovated into condos it’s too expensive for them to live here so now they use the area in front of the boarded-up building to sell cars.  One of the guys tells David: “People look at us kids like we’re doing bad.  They are afraid we are gang bangers because we wear baggy jeans and like to cruise in our cars.  Some guy in the neighborhood actually follows us around with a video and says he’s going to call the cops on us.  They fear us.  But we’ll talk to you.  We’re not animals.  I have an older relationship with this neighborhood than the building they’re living in.  I just carry my life in a different way.” You could almost hear Fred thinking before he responded to David sharing that part of the interview with him.  
Fred confesses that if he were in the same circumstance he only hopes he would be brave enough to visit those young men.  He tells David; “It’s so easy to condemn when we don’t know.”  Then the story closes with these last few words of Fred’s wisdom: “What are we afraid of? He asks rhetorically. “I think we’re afraid that we will not find another human being inside that person.  Maybe we think there are people I’ll never be able to communicate with.  Then we give up before we even try.  That’s a sad thing, giving up.”
Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. Then love your neighbor as you love yourself.  
You know what I don’t think?  I don’t think God wants us to give up on our neighbors.  Don’t do to your neighbor what you would not want done to yourself.  God is not telling us to be friends, friends like each other.  God is telling us to love our neighbors.  But how are we going to love our neighbors if we don’t know them, if we shun them because they carry their lives in a different way from our own?  And how will we know them if we don’t talk with them face-to-face, human being to human being?  We might not like what they are doing but they too have a relationship with the area we live in.
You know I am convinced one of the reasons our weather reports are so dramatic—Frankenstorm Hits the East Coast:  Millions Predicted to be without Power!—is because it connects us through a similar experience that is no respecter of people.  Floods don’t just damage poor people’s homes.  What better glue to bind us to one another than suffering.  When we are all suffering equally we have to share because you have the water I need and I have the heat you need.
My friends, God doesn’t want us to wait for a disaster to strike before we’ll find out what our neighbors have and don’t have.  God wants us to get to know our neighbors and to respect the choices they make.  To respect means to look again.  It does not mean to approve.  We look again and then we take to prayer our judgments and ask God for help to love.  We ask God to help us see our neighbor as the human being he or she is created to be. We ask God to help us know that, like us, they too have a story.  
We don’t have to like that story let alone our neighbor.  But God commands that we love them.  And here’s the real good news, if we love our neighbors the promise is we will be less aggravated with them, we will be freer from judgmental preoccupations and suspicions, and most importantly we will be free from fear.  
I’ll always remember the story my husband’s niece Sarah told us about her neighbor’s dog.  At the time Sarah was living in a metropolitan area in Great Britain where the houses are just about on top of one another.  Every morning Sarah’s neighbors would put their large dog outside just before they left for work and the minute they were out of sight the dog would start barking.  It would bark all day long until the couple returned home from work in the evening, which was about two hours after Sarah arrived home. Sarah, one of the biggest humanitarians you would ever want to know, said she had daydreams of strangling that dog with her bare hands.  She said her negative preoccupations with that dog became so disruptive it prompted her to take drastic actions.  What did she do?  
Sarah bought a large box of dog biscuits and began giving one to the dog every afternoon when she returned home from work.  It got so when the dog saw her coming he would suddenly stop barking and run up to the fence wagging his tail, standing on his hind legs with his front paws reaching over the top of the fence, and wait for Sarah to pop a biscuit into his mouth, which he would devour in about five seconds.  Then he’d stand there waiting for another treat but instead of a second helping Sarah would pat his head and call him by name.  But the minute Sarah turned toward home, disappearing around the corner, the dog would start barking again and would continue barking until his owners came home and brought him inside.  “You know, said Sarah, “the interesting thing is that even though he continued to bark it just didn’t bother me as much.”
See, we don’t have to like our neighbors, or their dogs, but we do have to love them.  Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  Amen.  

My attached sermon refers to Rabbis Shammai and Hillel, two ancient Jewish teachers spoken about in the Babylonian Talmud story called: The Torah on One Foot.”   I learned this ancient story from students and professors at Hebrew College while I was a studying at Andover Newton Theological School.  It’s a very popular story taught to Jewish children in their Sunday school classes.  Rabbi Hillel would have been alive when Jesus was a young teen.  More than likely Jesus would have learned The Golden Rule through this story.  It’s important to note that the Jewish version of The Golden Rule, is said in the negative: Don’t do unto others…., while the Christian version is in the positive: Do unto others as…  

My sermon is based on Leviticus 19:13-18, Matthew 5:43-48 and also Mark 12:28-34.  

