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|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.
|1/8/17 - Honor and Respect by Donna Williams on Feb 7, 2:57pm|
|1/8/17 - Honor and Respect|
Honor and Respect
I spent New Year’s in the Capital Region of New York State, near Albany. The first baby of 2017 in the Capital Region was born one minute past midnight, at the Bellevue Woman’s Center in Niskayuna, New York. She was born to Maryam Ally-Santos and Richard Santos of Cohoes, New York. Her name is Amanah, which means trust in Arabic, and she was exactly 8 pounds and 18 inches long. Her due date was January 4 and her parents expected her to be overdue, as she was a first baby for them. But they were happy about the timing: “It’s awesome,” said her mother. “It’s something we’re going to celebrate every year.” “It’s a cool story for her,” said Richard. He added her birth was a special moment for everyone, including the staff, with people shouting Happy New Year in the hall as she was born; all the reporters were invited to sign the Baby Book. I learned through the Niskayuna paper that Richard Santos is an IT specialist at IBM and breeds award-winning American Bullies — a bull dog terrier breed — and that Maryam runs a non-profit clothing line called, “The Hijab Movement.” She was wearing a hijab in the photos and I noticed her husband was wearing an Hijab Movement t-Shirt; on their Facebook page I learned the Hijab Movement fights stereotypes and raises money for local food pantries and other charities. Maryam’s family is from Tanzania and her parents still live there, so in 21st century fashion they first saw their new granddaughter through a video-conference.
Two thousand years ago another baby was born at a propitious time. He was also honored by people who lived far away; Magi from East of Jerusalem who were guided by a star, drawn by the power and mystery of God’s call. Nothing but divine prompting could have compelled such a journey to visit a baby born “King of the Jews,” a kingdom under the power of Rome, hardly a player on the world stage. They must have been surprised to learn the baby had no relation to the current King, Herod, and puzzled when they saw him at such a humble home in Bethlehem. But they were overwhelmed with joy when they saw where the star had stopped. They entered and paid him homage, which means to honor and show deep respect. Then they opened their treasure chests. Precious gold, befitting a “king,” frankincense to symbolize divinity, and myrrh, which was used for anointing. Developmentally inappropriate gifts, but theologically correct.
But it wasn’t just the Magi showing honor and deep respect on that long-ago night. For when God came to us as a baby, a human baby, God honored all of us — creatures made in God’s image. From the journey through the birth canal to his journey to the cross, from his flight into Egypt to his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus experienced human joy and sorrow, human struggle and love, everything except sin, honoring our human lives. He also honored and showed deep respect for other humans: his disciples, for those who were poor, or in prison or hungry - for all called “the least of these,” in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus taught and healed, offered bread and hospitality. Finally, Jesus offered his life and the gift of divine forgiveness to all people. The Magi kneeled before the Christ child, but the honor and respect were mutual.
On this Sunday when we celebrate the Epiphany, we’re also called to kneel before the Christ child in worship, like the Magi. Jesus the Christ as God incarnate is the only one in human form worthy of our ultimate loyalty, as the Divine Creator and Sustainer of the universe. But if we wish to honor and show deep respect for God, we must also honor and respect each other and ourselves, as God has honored us. In these days when hate speech of all kinds is on the rise, when there’s talk of a Muslim registry, when refugees are reviled and starving children around the world are ignored, we have much to learn from the Magi. The Magi followed the star and recognized the holy light in a babe of a country and faith and people who were not their own. When they saw him they shared generously of their treasure. And when they were ready to go home, after being enlightened in a dream, they took care not to collaborate with the king who sought to destroy the child, no matter the collateral killing. They left for their own country by another road, and the holy family fled to safety in Egypt.
So we follow the Magi and honor God by recognizing the sacred image in all people, through our words and actions. By celebrating the birth of every child, born at the beginning of the New Year - like Amanah - or at end, and anytime in between. Born in our country or in a land far to the east or the west. Born to Christian parents, or Muslim parents, or parents who may not claim any faith. Girl or boy, rich or poor, from any kind of family. We honor God by sharing our treasure and working for a world where all children have enough food, a safe and loving home, medical care, education. Where all children may grow up in peace, protected from the violence of rulers or the ruled. And we honor God by refusing to collaborate with the Herods of this world who wish harm to others, even if it means going home by another road. For the divine light and the divine way has been revealed to us, and it is the way of love, honor and respect for all peoples.
|12/25/16 - Christmas Day by Donna Williams on Feb 7, 2:55pm|
|12/25/16 - Christmas Day|
I have what might be called reverse seasonal affective disorder. I love when the days get shorter. I like waking up and going home in the darkness. I like the cold air, the bare trees, and the grey skies. I sometimes wonder if I should snowbird to Scandinavia, especially when the dreaded solstice comes and the days start lengthening again. But of course, it’s not so much the dark I enjoy — although there is beauty in it — it’s the light in the darkness that lifts my spirits. The lights that beckon from windows of row houses, the lights of cars in the street, the light I turn on in my living room at dawn, lights of cafes at night, Christmas lights on a dark street, the candlelight in the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve. Those lights in the darkness make me feel cozy, but those lights in the darkness also feel deep and holy. John says that Christ is the light of the world and the darkness could not overcome it, a metaphor that must have felt even more powerful in the days before electric or gas lights. Christ is the light in the darkness of human sin, despair and grief — and on Christmas Eve we celebrate that, as we remember the light that arrived on that darkened plain of Bethlehem.
But Christ is also the light in the light. For the world is not all darkness, physically or metaphorically. Christ was the light in the manger at night, but also the next morning, when Mary and Joseph were getting organized, and Mary was changing his diaper — or whatever they did 2,000 years ago. Christ is the light on a sunny and sleepy Christmas morning, when the presents have been opened and we can already feel the turning of things back to the normal and ordinary. Christ is the light where the days are now at their longest, brightest and most luxurious - warm southern beaches beside sparkling blue oceans, or the hot noon of a desert sun. Christ is the light in this world of sin, but also in times of peace, and joyful fellowship, and when things are going well. Christ is the light of the world because God in Christ is the source of goodness, and wisdom, joy and love. The darkness does not overcome it, but light doesn’t wash it out either.
So at about 1:00 or 2:00 this afternoon, when you’re taking a Christmas walk on this bright sunny day, or when you’re feeling that Christmas present let-down — children you know what I’m talking about, that boring moment in the afternoon when it already feels like Christmas is over and you don’t want to play. Maybe you’re even feeling disappointed, especially if you’re cousins aren’t there, not really looking forward to Christmas dinner. Or if you’re an adult, at 1:00 this afternoon you may be feeling stressed and irritated, fussing under the bright lights of a kitchen, or perhaps you’re alone and watching TV, feeling sad that the best part of Christmas has gone. At 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, ponder this amazing fact: Jesus may have been an early afternoon baby. It sounds crazy, but we don’t actually know what time of day Jesus was born. We imagine him being born at night, but if you read the gospel of Luke closely it doesn’t say. And Matthew certainly doesn’t say what time of day Jesus was born. Sure, the shepherds were watching their flocks at night, and that’s when they came to visit the newborn, but Jesus may have been born when the sun was high the sky spreading it’s warmth over Mary and Joseph. We have a song for this: Jesus in the morning, Jesus in the noontime and Jesus when the sun goes down. As the second verse says: Praise Jesus in the morning, Jesus in the noontime and Jesus when the sun goes down. Merry Christmas!
|12/24/16 - Christmas Eve by Donna Williams on Feb 7, 2:54pm|
|12/24/16 - Christmas Eve|
I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon at Summit in 2008. Barack Obama was the President elect. It was a time of heightened expectations. Of hopes: our first African American President, one who had brought people together. And fears - it was the middle of the great recession, people were losing homes and jobs and no one knew how bad it was going to get. A lot has happened in those eight years, and now Donald Trump is the President Elect. It is, again, a time of heightened expectations. Of hopes, and fears.
Now that I’ve started this sermon with the Obama/Trump one-two punch you may be thinking, uh-oh. Doesn’t she know it’s Christmas? We’re here to get away from all that. Our family called a 24 hour ceasefire, no political arguments. “Let’s go to church and sing some carols!,” we said. Is she going to ruin it?
Well, I hope not. But my Christmas message is: Baby Jesus ruined it. Not Christmas, of course, he couldn’t do that. But the truth is, he ruined it. He ruined it for the Emperor, so intent on counting his subjects, that poor families had to travel on his orders, no matter how dangerous or difficult. Jesus ruined it for all the Empires that rose and fell in that beleaguered land. Roman, Greek, Assyrian: empires that divided and conquered, conquered and divided, setting up puppet kings, taxing the poor, making sure people turned against each other: Gentiles against Jews, Jews against Samaritans and Jews against Jews — for as we’ve learned in this election, the most bitter fights are within families. Jesus ruined it for Cesar Augustus, who commanded the peoples to worship him, and who was declared a god by the Roman Senate upon his death. But all the gods of the peoples are idols, as the psalmist said, and Jesus ruined it for every idol of every people, including us — whether that idol be a king, dictator, or president, nation or race, ideology, guns or money. . . even Christmas, in its manifestation as an American Idol, as in “how dare you say Happy Holidays to me.” Jesus did ruin that Christmas.
