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|1/28/18 - Who's in Charge? by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:48pm|
|1/28/18 - Who's in Charge?|
|1/21/18 - Resistance is Futile by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:47pm|
|1/21/18 - Resistance is Futile|
|1/14/18 - The Miracle of Being Seen by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:46pm|
|1/14/18 - The Miracle of Being Seen|
|11/5/17 - Standing Before the Throne by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:45pm|
|11/5/17 - Standing Before the Throne|
|10/8/17 - Lord, Speak to Me by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:43pm|
|10/8/17 - Lord, Speak to Me|
|10/1/17 - Peace Near and Far by Donna Williams on Jan 31, 1:42pm|
|10/1/17 - Peace Near and Far|
|8/13/17 - Sermon by Chelsea Badeau by Donna Williams on Sep 20, 7:59pm|
|8/13/17 - Sermon by Chelsea Badeau|
Good morning, please raise your hand if you've NEVER made a mistake? A few weeks ago, this question was posed at the closing luncheon for an adoption conference I attended. I misheard and thought the speaker asked people to raise their hands if they've EVER made a mistake. Needless to say, I was the only one raising my hand as I realized my mistake in that moment.
In fact--beIieve it or not--I make mistakes all the time. On good weeks, I feel like I'm constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. And on bad weeks, it's more like one step forward and THREE steps back. I'm an imperfect person and all of you have just confirmed that you are as well. So this morning, I'd like to talk about imperfect people helping other imperfect people, even when-scratch that-ESPECIALLY when it's hard.
Maybe you're thinking helping is always hard. Maybe not. But there are certainly times when helping is easier or comes more naturally. For instance, if you have kids, you probably help them get ready every day. If you're heading to the grocery store and someone asks you to pick something up, that's no problem. It's not hard to help when you really like the people you're helping, feel appreciated in return and don't really have to go out of your way.
I grew up learning the importance of giving back and helping others from a young age. As most of you know, that's kind of my parents' thing. The year after I graduated high school, I joined City Year, an Americorps program, and spent the next 10 months volunteering at an afterschool center in Chicago. I often say it was one of the best, yet hardest years of my life. It's when I first began to learn that helping isn't always easy and you can't control what happens after you help.
Today's second reading from Luke describes the ease most of us feel when helping those we love or those who are good or kind to us and the difficulty in loving or helping our enemies. But sometimes, the opposite is true.
I often find it easier to help strangers when I only know the details of the need, not the background that led to the state of need. For instance, it can be easier to give money, food or clothing to homeless or drug-addicted people that you don't know than family members who find themselves in a state of homelessness or drug addiction and repeatedly ask for money. I find myself more likely to judge the need based on the actions that I believe resulted in their current state of being. It's hard to help someone you believe put themselves into the position they are in or "dug their own graves." But yet, I will willingly give food or money to panhandlers on the street even though I have no idea what led to them being homeless. Did it happen through no fault of their own? Possibly. Did it happen because of their own choices? Possibly. Is it necessary for me to know the answer in order to respond to God’s nudging to help? No.
This is where we have to remember to help – and forgive - without judgment. Reading from Matthew 18, "then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!"
But why should we help when we have helped in the past and been burned? It's hard to help when you can't control the outcome, the result, of your efforts. When you donate to Red Cross or United Way or any organization, you have to trust that they will do what they say with your money. Similarly, when you help an individual, you have to leave the outcome in God's hands.
I believe we must help with the best intentions and then leave it in God's hands. Doing what's right even if we don't see the outcomes that we hope for or expect. We have to remember that God works in mysterious ways and the outcomes we hope for when we help will not always come to pass. But even when it seems like nothing good came from our efforts, we have to remember that our ultimate reward is not on this earth. Reading from Hebrews 6:10 - God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. God’s desired outcome may be an internal change in someone’s heart. Or it may be something that happens years later, long after your act of helping. You may not even live long enough to see the ultimate result of your efforts – that’s kind of the cool thing about eternity. Also, positive outcomes may come in different ways than you expected.
Your help is never in vain any and every time you put yourself out there and help.
It can often feel so overwhelming and pointless to even try to help when the problems are so big and so many. Every day, we hear stories of war, hunger, persecution, discrimination. We can find ways, even small ways to help, from supporting organizations who fight injustice to attending protests to writing letters to our elected officials to helping individuals or families who are homeless, hungry, facing discrimination or fleeing civil war.
Lastly, it can be hard to help because you may feel like YOU are the one who needs help. Maybe you're a single mother. Maybe you just lost your job. Maybe you are not able bodied or you're dealing with a health setback. Maybe you are living week to week and fighting to keep your head above water. Maybe you feel like you are a flawed person who makes mistakes at every turn and is in no position to help another. It doesn't matter. As I said at the beginning, we're all imperfect. Yet, even in our imperfection, we can help others. We all need each other. Help is a continuous circle. Sometimes we are the ones who receive it and sometimes we are the ones who give it.
Most of you are likely familiar with "First they came ..." a poem written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
God doesn't just ask us to help, he commands it. He wants us to love and support one another in our times of need. Prayer is very important, but prayer must be combined with action. The Bible talks about faith and deeds in the second chapter of James, verses 14-17: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
We must not turn a blind eye to injustice. It's not about donating millions of dollars or getting arrested for 40-day protests. It's about helping in the ways you can in the places you can. Sometimes, it's just speaking up or lending a hand to someone who's fallen down. Helping isn't just something you do every now and then, it's a way of life. You can help others through all aspects of your life. What you say. What you don't say. What you do and don't do. Even by what businesses you support.
Author Luvvie Ajayi wrote in her recent book "I'm Judging You,"
In whatever way you can, do something to lift someone else up. Be an ally, by living in ways that respect others who are marginalized.
You're white? Get some black friends. Know what racism is and how you are a part of it. Denounce the system, and acknowledge your privilege.
You're a man? Treat women like they're equal beings. When they're disrespected and you see it, speak up.
You're straight? Love people, no matter who they choose to love. Don't treat your gay friends as accessories. Don't use or stay silent when someone else uses derogatory language.
You're able? Invite your friends with disabilities to places where they will not struggle to enter or exist.
Teach your children that different isn't synonymous with subpar. Raise kids who have seen you lead by example. Let them know that to be a good person means embracing all people, even those whose normal may be different from others.
Most of the time, helping feels great. There are many studies showing that those who help and give back on a regular basis are happier and live more fulfilled lives than those who don't. But as Christians, helping is not just a nice thing to do to make us feel better about ourselves. It's what we are called to do, because it is pleasing to the Lord. Reading from Hebrews 13, "Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased."
Bottom line: God has your back. He will help you help. Don't lose faith, your help is NEVER in vain. So keep helping, even when it's hard. Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.
|8/20/17 - Going Beyond the Assignment by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:33pm|
|8/20/17 - Going Beyond the Assignment|
Going Beyond the Assignment
“I was wrong.” You may have seen this headline in the Washington Post or the New York Times this week, quoting an opinion editor of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, student newspaper. Sophomore Brendan Novak had written a column before the rally that defended the decision of the City Council to grant a permit for the “alt-right” demonstration. He argued that it was both unconstitutional and immoral to withhold permits based on a value judgement on the message of a demonstration. He said it was better to let the demonstrators speak. They would lose in the marketplace of ideas and others could “watch as the rotting ideological foundation collapses under its own weight.”
After the rally, he wrote another column. In this column he argued that he had been naive, even foolish: that from the beginning the demonstrators had made clear their intention to harass and intimidate. They were - in his words — “brazen terrorists,” - and therefore didn’t qualify as a peaceful assembly or protected speech under the First Amendment. Now we could discuss, even argue, about when Novak was right or wrong (I like the second column but maybe that’s hindsight). We may have different ideas about how it all should have been handled. But I’m guessing we could agree with something else Novak told the Post: that “he hopes his piece will show students on campus, and readers beyond, that it’s okay to allow new information and circumstances to shape or alter existing beliefs.” (Washington Post, Samantha Schmidt, August 16, 2017).
That may have been a divine intention, or an intention of Matthew’s, in our scripture this morning. Jesus changes his mind after an encounter with a Canaanite woman. He had thought he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so he was silent when she asked for mercy, and told him her daughter was possessed by a demon. But when she asked again, and then outwitted him, or charmed him, or enlightened him in their exchange about dogs under the children’s table, Jesus came to a new understanding of his assignment. It wasn’t only to the house of Israel but was also to the Canaanites, or at least to this woman and her daughter. God desired their salvation and healing as well.
Now we must allow the encounter is disturbing. Jesus gave her the silent treatment when she first approached him, adding insult to injury. He then compares Canaanites to dogs. Now we love dogs and may consider that a compliment, but the woman wouldn’t have heard it that way. And although Jesus does change his mind, he never apologizes, or says, “I was wrong.” He misses an opportunity to make a ringing statement about the love of God for all peoples. But in his defense — as though Jesus needs me to defend him — he also doesn’t mansplain. He doesn’t rabbisplain. He doesn’t even Messiahsplain. He acknowledges her great faith, and then cedes the floor to her: “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
So in Jesus we have a human as well as divine model for changing our minds, for perceiving things differently with new information, for deepening our understanding of God’s call. But he’s not the only model in our scripture. This story is also told in memory of her. She models faith in the divine love for all people, in God’s desire that all people be healed and saved. She models persistence in face of opposition from her betters - including those rather arrogant disciples. She insists that Canaanite lives matter. That girls lives matter. That her life matters. And she models courage in her willingness to push back against the Son of David. Gently, politely, on his terms - but push back nevertheless. She risked shame and derision for the sake of her daughter and for the sake of love.
A few weeks ago, when we read the parable about the man who sold everything for a pearl of great price, a parable about the Kingdom of God, I invited you to share what you longed for, what you would give anything for. People shared many wonderful things. One of the themes was a longing for truth, for clarity about what it means to be a Christian - given the different views among us - and for the ability to truly listen and be open to those who disagree, while holding on to what’s right with passion and conviction. A longing to be like Jesus in our story— listening, open to change — while also being like the Canaanite woman, great in faith, courage and persistence in speaking truth.