Blessings, Jami Boyle

 On another occasion it happened that a certain gentile came before Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon he chased him away with the builder's cubit that was in his hand. When he came before Hillel, (he also asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot) Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it."

 The Greatest Commandment  One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.


Pastor Chris Owen     January 16th, 2011-- Second Sunday after Epiphany

I Corinthians 1.1-25

It's hot and sticky in July in Washington DC-- the place, after all, is built on a swamp-- and so it is hot and sticky on this particular July morning. The president is looking forward to a vacation: the early months of his presidency have been difficult. Not only is the country divided, but also even the president's own party is divided into bickering factions. Still, despite the difficulties of the preceding months, the president is in a good mood this July morning. He is looking forward to his vacation.

A holiday crowd is moving through the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station when the president arrives; in that crowd is a man named Charles Guiteau; and Charles Guiteau has a gun. As the president moves toward his train, Charles Guiteau comes out of the crowd and shoots twice. The first bullet grazes the president's arm; the second lodges into his abdomen. "Oh my God, what is this?!" is what President Garfield exclaims, as he collapses to the floor on July 2nd, 1881.

Charles Guiteau was mentally unstable. If we were to give him a diagnosis in today's terminology, he would-- at the very least-- be termed as having "Narcissistic Personality Disorder." His life story is filled with episodes of delusional thinking, in which he would have an unrealistically high opinion of himself and his importance. His delusional grandiosity led him to believe that a speech he had made during the presidential campaign was the cause of Garfield's victory. Therefore, he was owed a political appointment.

Guiteau sent a letter to the White House, saying that "next spring I expect to marry the daughter of a deceased New York Republican millionaire [a woman he had seen once from a distance], and I think we can represent the US government in Vienna with dignity and grace." When this letter did not get a response, Guiteau tried again: "I called to see you [Garfield] this morning, but you were engaged.... What do you think of me for consul-general at Paris? I think I prefer Paris to Vienna, and I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed." When this letter did not get a response either, Guiteau began to plan to kill Garfield-- and began to think that he was being directed to do so by God.

Even in prison, Charles Guiteau thought he had done something noble. During the trial, he continued to believe he would be released-- since he had been acting on behalf of God.

Charles Guiteau was hanged on June 30th, 1882.

The direction of the demonic is in the direction of self-absorption. Augustine, and later Luther, characterize sin in the Latin phrase "incurvatus in se," or being "curved in on oneself." The demonic is about being wrapped up in self to the degree that others become tools, or pawns, or objects of manipulation-- mere playthings. Love, of course, is the opposite: love is about being curved outward toward the deep well-being of the other. Charles Guiteau is an example, obviously, of the former. He was wrapped up in himself-- curved in on himself-- to the point where others were mere playthings, to be manipulated for the benefit of his all-demanding, all-devouring self.

M. Scott Peck places the demonic in the direction of "people of the lie"-- which ends up in the same place as being curved in on oneself, because people who can never be genuine, can never be in relationship. Always in hiding behind masks, people of the lie are ultimately cut off from others. Truth, in relationships, is transparency; transparency is connection; connection is life-affirming.

The main thrust of this sublime letter to the Corinthians is to get the Corinthians out of self-absorption. Individuals in the Corinthian church are claiming grandiosity for themselves, because they can speak in tongues, while others can't. "Look at me," they say. "Admire how the Holy Spirit lights me up! Admire how rich and beautiful is my inner life! Admire my possession of the Holy Spirit!" These Corinthians who boast, boast in themselves: I've got it, and you don't. Paul, of course, is smart enough to recognize that individual Corinthians have different natural abilities, AND he also insists that they-- we-- are equal in Christ. Love is the greatest, because it is the antidote to self-absorption.

Murderers in the name of God-- like Guiteau's assassination of Garfield-- have that character of self-absorption. A sad and recent instance of murder in the name of God occurred in Pakistan a week or so ago. Pakistan has an anti-blasphemy law; unfortunately, this law can be used to persecute the Christian minority in Pakistan: since God is One in Islam, to claim divinity for Jesus can, for some Muslims, be a blasphemous violation of God's Oneness. While the details of the case are not clear, a Christian woman-- Aasia Bibi-- was recently sentenced to death under Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, defended Bibi and called for reform in the anti-blasphemy law. Last week, Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard, who, like Charles Guiteau, claimed to be doing God's will.