Before I get to how, I’ll grant it’s not easy to see the ruins. Those golden calves seem to be doing just fine thank you. Unaffected, it seems, by a baby in a manger, no feathers in his bed. A baby who grew up to be a wandering teacher, preacher and healer — an itinerant Rabbi who was tortured and executed on a cross, like thousands of other souls who fell into the machinery of Roman justice. A baby and a man we can safely say neither Emperor Augustus nor Emperor Tiberius ever heard of. On that silent night or on the afternoon he died.
But when he burst the bonds of the tomb, when the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they went out proclaiming the good news, all the idols of all the peoples were put on notice. Their days were numbered, their powers shaken. For in rising from the dead, Christ showed that God’s love is stronger than death and stronger than the death-dealing ways of any Empire. In rising from the dead, Christ revealed that God’s love is stronger than any idol who may tempt us away from loving God and neighbor. From the manger to the cross, as he healed and taught and suffered and forgave his tormenters, Jesus showed that God’s love is stronger than our sin. Stronger than our fear, despair, pride, or whatever it is that makes us prefer falsehood to truth. This is good news of great joy for all people - emperors as well as their subjects, elected officials and voters, men and women, people of all nations: whether we’re idolators -and we all are - or idols or both. For when we ask the holy Child of Bethlehem to cast out our sin and enter in, we invite the power of God’s love into our lives and into this world. A love which has come and is coming to establish righteousness and truth and peace on earth.
On this Christmas Eve of 2016 it’s hard to overstate the gravity of our historical moment. Climate change is hurtling the world towards chaos - if we don’t change our ways, we’ll see loss and suffering on a scale we can barely imagine. Powerful men, mostly men, some of them unhinged, have their fingers poised over nuclear keys; less powerful men, mostly men, are planning to drive trucks through crowded markets. So it’s hard to overstate the gravity of this historical moment. But it’s impossible to overstate the love of God. It’s impossible to overstate the height and the depth, the width and the breath of God’s grace that came and lived among us, beginning in that manger. It’s impossible to overstate the power of that love to bring us together across all kinds of divisions. It’s impossible to overstate the power of that love to to change the world — and each one of us. So, friends, do not be afraid. The hopes and fears of all the years are met with love tonight. O sing to the Lord, a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name; tell of God’s salvation from day to day.
|12/11/16 - The Healing of Others by Donna Williams on Dec 23, 12:36pm|
|12/11/16 - The Healing of Others|
The Healing of Others
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is strange question coming from John the Baptizer. As you may remember, John is the prophet who appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. He must have spoken with great power, for the crowds came from Jerusalem, the region along the Jordan, and all Judea. John baptized them in the river Jordan, as they confessed their sins. He told them: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And then Jesus came to the river. This was his first public appearance. He hadn’t yet done any preaching, teaching, or healing. But John recognized him: so when Jesus asked to be baptized, John tried to prevent him, saying “I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus said it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness, so John complied. John was there when Jesus rose out of the water and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So why is John now asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Well, John’s in prison now. Prison changes things. John isn’t in prison because he baptized Jesus. John is in prison because he criticized King Herod. Herod was the ruler of Galilee, a puppet king of the Roman Empire, one who worried about the loyalty of his subjects. Herod had divorced his first wife and married the wife of his brother Philip - political scandals are nothing new. John kept telling Herod, “that’s not lawful.” So Herod arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison. John didn’t know what was going to happen to him, but he knew that any day the guards could come and lead him away to his execution. So he must have wondered: I baptized Jesus, I heard the voice from heaven, but where’s the winnowing fork? Wasn’t the Messiah going to gather the righteous into the granary, and burn the wicked with unquenchable fire? From the darkness of his prison cell the kingdom of heaven must have seemed far away indeed. Was Jesus the one to come, or were they to wait for another?
Jesus responds by telling John’s disciples to testify to what they have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them — just as Isaiah foretold it when he said, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
The one to come is known by his healing and preaching not by punishment of the wicked. The Reign of Heaven has come near when those who are sick are healed; when those who are depressed are lifted up; when those who have been enslaved are freed; when those who are lonely find friendship; when those who are hungry have bread; when those who have been toiling in the vineyard receive a just wage; when those who have been forced to flee their homes are welcomed in a new place; and when, as Isaiah also said, nations turn their swords into plowshares. Those are the hallmarks of the kingdom and that is how we know that Jesus is the one. And we, too, have seen and heard these things.
But not for everyone, yet. The guards came for John soon after. Herod demanded his head, on a platter, after he made a foolish oath at his birthday party. What do we say to John and other political prisoners? What do we say to those whose cancer is not cured or who will never walk again? What do we say to those who don’t have enough and who watch their children go hungry? What do we say to ourselves, when we’re weighed down with grief or hardship or depression? It’s all well and good that some have been healed and are leaping for joy, but in this world still full of suffering, how do we know that Jesus is the one, that we need not wait for another?
Jesus says, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Blessed is anyone who receives Jesus, who welcomes Jesus, who trusts Jesus, whether they are in a king’s palace or a prison cell. That’s how we know Jesus is the one because Jesus is a blessing for anyone who turns to him, whatever their circumstances. Jesus blesses us in the here and now, whether we’re at a low point or high point in our life, whether we don’t have enough or we have too much. Let’s count those blessings:
-Jesus offers forgiveness, no matter what we’ve done or left undone. This grace of Jesus Christ comforts, strengthens and encourages us, so we may turn to God and start anew, without our guilt dragging us down.
-Jesus offers us the way to live: through his sermons and parables, through the commandments as they also come through Moses and the prophets and through the example of his life. A life of simplicity, prayer, hospitality, and non-violence. Jesus offers us a way to live that is peaceful and just, joyful and full of purpose.
-Jesus offers us his loving presence, in all times and places, in the darkest of prison cells and in the brightness of the morning sun. Assuring us we haven’t been forgotten, and he will be with us always, to the end of the age.
-Jesus offers hope. Jesus too, was thrown in prison, tortured and executed. But that wasn’t the end of the story; Jesus rose from the dead and lives among us, showing us that the Herods of this world do not and will not have the last word.
So as disciples of Jesus we say to John, and to all who are suffering: Jesus is the one. When you trust in him you’ll be blessed and will know. But if we only say these words, they’ll ring hollow. As the body of Christ we must show forth those blessings. Through prayer for all the world. Through the sharing of our treasure, our time, our gifts. By standing in solidarity with all who are hated or oppressed. By working for justice and peace, so that everyone may sit under their own vine and their own fig tree and not be afraid.
For the winnowing fork is yet to come. Christ offers grace but also judges the people with equity and the nations with truth: God has seen suffering and known suffering. But when Christ comes to gather the wheat into the barn, there’s no reason, in due time, the whole world may not be gathered there. If we learn to repent from our evil ways, loving God and one another, people of all nations and faiths may be gathered there, full of joy and gladness. And sin and sorrow burned away in the inquenchable fire of Christ’s love. And so we say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
|11/13/16 - The Work of Our Hands by Donna Williams on Dec 23, 12:34pm|
|11/13/16 - The Work of Our Hands|
The Work of Our Hands
Eight years ago, on a hot August evening, I met you, the congregation at Summit — and you met me. It was the night before my candidating sermon, when you would vote on whether to call me as your pastor. We had dinner in the Fellowship Hall, and then I sat on the edge of the stage while people asked questions. Most of the questions were softballs, but there were a couple of exceptions. Luther Van Ummersen asked me how I felt about the Eagles. I was really glad someone had just given me an Eagles hat so I at least knew we were talking about football. Hector Badeau then asked me, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” My first thought, was OMG — I was so busy telling the Pastoral Nominating Committee I was a lesbian, I forgot to mention I was a socialist! I didn’t say that. I knew that answer would probably be a dealbreaker, even at Summit, and it also wasn’t really true. Oh, I had founded Hastings High School Students for a Democratic Chile in 1976. When I marched in my first demonstration in NYC I got my picture on the front page of the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party, U.S.A., circulation 23. But there was nothing in my adult record to distinguish me from a semi-active, liberal Democrat. My socialism - a fluffy, soft, Scandinavian kind of Socialism I might add - was more aspirational. I used to say that if I read more and had courage, I would almost certainly be a socialist. But I was easily distracted from the struggle by my job as a teacher, by housework and shopping, by mysteries with kitty detectives. And I was afraid to take a bold stand for big change. I’m cautious by nature.