The need for both was clear this week. It was clear that we needed to speak truth and name the evil of Nazism and other expressions of white supremacy. The need was clear to point out that because Black lives matter, because all lives matter, statues honoring the confederacy have no place in public parks and town centers (that’s my opinion!) But it was also clear that listening and learning is also needed. Not necessarily to change sides or even change minds - although sometimes we need to do a 180 - but to better understand our call, our world, one another. Jesus didn’t change sides after listening to the Canaanite woman. Hi didn’t lose his identity as the Son of David. He still ministered to the lost sheep of Israel. But he grew in compassion for others and in the understanding of his mission.
As followers of Jesus, we, too, always need to grow in compassion and understanding of our mission. We need to study the teachings of Jesus and the Prophets, to ponder what it means to care for the least of these, to proclaim liberty to the captives and good news to the poor, while binding up the broken-hearted. We also need to learn our history, not just revise it to our liking. We need to develop an understanding of systemic racism that goes beyond identifying young men who carry Tikki torches, and our president, as the problem. Marching, writing and calling our leaders are absolutely necessary. But they aren’t the only necessary things. At the POWER led rally on Wednesday night, leader Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, speaking primarily to white people, said enough of being shocked and performative moral outrage. Start having those difficult conversations with your friends and neighbors and family. Conversations that will require us to listen and maybe change our hearts and minds, even as we speak truth firmly and persistently. Conversations that could lead to change.
Matthew says that after Jesus left that place, he went along the sea of Galilee and then up to a high mountain. He said that crowds followed him their, bringing those who were lame, blind and maimed, and placed them at his feet. He says that Jesus healed many people, possibly including Canaanites or Romans, as Matthew does not say where the crowd came from. And as the mute spoke and the hurt were made whole, they praised the God of Israel. After the crowd had been with him three days, Jesus again fed thousands with seven loaves and a few fish, after which the disciples gathered seven baskets of left-overs. As we study, speak, act and above all pray, this is the hope to keep before us: a world where all are healed; a world where all have enough to eat; a world where every person is recognized as a child of God and a full member of the beloved community. Please join me in prayer:
|7/16/17 - Claiming God's Promises by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:31pm|
|7/16/17 - Claiming God's Promises|
Claiming God's Promises
Many of you know that I like to write. So when Cheryl asked me to fill in today I immediately said yes. My first thought was, “Oh good, I’ll get to write a sermon!” My second thought was that I would also have to READ it. That part was a little scary. But since I’m used to giving children’s sermons, I decided that this would just be a very long children’s sermon.
And if you’ve ever heard one of my children’s sermons, you know that sometimes I include songs as part of my message. I couldn’t help it. I had to put songs in my adult sermon as well. You are welcome to join in singing any one you recognize.
A few years ago Cheryl invited members of the congregation to submit a Prayer of Confession to be used in a morning worship service. I wrote one and it was printed in a Sunday bulletin. It is also the Prayer of Confession we read today.
Right after I wrote that confession, I began to use it as a daily prayer, which I still use today. Every morning I wake up and say this, “Lord, I claim the promise of your presence, your protection, your provision, your power and your peace, for Kristina and Kevin, for James, for Pete and myself throughout this day.”
Now this is not the only prayer I say, but it’s the first prayer I say. I talk to God often during the day. Then at night I say a prayer that includes more family and friends, issues of concern, and Summit Presbyterian Church.
Let’s start with God’s PRESENCE: We read in Matthew 28:19 & 20: “Go ye, therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
This scripture brings to mind a song I learned many years ago. “Never alone because I know my Lord is with me. Never alone, He’s always standing by. Jesus has promised to take my hand and lead me. Never alone. No Never alone am I.”
I know some people who are very scared of being alone. Very scared of being totally by themselves. But since I was a child, I’ve been very aware of the presence of God in my life and wanting to be very close to God. When I first met Pete and told him that, he said, “What are gonna do, be a nun?” He was glad when I said no, because otherwise we couldn’t have gotten married.
God is, as He promised, always with me. And often I can feel that presence. God keeps His promise to be present in my life.
Now, the PROTECTION of God, which the first scripture reading today was all about. I chose this passage because it has a special meaning to me. My favorite part of the Psalm is verses 11 & 12: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”
Isn’t that a beautiful picture?
When I first moved from Lancaster County, PA into North Philadelphia, I was shown to a very small bedroom on the second floor of the Teen Haven Center. The very first night there was noise, commotion and violence outside of my window and as I laid there listening, my first thought was “What have I gotten myself into?” But then, these very comforting verses came to mind and I rolled over and went to sleep.
A few years later, while I was living at the Broad Street center, I woke up one morning to discover most of our electronic items were missing. When the police officer came and looked around, he showed me a pile of burnt matches right outside my bedroom door. “This is how they saw to get around without turning on the lights,” he said. Later that day when I went outside, a guy I didn’t know yelled to me, “Hey, I liked your little green pajamas!”
Wow, I thought, he had been right outside my bedroom door looking in. I wondered what would have happened if I’d woken up. Once again, the verses of Psalm 91 came to mind. God kept His promise to protect me.
Now on to God’s PROVISION: Matthew 6:31-33: “Therefore, be not anxious, saying, what shall we eat? Or what shall we drink? Or with what shall we be clothed? For your heavenly father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Who knows this one? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu. Alleluia.”
While I was working at Teen Haven in North Philly I wasn’t making much money, but then I didn’t really need much. I lived at the center and drove one of their cars and ate there every day. So, when somebody in the neighborhood needed some money I would often just give it to them.
There was a kid who was starting a gospel group and he needed a set of drums. I only had about a hundred dollars to my name, but I gave it to him when he asked. I secretly told myself that was a really stupid thing to do, give away my last dollar. But just a few days later I got a nice big check in the mail from one of my family members and I knew I had done the right thing. God kept His promise to provide.
Now, let’s talk about God’s POWER: II Timothy 1:7 one of my favorites. “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
When I turned 21, I was taught to drive Teen Haven’s 77 passenger school bus so I could drive to our camp on the weekends and the male staff could have time off. I was a skinny little thing then, believe it or not, a size 10. And when I first got behind the wheel of the bus I was truly terrified.
It was a stick shift and it wasn’t easy to drive. So, I did what I’d learned to do in new and uneasy situations – I prayed. I prayed the whole way out to camp and I prayed the whole way back. After a few trips it became routine, and parents stopped following the bus out of the city to make sure I could handle it. But God did indeed, give me the spirit of power to overcome my fear. God kept His promise of power.
Who remembers this one? “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the lamb. There is power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of the lamb.”
And then there’s this one: “There is power in the name of Jesus, (3x) to break every chain. To break every chain. To break every chain.”
Lastly, we find the promise of God’s PEACE in Philippians 4:6 & 7. Another of my favorites: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and mind through Christ Jesus.”
(“I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart.”)
We also find the promise of peace in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
What a comforting scripture. And there’s a song for it too: “Peace give I to thee. Peace give I to thee. Not as the world gives, give I to thee. Peace give I to thee.”
Most of you know that I have a son with mental health problems. There have been times when I didn’t know where he was. Times when he was in prison. Times when he was living on the street. Times when he was in the hospital or institutionalized. Times when his drug and alcohol use made him very scary and made it impossible for him to live with us.
I have often been angry at God for not healing my son. I’ve thrown my fist into the air and shouted, “Why don’t you just fix him??” Oh yes, I have been very angry with God. But there have also been times when I felt the undeniable, overwhelming peace of God which passes all understanding.
James had not been miraculously healed. The storm had not passed. The clouds had not scattered. The sun had not begun to shine. But, the still, small voice of my God could still be heard. And it said, “Peace, be still,” to my heart.
The Bible is filled with the promises of God. They are ours to claim. They are ours to proclaim to one another. My prayer is that we never need to confess that we have fallen short of believing them. Amen.
|7/2/17 - Hearing and Hospitality by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:26pm|
|7/2/17 - Hearing and Hospitality|
Hearing and Hospitality
These words of Jesus come at the end of a long set of instructions to the twelve apostles. He’s sending them on a mission to the towns and villages of Israel to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. They’re to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. It’s an exciting missionary journey but it comes with warning. All through his speech Jesus tells them it’s a dangerous world out there. The disciples can expect to suffer. They will be dragged before governors and kings; families will be torn apart as brother betrays brother to death and even children will rise against their parents; everyone will hate them because of his name. Given the danger, one might expect Jesus to arm his disciples — perhaps with swords, since he says he came to bring not peace but a sword to the earth. Or we might expect him to at least give them money, food and a uniform. But quite the opposite: he tells them to take no gold, or silver, or copper in their belts; no bag for their journey, or two tunics or sandals, or a staff. He tells them to depend on the people they’re visiting, to seek hospitality. If they’re not welcomed in a house or town to shake the dust from their feet and move on — no need, though, to burn it down or cause harm. And although he tells the disciples to be wise as serpents, their mission doesn’t include defending their lives. He even says they may lose their lives for his sake, adding that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But after all these words of warning, he ends with this promise of blessing for both for the disciples, and those who follow, and all who receive them: “whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple: truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Jesus recognizes the courage of those who receive as well as those who are sent. After all, if a penniless, barefoot, dirty man came to your door asking for food and shelter and claiming that he had the power to cast out demons and raise the dead, would you let him in? I should hope not! It’s not always clear, on first hearing, that the Word of God is good news. It takes courage to hear it and to welcome the messenger. It takes courage to welcome a stranger, who may be a prophet or righteous one or even an angel that we entertain unawares, and to offer a glass of water — especially when that stranger is among the “Little ones” or “the least of these” — a child, or poor, without a home, or in prison. Now, Jesus doesn’t specify the reward — but as the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, it would be in the present as well as the future, in the cool water of this world as well as in the everlasting fountain of the world to come.