We are interested in Pakistan for at least 3 reasons. First, you and I know people who have gone, are going, or will be going to Afghanistan: and what happens in Pakistan has a direct impact on what happens in Afghanistan. Second, Pakistan has people who embrace religious plurality, and people who do not: and in that way, Pakistani society is like ours. Third is the theological question: Can God talk to people, and if so, how do we determine what is authentically of God, and what is not? Would it ever be authentically God's voice saying, "Kill that person."? It is this third question-- the theological question-- that leads us back to Paul.

The first basis for judging the authenticity of God's speaking to us, is whether the person receiving the communication is grounded in community. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes how the community acts as a check and a corrective against self-absorption. Authentic communication from God will be connected to a community.

The second basis for judging the authenticity of God's speaking to us, is whether the words or acts we are called to, are life-affirming. The God whom we listen for, is the God of Creation-- that very One who called the world into being, who breathed life into clay. Life-affirming words are not always nice: we think of the prophets, whose words of rebuke or righteous anger called people to repentance and to justice. Nice or not, a criterion for judging the authenticity of God's speaking to us, is whether the words are life-affirming.

Finally and relatedly, a calling from God that is authentic will curve us outward rather than inward; will honor our humanity AND the humanity of the other, in relationship.

The role of the church, then, is to name and condemn that which is of the demonic. It is to support that which is of Christ: the building of bridges, the arcing across divides, the work of reconciliation, the making of peace. Our God is not the God of confusion, chaos and destruction; our God is the God of peace, of life, of connection.


April 12th, 2009-- Easter Sunday

Dear Friends in Christ:

What would it be like to live as though the Resurrection were true? How would your life be different if you lived as though the Resurrection were true?  How would our community life, and our broader public life, be different if we lived as though the Resurrection were true? I imagine that our lives would be different, and that is as it should be, because we're alive, and as long as we're spiritually alive we will be seeking, growing, deepening, becoming richer in TRUST. So... what I mean is, REALLY, what would it be like-- right now, not in some distant future but right now-- to live as though the Resurrection were true?

One thing that happens in my life when I live as though the Resurrection were true, is that my anxiety goes down. Not permanently, as though Christ's triumph over death was some kind of flu shot innoculation against anxiety; and not without effort, as though I could just go limp and have all anxiety sucked out of me-- a kind of liposuction for the troubled mind. No-- when my anxiety goes down because I'm conscious for that moment of the truth of Resurrection, it's an effort of openness to the presence of Christ. OK, call it prayer-- and this is why it works: Jesus embodies divinity, Jesus is God, reveals God; the Resurrection is proof that God in Christ is powerful enough to smooth and to calm all anxious and troubled waters. Jesus is the revelation of God; the Resurrection is the revelation of God's power over anxiety and death. Because after all, anxiety at root is our fear of annihilating darkness, of permanent separation, of unending lostness-- in a word, death: bottomless, endless death. Anxiety comes from our fear of death; Christ conquered death. To live as though the Resurrection were true, is to live in a kind of irrepressible freeing, triumphant energy-- it's to let life go, to let it be, in trust-- to give ourselves over fully to life-- to live as though no matter what happens, it's all going to be OK. Because there's nothing to fear, that Christ in His Resurrection power hasn't already taken care of. Get to that place, Trust it. To live as though the Resurrection were true, is to live. The end is life.

To live as though the Resurrection were true is also to always live in hope. Now let's not have confusion: by hope I do not mean optimism. Optimism comes from a high estimate of human capability. We're not that good;  as a species our messes and mistakes, our unexamined prejudices, blind stupidities, outright cruelties, and general carelessness should make us very cautious in our estimate of human capability. The hope I mean, in contrast to optimism, is of, from, and in God. To live as though the Resurrection were true, is to live in the kind of hope that refuses the possibility of dead ends. In circumstances, where all reason and common sense point to constriction and the choking of any possibility for life, hope in God remembers the Resurrection, where a power greater than what our minds can conceive, brought new life out of darkest death. To live as though the Resurrection were true, is to trust the goodness and efficacy of a power that is beyond our understanding; a power that sometimes accomplishes the impossible.