So when Hector asked that question I could answer, honestly, that I was a registered Democrat. I added something to the effect that faithful Christians could be of either party and many different opinions, and that in my preaching and pastoring I would try and be inclusive and respectful. I could feel Hector’s question raise the anxiety in the room, and it was about more than my party affiliation. Folks were probably wondering, “what kind of sermons will we have to listen to Sunday after Sunday?” If she’s a Democrat, how will she treat Republicans and vice-versa? For politics in the congregation is something of a minefield, even for a congregation like Summit, which is fairly homogeneous, what we might call a landslide congregation for Clinton and Obama. It’s something of a minefield because faithful, thoughtful Christians have different politics, based on our understanding of the world, even when we agree on broad goals such as ending hunger. We worry about alienating people: not only because they might leave with their pledge, but because conflict is painful, friendships are ruptured. We worry about coming down on the wrong side of an issue, which we may do even with lots of prayer and the best of intentions. It’s also tricky because working for social justice is consuming, and sometimes congregations lose sight of other dimensions of their mission: Bible study, evangelism, the nurture of children and families, care for those who are sick. So getting involved in politics - even in a non-partisan way — and one thing Christians agree on, across the political and theological spectrum, is that churches must never, ever lose their 501(c) 3 status — getting involved in social justice, advocacy, whatever you want to call it, is risky. It’s tempting to lay low, to only do educational programs. It’s tempting to encourage people to be involved as individuals, but to be silent as a congregation.
But going down that road carries other dangers. It risks giving the message that God is doesn’t care about justice — how we treat each other. It risks giving the message that God is indifferent to war and peace. It risks giving the message that Christ is silent on welcoming the stranger and our care for the earth. It risks giving the message — to each other and the outside world — that we don’t really believe all people are created in God’s image.
Our scripture today God’s desire for justice and the well being of all people is clear. God is speaking, through the words of Isaiah, about the World to Come, the ultimate redemption of all things that we believe will come when Christ returns. But it’s also a world God is creating now, the Kingdom of God at hand. And this world is not a world where some plant and others eat: a world of slaves or serfs, or of farmers who face crushing debt. It’s not a world where some build and others inhabit because wages are too low for workers to afford a home of their own. It’s not a world where some labor in vain, and others wish to labor but can’t find work. I’m being naughty now, but it’s not a world where some vote and others elect. It’s a world where all enjoy the work of their hands. It’s a world where all enjoy long life, not only those who can afford health care. It’s a world of peace: where the wolf and the lamb will feed together. We do God’s will and participate in this new creation when we work for such a world. When we work for economic justice. When we say Black Lives Matter and stand with immigrants or Muslims. We participate in this new creation by calling for a clean energy economy so we will not bear our children for calamity. And although we can’t abolish predator and prey in the animal kingdom, we can work for peace among people, beginning by talking respectfully with those whom we disagree. We can fight climate change so there will be wolves and lambs and lions and serpents left when Christ comes again. And we participate in this new creation when we pray: for our leaders, including our President and President-elect, and for all people and creatures of this wide world, including ourselves.
In your Church Information Form that advertised my position, you said that Summit didn’t hesitate to rally for political causes. I think that was a teeny bit of an overstatement — which is fine as I made a few teeny overstatements in my resume, which I’m sure you’ve discovered. But if there is a time to start living into that claim, the time is now. Oh Lord, the time is now.
At our meeting this week the Session had some visitors, members from the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, who spoke about their involvement with a group called POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild. We’ll be inviting folks from POWER to speak with the whole congregation sometime in January, to see if this is a way we might want to address issues of economic dignity, mass incarceration and education. It may be that joining POWER is not right for us, and if not there are other ways we can raise our voice, peaceful and respectful ways that reflect the grace of Christ.
For if we’re quiet in this time of peril, we risk giving another misleading message. People may look at us and think that Jesus told us to play it safe. People may look at us and think that Jesus told us to avoid controversy. But in our first reading Jesus said to his disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name.” Sometimes disciples are hated for confessing Christ - Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman currently on death row for blasphemy is one. Sometimes disciples are hated for witnessing to justice in Christ’s name: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero, and I’m even going to add Hillary Clinton, that imperfect but quietly observant United Methodist. But Jesus also said: not a hair of your head will perish. For by your endurance you will gain your souls. Our souls and the soul of this country are at stake. But we do not need to be afraid. For in the midst of the old God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. A new heavens and new earth to which we are all invited. So let us be glad, and rejoice forever, in what God is creating.
|11/6/16 - The Day After by Donna Williams on Dec 23, 12:32pm|
|11/6/16 - The Day After|
The Day After
What are you plans for Wednesday, November 9th? I know everyone here has a plan to vote on November 8th. But what about the day after?
I’m planning to go out to dinner, before coming back to church for the last session on the Belhar Confession. If my candidate wins it will be celebratory; if not, it will be a consolation meal. Some folks have a plan A and a plan B, or what we might call a plan C and a plan D. Some Trump supporters are threatening violence if Clinton wins, and some Hillary supporters are threatening emigration to Canada if Donald wins. I fervently hope it’s just talk on both sides.
This is my next question: are you looking forward to Wednesday, November 9th? Most people I know say they can’t wait! No more inboxes filled with solicitations. No more surprises. Fewer talking heads, less cursing and fewer insults. Long walks in the woods and pumpkin spice concoctions. Most people I know are looking forward to a return to our regular programming, once their candidate wins and the other goes home quietly . . . .As they used to say about the New York Lottery, “All You Need is a Dollar and a Dream.”
Because the day after will not be a dream, no matter who wins. Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s very important who wins — and those who support the other candidate feel the same way. But no matter who does, November 9th will be challenging because we’re so divided. Passions are running high. People are angry, feeling abused and besieged by enemies. And it’s not only that we’re divided; the stakes are high. Climate change. Mass incarceration. Income inequality. Too many emails of all kinds, people left behind. For most people November 9th will be one of either relief or disappointment, excitement or shell-shock. Then it gets complicated. What do we do next?
Jesus says, in his sermon on the level place, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Do unto others as you would have have them do to you.
These sound like they could be instructions for the day after, given the hate, cursing and abuse that’s come out of the various campaigns. And surely we’re called to do good, bless and pray for everyone . . . as hard as it might be. At our Wednesday night study a couple of weeks ago we were exploring the theme of reconciliation, and Peggy offered a thought experiment. I’m not quoting her exactly, or maybe even closely, but she asked: if a group of hostile poll watchers came to Summit on election day, what if we greeted them kindly? What if we offered them cookies — in other words, what if we blessed them. Now I had trouble entering into that hypothetical. Just the thought of hostile poll watchers — and I could picture them because I knew exactly what they would look like — just the thought of hostile poll watchers filled me with fury. But when I finally was able to imagine a peaceful response — which would also mean letting them pet Shadow, who cuddles with everyone - I wondered, could that change things? Aren’t unexpected acts of kindness the way we break cycles of hate and violence? Praying, doing good, giving our coats and lending without expecting anything in return.
Yes, but. Hostile poll watchers also can’t be allowed to suppress the vote. Surely Jesus isn’t telling his followers to let themselves be abused. For in this same sermon Jesus has a another message, or at least a different emphasis, when he pronounces blessings and woes. Blessed are you who are poor now — and woe to you who are rich. Blessed are you who are hungry now — and woe to you who are full. Blessed are you who weep, and woe to you who are laughing now. Blessed are you when people revile you, and woe to you when all speak well of you now. God doesn’t stand behind those who hate or revile others. God doesn’t stand behind the rich gaining at the expense of the poor, taking their coats and their shirts. God is not behind those who eat carelessly while others go hungry, or who laugh while others weep. There will be a turning of tables. God’s blessing doesn’t rest on those who seem blessed in the eyes of the world. God doesn’t sanction hate, abuse, or greed.
Now there are many questions and objections we could explore regarding these blessings and woes. They’ve been source of much interpretive mischief. But I’m trying to preach only one sermon today, so I’ll just say this: this sermon on the level place can’t be tied up neatly. There’s tension in it: tension between showing kindness and mercy to our enemies and standing up for what is right; tension between God’s vindication for the persecuted and God’s kindness to the ungrateful and the wicked. Tension between a turning of the tables and the healing of all people.
That’s the tension we have to live into on November 9th. We’re called to pray for those on the other side, to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, even if we don’t feel loving. But that doesn’t mean abandoning the vulnerable or taking abuse. It doesn’t mean shutting up. It doesn’t mean giving up. It means writing our new President and Representatives and demonstrating peacefully. And it means praying really hard.
Eric Lui wrote an article in the Atlantic which gives some practical advice about February 9th. His title is “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation, They Need to Get Better at Arguing.” He notes that many folks are anxious to build bridges and bring back civility to our political discourse after the election. He’s not against that, exactly, but he says that a rush to reunion can entrench injustice. He gives the end of the civil war as an example, where the rush to unite the states, to unite white people, came at the expense of African Americans and others. So his suggestion for the day and the days after is threefold: first, to listen to one another. To truly listen, not just listen for points we can debate. A kind of listening that - in his words — “rehumanizes the enemy.” Second, to serve together: at a soup kitchen, building a house, doing good side by side. And third, to argue. He admits this may sound counter-intuitive, haven’t we had enough arguing. But he points out the problem is not that we argue, but that our arguments are stupid. We need a kind of arguing that’s more honest, more open to change, more human. A kind of arguing that will help us discern solutions, even as we continue to argue. And you know what? Jesus argued a LOT. We get a biased recording of those arguments in the New Testament, but they have been blessings to us (even though, to the church’s shame, we have sometimes wielded them as a weapon against others). And there were many other rabbinical arguments at the time, debates that were faithful and fruitful, that helped the Jewish community discern the way to go after the destruction of the temple. So, we have a trinity: Listening (so we may rehumanize our enemies). Doing good by serving together. And arguing. How Biblical is that!