Now to the present. Which is also the fourth of July weekend. (I’m aware of that, even though we haven’t yet sung any patriotic hymns). Since the election - and before - we’ve been hearing many speeches on the dangers of this world. Across the political spectrum. Politicians and other people describe the dangers differently; they have different lists of perils. Some put climate change and the possibility of nuclear war on the top; others might put crime and terrorism; others illness or poverty. Now, some lists are more-reality based than others. Some lists are more cynical than others. The writer H.L. Mencken once said, “The whole aim of practical politics, is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” That may be a bit harsh — I wouldn’t say it’s the whole aim of practical politics and not all the hobgoblins are imaginary. But leaders often stoke fears to get elected or push through legislation, to take away freedoms, to otherwise exercise power. Fear is a powerful motivator, as Richard Nixon, a champion fear-monger once recognized: “People react to fear, not love,” he explained. “They don’t teach that in Sunday school. But it’s true.”
Now, I beg to differ with President Nixon. We do teach that in Sunday School, at least in Presbyterian Sunday School. We teach that people react to fear, or in fear — it’s part of our fallen nature. We know it’s true. We can see it with our own eyes, and feel it in our own hearts, and also, the Bible tells us so. We have the examples of Pharoah and King Herod, who killed all the baby boys in their kingdoms out of fear that one of them would grow up to take their throne. We have the example of Jonah, who ran from God when he feared going among those enemies, the Ninevites — it turns out he feared most that they would repent, and no longer be enemies. We see it in the example of Pilate who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion when he feared Jesus and, Matthew says, the crowd. We see it in the example of the Roman state, who used crucifixions to instill fear in the populace. But we also teach in Sunday School not be not afraid. To listen to the Angels, those messengers of God in the Old and New Testament, who say over and over again, to Sarah, to Mary to the Shepherds: do not be afraid. To listen to Jesus who tells the disciples not to fear those who kill the body, or to worry about what you will eat or what you will drink, what you will wear . . . but to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, clothed and fed by our loving God. To trust, that in Christ, we have life. Now, God knows it’s hard not to be afraid, or to worry, as it’s a dangerous world out there. And Jesus isn’t telling us throw all caution to the wind or to stop wearing seat belts or to knowingly risk the lives of others. But we’re called to respond to danger not out of fear but with love. Love for God, love for neighbor, love for the “least of these” — those who are the most vulnerable among us, including children and those who are poor, or sick, or without homes. It’s risky. It’s counter-intuitive. It makes more sense to stay behind closed doors, to listen only to our favorite news channels and late night hosts, even to buy the gun. But Jesus promises blessing for those who venture forth to speak of God’s love, and to those who have the courage to listen. Jesus promises blessing for those who live righteous lives and for those who support them. Jesus promises blessing for those who offer a cup of cold water, as a disciple, to anyone who is thirsty. For when we do those things we welcome Christ — and what could be more rewarding than that.
And here is where I believe, as Christians, must take issue with President Trump. For his response to the danger in the world is to encourage more fear and to respond defensively. Putting America first. Closing the door to refugees and immigrants and travelers. Harassing scientists and other prophets of our time. Proposing a budget that arms us more heavily while cutting back on diplomacy. Even if those measures would keep us safe — and I don’t believe they will — they close us to blessings, as a people and world. Those policies may keep out terrorists, they may protect wealth or even jobs. But they also keep us from welcoming prophets and righteous ones, from helping those in need, from encountering the God who loves us and all people of this earth.
There’s a song we sometimes sing on the fourth of July, if we’re of a certain political bent. It’s “If I Had a Hammer.” You know the lyrics: If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land. I’d hammer out danger. I’d hammer out warning. I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land. Those lyrics were always perplexing to me — how did danger, warning and love, go together? But Jesus tells us how. By loving despite danger. By loving after we’ve been warned. By loving in the morning and the evening — all over this land and indeed, all over this world.
|6/25/17 - Walking in Newness of Life by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:23pm|
|6/25/17 - Walking in Newness of Life|
Walking in Newness of Life
This lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans may seem like the perfect reading for a day when we’ve had two baptisms. It’s one of the most extensive discussions of baptism in scripture. But it’s hard to make sense of it on first reading, or on third reading or eighth reading for that matter. And it’s 90 degrees in the sanctuary. So I’m not going to try and outline Paul’s argument or unpack what he might mean when he talks about being buried with Christ in baptism. Those are sermons for a cooler day. I’m going to talk about no longer being enslaved to sin and walking in newness of life. I’ll begin with a story from my childhood, a very small event in the big scheme of things. But we baptized two children today and this scripture is for them, too.
Growing up, our family vacation every year was to spend a week on a dairy farm in Vermont. We stayed with a large and lovely family who opened their home to guests every year while they went about the business of milking cows and tending horses and baking pies. The guests had rooms of their own that were on one side of the house and the family was on the other. There were no physical barriers or separate entrances, but our parents told us not to go into the bedrooms of our hosts. Guests tended to hang out in the large dining room rather than the living room. At the top of the stairway that led to the room where my parents stayed, there was another door that was always closed; it was a small landing, the doors close to one another. I never gave much thought to that door, but one day, when I was about seven, I was going to my parents’ room when I absent-mindedly walked through it. I realized my mistake immediately. This was not a guest room; it was a small apartment with a sitting area and a bed and a kitchenette and someone clearly lived there. I was horrified. I had trespassed. I didn’t know whose room it was, but I knew it was off limits. I quickly went out and quietly shut the door behind me.
Now if I had been a normal child, that would have been the end of the story. But for some reason I was haunted by that misstep. I wasn’t usually that sensitive - it was a fluke — but I was wracked by guilt. Frightened - not of punishment, but of what I had done. I could think of nothing else but my transgression for two days. I no longer took joy in riding the ponies or watching the milking or climbing the hills. I don’t remember acting out but I’m sure I was meaner than usual to my sister. I do remember asking my parents if next year we could please go somewhere else for our vacation. And also asking — as innocently as I could — what was behind the door next to their room? My parents must have figured out something was wrong and the next day my father asked if I would like to go into the room with him. We stepped inside and looked around from just inside the doorway. He explained that it was the apartment for the family’s grandmother, who lived there part of the year. We stood there for a few minutes and although I still felt some worry — did my father have permission to be here? — I soon felt the burden lift. It was OK. I was free again to be myself, to run up the hills, to eat pie and to ride the ponies. I count it as God’s grace, working through loving and perceptive parents, that liberated me from that terrible, if short- lived - prison of fear and guilt.
Now, you may be thinking, Cheryl must have paid a lot of money out to therapists over the years — although it’s not unusual for children to have a distorted perception of their power or responsibility, one of the reasons they’re so vulnerable in the face of abuse or other traumas. But I’m making an illustration from the lesser to the greater. For I trust guilt, fear and shame are not unfamiliar to you — whether they arise from wrongs you’ve done, wrongs done to you, or for reasons you can’t even fathom. Those feelings, and not just feelings but the reality of guilt and sin can enslave us. Keeping us from joy, from action, from love and from doing right. But the good news we receive and remember in baptism is that in Christ the power of sin is broken. It need not enslave us, no matter what we have done or not done. We only need to trust in the forgiveness and acceptance, the love and grace of Christ. It’s not always easy to trust, but that grace reaches into the deepest, darkest places of this world and of our hearts. It doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want because Christ loves us. It doesn’t mean we should sin harder for the purpose of feeling more grace —by no means, says Paul. It means that resurrection awaits us, too, as Jesus invites us to walk in newness of life. A life where we can love our neighbors and ourselves.
And this is what we’re called to teach our children, as we promise to guide and nurture them, by word and deed, encouraging them to know and follow Christ. Teaching them the stories of Jesus and telling them of God’s love. But also showing the grace, the love, the acceptance that Christ shows us. Beginning with the children in our families and our Sunday School, but also beyond — in the church universal and indeed the world. For Christ invites all to walk with him in newness of life.
|6/4/17 - For the Common Good by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:21pm|
|6/4/17 - For the Common Good|
For the Common Good
The tower of Babel is a puzzling story. In a way it’s like other ancient myths, a kind of “just so story” that explains why people are scattered across the earth, speaking different languages. In the Biblical story, it helps move humankind from from the Garden where Adam and Eve and the snake talked with each other under the tree - - to the many languages and civilizations of the ancient world. But theologically, it’s hard to defend or explain. Why did God confuse their language and interrupt their city-building project? They were doing so well! Some folks say it’s because their project was too grand, they were trying to be God-like in building a tower to the heavens. Others have detected an anti-urban bias in the writers; throughout history, cities have been considered hotbeds of evil by those who don’t live in them. Others say that God saw a rival in a united humanity: “this is only they beginning of what they will do,” God says — “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
I have my own theory, a kind of midrash, a story from the story. It’a based on a poignant detail in the text that I noticed for the first time this week. Those busy beavers in the land of Shinar were messing around with bitumen — a fossil fuel. Bitumen is a hydrocarbon, viscous and black, 83% carbon, 10 % hydrogen with smaller amounts oxygen and other elements. (That’s my google factoid for the week. You know I always try and give you one!). It’s a thick kind of petroleum, the product of very long dead plants. The United People of Shinar were using bitumen as mortar, as they built their tower of bricks fired in ovens. It was clever of them, for bitumen is very good at keeping water out of towers, something we know at Summit is extremely important. They hadn’t yet discovered the use of bitumen — or related hydrocarbons - as fuels, but surely God knew it was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before those humans figured out how to dig up the dead on a massive scale, drilling and mining fossils that had cooked underneath mud and water and stone for hundreds of millions of years, turning into oil and gas and coal even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Surely God knew it was only a matter of time before human beings learned how to unleash the massive energy and also the massive danger held by those fossils. So when those humans on the plain of Shinar started messing with bitumen, perhaps God slowed them down in an act of wisdom and mercy. To give them time and space in order to gain knowledge, wisdom, spiritual and moral maturity. So God confused their language. Rather than one there were now many languages, each with its own beauty and precision. God led them throughout the world so they could build civilizations and cultures of all kinds, each with their own ingenious inventions, sculptures and paintings and music, writings and food and philosophy. God also showed God’s self to them in many and various ways: speaking through the heavens, with the firmament proclaiming God’s handiwork; giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai; sending Jesus the Son to live among them, to die and rise from the dead; revealing the Qu’ran to Muhammed; and more. Over time, these scattered peoples came together, in ways both violent and peaceful, constructive and destructive. They learned each other’s languages and discovered new ones to share. The most important new language they learned was a way of investigating the universe: Observing. Developing an hypothesis about the way things worked. Testing the hypothesis with experiments. Repeating those experiments, sharing the results, asking for criticism, refining the theories, building on common knowledge. This way of learning - called science - proved to be very powerful, and when humans began to dig up the coal in earnest and discovered oil and gas and applied the science it was only the beginning of what humans could do. Indeed it seemed that nothing they proposed was impossible for them! Flying through the air. Diving to the bottom of the sea. Going to the moon. Finding cures for all kinds of diseases. Speaking and looking at each other even when they were were separated by vast oceans. Making life long and comfortable for billions of people who now finally had enough to eat. The marriage of fossil fuels and science didn’t bring blessings only: their power was used for evil as well as good, as people continued to kill, enslave and oppress one another. But truly, human beings had made a name for themselves.