To live as though the Resurrection were true enables us to pray in hope, as we do, for people in the darkness of depression and despair, not because we believe in modern psychology, but because we trust beyond reason God's Resurrection power to transform lives; to live as though the Resurrection were true enables us to pray, as we do, for peace in the Middle East-- not because we believe in the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to come together, but because we trust beyond reason God's Resurrection power to bring possibility out of the deadest of dead ends. To live as though the Resurrection were true is to live in hope grounded in God.

The anxiety in our lives is reasonable. There's a lot to be anxious about. The quiet desperation in our lives; the quiet desperation we feel when we look out into the world, is reasonable. There's a lot that seems beyond hope. At the end of the day, to live as though the Resurrection were true, is to live beyond reason-- not to abandon reason. To live as though the Resurrection were true is not to become irrational people. NO-- to live beyond reason is not to give up being reasonable, but rather is to ground our lives in something more worthy.

And what's beyond reason, more worthy to be the center and ground of our lives? That would be love of course-- not love as a subjective feeling, or as a sentiment, but as an attitude, as a posture, as a stance towards life: God's love pouring through us, an openness, a generosity, a risking of ourselves to lift up others.

To live as though the Resurrection were true, is to live beyond reason, to live in, and to participate in, the love that casts out anxiety and brings light from deepest dark.

He is Risen.
Let us live in the Love that is beyond understanding. Alleluia!

March 8th, 2009-- Second Sunday in Lent

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."          -- Mark 8:35

These anxious economic times have meant good business for some.  If you read tea leaves or Tarot cards, gaze into a crystal ball, or channel departed spirits, business is good, according to a recent Boston Globe. Psychic Alex Palermo, of the Original Tremont Tearoom in downtown Boston, reports business is up 50% since the fall, with 225 people per month now willing to pay 110 dollars per hour for a reading.  An anxious person wants to know:  What's the future for mortgage interest rates?  Should I invest in Bilkeman Run Hedge Fund?  When will the recession bottom out?  Rosemary Mac Arthur, founder of the American Association of Psychics, says, "People are just asking whether their lives are going in a pothole." Anxious times.

When significant change, upheaval, and disruption threatens us, we fight back with anxious clinging.  We resist, and hang on tight to what we know.  This is as true of individuals, as it is of organizations, as it is of societies.  We all do it- it's the natural response to threatening change:  save your life as you know it; hold on tight to what is familiar; preserve the existing order.

Even joyous changes like graduation or marriage, have a subtext of resistance:  You mean I have to leave school and go out into the world?  You mean my daughter, who's getting married, is leaving my protective care?  Even joyous change comes with a shadow.  How dark the darkness can seem, then, with un joyous, big change we don't want and didn't ask for. That can seem very, very dark indeed- and the anxiety can feel overwhelming enough to send you to a psychic!

The wisdom of the larger gospel message, and specifically today's gospel reading, is that on the other side of change and upheaval is a new and deeper stability: that the self I lose has had its day, and on the other side of change, a new self will be re-found and deeply re-formed. This works because we are not our own, but God's:  to lose ourselves is not to be lost, but to be blessedly stripped of the illusion of self-possession so that we may find ourselves possessed by God. This work of transformation is God's work, thank God, not ours - so if you feel like you're not in control, it's because you're not.  All we can do is say "Yes" - "Yes" to losing our lives, not just once, but over and over again, so that our lives may be found- may be re-constituted by God, even more deeply in God.

I certainly don't mean to make change, upheaval, and transformation sound easy.  I do mean to make them sound meaningful, and part of our authentic journey with Christ - that very Christ who continually invites us to lose our lives, and to re-find our lives, in Him.

So what of our economy?  As it is in our individual journeys with God, so it is with our communal and societal journey.  We are at a point where we need to- or are being forced to- lose what's familiar in our common economic life, in order to find something new and deeper and more God-grounded.  Something new on the other side?  Let me give you several examples of what I could, but do NOT, mean- although some people do.

I'm not talking about losing capitalism to find socialism- or vice versa- that's old and worn. There's nothing new there. Nor am I talking about losing laissez faire, in order to find government intervention in markets- both of which, again, are not new.  Nor am I talking about- to take an historical example- losing, as our economic center, the yeoman farmer, in order to the find our new center in the emerging small urban businessman- which at one point in our nation's history, in the 19th century, would have been the debate about what kind of economy would be most healthy for this democracy.  No, all of the above we have been through, and none of them promise anything new and life-affirming on the other side of our current upheaval.