I’m sure that among those who have recently joined the Saints in Light there are Trump and Clinton supporters, Rubio and Sanders supporters, not to mention Cubs and Phillies fans. I don’t know how they’re all working it out, but in the Communion of Saints there is true unity: a unity that is the fruit of justice and reconciliation, a unity resting in love, not a unity that masks injustice. A unity that we will all know in the age to come, when Christ returns and the peoples will rejoice at the redemption of all things, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” praising God in earth and sky and sea.
|10/9/16 - Nine Out of Ten by Donna Williams on Oct 11, 11:16am|
|10/9/16 - Nine Out of Ten|
Summit Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016
Luke 17: 11-19
Nine Out of Ten
“But the other nine, where are they?” So Jesus asked when the one returned. It’s a rhetorical question because Jesus knew very well where they were — on their way to see the priest. Just as he had told them! On the way to see the priest, who would see that they were healed, and prescribe an offering for them to make. On the way to see the priest so he could certify they were clean, ritually and physically. Able to join their family and neighbors in their homes, at the table, in the fields, in the synagogue. They would no longer have to keep their distance; they could touch and be touched. The other nine, where were they? On their way to a new life.
But as we said, this is a rhetorical question. Jesus isn’t asking where they are. He’s asking “why aren’t they here?” Why didn’t they turn back and praise God, like the Samaritan, the one. Now, if, like me, you’re one of the nine out of ten people who always did as the teacher said, listening carefully to directions; who was “sent to the bench” on the playground only once in kindergarten, when you went over to play on the jungle gym and the other kids said the teacher went inside and told us not to play on the jungle gym until she got back (this was 1965; I guess teachers sometimes left the playground) but she didn’t say we couldn’t sit on it; if you’re one of those people who sat on the jungle gym and still remembers sitting on the bench 51 years later; — if, like me, you’re a Martha; in the kitchen setting out the crudite and hummus, watching the quiche in the oven, putting the dishes to soak and wondering where the heck Mary is, even as Jesus is radiating holiness, wisdom and love in the living room; — if, like me, you’re an older brother, working like a slave day in and day out, never disobeying the command of your father, while younger brother runs off to midnight parties, cocaine binges and expensive sports cars; — if, like me, you’d never prostrate yourself before Jesus but would write a carefully worded thank-you note two weeks later on 80% cotton stationary; if - you - are - like - me you may be protesting, even hurt, on behalf of the nine out of ten. Jesus, why the harsh words? They were doing what they were supposed to do. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do! Listening to our teachers, parents and supervisors. Seeking to be obedient disciples. Following instructions. Isn’t that what you want?
Well, it seems that’s not what Jesus wants. Or, more precisely, that’s not only what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to do as he says, to show ourselves to the priest, but Jesus also wants us to praise God with a loud voice, giving thanks. Not to make God feel good — although our praise may do that. Not because Jesus requires it— he didn’t withdraw his healing from the other nine. But because, as we say in our communion liturgy: “it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, O Lord our God, creator and ruler of the universe.” Jesus wants us to praise God because it will make us well. It will make us joyful. It’s part of the healing. “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus to the one who returned. Not only the faith that led him to call out to Jesus in the first place, but also the faith that turned to God in thanks and praise. The faith that no longer kept its distance, but came close and lay down before Jesus in adoration. The faith that recognized grace and healing and blessing and responded from the heart.
So the other nine, where were they? What kept them from turning back to do the right and the joyful thing?
Where were the nine? They could have been in many places, with many reasons that kept them from turning back and praising God.
What keeps us from turning back? Why are we so often absent from the praise choir? A sense of duty that keeps us looking down? An obsession with our to-do list? Fear? Entitlement? A pre-occupation with our life and all that’s happening in it — even, or perhaps especially, when things are going well and filled with promise. Or do we dare not give thanks, when there is so much wrong with the world, so much yet to do.
Jesus is calling us back. Calling us to let go of all those reasons not to. Calling us to praise God, to remember all God’s benefits. For it’s never either/or. We can be responsible, and thankful. We can work to right wrongs, and still praise God. We can be Martha and Mary, we can be the older brother and still join the party. The Samaritan, after giving thanks, was then sent on his way: to work and serve and love. But only after his faith, the faith that gave thanks and praise, had made him well. Such a faith will make us well, too. A faith that stops short to look up at a harvest moon and whisper “praise be to God.” A faith that says grace before a meal, and means it. A faith that sings a beloved hymn in church. A faith that says “thank you” when our children are home safe at night. Such a faith doesn’t mean that all our troubles, or the troubles of the world, are over. We may still be waiting and praying for physical and emotional healing. We may still be waiting and praying and working for justice, for the kingdom of God. But praise brings us closer to God. Thanksgiving brings joy. It makes us well. So, let’s pause and look at the beauty and grace that surrounds us, and count our blessings. For it is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe . . . . as we join our voices with angel and archangels and with all the faithful of every time and place, forever singing to the glory of your name. Amen.
|9/25/16 - Living in the Shelter of God by Donna Williams on Oct 11, 11:14am|
|9/25/16 - Living in the Shelter of God|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016
Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 91
Living in the Shelter of God
As we get ready to watch the debate between Clinton and Trump tomorrow night, many of us will be looking to the “Truth-O-Meter” of the Politifact website, a project of the Tampa Bay Times. You may have heard of it. The folks at Politifact research statements made by candidates and rate them: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire: as in Liar, Liar. Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of their ratings, but they’ve been busy lately. Lots to check out. And I’m glad they’re busy. Because if they weren’t, they might be tempted to start rating some older campaign promises. Claims made by people long gone that are now in ancient manuscripts. Like our psalm. For as I was reflecting on it this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: what rating would Politifact give Psalm 91?
It claims that God offers protection to the faithful. That God will deliver them — us — from the snare of the fowler and the deadly pestilence. That under God’s wings we’ll find refuge; that we needn't fear destruction, or terror, at noonday or night. That if we take refuge in God, no evil shall befall us. According to the psalmist, Gods says for those who love me I will deliver. I will protect, answer, rescue, honor and be with them in trouble. I will satisfy them with long life, and show them my salvation.
These are big promises, and it wouldn’t take long for Politifact to find the many times that God didn’t keep them — or at least didn’t seem to keep them. But we don’t need the Truth-O-Meter. We all know faithful, loving people who have been felled by deadly pestilence, by fatal illness, long before their time: cancer, AIDS, a tragic accident, mental illness. We all know people — or we may be people — who love God but who haven’t been rescued from trouble. Whether that trouble is crime, homelessness, death of a parent at a young age, bankruptcy, addiction, violence. And if we don’t have enough examples from our own lives, we only have to look at the past week. Terrence Crutcher sang in his church choir every Sunday, but that didn’t protect him from the snare of the fowler. God didn’t keep Police Sargent Sylvia Young from being shot in West Philly last week, or Sarah Salih from begin killed. Keith Lamont Scott. God didn’t satisfy with long life the five people who killed in Seattle on Friday. And although I’m lifting up the victims of shootings, I’d like to lodge a complaint against God on behalf of the shooters as well. Police must be held accountable for their actions, policing has to change . . . but officers are also the point people for a system, for a culture, that teaches so many falsehoods about so many people, but especially black people. The police are point guard in a society that stokes fear of the other, that idolizes guns and insists that white people have the right to be armed to the teeth. A culture where children without families are at the mercy of an underfunded and often chaotic system, and where young people in prison can be thrown into solitary. Those who kill need to be brought to justice, but there are always many fingers on any given trigger; where are God’s wings for all her troubled children? Now, we can defend Psalm 91 by pointing out that it promises protection for those who love God, and not everyone does. But just think about the carnage of the last century, and all that is happening today to the young and innocent, including faithful Christians. Looking at the facts, at best the truth-o-meter could only rate Psalm 91 as “half true.”
And yet. And yet. At our retreat last weekend, the first question we dove into was, “Why are you a Christian?” Or — since this is Summit, with our wide range of theological views — “Why are you a person of faith?” It was a wonderful conversation, with people speaking from the heart, and with many different experiences to share. Some of us were nurtured in the faith since childhood and never lost it; others are latecomers, or struggling, and we’re all on some kind of journey. But I was struck by how often people talked about the help they received from God. Help from God when they were in trouble — all kinds of trouble. One person said, “I’m a person of faith because I can’t imagine getting through life without the help of God.” That help may have come as answered prayer; through dramatic and unexpected healing; through the experience of grace at a loved one’s deathbed, through the kindness of a stranger or the love of a parent; in the God-given power to overcome an addiction. People talked about the comfort and strength that comes from simply being in the presence of God. In worship, in prayer, in the dark watches of the night and the first light of the morning. It may be that Psalm 91 is only “half true,” but that half truth makes all the difference. The difference between life and death, hope and despair, a terrible loneliness or love and connection. The psalmist knew that difference. He testifies to it.