But the same method of investigation that had unleashed the power of those fossils began to warn of danger. After many, many observations, experiments and computer models, scientists around the world agreed: burning all those fossils was warming the earth. The release of all that long buried carbon and methane was changing the climate. Melting the ice at the poles and on the mountains. Raising sea levels. Bringing longer droughts, heavier rains, wilder storms, higher floods, stronger heat waves. Changing the chemistry of the ocean, killing life within it. Changing the timing of the seasons, bringing plants and animals to the edge of extinction. They warned of ecological collapse, of famine and floods and chaos that would threaten all cultures and civilizations, indeed, human life on earth. Scientists could only make well educated guesses as to how and how soon such collapse would come. But nearly all agreed that if humans kept burning those fossil fuels unchecked, catastrophe was coming. Not many days from now.
And so, after many delays, aborted meetings and lots of squabbling, the scientists and leaders of all the nations of the earth came together. Like those long-ago folks on the plain of Shinar, they gathered for common project. This time they were in Paris, creating an agreement that would lead the world away from fossil fuels. An agreement to unleash the power of wind and sun, water and atoms. Every nation came up with their own plan. All commitments were voluntary. Most everyone agreed that the plans weren’t strong enough, that more would need to be done to avoid catastrophe, but it was a start. Every nation under heaven signed except two: Syria, who was engulfed in civil war; and Nicaragua, who wanted to go on record as saying it wasn’t strong enough. The peoples of the world (along with lots of translators) came together in a common cause and hope.
But then a new leader of one of those nations, the nation that had released more carbon and methane in the air the any other nation; the richest nation in the world who had benefited the most from the blessings of fossil fuels; the most heavily armed nation in history; the one whose voluntary plan to turn from fossil fuels was really quite modest and would even be good for the economy; the leader of that nation said, “it’s not fair.” And he withdrew that nation from the common project.
So here we are. In middle of the story - or maybe near the end, we don’t yet know. It’s not yet clear if God’s delaying tactic at Babel was enough. If we’ve been able to accumulate enough common wisdom and spiritual maturity and courage to do what needs to be done, with or without the President of the United States and his partners in congress. But the story of Babel, and my creative expansion of it, are not the only stories we have this morning. We also have the story of Pentecost, when people from every nation under heaven were gathered, and the power of the Holy Spirit led them to hear and understand all that the disciples prophesied. The miracle, the blessing, wasn’t just linguistic. I wasn’t just that they could all hear in their own language or speak in a different one. The miracle of Pentecost is that they all could hear and understand what the Spirit was saying. We don’t have the exact words of the Apostles in Acts 2:1-11. But we know the good news they proclaimed. We’ve heard it and seen it and been transformed by it: that Christ offers the repentance that leads to life: that God forgives our sin, allowing us to let go of the guilt and shame that keeps us from doing the right thing. That Jesus rose from the dead, showing that nothing is impossible with God, that torture and death and military might do not have the last word. That the Holy Spirit is at work among all peoples, putting no nation first and no nation last. This is the good news that we hear on Pentecost.
And because of that good news, we have hope. We have hope — indeed confidence - that the world can turn away from fossil fuels and harness the power of the sun and the wind; we have have the technology and if we propose it together it will not be impossible. We have hope - indeed, confidence — that we can come together across divisions of nation and language and religion and class to care for creation and build a more just and peaceful world. We have hope, even confidence, that we can lose our lifestyle — what is wasteful and excessive in it - in order to gain life. We have hope because the Holy Spirit is among us, with a power and energy even greater than all the power locked up in fossil fuels or in atoms.
So, to work. Beginning with our baptismal vow to renounce evil and it’s power in the world. Coming together for the common good in ways large and small: voting, calling our senators, marching peacefully in the streets, turning off the lights and adjusting our thermostats and making do with less. Gathering together with our differences and across divisions so we may work for the common good in our common home. Inspired by the power and the love of the Holy Spirit.
|5/14/17 - Holy Skill Set by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:18pm|
|5/14/17 - Holy Skill Set|
Holy Skill Set
The day after tomorrow, at 6:00 in the morning, election-day volunteers will enter the Summit gym and begin setting up for the municipal primaries. They’ll put out the tables and the voting machines, and donuts in the kitchen. It’s an important primary, the race for District Attorney being the most heated, with seven candidates in the democratic field. I’m not going to endorse anyone from the pulpit -just in case you’re getting nervous. I’d be tempted, but I’m still undecided! For months people have been talking and posting about the candidates. Who has the right vision for the D.A’s office? Who has the best position and ideas, on issues such as civil forfeiture, cash bail and the death penalty? Who has the experience to be effective and follow through on campaign promises? Who’s the most ethical, given that we’re having this election while the current DA is under indictment? Who’s been endorsed by who, who’s gotten money from who, and what does it matter? Good questions, important questions. Questions we need to wrestle with as we try and figure out who to vote for. Very different questions, however, then the ones asked by that early church in what we might call the first congregational election.
To step back for a minute: since the day of Pentecost, the number of disciples has been growing exponentially, with hundreds, even thousands of people being baptized in short order. That may seem like good news — doesn’t everyone like church growth? — and it was good news, but there’s nothing like a growing church to generate conflict. New people with new ideas coming in. Different interpretations of God’s Word. Arguments about what needs to change and what should stay the same. Anxiety about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Systems that used to work perfectly well no longer working and people getting irritated. Much of Acts is about the conflicts that arose in a rapidly growing church, and this is the first big one. The Hellenists — Greek speaking Jewish Christians — are complaining that the Hebrews - Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians — are neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of food. We don’t have the full story, but it seems to be a fairly straightforward problem of an “old” system not being able to keep up with new demand, with some group favoritism or suspicion possibly throw in. The twelve disciples identify the problem as a shortage of workers. So they call together the whole community, and ask them to chose seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, that they can appoint to the task. Everyone thinks this is a good idea - please note the Risen Christ is working a miracle here — and the congregation chooses seven people. The apostles pray and lay hands on them, and as far as we know, the Hellenist widows and the Hebrew widows were all cared for from that time on. And the number of disciples continued to increase.
So the problem is solved, the conflict resolved, even though - as far as we know - none of the seven had food pantry experience. None of them were asked about their qualifications - if they could cook, read a budget, or if they had a driver’s license. None of them were asked to explain their vision for the food program — or their position on the nature of the resurrection or the meaning of the cross. No one lobbied to be chosen, or greased any palms. They were chosen for three reasons (in addition, we must acknowledge, to being men): they were in good standing, meaning the people trusted them; they were filled with the Spirit; and they were filled with wisdom. That doesn’t mean they were especially smart or innately spiritual. It means their ears were attentive to wisdom, their hearts inclined to understanding. It means they opened themselves to the Holy Spirit and presumably showed forth its fruits — fruits such as love, joy, peace, gentleness. For the in Bible, the Spirit and Wisdom come from God. And if the church was to be the church it had to be guided by the Spirit and the wisdom of God. That’s what mattered. The practical skills of food distribution could be learned.
Today, when a church-wide nominating committee thinks about who might serve as a church officer, it’s perfectly appropriate to think about particular gifts and talents. It’s helpful to have people on the Trustees with an understanding of accounting and plumbing. It’s good to have folks on the Session with experience in Christian Education or personnel and an understanding of theology. Deacons need people who know how to listen and who have organizational skills. But all of those qualifications are secondary. They’re not necessary. What’s necessary is for the church leadership, and the church as a whole, to have people full of the Spirit and wisdom. People who incline their ears and hearts to God. People who pray, and who seek God’s word. People who are open to the Holy Spirit and show forth its fruits. People who understand that the church is the church of Christ, and our calling is to follow Christ — not just to do what pleases us or even what seems right.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. It’s easy to confuse our will with God’s will, especially when we’re anxious. It’s easy to let practical concerns obscure our purpose and calling as Christ’s church. And Jesus understands that we’ll stray, we’ll be distracted, we just won’t get it much of the time. But if we seek the Spirit and wisdom of God, if that’s our prayer, both here at Summit and in the church universal — we’ll be the church of Christ. Folks will be fed and the Word will be served. Justice will be done and peace proclaimed.