But what if this moment of significant economic turbulence and change were an opportunity to lose the life of consumerism, and re-find our common economic life together more deeply in producer ism?  What if, like Copernicus in astronomy, we shift our economic point of reference, and in that simple shift, create a whole new universe of meaning and possibility- in this way:

Simply, can you and I define ourselves fundamentally and essentially as producers (not consumers), and reject, as part of our new economic life and worldview, the attempts of others to define us as consumers?

What individuals understood as producers, not consumers, might look like, writ large on our economic life, I cannot say.  But the theological meaning is significant. How this shift in economic perspective would also shift our perspective on our life with God, would be significant. Producers make things. Those things can be tangible, like the way a worker constructs a concrete bridge, or they can be intangible, like the way a doctor creates conditions for health, or a teacher creates conditions for learning. Insofar as a producer makes things carefully- with practiced skill,  with a love for the material of that particular craft or profession, and with appreciation for the inherent possibilities and limitations of that craft or profession- in these ways, a producer lives into the image of God in Genesis, in a way that a consumer does not. The God we know in Genesis is the caring and loving Creator, Producer of All, intimately involved with the world, making life out of clay and breath.

We once, not so long ago, had an economy defined more by producing- defined more by making- than by consuming. I think of the older people here in this church- without exception producers and makers. To be a producer is to be generative. It is to be life-producing and life-enhancing, in the same generative spirit of God.              

God is creating, now; God is producing, today.  When we create and produce, we become participants in God's own life-generating spirit. To identify ourselves as producers rather than consumers would be to find a new economic life more grounded in God; it would be to find a new economic life that more closely resembles God's own creating, creative image.

Consumerism is attractive. It feeds our narcissism: an economy built around my desires and appetites! Cool!  For another thing, it's what we know now, and to lose what we know is scary.  So it's by no means a given that we will use this moment of economic upheaval as an opportunity to lose an old way and gain a new economic life more deeply grounded in the producing, creative spirit of God.  It's likely in fact, that in this moment of upheaval we'll work very hard to save the consumer life we know.  Many people have a large vested interest in saving that consumer life- in keeping it just as it was- and even those of us who see the potential for new life closer to God in losing that consumer life will still have ambivalence about change. That's human nature.  We want to save our life, not lose it.

The Christ nature in us, though- not the human nature, but the Christ nature-will recognize the voice of the Master and remember the ancient truth:  new and deeper life awaits those who will let go;  to save our life we must lose it into God. That is always the direction in which hope lies- hope for you and me as individuals when we are struggling or in crisis or in upheaval- and hope for our country, when in high anxiety we cling to save a way of life that really we must lose.  Lose: in order to find ourselves on the other side- as a nation, and as a people- more deeply in God's creative and creating Spirit.

January 11th, 2009-- The Baptism of Christ/First Sunday after Epiphany

A human life is always unresolved in the living of it-- always unfinished and partial.

What am I called to do in life? What does God have in mind for me? Moments of clarity do sometimes come to us on those questions, but most of the time we’re walking the path of life not seeing very clearly at all where we’re going-- unsure of the resolution.  

A biography writer has the advantage of knowing how the life story turns out, in a way that the subject could have had no idea of at the time. When Gandhi, for example, returned to India from South Africa as a young man, there were years where he was not sure what he was to do next with his life. Lincoln as a young lawyer had to walk the dark path of serious depression, where the way forward had to have been very unclear, where the full meaning of his life was not only unfinished and partial, but even in danger of remaining unfulfilled. You and I are still living-- and so our lives are still unresolved. We do have moments when we can say and know and feel what our lives mean, and what we mean to each other, and those moments are full of grace. But most of the time we’re not sure.

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was alive for 30 years before he was baptized by John-- alive for 30 years before he had some clarity as to what he meant to God-- alive for 30 years before even beginning the ministry that was his purpose, let alone finishing that ministry. Jesus lived the tension of not knowing. He lived the fully human experience of partiality and the desire for fulfillment. His baptism is one of those rare moments of clarity, for a human being. God speaks from the highest heaven and says: “You are my beloved son.” That’s clarity and purpose for you. But notice how truly the gospel writer renders the authentic spiritual journey: that moment of clarity for Jesus is followed immediately by a deeper and more dangerous darkness than ever-- the temptations in the wilderness. Back to the fragmentary, the partial, the unfulfilled, the unclear, the unresolved.