But this is another half to the half truth, a hard half. We often have to wait on God. God does protect, deliver, answer, rescue and honor all who love God (and, perhaps, even those who don’t believe in her). But not always on our time, or even in our lifetimes. We must wait. For God has given human beings freedom and created a world with limits and boundaries. So we all see trouble, know suffering and encounter evil. We all have pain that can’t be fixed. Jesus was no exception. As he hung on the cross, tortured, thirsty, near death, people called him to come down. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross they said! Just like the devil tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, quoting this psalm (verse 12j), daring him to jump off the parapet of the temple, to show that God would not let him dash his foot against a stone. But Jesus waited. Like us, he took the protection and deliverance of God on faith. But he rose from the grave to show us God’s salvation. He rose from the dead to show us that God’s promises are trustworthy, even if they contradict the facts as we see them.
So let us call Christ to mind, and have hope. Let us call Christ to mind, and take courage. Living in the shelter of the Lord, and putting our trust in God as we face the pain and struggles in our life. And as we do the hard and sometimes frightening work of testifying to God’s love and justice. As we say, “Black Lives Matter,” because all lives matter; as we call folks to lay down their arms in the nation of gun-lust; as we speak up for our children and grandchildren, and those who are poor, who will suffer so much climate change. As we face down terror and seek peace. Such discipleship isn’t easy. It’s not comfortable, or even always safe. But we can trust that God is with us; that God does protect and deliver her beloved children. In this world, and in the Kingdom of God that is coming.
I’d like to end by reading, again our first Lesson, Lamentation 3: 19-26
|9/18/16 - Prayer in this Election Season by Donna Williams on Sep 26, 9:49am|
|9/18/16 - Prayer in this Election Season|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016
Psalm 113, Amos 8:4-7 and 1 Timothy 2: 1-17
Prayer in this Election Season
In the past several months, during joys and concerns, people have often alluded to something election-related that happened in the past week – the speech of a candidate, a nasty debate, another lie or scandal – and then said something like “I don’t want to name names … or I’m not sure what to say . . . but our nation needs prayer.” It's hard to know exactly what to pray for in an election season, especially in church, when we may not all be on the same page. But we do need prayer. Especially this election season.
There are a few dilemmas when it comes to election season prayers. The prayers on our hearts, our most honest petitions (and God knows them, whether we say them or not) may not be — charitable. They may not seem Christlike, given that Jesus said to pray for our enemies. They may involve horrible things happening to the candidates we oppose. We also may be praying — fervently — that our candidate win. But is that OK? Aren’t we always to ask that God’s will be done? (and not necessarily assume we know what that is!) Other kinds of prayers raise other questions. We can pray for national healing and learning to work together across the aisle. It’s hard to argue with such a prayer. But is it a prayer for all times and places? Aren’t there times when we just need to pray that evil be conquered, even if our friends and family are voting for it? And how do we interpret the times?
Our scriptures today can help us. The writer of first Timothy begins by naming different types of prayers: supplications, intercessions and thanksgivings. To do a vocabulary review: prayers of thanksgiving are just that, thanking God for blessings and gifts. Thanksgiving is related to praise, where we we name God’s attributes and remember God’s deeds and marvel at God’s creation. Supplications are when we ask God for something, for ourselves or others. Supplications we make for others we call intercessions. (As an aside — when we say Christ or the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, in sighs too deep for words, we’re saying that Christ and the Spirit pray for us). Supplications, intercessions and thanksgiving aren’t the only kinds of prayer, but they’re our most common ones. Paul then says such prayers should be made for everyone. Everyone. Including kings. Including people in high places. I believe that would include presidents of all kinds, Generals, CEOs, the Pope. Candidates for national office. Everyone. Prayers of intercession and thanksgiving.
Paul then says why: so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. A quiet and peaceable life needs order: in the state, in the home, in the church. In the rest of the letter, Paul urges these new Christians to put themselves in order. He tells men not to argue. He tells women to dress modestly and listen in silence. He tells deacons to be serious. (Deacons did you hear that?). He tells bishops to be above reproach. Most troubling, he tells those who are under the yoke of slavery to regard their masters as worthy of honor. Mary, mother of Jesus, praised God for turning the world upside down; the writer of this letter welcomes stability. It’s not my favorite letter, given the inequalities recommended in it. But before we call Paul a reactionary, we should remember that he was speaking to a small, embattled church, and he wanted them to concentrate on God and to thrive. And before we call him a sell-out, we should note he wasn’t telling people to pray to the King — which is what the Roman Emperor wanted — but for all those in high places. And before we accuse him of being indifferent to the poor, he’s the one who says, later in the letter, that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. So Paul urges us to pray for everyone, including kings and all in high places so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life. Raising families, coming to church, working hard. A life that most people yearn for. Especially when they’re running from violence. Or fearing a knock on the door. Or having to worry about their next meal. It is good to pray for kings and Presidents and elected officials of all stripes so they may serve well, allowing everyone to live a quiet and peaceable life, in godliness and dignity.
But Paul goes further. He says that praying for everyone is right and acceptable in the sight of God, because God desires everyone to be saved. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want the candidate that I’m against to be saved. I want to keep making fun. I want to enjoy my outrage. But Paul says that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth. And so those who are the most truth-impaired are those who need our intercessions the most. That they may come to the truth. And the truth will set them free. As it sets us free.
Because although God desires the salvation of all, that doesn’t mean God wants us all to keep doing what we’re doing. In fact, God’s grace calls us to repentance. The other scriptures this morning give us a sense of what that might mean. The psalm that Ben read praises God for who God is: high above all nations, looking far down on the heavens and the earth. And yet — also raising the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from the ash heap, making them sit with princes, the princes of God’s people. This God, according to Amos, also remembers those who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land. Our God notices those who practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. So God is not a supporter of status quo, or all the status quo. God desires that we be honest. God desires that the poor be lifted up. We may have different ideas of how to do that. But when we’re all sitting together, no one oppressing another, everyone with enough to eat, no longer divided in the many ways we are divided, we will be free. And we’ll be able to live quiet and peaceable lives.
And there’s one other supplication I want to talk about in this election season. Our final hymn is Eternal Father, Strong to Save. I first heard it when Bunny Hughes requested it at a hymn sing. We sang it a Dave Greene’s Memorial service. It’s also called the Navy Hymn and has been adopted by the US Marine Corp. We don’t sing it often on Sunday mornings because it’s such a specific prayer: for those in peril on the sea.
But in this election season, that includes us. For we are all in peril: all of us on this small but precious water-covered rock amongst the stars. In peril on the sea of our lives and on the sea of history. In peril from the hate and suspicion, the racism and xenophobia that’s raging across the globe, stoked by politicians of many nations and ideologies and faiths. In peril from nuclear war, and nuclear terror. In peril from climate change. That peril is unprecedented. Unprecedented in scale: as billions of people face floods and drought, heat waves and hunger, and all the death, chaos and violence that will come with it. Unprecedented because if the eco-system collapses we won’t be able to recover as we’ve recovered from other disasters. One candidate and most of his party refuses to even acknowledge the danger; the others are alarmingly quiet. We need our Eternal Father, our Eternal God, strong to save. God cannot or will not simply keep down the heat and the damage no matter what we do — God has given us freedom. But if we pray for God’s protection, and grace and courage; if we lift up everyone — high and low, rich and poor, north and south, east and west - the Spirit can bring us together to fight this danger and build a more just world. Across party lines. Across lines of class and race and nation. Under the Trinity of love and power, who hears our prayers and who wishes all to be saved and to come to the truth.
|9/11/16 - Reason for a Party by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:41pm|
|9/11/16 - Reason for a Party|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016
Reason for a Party
Recently I read a memoir called Consequence by Eric Fair. Fair was an American interrogator with a private security firm under contract to the US army in Iraq. His book recounts the decisions and events and accidents and good intentions that led him there — and what he finds when he arrives. Violence. Disorganization. Fear. I won’t recount his downward slide, but eventually he becomes a practitioner of what’s euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation technique.” Towards the end of his time in Iraq, when he is at his lowest point, Fair says: “I am not disgusted by my actions. I am disgusted by how good it felt to wield power . . . I am terrified of where else that feeling might take me. In Iraq, I have not just taken the wrong path. I have walked in the wrong direction entirely.” He then describes what happens when he returns: his troubled mind and soul, his drinking, his anger, the call he hears to suicide. His bad heart and near death; a heart transplant at Penn; the birth of his son. Throughout, he talks about God. He talks about his faith and his lack of it. He is a Presbyterian. A cradle Presbyterian, raised in the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, very active in the youth group and deeply influenced by his youth pastor. He even goes to Princeton Seminary, briefly, after Iraq. The church and its teaching are a touchstone. But the church didn’t keep him from walking in the wrong direction and it also doesn’t save him from pain and guilt on his return. Even when he begins to speak out, to try and make amends, there’s no neat resolution. No “born again” experience, no moment of Amazing Grace when he feels, as Paul puts, it, thaat the past is finished and gone; everything has become fresh and new. He doesn’t buy the argument that Christ has “paid” for our sins and we are therefore redeemed (I don’t blame him. The argument is problematic, especially in its more simplistic form). “I am a torturer,” says Fair. “I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I do not believe that I ever will be. But I am still obligated to try.” (239). He finds hope in the idea of “earning” his way back. He writes his book, he visits regularly with a Rabbi, he raises his son and brings him to church and loves his wife. He comes to a limited peace with his past, an acceptance of his humanity, but he’s still haunted by what he’s done in Iraq. And that, he feels, is as it should be.