I’d like to close with a few words about MK. At our Session meeting, during the joys and concerns that we share before our closing prayer, an Elder offered thanksgiving for the ministry of MK among us. That began a little conversation about MK’s gifts for ministry, which might have burned her ears, since she wasn’t there. She “has the goods” as one person put it. She relates to people of all ages, said another. We’ve seen her eloquence and growth in preaching, her creativity in worship, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s a darn good cook and a fabulous fundraiser. But really, what qualifies MK for leadership in the church, whether or not she’s ever ordained as a minister, whether or not she’s ever hired as staff somewhere, is her attentiveness to the Wisdom of God and her openness to the Spirit. It’s her love and faithfulness, her joy and gentleness. So we give thanks for her time with us, as we remember the calling that we all share, whether or not we’re ordained and whether or not we even serve on a committee. It’s the calling to follow the Spirit. For we’re all called and we’re all qualified to be disciples. No experience necessary.
|4/30/17 - Promises to our Children by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:24pm|
|4/30/17 - Promises to our Children|
Promises to our Children
When Alysia and I were looking at dates to have the children baptized, I didn’t know that on April 30th, Acts 2: 36-42 would be the lectionary reading. You’ll recognize it as the scripture we always quote at baptisms, so that makes it easier than usual for me to connect the sacrament with the scripture. Which is what you're supposed to do. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives the preacher a break!
Before I read the passage, I want to set the scene. It takes place after the Risen Christ has appeared to the disciples and also after he has ascended into heaven. According to Luke, before ascending Jesus told the apostles they’d receive the Holy Spirit not many days later, and sure enough, 50 days after Easter morning, the Spirit arrived. On that day Jews from all nations were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival. There were gathered together when suddenly the Spirit came upon the disciples, resting on them like tongues of fire. The disciples began speaking of Jesus, and all who were there heard them speaking in their own language. (We celebrate that event on Pentecost, May this year). Peter then gave a sermon proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ. Our scripture today opens at the very end of that sermon. Listen for the word of God.
[Scripture reading, Acts 2:14a, 36-42]
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, describes her baptism as an infant in her book, “The Preaching Life.” Her mother was southern Methodist and her father Roman Catholic, so her parents presented her to the “pre-Vatican II” Catholic Church as an infant. Taylor says, “that medieval event proved so traumatic for them that we did not attend church for the next seven years and neither of my younger sisters was baptized until she was an adult. My mother’s explanation is simple: “The priest took you out of my arms, going on and on about your sinfulness, my sinfulness, everybody’s sinfulness, and I thought, ‘This is all wrong.’ You were the best thing I had ever done in my life, and I could not wait to get you out of there.’
That 1950s baptism — or at least what Barbara Brown Taylor’s mother memory of it, and Catholic practice has changed — represents what is both mystifying and disturbing to many people about baptism, especially the baptism of children. If baptism is about washing away sins, how does “sin” even apply to an infant, who can’t yet know right from wrong let alone make a confession of faith? And how is it that baptized people are among the world’s greatest sinners?
What we’re doing in baptism - or rather, what God is doing - is not self-evident. Most of us are at least a bit mystified by it. And although what happens in baptism will always be beyond our full comprehension, I thought it might be helpful to go into teaching mode today and talk about the different meanings of baptism. I’m drawing from the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” published by the World Council of Churches, a council that represents hundreds of Christian traditions, including our own. (Faith and Order Paper No. 11, 1982).
1. We believe that in baptism - in a mystical way— we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean we’re living his life or crucified with him, or suffering has he did. But we believe that through baptism the “old Adam,” or “old self” is crucified and buried. That the power of sin is broken and we’re liberated from guilt or old patterns that keep us captive. It doesn’t mean we no longer sin — wouldn’t that be nice — but that when we do, we’re always given another chance to turn to Christ and start again. We’re always invited into new life — into resurrection. That new life may be reflected in relationships, sobriety, a new commitment to work or ministry, or through the lifting of depression or grief. Now you may well ask “what does that have to do with infants? And the key is in our scripture, when Peter says: “The promise is for you and your children . . .” Baptism is not just what happens at the font. It begins but it doesn’t end there. It’s a promise. A promise that the grace of Christ will always be offered to us and to our children, as they grow year by year, in love and we hope in faith.
2. Baptism means “confession of sin and conversion of heart, a pardon and cleansing.” In our scripture today, it says the people were cut to the heart and Peter called them to repent and be baptized. When an adult is baptized, they renounce sin and turn to Christ; Infants can’t do that. But baptism is also a promise; so it’s our hope that if we nurture them in the church, that as they are able, they will also renounce evil and it’s power in the world and turn to Jesus to help them do the right thing.
3. Baptism is about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Spirit is at work in our lives before, in and after baptism - it works where it will. But we might think of Baptism as the “first installment” of our inheritance as God’s children, no matter what our age. With it, we receive the promise that the Spirit will nurture our life and faith, and our children’s faith and life until that final deliverance when we enter into the Spirit’s full possession — which is why we say at funerals that a person’s baptism is now complete.
4. Baptism is incorporation into the body of Christ. A sign and seal of our common discipleship. We believe that in baptism we’re brought into union with the church of every time and place. That even though we’re of many denominations, doctrines, languages, and politics, we belong to the one holy catholic (meaning universal) and apostolic (meaning handed down through the witness of the apostles) church. And even though Zion can’t yet vote or become a deacon, — although watch out for that Church Nominating Committee — Zion is every bit a member of the church as a serving Elder who’s been here for decades. There’s no junior membership in the body of Christ.
5. Finally, It’s a sign of the Kingdom of God and the life of world to come. That even in us, old sinful us, through the gifts of the Spirit, God’s reign of peace and love can be seen — and that may be even more evident in the baptism of children.
So — participating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ; conversion, pardon and cleansing; the gift of the Holy Spirit, incorporation in to the body of Christ, a sign of the Kingdom. All of this happens at the font, but it’s also a promise for our whole lives and the lives of our children. That promise asks for a response: adults make it before baptism. With children, it’s made on their behalf but it’s our hope that when Zion and Ahkiria and Ahmir are older, they will respond to this gift with the affirmation of faith that their parents have made on their behalf today.
I thought I’d to end with a reflection on my baptism, which I hope will help you to reflect on yours. My father was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and I was baptized at St. Michael’s Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church in Yonkers, NY. The Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church is part of the Roman Catholic church, but its worship, its “rite,” is closer to Greek Orthodox. I was baptized at 3 weeks old and I did not step into St. Michael’s again until the death of my uncle, 15 years ago. Although I had been baptized at St. Michael’s in deference to my paternal grandmother, my mother had been raised in various Protestant churches so I grew up in the Episcopalian church. The funeral at St. Michael’s was something: it was a beautiful church with icons and painted screens at the altar. A chorus of elderly Ukrainian women sung and chanted throughout the long service. We were all invited to process up the aisle and kiss a crucifix held out by the priest - which I did. I learned from my mother that my father hated these Greek Ukrainian Catholic funerals. Like many first generation Americans he wanted to get away from his parent’s culture, he wanted to get away from his troubled family. He used to tell my mother “Please bury me in Scarsdale Presbyterian” —Scarsdale Presbyterian being as far away from that elderly Ukrainian Chorus and kissing a cross as he could imagine. (We buried him at Grace Episcopal in Hastings on Hudson which wasn’t quite Scarsdale Presbyterian* but close enough). But as I was sitting at the funeral I understood those words we often say, “remember your baptism and be thankful.” I was grateful I had begun my Christian journey in the church of my forbears, so different than the Presbyterian one to which I now belonged but also not so different, being the holy, catholic apostolic church. Gratitude that God had called me through my parents to life in Christ. Gratitude that the Spirit has been with me since my baptism at that font, to an adult profession of faith and even ordination. Grateful that I had been taught to trust in the love of Christ as a child, and that Christ continues to offer new life to me — and to all of us. So, — I invite you to also remember your baptism and to be thankful. [Silence ending in prayer].
*Scarsdale Presbyterian does not actually exist!
|4/23/17 - Fully Human? by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:21pm|
|4/23/17 - Fully Human?|
In Creation as well as in the miracle of Jesus in Earth, we experience a conflation of humility and honor. We accept this somehow, just knowing that God is in all of us and we are in God, and knowing that Christ lived and died and came back to life, and we fear that if we question it too closely it will all fall apart. Like grasping a handful of sand - if we leave our hands open it's fine, but if we try to hold on too tightly it will sift through our fingers.
But the miracle of God's experience on earth, through us and through Jesus, can stand up to the increased scrutiny.
As humans, we face a lot of strife. We face the worst, almost every day.
When our ways are blocked, we find new ones. We take what we learned, salvage the good things and flood the rest of our world with tears of rage and frustration and grief, mourning what should have been, and then we extend an olive branch and build new things using what is left over from last time.
Sometimes when we rise, it is unexpected, unfathomable. In the gospel lesson, Jesus shows up uninvited to dinner with someone who thought he was dead, someone who wanted a miracle, who prayed for one, but who couldn't actually fathom one.
So when Thomas needs a little more proof, of course Christ, who is fully human, grants him access to his wounds. "Here I am, friend. My emptiness is yours. My pain is fresh, but I trust you."
A Christ who is fully human tells his best friend Mary first. "It's ok, I'm here, don't be afraid." When she passes on the message, the guys - who never liked her anyway - demand proof. Her word has never been good enough - she is a woman after all, and a prostitute at that - they've got to hear it from a "real source." So Jesus shows up and proves her right. Millennia of patriarchal norms and fragile masculinity later, women still need to work extra hard to be heard by male colleagues. Women of color, sex workers, LGBTQ women all face these gatekeepers even more - just watch Hidden Figures again to see that it's still real.
A Christ who is fully human knows that people don’t always believe other people. The disciples do not believe Mary, and Thomas does not believe the other disciples. Christ knows, as only someone who is fully human can know, the weight of doubt. Thomas needs to touch Christ’s hands and sides to be sure that it is his friend who is back - not a mirage, not a craigslist scammer, not a dream, but the actual man.
And Jesus will prove his own resurrection to those who need it. He will show up to dinner when we doubt our friends, and he will let us touch him when even his face is not enough. For everyone else, we believe it when our friends tell us the good news, that He is risen! But when we doubt, when we need to touch it or poke at it, the resurrection does not fall apart. It is not a mirage in the desert, it is the gospel truth.