I have been wondering this week what my baptism means-- a baptism I didn’t consent to, and which I don’t remember. And I have been wondering about this not in abstraction, but in the midst of grief and in the midst of being present to my grandmother's grief at losing her brother-in-law to death and losing her sister to a cross-country move. The details of those circumstances really are not that important, but the emotions are relevant and the emotions and the struggles are familiar to all of us: grief and sadness; a sense of helplessness and powerless in the face of inevitable loss; fear of the unknown.

And questions come too: Where does all this change and loss lead? Is there a purpose in what seems arbitrary and unfair? What does my baptism mean in the face of those emotions and those questions of meaning? What difference does my baptism and your baptism make, as we live through all the seasons of life?

The liturgy at a time of dying says, “We grieve, but not as a people without hope.” The danger of liturgical words and ritual actions is that we can mis-hear those liturgical words and mis-interpret those ritual actions as taming what is untamable; as glossing over as easy what in fact is hard; as making humanly rational what is really the mystery of God. Your baptism, my baptism, does not change circumstances: loss is loss; wilderness is wilderness; what is unfulfilled remains unfulfilled; what is partial and fragmentary remains partial and fragmentary;  what is unresolved in our lives, still hangs like a note we long to hear but is not yet sounded. Our baptism doesn't change circumstances. We still have to enter into the “circumstances”: and I mean literally enter the hospital, enter the nursing home, enter the house of our tears, enter the presence of someone you love whose heart is broken-- and be present to what is there. So let me say it again: our baptism doesn't change circumstances. However, if we live into our baptism, the context within which we engage the struggles of life changes, and the changed context changes everything.  

Because of my baptism, when I hear a grieving relative say, “Now I'm really alone,” my sadness at hearing her say that, while still remaining sadness, is held in a context of hope and possibility: That her sense of being really alone might bear fruit in her relationship with Jesus who knows real loneliness at Gethsemane, or that her sense of being really alone might bear fruit in softening and deepening her strained relationship with another family member. I know my living into-- leaning into-- my baptism makes a difference, because I remember from before, the many darknesses that were too big and too dark for me, and I ran from them, overwhelmed and engulfed in desperation. I lived in a world that held no possibility of redemption, no possibility that anything partial, fragmentary, or unresolved could find resolution. Circumstances don’t change when we remember our baptism-- life is hard and full of struggle for everyone-- but living into our identity as God’s beloved children-- as brothers and sisters in and of Christ-- changes the context of the struggle and transforms it into a school for compassion, the training ground and proving ground for God's own claiming of us, making us more fully human, more fully alive.

But not so fast. In the first place is our human life as it is: aggrieved and troubled, partial and unfinished, pieces lying around that are not together yet, a purpose not yet fulfilled. But it’s not a desperate situation: there’s enough time for the meaning to emerge; there’s enough grace for the note we long for, to sound. We get what we need for the journey; and in faith in God we can live our unresolved lives without fear.

December 21st, 2008-- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Most of the hardwoods snap off sharp, and pointed, splintery, like daggers, knives, swords.  It's not the shape you see on a thriving tree under auspicious growing conditions.  It is a shape you do see on a broken tree, an injured tree, a damaged or destroyed tree.  For us this week, and for the hardwoods, it is the shape of diminishment and destruction.

After driving around Sunday afternoon in Mason, and Monday afternoon in New Ipswich, I had, as we all have by now, seen a lot of destruction.  Not catastrophic destruction, to be sure-- for while our landscape bears some resemblance to a war zone, for the most part our houses are ok and no one has died-- still, to be surrounded by a lot of destruction takes energy. In addition to the physical energy of filling gas tanks for generators and hauling water, in addition to the stress of routines being abruptly changed and being thrust into the unfamiliar, there is also the emotional and spiritual drawing down of energy in the midst of destruction. What a gift it was to me then, when at nightfall on Monday I pulled into the driveway of Jason & Maila Finch, who, I had heard, had welcomed their little baby into the world. Well wouldn't you know, the generator was humming outside, and through the window I could see the Christmas tree was lit.  I knocked, Maila welcomed me in, it was warm, apparently they were doing ok.  Maila showed me little Lisa, and then she let me hold her.  Unlike the whole world outside, there are no sharp edges on a newborn baby, no splintery, jagged points--just softness, roundness, smoothness, the shape and feel of fresh life.  Little Lisa in her softness--I held her, a little round ball of new life in the midst of jagged brokenness all around.