He also talks the reaction of others to his disclosure of torture and the part he played in it. After he wrote a couple of newspaper columns, the emails started coming in. He says many of them lauded his courage and honesty. He deleted those. Others said things like “I hope you die,” or “You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.” He said he kept reading those. He also received an email with the subject line “welcome.” This is what it said: Welcome to the club bro. I was in the infantry in Vietnam in 1968. I murdered an NVA soldier who was trying to surrender. I gave the go ahead for two of our artillerymen to gun down those two soldiers. All I had to do was tell them not to but instead said “Fuck it!” This has been a burden for thirty-nine years and will continue to be so until I die. I don’t believe in any religion, I do believe in an Infinite Intelligence and perhaps our punishment is carrying this guilt to our grave. I just want to let you know you have plenty of company. Welcome.”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is a familiar and comforting passage for many of us, including the two parables that follow. We like to think of Jesus inviting everyone to the lunch table. But maybe we haven’t thought about it enough, at what it means to welcome sinners. When I’ve heard this word “sinner” in this passage, I’ve thought prostitutes, as sinners often does mean prostitutes in the Bible. When I’ve heard “tax collectors,” I’ve pictured government bureaucrats, corrupt, perhaps, even collaborators with the Roman overlords, but not that bad. I’ve thought of those people coming near to Jesus as outsiders rather than insiders, on the margin rather than the center, but —especially in the case of prostitutes — victims more than evil-doers. And the parables that follow reinforce this “soft” view: perhaps because the sheep and the coin and even the prodigal are lost but harmless. They don’t torture or abuse or kill anyone. So it’s easy to see those Pharisees as judgmental and hypocritical folks who deserve to be scolded.
But if we think of sinner in it’s full meaning, it’s graver, darker, and also more inclusive. It includes all of us, of course. We may feel we’ve managed, through righteousness or luck or both, to avoid committing sins that can’t be forgiven. But we’re all complicit, to some degree, through the sin of silence as well as speech or action, of allowing all kinds of evil to go unchallenged. Of letting young well-intentioned men and women go to war and do things that will haunt them for the rest of their life. “Sinners” also includes those among us who have tortured, like Fair; or who have dropped bombs or planted bombs or flown planes into buildings. Or who have abused children, or stolen large sums of money from widows and orphans, or executed political prisoners or beaten their wives. Most of us have some category of sin that we feel puts someone beyond the pale, even if they’ve stopped sinning in that particular way. We may feel that we belong in that category. We may point to others. We may not want them sitting at the table, or we may feel that we don’t belong ourselves.
But Jesus says welcome — Welcome, brother. Welcome, sister. You have company. He says welcome to all sinners, not just every-day ones. And he goes further — he claims that when a sinner repents there is joy in heaven; More joy over one sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (although I can’t imagine who those people would be!). Not just a grudging acceptance for those who have served their time. Not just a seat at the end of the table. But rejoicing. A party. Yes, repentance is needed — which means turning to God who calls us to make amends, to work for justice and reconciliation through Christ. But then there’s joy.
It’s hard for us to accept that — for ourselves or others. We feel guilt over those we have hurt, or indignant on behalf of those who have been hurt. It doesn’t seem right, or just, that serious sinners should be received joyfully into the arms of God. But that’s because we’re human beings. We can’t fully grasp the mercy of God - so much wider than the sea. We can’t grasp the justice of God, which is perfect, not like ours, which often substitutes one injustice for another. We can’t fathom the depths of God’s love, for every creature on this earth. We’re not God. But we have met Jesus: the one who welcomes all sinners to the table. The one who asked forgiveness for those who tortured him. The one who rose from the dead, showing that love is far stronger than the evil he suffered. The one, who even now, calls each one of us to joyful fellowship. We may never be able to let go of the past entirely on this side of the grave. It may haunt us now matter how many amends we make how how much we try to forgive. But Jesus assures us that when we turn to God, when any sinner returns to God, the heavens rejoice. So let’s join the party — accepting God’s love and rejoicing in all of the guests.
|9/4/16 - Shaped by God by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:39pm|
|9/4/16 - Shaped by God|
Summit Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016
Psalm 1; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Shaped by God
In Ireland this summer — and this is the only sermon where I’ll talk about my vacation, which I think can be a little obnoxious — In Ireland this summer my friend and I spent a lot of time searching out and wandering through abandoned churches. We saw one church over a thousand years old that was still in near-perfect condition. Small, one room, dark — a hole for a window — bare and dry, it had been made by laying flat stones on top of one another at a precise angle to ward off the rain, much like the stone beehive huts that people lived in at the time. We traipsed through early monasteries, villages really, with tall stone celtic crosses carved with figures from the Bible and early saints. Many of these structures were ruins, single walls or four walls open to the sky, with the still beautiful mosaics and carvings and paintings now worn and faded. Some of these churches were large tourist sites; others were in the middle of towns or at the edge of the sea. The churches had fallen into ruin for many reasons. Over the centuries churches and monasteries were looted, destroyed, shut down or abandoned in wars between Kings, in Viking attacks, with the English conquest. People also emigrated, or starved, or buildings just fell down. But as some churches were abandoned, others were converted — from Catholic to Protestant and back again — and new ones built. My favorite new church was the Roman Catholic Galway Cathedral, official title Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicolas, built in the 1960s. It’s a large stone structure evoking the great European cathedrals with magnificent high ceilings and light streaming in. There were all different kinds of stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings and posters, all bright and beautiful, a feast for the eyes and spirit. (Although I should tell you that when I was googling it yesterday, to refresh my memory, I came across an article in the Irish Times. They had invited their readers to send in nominations of buildings in Ireland that deserved the wrecking ball. You guessed it - Galway Cathedral was near the top of the list. So it’s not everyone’s favorite!) So in one small country, churches were built and planted, plucked up, broken down and reshaped. And the buildings are just traces, the fossils, of the people of God who have worshipped and taught and learned and served and been shaped in so many different ways since St. Patrick set off for Ireland about 1600 years ago.
Building and planting, breaking down and reworking - “I am a potter,” says God, in Jeremiah’s prophesy to the people of Israel. God has called Jeremiah to the home of a potter to illustrate his point — much like a children’s sermon with an object lesson. The potter has smushed the pot he was working on — or perhaps it fell upon itself because it was too thin or lopsided. The spoiled pot is in his hand but he doesn’t throw out the clay — he reworks it into another vessel as seems good to him. When Jeremiah sees this, the Word of the Lord comes to him, saying “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” Jeremiah goes on to warn the people: God will build and pluck up and destroy, depending on what they do. If they do evil, God will break down and destroy — but if they listen to God, God will build and plant. Underneath this dire warning, there’s a word of encouragement: Listen, O people, to God and do good: then God can make a beautiful and useful pot of you. Also, although Jeremiah doesn’t say it is this: if you don’t listen, God doesn’t give up. God puts the clay back on the wheel, reshaping a new pot as seems good to him.
It’s a beautiful image, one of the most well-known in the Bible. But as with any metaphor we find in scripture, God the Potter captures only in part the mystery of the immortal, invisible God only wise. God will not be reduced to an image, even if she offers it herself. So we can’t carry this too far: God may shape and build and destroy but it doesn’t necessarily follow that God directed violence against Israel (although that’s what Jeremiah preached), or that loss is God’s punishment. It also doesn’t follow that we’re helpless putty in God’s hands. To return to Ireland, it doesn’t mean that God was behind the destruction of monasteries and churches or even necessarily, the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Nicholas. . . . But there’s wisdom in this scripture. We’re told what to do. Listen to God, says Jeremiah. Turn from evil. Or in the words of Isaiah, Turn from evil, do good; seek peace and pursue it. Or in the words of Jesus, quoting Moses: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. And as we listen to God, God will shape us, through the Holy Spirit, into a church that seems good to her. The form will change over time and place: in terms of doctrine, church government, worship, and yes, buildings. As we say in Presbyterian speak, we’re a church reformed and always reforming. But this scripture reminds us our first question is not: What should the church look like? What form should it take? It’s “what is God calling us to be and do?” and in the Bible, God isn’t particularly interested in buildings or church government. (Although God does give detailed instructions on the making of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and God does commission leaders. Sometimes I wish you all couldn’t read the Bible on your own. Then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge those parts of the Bible that don’t support my point!). Mostly, God is concerned that the people worship God, not idols; that we feed the hungry, protect widows and children, forgive enemies, release captives, bring good news to the poor, love one another. If we keep ourselves focused on God’s voice, the form of the church will follow. And as we see when we look at the global church, across the centuries, those forms are many and diverse, falling into ruin and also rising from the ashes. Beautiful, useful pots and vases and jars of all sizes, shapes and colors.