For centuries a quest for the historical Jesus has been various degrees of fruitless. One of my textbooks flat out addressed this search as a thinly-veiled attempt to create God in our own image instead of the other way around. We crave proof - that even if we buy the whole Big Bang thing, Creation must still have happened in the way it’s depicted in the poetry of Genesis. Even if we know that the darkness that covered the whole land when Jesus died was probably a solar eclipse, we still need that bit to have occurred. What we have with this familiar story of the doubters, Thomas and the other disciples, is evidence that Jesus came back even for those of us
Jesus in Resurrection HAS to be fully God. Conceived by Mary and the Holy Spirit, sure, sure. But agreeing to a painful, embarrassing death, and then saying “no, no, I’m going back” - that is Godlike. When we are humiliated, embarrassed, hung on metaphorical crosses for our friends and families to see us in our human ugliness, we do everything we have to stay hidden after it’s done. To return in three days, to say “I forgive you for pretending you didn’t know me,” to return to the life that betrayed you, that takes heavenly courage.
Traditionally, Christ’s humanity is found in the ways he serves others. He performs acts so menial they might be considered gross - I, for one, will never ever voluntarily wash someone else’s feet. And his godliness is found in the ways he breaks free from that messiness - such as, of course, defying death.
But what if what we understand as Christ’s human side - his servile nature - is the fully God aspect? God washes the dust off our feet and also flips over tables of injustice. And what we understand as godliness is actually his human side? Christ feeds his friends the way we do here every Tuesday at Elder Diner.
And what could be more human than surviving trauma?
Over and over again, humans prove that they can survive pretty much anything as long as we work together. What God learned in God’s stint on earth was not how to die - but how to return to life , even when life is what killed God in the first place.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this we know. But Jesus is also a paradox. So also, I think, are we. We come back from the dead, face our fears, and go right on feeding our friends. And if we can’t return to a particular source of trauma? That’s also perfectly fine. Resurrection does not mean going back to the way things were, but being able to live with what is left over, and making that, too, Good.
I hope you all find in yourselves that paradox of existence that was in Jesus - the love and the truth, the bravery and the fear, the human and the God. It is ok to doubt, to need proof, to see for yourself the beauty and the pain which surrounds you. God is big enough for all of this. For every one of us, bending our knees and singing our praises and passing the peace of Christ that exists inside us to each other.
Amen. The Lord is risen indeed!
|4/16/17 - No Longer Alone by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:12pm|
|4/16/17 - No Longer Alone|
No Longer Alone
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone. According to John, she didn’t come with any of the other women: Joanna, Salome, the other Mary. She didn’t come with any of the men: Peter or John or James. Maybe she needed to be alone. Grief can be like that. It can require solitude, getting away from other people, no matter how loving or sympathetic. Or maybe grief had isolated her - it can do that, too - and she didn’t have the wherewithal to ask anyone to join her. Or perhaps her friends declined to come, scared by the intensity of her pain and her desire to go while it was still dark. For whatever reason, Mary came to the tomb alone.
She saw the stone had been removed. This was not news that she could keep to herself, although at this point she thought it was bad news - a stolen body not a raised one. She ran to Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. The two men then set out: together at first but then the other disciple outrunning Peter, their feet pounding the ground separately, no words between them, with the other disciple reaching the tomb first. He waited for Peter but when he arrived they didn’t go in together: Peter went in first, and saw the linen wrappings lying there. Then the other disciple also went in. John said he “believed”; but we don’t know what he believed, as no words were exchanged and John said they did not yet understand the scriptures. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Homes, plural. Peter to his. The other disciple to his. Perhaps they needed solitude or perhaps they were driven to it, isolated from each other by the unsettling mystery of that empty tomb.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Alone. And then it all happened quickly: peering into the tomb and seeing the angels. Seeing but not recognizing Jesus in the garden, until he called her name. She held onto him, or started to. Jesus asked her not to so he could ascend to “your God and my God” but then gave her clear instructions: go back to the other disciples and to tell them what you’ve seen and heard. Which she did. We don’t know how the news spread to the different homes, but by evening the disciples were gathered together. They were still fearful, but then the Risen Christ entered the room and said, “Peace be with you.” He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. It was just like Jesus had told them it would be when they ate their last supper with him — their weeping turned to joy. It was at this moment, according to John, that the church was born. In the Garden of Eden, when God made Adam, God said, “it is not good for this one to be alone.” In this new garden, Jesus saw it was not good for the disciples to be alone. As the risen Christ, he gathered them back together.
It’s Easter Sunday, two thousand years later, and people are gathered together in churches around the world. More people come on Easter Sunday than any other Sunday, for different reasons, all of them good — and if you think you’re just here for the Easter Egg Hunt, the Holy Spirit can work through ulterior motives. You may be here because you’re an active member of Summit or another congregation, and this is one Sunday you wouldn’t miss. Or perhaps you don’t usually come to church - you pray and read the Bible on your own - but today you’re here to be with family. You may be a neighbor who came for the music. You may have seen the sign outside and were curious. Or you may be wondering if there’s something here for you to believe. When I was an agnostic in my 20s I used to go to church on Easter morning and silently challenge the preacher to make a persuasive argument, or give some convincing proof, that would allow me to believe in the resurrection. I never heard such a sermon (I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never given one) And because I didn’t believe, I didn’t feel right coming back the next Sunday. At least not for many years. Perhaps you’re in that same position.
So I invite you to come back, no matter what you do or don’t believe. Come back because it’s not good to be alone. Come back for the community. At his last supper with the disciples, Jesus said “I give you a new commandment - that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” We hope you’ll find love here. As we pray together, lifting up our struggles and joys. As we study scripture together, seeking God’s guidance for our lives and sharing doubts and questions. As we visit one another in the hospital, comfort one another in a time of loss, eat together at Elder Diner, teach each other’s children, laugh together at coffee hour. We hope that you will find love as we serve others, hosting those who are experiencing homelessness or collecting food for those who don’t have enough. As we march together for justice and peace. Please don’t let your reservations about the Apostles Creed or your questions about what “actually” happened at the Resurrection to get in the way of coming back. Let the love come first, and belief may follow. Because ultimately what we’re called to believe is not every line in the Apostles Creed or the Westminster Confession or that the resurrection happened exactly as John or any other gospel writer described it 2,000 years ago — which would be hard, since they don’t agree. Where called to believe that the Risen Christ is with us, through the Holy Spirit. That we’re not alone. In the church, in the world, and in the universe.
And it’s faith in the Risen Christ makes church different. Because - full disclosure - to the naked eye the church may look an awful lot like another other place where folks gather. There’s the same stuff you find everywhere: gossip, politics. Money worries and arguments, broken pipes to fix, burnt pots at church dinners, misunderstandings and hurts. [I can see Summit members breathing a sigh of relief — it would have been awfully hard to live up to the idyllic picture I just painted). On the positive side, other human communities also share love and do good. But in the church we confess that it’s not all up to us. We rely on the Risen Christ to guide us, through scriptures and the Holy Spirit. We confess that it’s in Risen Christ we find the courage to forgive one another - as we’ve been forgiven. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find strength care for one another. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find the hope and courage to face the most challenging and despair-inducing problems of our day: racism, climate change, war and terror. Indeed, we even rely on the Risen Christ for faith itself, which is a gift, not something we gain by willpower. So, as Jesus said when he first encountered potential disciples, “Come, Taste and See.” And let the Spirit work.
And when you come we hope and pray that you’ll not only find love, but joy. The joy of Mary and the disciples when Christ appeared to them, showing that death does not have the last word. The joy we know in worship and singing, especially this glorious Easter morning with the trumpet and bells and the Hallelujah chorus. The joy that comes even in the face of death, in the midst of terrible grief, when we hear and trust in the promises of eternal life. Now it’s true that even for the most faithful among us have dry periods, times of wandering in the desert, times of grief or depression. And that’s why it’s good we’re not alone. We are the church, and together we can encourage each other: Christ is Risen! Death did not and will not have the final word. Weeping will turn to joy. Jesus has not left us orphaned. Christ is Risen! Hallelujah, Amen.
|4/9/17 - Inaugural Crowds by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:11pm|
|4/9/17 - Inaugural Crowds|
The size of a crowd is notoriously hard to measure. In the modern method of crowd counting — which dates to the 1960s and a professor named Herbert Jacobs - you know I can’t resist sharing factoids I discover on the internet — in the modern method of crowd counting, you use geometry and arithmetic. You measure the area where the crowd is standing, divide it into grids, estimate the density of the crowd — is it 9 square feet per person, or 4?, and multiply. These days serious crowd counters use digital cameras on weather balloons. They count heads in blown-up photographs, they take pictures at different angles and investigate on the ground. But crowds move. People are hidden by trees. They clump together in funny ways. You don’t know who you’re missing and who you’re counting twice. At best, you can give a numerical range and rule out the most unrealistic claims.
But it’s not just the math and the logistics that make counting crowds difficult. It’s the passion. It’s the vested interest people have in the numbers. In a democracy, crowd size matters: so protestors usually claim there are more people at a march than official estimates. Speakers speaking from the speaking platform almost always think more people are listening to them then disinterested observers believe. (Kind of like preachers speaking from pulpits). Egos make it hard to count crowds.
Matthew says crowds followed Jesus nearly everywhere; both in Jerusalem and in the countryside. To hear him teach. To be healed. Matthew doesn’t try and count them, with the exception of the time when Jesus fed the crowd with with just a few loaves and fishes. Matthew says Jesus fed five thousand men that day - besides women and children, because in the ancient method of crowd counting you didn’t count women and children. In this procession that inaugurates the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem, Matthew says only that a VERY LARGE crowd went ahead and followed behind, laying out cloaks and branches. We don’t have any corroborating non-gospel accounts, so it could have been what we’d call a modest parade or it could have been a massive demonstration. Matthew claims the whole city was in turmoil.