The Lord our God is Lord of softness-- AND Lord of jagged sharpness;  Lord of growth-- AND Lord of decay; Lord of light, AND Lord of darkness; Lord of creation, AND Lord of destruction;  Lord of Life, AND Lord of death.

The commercial interests of Christmas, which some expressions of organized Christianity also shamefully feed into, only give us light and softness and warmth-- all of which are attractive and true -- but not fully true.  Authentic life is light and dark, soft and jagged, warm and cold.  Authentic life is destruction all around us and new life all around us.  A God who is only the God of softness, growth, and light is a tamed and domesticated God, the God we create in our own image, the God who feeds our illusion that we are the center of the universe and that our own needs are paramount.  That tame and domesticated God is nowhere in the Bible.  Nowhere.

Mary knew enough to be wary of God.  Look at her reaction to Gabriel:  Gabriel says, "Hail O favored One, the Lord is with you."  Then scripture says: Mary was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.  She knew that the presence of the Lord her God wasn't always soft and warm and light.  Until Gabriel goes on to clarify that Mary has found favor with God, she, Mary, is troubled at Gabriel's announcement that God is with her.  Mary knows that the Lord her God is a wild God, and there's no telling what He might have in mind.  Until Gabriel says, "Do not be afraid," Mary knows that the Lord being with her might be something to fear-- might mean destruction.   Mary knows the Lord her God is a wild God.

One of the gifts of God-- whether by storm or by birth, or by death, or by any other way that our lives get interrupted--  is that we may become more humble people, better able to let go of whatever illusions we have that we're in control, better able to ask for help, better able to cling to each other and to Christ.  Mary says, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord;  let it be to me according to your Word."  In other words, Mary says not my will, but thy will be done:  a prayer of humility in front of the Lord, a prayer of desire to cling to the Lord our God. Not because God is always and everywhere warm and soft, but because God is always God.

Did God cause the ice storm?  Does God cause other kinds of bad things to happen:  sickness, suffering, destruction, death?  No, not in the sense of some malevolent controller pulling strings on his marionettes (us) , or again in the sense of some sadistic voodoo practitioner sticking pins in voodoo dolls (us again) .  So no, God does not cause bad things to happen, in that controlling way.  However, there is this:  God created this world, and in this world that God created there is pain and suffering and death; there is darkness and jagged edges.  God created this kind of world-- and you and I were not consulted! Isn't that outrageous?  God did not seek our opinion before creating this world, in which bad things happen.  At various times in life I have given God an earful for not getting my opinion about the way things should be, and probably you have too. But here's what I'm learning about in this season of my life, learning over and over:  I'm learning this thing called surrender.  I'm really bad at it, but I'm starting to see that's where life actually begins.  Surrender recognizes that the world God created is not organized around my own needs and desires, nor is it organized around your needs and desires.  Therefore, the only firm ground we've got to stand on is connection and relationship: compassion, tenderness, and loving truthfulness toward each other; justice and mercy in the wider society; praise, worship and prayer toward our God.  Surrender is Mary's response to God;  it is humility that leads to deeper giving, deeper life, with one's self out of the center, replaced there by the Love of God.

The God who made the world in such a way that it contains sharp jagged edges of destruction, darkness, and death, loved its terrible beauty enough to come and dwell, God with us, Emmanuel.  But God didn't come just to check it out:  He came to transform the world, to redeem it.  The sharp jagged edges of destruction, darkness and death--real though they are--are not the final reality.  The mystery of resurrection is wrapped in surrender--the ability to say "yes" to all of life even while crying out "NO"--like Jesus did on his sharp, jagged-edged cross.
Soft, round, smooth, warm, little Lisa Finch.  Sharp, jagged, pointy, broken branches and trees everywhere.  Both are somehow holy, both reveal power AND weakness, creation AND destruction, death AND life.  Both invite us to surrender, and give ourselves over to deeper connection, deeper trust, deeper faith. What else are you going to do?  And both invite us to praise the Lord our God:  Creator, Redeemer, Breath of Life.