Today we lifted up in prayer Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, whose building burned down this week. Good Shepherd is a small Presbyterian congregation, but there were four other congregations worshiping there and also a children’s program and other ministries. They will be forced to wrestle directly with the question that faces the church in all times and places. What next? What is God calling us to be and do? Kevin Porter, the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, said this after the fire: “There are things about a 1912 structure that are not the best conduit for ministry in 2016. We need to pause, hear God’s voice, see the gifts God has given to those who are here today and determine what the needs are and what is appropriate moving forward.” The language is a twenty-first century, but in Kevin’s gentle way he’s channeling Jeremiah: Pause. Hear God’s Voice. Trust that the Holy Spirit will form us as we follow God’s call. In the case of Good Shepherd it may be rebuilding a similar church on the same corner; or it could mean something entirely different. We’ll keep them in prayer, remembering that we’re in need of prayer too, along with the church universal, what we also call the holy, catholic church. Praying that we may always listen to God’s voice. Turning from evil, doing good, and letting God shape us, in a way that seems good to God.
|8/28/16 - Our Place at the Table by Donna Williams on Sep 13, 8:37pm|
|8/28/16 - Our Place at the Table|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016
Luke 14: 1, 7-14 Our Place at the Table
The seats in the Hastings on Hudson Middle School cafeteria were all alike. Long white formica benches attached to long white formica tables set in identical rows. There were no assigned seats. No special tables for honor students or athletes, no seats at the head or foot of any table. To the uninitiated it may have looked like a democratic, egalitarian arrangement. But every seventh grader knew better. Every seventh grader knew what some adults may have denied, that there were seats of honor and seats of shame. Seats of honor and seats of shame with many gradations in between, depending on who sat where. For among the seventh grade girls, at least, — the boys might have been different — there was an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. A class ranking more public and less debatable than any grade point average. I don’t think we could have explained what put the top girl at the top or how we each found our place. It was some mixture of looks and class and personality and associations. To be fair, there wasn’t a simple correlation of wealth or beauty or brains or popularity with rank. The girls at the top could be kind as well as mean, the girls at the bottom stylish or not. But as resistant to explanation as the ranking may have been, it was there — so to be invited to sit next to a top girl was to be honored. To seek a seat above your station and be ignored was to be disgraced. Lunchtime was stressful - and not only for those on the lower rungs.
The ancient world also had an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. Family, wealth, gender, work, and health made some folks more distinguished than others. There were seats of honor at every table, and seats that were lower, although being invited at all was an honor. It’s not clear from our scripture how people chose their places at this particular sabbath meal, but Jesus was watching them. As they were watching him. So he offers a parable. At first hearing, the parable doesn’t challenge the social hierarchy or the seating arrangements. Indeed, he seems to be telling folks how to work the system so they’ll always be honored rather than disgraced. Go low, he says, so the host can bring you high, honoring you before guests. When Jesus then talks about the ideal guest list, again, he seems to be accepting the status quo and telling his host how to get ahead. Rather than inviting friends and being repaid now, invite the poor and the lame so you’ll be rewarded in the resurrection of the righteous. I’m guessing anyone who was poor, lame or blind and invited to a party for this reason probably didn’t have a very good time.
But on second hearing, it’s not that simple. For Jesus is talking about more than the dinner party we may be planning for next week, the garden club luncheon, or even the church potluck. He’s talking about the eschatological feast (to throw in a big theological word). That heavenly banquet when Christ will gather all the faithful from east and west, north and south to sit at the table in the Kingdom of God. That feast where we will celebrate the redemption of all creation, when peace and righteousness will kiss each other, and the lion will lie down with the lamb (not, I trust, on our dinner plates). But the feast is not all Kumbaya. There’s a warning here. Jesus says the humble will be exalted the exalted will be humbled. So, if we choose that top spot now, if we cling to our titles, our status, our first class tickets and insist on the head of the table, on that great day Christ may say to us, “give this person your place,” and in disgrace we’ll have to take a lower place. That is, assuming we make it to the banquet at all. For if we’ve been paid and re-paid here on earth; if we’ve enjoyed dinners at the houses of rich neighbors, family and friends, while closing the door on those who for whatever reason can’t extend an invitation, who knows where we’ll be at the resurrection of the righteous.
So Jesus promises a turning of the tables. His mother Mary sang about it when Jesus was still in her womb: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It’s hard to argue with the justice of that, but still . . . does the eschatological feast have to be like a Middle School lunchroom or that Sabbath dinner so long ago? With high seats and low seats, some eating their fill and others going hungry? Even if it’s justice? Even if the hungry and the full are different people than they were on earth?
The answer is no. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way because Jesus tells us what to do. He gives the same instruction to everyone, for all to hear: take the low seat. Humble yourself. Don’t seek the honor of that special place. Now Jesus isn’t saying “debase yourself.” Jesus isn’t saying, let others put you in the low place so they can take the high. He isn’t saying, go to the kitchen and eat only crumbs, so that you’ll have pie in the sky. I think he’s saying, just sit down. Find a seat without checking out the scene and worrying about where you rank in relation to others. Sit down gratefully. Acknowledge that God, creator of the universe and source of all good, is the ultimate host of every banquet. And if we all take the low place, if we all just sit down and make sure that everyone’s invited, we’ll all be exalted on that glorious day. Shown by Christ Jesus to our seats, with good things before us. Basking in everlasting love.
But this is the thing about the Reign of God. It’s in the future, but it’s also now. It’s not yet, but it’s also here. We don’t have to wait until Christ comes again for a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. We taste it here, at Holy Communion, when we invite all to the table that Christ has prepared. We taste it too, when we stop thinking about each other in terms of what you can do for me: whether it’s a dinner invitation or a look of admiration. We taste it when we stop thinking about those we are helping as points in our favor, a chance to show off our righteousness. When Jesus tells his host to invite those who could not repay him - in that time and place it would have been the poor, the crippled, the lame or the blind — he was suggesting a guest list for a truly joyful luncheon. A meal where no one would be fighting for the seat of honor - since the guests were not distinguished in the eyes of the world. A meal where folks wouldn’t be fawning over each another in the hopes of a dinner invitation, since no one could offer one. A meal with no networking, no ranking, no matchmaking of the joining family dynasties kind. A luncheon where Jane Austen or Julian Fellows would have nothing to write about. A meal where everyone could just relax, enjoying the company of fellow pilgrims, grateful for God’s bounty, watching one another closely in love, not judgement. A meal quite different than the one on that particular Sabbath. A meal quite different than all those lunches in the Hastings Middle School Cafeteria.
But to go back to Middle School. The Holy Spirit works hard among Seventh graders, and even within a few years, things got better. Social ranking — although still there — was less precise, less hierarchical, as we began growing up and saw each other more clearly. In high school we were still anxious about making friends and finding our place, but there was more back and forth, more openness, more charity — at least as I remember it. And now, as Hastings Alum are Facebook Friends, although of course we’re still caught up in the honoring that the world gives, the Seventh Grade Hierarchy is a thing of the past. Through God’s grace we’ve moved a little closer to being a beloved community. And that’s just Facebook. Here in church, the body of Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Jesus, we can host some wonderful meals. (Real meals and metaphorical meals). Loving one another and inviting all to the table, as we wait in hope for the heavenly banquet where all God’s children, from North and South, East and West may be exalted together.
|8/21/16 - “I Am Only . . . . .” by Donna Williams on Aug 23, 6:47pm|
|8/21/16 - “I Am Only . . . . .”|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016
“I Am Only . . . . .”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of the first questions we’re asked as children. Our first answers are often fantasy based. Mermaid. Superhero. But soon the the grown-ups in our lives encourage us to think along more professional lines — doctor or lawyer, nurse or teacher, police officer or computer programmer. As we grow older - and some of us ask this question into our 60s — our answers change, as we learn about the world and ourselves. What we’re good at and what we’re not. What we like and what we don’t. What’s open to us and what’s not. We learn that our choices are limited by the world around us. By our past, our financial resources, our connections, discrimination. Of course, asking the question at all reflects a degree of freedom and privilege — and generally speaking, the more privilege the more possibilities. But everyone makes choices, and in our culture we’re told it’s important to make good choices: to fulfill our potential, find a career path, nurture our gifts, discern a vocation, work towards a goal. Some young people struggle for years with the question of what they’re going to be or do. In mid-life we often reassess and make changes, not always wise ones. As we get older, we sometimes struggle with regrets, feeling like we missed our call or never fulfilled our early promise or made poor choices, whether they involved career or family or geography. If we’re pray-ers we pray for God to tell us what we should be when we grow up, or if we’re grown, where are we called. We like to think God has a particular path in mind, a particular purpose, if we can just discern what it is.