But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in the size of his crowds. Not in this one as he enters Jerusalem, or in Galilee. He never boasted about the numbers. On occasion he even tried to withdraw from the crowds, but since he had compassion on them he would return to heal and teach. When Jesus entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, he acted alone; he didn’t encourage or incite the crowd to follow him in this act of political theatre. (Which is why, perhaps, the temple police didn’t confront him — the temple complex was so big they may not have known about it). The chief priests and scribes were disturbed by the folks surrounding Jesus — not by their numbers, but by who they were. The blind and the lame who were being cured. The little children who were calling him Son of David. We can understand their concern about children — we worry that leaders will manipulate young people into following them — but Jesus wasn’t encouraging or using them. He quotes scripture, pointing out that children also praise God. According to Matthew — and other gospel writers - Jesus didn’t court, manipulate, or incite the crowds. He wasn’t a crowd counter.
Jesus had his eyes and heart and mind set elsewhere. He knew where he was headed, and in the meantime he had work to do. In that last week he taught day and night inside and outside the temple, telling his most provocative parables and giving his most difficult instructions. He warned of the coming judgement. He emphasized the importance of the greatest commandment, loving God and neighbor. His final parable is the one where the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations, separating the sheep from the goats, saying that whoever gave a drink of water or cared for one of the least of these these also did so to him — and those who refused refused him as well. He told parables about those who would be left behind or cast into darkness in the coming age: tenants of the vineyard, foolish bridesmaids who forgot oil for their lamps; the slave who hid his talents in the ground; those who weren’t properly dressed for the wedding banquet. He denounced scribes and Pharisees, he argued about paying taxes to Rome, he lamented over Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of the temple. In other words, he didn’t give uplifting sermons. He didn’t give crowd-pleasing speeches. Jesus didn’t calculate his words, or keep silent to avoid trouble. He spoke as the Spirit moved him. He spoke the truth, hard as it was for people to hear. Indeed, Matthew claims that at the end the crowds turned against him. Now it must be said that sometimes our interpretations of his words have been tragically off the mark, teaching contempt for the Jews or even inciting violence. But that wasn’t the intent of Jesus: he’s calling his disciples, including us, to love. Not just the easy love for like-minded folks of our own clan that love us back. We can all get behind that. But to a more demanding love. A love that’s always ready for the coming of God and for the neighbor who may be sick or hungry, lonely or in prison. A love that chooses non-violence, even at risk to one’s self — as Jesus chose when he was arrested, telling his followers to put away their swords. A love which forgives others, as Jesus forgave those who betrayed and deserted him. A love which gives truthful testimony, as Jesus did before the Roman governor who ordered his death. A love which is triumphant over death, but that is also acquainted with suffering and grief. A love that puts serving God above pleasing the crowds. A love like the one that Jesus showed for the world.
It’s not easy for us to love that way. We prefer a crowd-pleasing love, even when we’re followers, not leaders. We prefer a love that skips over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and goes straight to Easter. We prefer a love that doesn’t demand change, in our relationships or in our world. We prefer a love that doesn’t ruffle feathers, a love that avoids conflict. But Jesus invites us into a deeper, risk-taking, love. A love that crosses race and class and other divisions we create. A love that challenges injustice. A love that speaks up for peace when war is much more popular. A love that makes us vulnerable. A love that is unafraid to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a world of fake news. A love where crowds may turn from us or wander away — even if those crowds are only friends or family. But it’s such a love where we find blessings. The blessing of walking with Jesus. The blessing of doing the right thing. The blessing of a world that is more just and compassionate. The blessing of resurrection hope, which comes when we go through grief and loss. May we have the courage and faith to love as Jesus loved. In this week and beyond.
|4/2/17 - "Now, Hard Part" by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:08pm|
|4/2/17 - "Now, Hard Part"|
“Now, Hard Part”
On Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article by Jonathan Lai, in the local section, called “Now, Hard Part.” The subtitle was Sorting Old City bones is daunting. It was about a graveyard that was recently unearthed near Independence Hall. (And before I go further, I’d like to thank the Inquirer for running this article two days before Ezekiel 37 came up in the lectionary. I suspect I’m not the only preacher who’s using it this morning).
A year ago, contractors were digging, getting ready to put up a 25-story apartment building, when they hit bones and gravestones. And not just a few, but many bones and coffins; it’s believed they’re from one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, the Old First Baptist Church burial ground. The bones were supposed to have been moved when the church sold the property in the mid-1800s, but apparently many were left behind. A forensic archeologist, a forensic anthropologist, students and other volunteers have been trying to put the bones together, and they’re finding it hard. Hard part: they can’t tell, for sure, which bones belong with each other. The bones were scattered and fragmented; joints are missing; they’re very fragile. They’re also hard to clean: they’re so dry, some of them, that when they’re touched with a wet brush the outer layer begins peeling off. There’s also the hard part of finding money for storage, supplies, and workers — the project will take years. The researchers would like to find out how many people these bones represent, who they are and what happened to them, but they know that they’ll never fully answer those questions. Most bones will only be known as John or Jane Doe. Which is also a hard part.
In Ezekiel’s vision, bones, very dry bones, are also sorted and put together. A valley full of them. Bones put together so that sinews may be laid on them and breath breathed into them. Ezekiel is the prophet that announces this great coming together, but it’s God who’s the forensic archeologist and it’s God who’s the forensic anthropologist, and for God, this is the easy part. For God knows which bones belong to each another. God knows the story of each and every one who was slain in that valley; God knows what happened and why. God doesn’t need to carefully drybrush each bone. Instead, there’s a noise, and a rattling as the bones come together, bone to bone. Then sinews and flesh and skin come upon them. And then, through Ezekiel, God calls the breath, God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that God breathed into Adam, God calls the breath to enter into each one. And then they stood on their feet — a vast multitude. That was the easy part.
Now, hard part: Ezekiel must prophesy to the living. To the living who say: “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The hard part: cracking open the hearts of a people who are defeated and despairing and divided. The hard part: tearing down resistance to God’s Word among a people who feel they’ve been abandoned by God. The hard part: planting a new Spirit within them, so that they know the Lord has spoken and will act. The hard part: bringing the living out of their graves.
Let’s begin with those graves. Do you know what I”m talking about, for us today? Ezekiel may have spoken these words over 2,000 years ago you know what I’m talking about. There are so many graves we fall into, coffins that trap us. Grief is one of them: the deep grief that comes from the death of a loved one, or from divorce, or from loss of health and the ability to do things we used to do. Our bones can become very dry. Depression is another one — that deep depression where death looks like a friend and all hope is lost. Physical pain can be another, the kind of pain that isolates and makes us feel like we are cut off completely. Debt, that deep hole — money troubles — you can add to the list.
We’re also in danger of falling into a collective grave — one that is being dug by the powerful and relatively powerful of this world. An Indian writer named Amitov Ghosh just wrote a book called, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” In it he asks: given the emergency we’re facing, why are so few people talking about climate change? Why is it nearly absent in works of fiction, in novels including his own - and other kinds of art? He says that when later generations - living, say, when New York City and London have abandoned because of sea level rise, — when later generations look back at our time, on our silence, denial and inaction, they’ll wonder what was with us — our time will be known as the Great Derangement. I haven’t read the book (I’m going to) but I can offer an hypothesis (not an original one) as to why it’s not getting the attention it deserves. It’s too frightening, too overwhelming, too exhausting to even imagine — so before we’ve begun we’re defeated, despairing and divided. We say that our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely — not so different than the first people who listened to the prophesy of Ezekiel.
But listen they did. And they told it to their children and wrote it down, and included it in Holy Scripture. For it was a prophesy that proved trustworthy. God did act, the exiles returned to Jerusalem. Now, the return may not have been exactly what they hoped for or expected: things were not the same, there were conflicts, it was far from perfect. But a new Spirit was planted within them - they rebuilt the temple, back on their own soil. It was a time of rich worship and theological exploration. Now, the returning exiles were not accompanied by hundreds of dead soldiers raised from the battlefield — this was a vision, not an historical event — but it was a vision of God’s power in the most hopeless of situations. A vision of God’s power to bring life out of death. A vision of God’s power that moved and sustained them. A vision of God’s power that would also show itself in the resurrection of Jesus, when the stone was rolled away.
Now, hard part: to trust that vision. To have faith in the power of God to bring us back from our the graves of grief, despair and fear, in our personal and political lives. To open our hearts and lives to the Spirit that God is breathing into us, or trying to breathe into us, if we would stop resisting, so that we may live. The Spirit that assures us of God’s love for each one of us, God’s memory for us, no matter how far our bones may eventually scatter. The Spirit the guides us in the way we should go, and that opens up the scriptures to us. The Spirit that draws us together in love, and grants us joy. The Spirit that gives us the courage to pray without ceasing and to work together in the face of this great emergency: a changing climate in a nuclear armed world. The Spirit that helps us bring about a world of peace and justice, where everyone is able to breathe. It’s hard to trust in that vision — suffering and loss can overwhelm even the most faithful among us. But God promises that we shall live — for although the raising up of the multitude was a vision, it wasn’t a tease. One day, at a time and hour we do not know, in bodies that are different than the ones we have now — we wont’ need our bones — all the world will be redeemed, the living and the dead, in the new creation. In the meantime, we have work to do, love to give, lives to live: for the Lord has spoken and will act. These bones can live.
|3/26/17 - Sites of Revelation by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:05pm|
|3/26/17 - Sites of Revelation|
Sites of Revelation
Two weeks ago, about 10 of us went to a training conducted by a group called Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training. As one of the exercises, they presented a model for thinking about the way societies are organized. They usually have a center where power and wealth and other resources are concentrated. Living in the center are the people considered “normal” (in quotes): needing no explanation, the standard against which others are measured. Those in the center are respected and admired, even by people who have reason to resent them. As you move away from the center, you enter into the borderlands. People who live on the borderlands are not considered “the norm.” They’re often identified by the ways in which the differ from the norm. They don’t have the same power or prestige. (Model based on the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa, esp. Borderlands/La Frontera)
The leaders then asked us to think about who’s in the center and who resides in the borderlands in our society. So we brainstormed at tables and used lots of chart paper and we came up with remarkably similar lists. In the center were white people — in the borderlands were African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics. In the center were men, straight men to be more precise— moving out from the center we find women, gay men and lesbians, transgender and queer folk. In the center: English speakers. “Standard” English speakers. . . . in the borderlands were people who spoke with an accent . . . . or those who didn’t speak English at all. In the center were Christians, with agnostics kind of hard to place, while toward the borders were Jews, Mormons, Hindus, Muslim. In the center? The middle class and wealthy — in the borderlands, those who were working class, the poor, homeless, those on government assistance. In the center were the able-bodied, — in the borderlands those with a disability. In the center college grads — in the borderlands those with less than a high school education. In the center: married couples, one man and one woman, with 2.5 children; moving out— those who were single, divorced, widowed. You get the idea. And as we talked, it was also clear that the real world is complex. Few of us reside only in the center or in the borderlands. We have different identities, with both privileges and disadvantages. Groups move around. The leaders pointed out is that people on the borders will often try to be like people in the center, in order to get those resources and power. But it doesn’t mean that anyone can move there, at least not completely. As an example that the leader gave, you can move from Hawaii to New York, to Chicago, to Washington. You can graduate from Columbia and Harvard and become a law professor. You can play golf and have a wife and two children and two dogs. You can be elected to public office and become leader of the free world — yet be succeeded by someone who gained power by claiming you were born in Kenya. You can be a baptized Christian and commander in chief of the most powerful military in history, and be succeeded by someone who began his political career by claiming you’re a Muslim. The solution — the leaders suggested — was not to get people in the borderlands to become “like” the people in the center. Nor was it to get a different demographic into the center while pushing the old one out. The solution was to change the system, so that all of us, with all our differences, could share in the power and resources now claimed by a relative few, often at the expense of others.
The man who was born blind lived in the borderlands. He had a disability; and in that time and place, that was seen as evidence and punishment for sin, a source of shame, pushing one even further to the edge — and hence the disciples’ question “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Being on the borderlands, he was also not fully seen, a common experience in the borderlands. All those sighted people around him saw only the fact that he was blind, and that he begged. So when he gained his sight - but in no other way was physically changed — they couldn’t even tell if it was him! And when he insisted that it was him they didn’t believe him . . . . not being believed another experience common to those in the borderlands. When the skeptics went to his parents they pointed out that he was of age, go ask him — John chalks that up to fear, but they were simply stating a truth the questioners should have understood. But disability wasn’t the only thing that kept him in the borderlands. He was poor. He was Jewish. He spoke Aramaic not Greek — for Greek is what people in the center spoke (including Romans!). You learned Greek if you wanted to be in the Center. The Pharisees and other religious leaders would have been closer to the center, but were not, caught in the middle, trying to negotiate the survival and well-being of their community under Roman occupation. The Roman rulers were in the center, although if you were a Roman soldier stuck in this colonial outpost you may not have felt like you were in the center. It was a complicated world, just like ours: but from nearly every angle, the man who was born blind lived in the borderlands.
And the works of God were revealed in him. First, in receiving his physical sight through the handiwork of Jesus, another person who would live and die in the borderlands. But, more importantly, through his witness. His clear and courageous witness. He wasn’t intimidated by neighbors who didn’t even believe who he was: “I am the man,” he kept saying. He recounted exactly what Jesus had done for him: neither exaggerating or downplaying. He gently and politely to pushed back, with the Pharisees who questioned him, even though they were well educated and respected religious authorities. When they insisted Jesus must be a sinner for breaking the Sabbath, the man asked, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” When they asked him who he thought Jesus was, he was honest and answered, “a prophet.” This courage, persistence and clarity did not bring a reward. Indeed, it says he was driven out of the synagogue, even further into the borderlands.
And it was there that Jesus found him for a second time, and where he again became a site of revelation. This time the work of faith was revealed in him. When Jesus said it was he who was the Son of Man, the man said, “Lord, I believe.” — the second person to confess “belief” in Jesus, according to John, after the Samaritan woman at the well, another person from the borderlands. For as we see throughout the Bible, God reveals God’s works in those in the borderlands: through this man, through the woman at the well, through the disciples, through Hebrew slaves and exiled prophets. It’s not only in the borderlands that the works of God are revealed: God also works through a Roman centurion - a soldier who commanded 100 others - by healing his servant. God also works through Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses. God is no respecter of the center and the border. God reveals God’s self in a Jewish Rabbi, incarcerated and executed in a backwater of the Roman Empire.
At the Crossroads training, we were encouraged to think about how we might break down structures in the church (and beyond) that uphold the center and keep others on the margins. As Christians, we believe that God has already broken down them down in God’s Kingdom, that those far away have been brought near in the divine economy. Our call is to break down those human barriers and to tear off the veils that keep from seeing, understanding and living into that reality. By truly seeing and listening to one another. By fighting racism and sexism in our hearts in the church and in the world. By welcoming and celebrating all kinds of families. By loving and respecting children and Elders. By making sure that everyone has enough, through just wages and fair taxes, through generous giving and grateful receiving. By removing obstacles to persons with disabilities, and by ensuring everyone has the health care they need. By caring for all of God’s creation so that future generations — which we treat as beyond the border, off the map — may enjoy the abundance of God’s creation. By proclaiming God’s love and the saving grace of Christ for all people, including us, no matter how close or far from the center we may be. For we were all born - in whatever way we were born - so that God’s works may be revealed in us.
|1/15/17 - Showing Up by Donna Williams on Feb 7, 2:59pm|
|1/15/17 - Showing Up|
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for leading non-violent demonstrations against segregation in that city. He spent about a week in jail. During that time, eight white clergymen who claimed to be sympathetic published a statement criticizing his actions in the local paper. So King wrote a response known as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
King was not from Birmingham, and during the civil rights movement, white officials and others would often complain that demonstrators were stirred up by outsiders; people from the north or larger cities. So King began his letter by saying: “I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham.” He explained that he was head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC had affiliates across the south, and the Birmingham affiliate had asked King to be on call if they decided to do non-violent direct action. “So,” King said, “I [along with several members of my staff] am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically,” he continued, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He went on to say that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . . so it was time to give up on the “outside agitator” idea. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman World,” said King, “so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.” Dr. King heard God’s call. He said, “Here I am.” He showed up.
In President Barack Obama’s farewell speech on Wednesday, the heart of his speech was a call for all of us to “show up, dive in, [and] stay at it” as citizens. To be “jealous guardians” of democracy not only during elections, or when our own narrow interests were at stake, but over the span of a lifetime. To not only vote, but to organize, and even run for office. After these exhortations, he moved into that part of a farewell speech where he acknowledged people close to him. He thanked Michelle, and called her his best friend; he told his daughters Sasha and Malia how proud he was to be their father; he thanked Joe Biden for his friendship and his staff for their support. There were tears. The crowd cheered. Obama was demonstrating another way we’re called to show up, dive in, and stay at it: by saying “I am here,” to family, to friends, to others close to us.
Moving to the scripture, the psalmist says, “here I am.” She begins by saying why she’s here: God drew her up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set her feet upon a rock, making her steps secure. God then put a new song in her mouth: a song of praise, a song that proclaims God’s wondrous deeds. Here I am, says the psalmist: I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; I have spoken of your salvation. I have not concealed your steadfast love and faithfulness. God said “I am here,” to the psalmist. She responded by saying “Here I am” to God.
As people of faith, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have heard God say, “I am here.” Each of us has a different story, but we all know something of desolate pits and miry bogs and finally having our feet set upon a rock — for the Lord is our rock and our salvation. Maybe God drew you out of the desolate pit of addiction, or grief or loneliness. Maybe God drew you out of the miry bog of guilt and regret, blessing you with a new start in life that you didn’t feel you deserved. Of course, our stories are not over, and being saved doesn’t mean our troubles are over. In fact, you may feel bogged down in the mire right now. But the words of the psalmist are true — happy are those who make the Lord their trust. For God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, even though there may be times when God seems absent and we must wait patiently. God’s wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us are more than can be counted. The heavens tell of the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
And because we have heard God say, “I am here,” we can say “Here I am” to God. By listening for God’s Word with those open ears God has given us. By listening to the law of God written within our hearts; by delighting in God’s will, and doing it as best we can. By singing a new song, proclaiming God’s love and faithfulness in worship and prayer.
We also say “Here I am” by saying “I am Here” to others. To our family: our children, our partners, our parents our sisters and brothers. To our friends and neighbors and all in our congregation. By giving of our time, by sharing our wisdom and treasure and love. And also by proclaiming that God is here: blessing our family and our friendships; rooting for us, offering help in times of grief and wisdom in times of confusion, sustaining the church of Christ, binding us together in love.
We say “Here I am” to God by saying “I am here” to our country and its democracy. By voting and organizing, speaking and listening, marching and writing, maybe even running for office. And also by proclaiming that God is here in our political life. Not blessing our country above others. Not sanctifying one party above another, or calling for the union of church and state. But God is here - seeking to guide us and our elected leaders in paths of peace and righteousness. Seeking to draw us together across all kinds of divisions so we can face the enormous global challenges before us. Giving us hope, and blessing our efforts to live into the kingdom of God.
Finally, we say “Here I am” to God by saying “I am here because injustice is here,” wherever that may be, and let’s face it — wherever we are, there it is. In our cities and our rural counties, where even full time workers do not have enough to get by, children don’t have enough to eat, or people face discrimination, even hate. For, as King pointed out, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. That’s never been more true than in this time of climate change, when the carbon emission from a smokestack anywhere warms the world everywhere, ensuring those who have done the least to cause climate change will suffer the most from it. We also say “I am here” by saying “God is here”: the God who takes thought for the poor and needy, the God who loves justice and asks us to do the same.
Saying “Here I am” is not easy: the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the lives of many other courageous and faithful saints testify to that. But it’s also the path of blessing and joy. For we have a new song to sing, a song that proclaims the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. Let us say, “Here I am,” and tell the glad news of deliverance to the world.