God had a particular path in mind for Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had a particular plan but Jeremiah wasn’t trying to figure out what it was. He was just a boy: minding his own business, doing boy things. In that time and place people didn’t ask children what they wanted be when they grew up, if they were one of the lucky few to grow up — that had been pretty much decided at birth by their station in life. So Jeremiah wasn’t looking for his “call” — and when the call comes Jeremiah is reluctant, as most biblical prophets are: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Was Jeremiah awed by this call, lacking confidence, afraid of failure? Or was Jeremiah looking for an excuse because he knew what was coming? A difficult and challenging life, where a lot of folks would hate him, as he spoke words of judgement and doom to the leaders of Israel. God would also give Jeremiah words of hope and assurance but those would come later, and there would be fewer of them. But whether Jeremiah was feeling humble, frightened or both, it doesn’t matter to God. Jeremiah doesn’t need to be gifted with words because God will give them. Jeremiah doesn’t need to know where to go, because God will send him. Jeremiah doesn’t even need to be afraid, because God will be with him. This call is not about Jeremiah’s talent, or skill, or passion. It’s not about Jeremiah, period. It’s about speaking the words that God will put in his mouth, and going where God tells him.
None of us are Jeremiah, or even a 21st century Jeremiah, I think it’s fair to say. He was a singular prophet. Given a particularly difficult Word to speak at a particularly challenging time, a word that would be recorded in scripture for all of God’s people to hear. One that warned of danger and suffering and ruin. Words that spoke of God’s judgement and anger and even violence, although the ultimate message in Jeremiah is one of compassion and love for God’s people. Although Jeremiah spoke for God, it doesn’t mean every word in the book of Jeremiah is the literal word of God, spoken through Jeremiah as though he were possessed. Nor is every word in the book of Jeremiah necessarily one the prophet himself spoke. The scriptures were written years later. But God spoke through Jeremiah, to the people of Israel and now to us. God called Jeremiah. God used Jeremiah.
None of us are Jeremiah, thank God. But God also calls us and uses us in much the same way — by giving us words to speak. By putting words in our mouth. Not the pure Word of God — none of us can speak that Word, our words always get mixed up with God’s. But God uses us by putting words in our mouth that speak of God’s kindness. Of God’s presence with us in Jesus Christ. God uses us by putting words in our mouths that reflect God’s grace and mercy. Words that warn of danger, and tell of God’s justice. Words that reflect the tender love of God, even when God isn’t mentioned. Those words may be parental words. They may be romantic words. They may be religious words or political words. They may be technical words, words that help us solve problems or ease suffering. They may be scientific words, poetic words, short words and long words, English words or Russian words, G rated words and R rated words, on rare occasions they may even be acronyms. God gives us words no matter who we are, what career we’ve chosen, how educated (or not) we may be, how old or young, rich or poor. Sometimes the words God gives us may not even be words we speak, but words that are communicated through smiles, eyes and touch. Not all the words we speak are put in our mouth by God, not by a longshot. I shudder when I think of the ratio of Cheryl words to God words that come out of my mouth, especially in sermons. But we can increase the chances that we’ll speak at least some of those words if we listen: through prayer, silence, worship, reading the Bible, listening to one another, learning about the world around us. And the more we speak the words that God is trying to put in our mouths, the more God can use us The more we’ll be following our vocation.
Because our Christian vocation is more basic than a career we may have the privilege to choose, or a job we may enjoy, or a even a ministry that suits us. Our vocation is to speak the words that God puts in our mouth, to do the work that God puts in our hands, and to sing the songs that God puts in our hearts. And those words and works and songs are given to us every day — no matter what we decided to be when we grew up, or if we’re still deciding. God doesn’t wait for us to choose a major. God doesn’t work only through professionals. What we become when we grow up may help us to speak and sing and work for the glory of God, but we don’t need to “be” anything to answer God’s call. For God gives us words (and works and songs) every day as disciples of Christ, as members of Christ’s body: words (and songs and works) so that we may pluck up what needs plucking, and plant what needs planting. For God formed each us in the womb and has consecrated us for the holy task of showing forth God’s love. In the words of the psalmist who offers this prayer: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, Oh God, my rock and my redeemer.”
|8/7/16 - Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not) by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:14am|
|8/7/16 - Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not)|
Summit Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016
Luke 12: 32-40
Kingdom’s Coming (Ready or Not)
Our scripture this week continues the theme of our relationship to money and possessions in light of the Kingdom of God. It’s a big subject, and I’d like to enter into it by talking about one of my possessions. Now, preacher’s aren’t supposed to use sermons to process their personal stuff. We’re told not to reveal Too Much Information as it can distract from the gospel message. I’m ignoring that good advice this morning. You’re going to have to listen to the story of my car. Or rather (sadly) my two cars.
As you know, until I came to Philadelphia eight years ago I lived in New York City and was a happy user of the subway, bus and train. Although I had a license, I never drove or owned a car. But I knew I’d want one in Philadelphia. It has a great bus system, but as a pastor I’d need to get around to lots of different places quickly. A few weeks before I moved I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a little white car parked at the curb with a sign in the window: Prius for Sale. Call Owner. I had already decided I wasn’t going to get a Prius. I didn’t like their funny shape. I didn’t like the dashboard that looked like a spaceship. I knew it was a responsible choice, but they were expensive and intimidating and had a pretentious air about them. But this car didn’t look like a Prius. It looked like a Corolla. It had a conventional looking dashboard and a couple of NYC dings on the front. It was very cute. It turns out the early Prii — (P-R-I-I that’s the official plural of Prius, in case you missed the Prius Goes Plural Voting Campaign of 2011) - the early Prii looked like Corollas. So I called the owner and after weeks of deliberation I bought it. I didn’t even look at another. The owner— a massage therapist, peace activist, and spiritual but not religious person who had a Buddha on the dashboard — had taken meticulous care of it. Every service record was in a folder. She was also a kind-hearted soul who drove it to Philadelphia for me, since I was afraid to do so.
I grew to love that car. I grew to love driving. I was proud of my 2002 Prius. It took me a long time to learn the routine of filling up the gas tank because I didn’t have to do it very often. I hoped to drive it for a long time. But that was not to be. About six weeks ago the Master Warning Light starting coming on. You know, the one that says take it to A Toyota Dealer Right Now or You May Die. So I took it into Conicelli, and was told I’d need a new Hybrid battery for $3,000. I was ready to do it, figuring it could last another 100,000 miles, but then they opened the trunk to get at it and found a disaster. The trunk was wet. Mold was growing and ants had invaded. The rubber gasket that lines the cover had dried up and gotten dislodged. Rain had gotten in. And since Prii electronics are all in the trunk it was a goner. Even the insurance company declared it “totaled,” calling it an Act of Nature.
My poor baby! I was surprised at the intensity of my grief. It wasn’t just that I had to shell out more money for a new car. I had become attached. I identified with it: environmentally responsible! Smart yet unpretentious. Rare and special - you don’t see to many First Generation Prii on the road. Just the right size. Or so I like to think of myself. When I went to the Conicelli parking lot to clean it out, and sat in the front seat, practically in tears, emptying the change drawer and collecting the 15 pens in the glove box along with an ossified chocolate chip cookie, I wondered if I had become too attached. I had put a lot of treasure into the car, and my heart with it. Didn’t Jesus warn against that? Didn’t he say to sell possessions and give alms? To make purses for ourselves in heaven, where thieves do not break in, nor moths consume, nor rainstorms destroy. To complicate matters — for someone who claimed to love their car, I hadn’t taken great care of it. I had it serviced regularly, but the interior was a mess, and there were a few ominous spots of rust. Truth be told, I knew something was wrong for a while. But not wanting to spend money or time I had ignored that funny smell and gone into denial. So I also felt a wave of regret, even guilt, as I bade farewell to my Beloved, on the way to the scrapyard, to be dismembered and crushed before its time.
And then I had to get another — with the daily rental car fee piling up, there was no time to waste. Of course no other car could compare to my first, and the fear of buying a lemon nearly paralyzed me. But I settled on a 2005 Prius with 73,000 miles, also with a single meticulous owner and a spotless service record. It’s not the same. It’s silver and has that funny shape. It has that annoying new key system where you press a button to turn on the car. But as I prepared to drive away, and surveyed the spotless interior; as I adjusted the mirrors, figured out the lights and gave the windshield a wash, I felt ready. Ready to drive to home. Ready to drive to church. Ready to drive to the hospital for some pastoral visits, ready to drive to the Presbytery meeting at Church on the Mall, ready to drive to my Mother’s house, ready to give my neighbor a lift to the store, ready to go to a friend’s house for dinner. Ready to drive to a voter registration center to see if I could volunteer. Ready to drive to State College for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light meeting in October. In short — ready, I hoped, for the Kingdom. Not the second coming of Christ, where the King will sit on the throne, sorting the sheep from the goats, with my woebegone Prius I standing to condemn me (and believe me, she’s the least of my worries!). I may never be ready for that. But ready for the Kingdom at hand, the kingdom of love, and justice and peace on earth. The kingdom that we’re invited to enter by giving generously to neighbors in need. The kingdom where we care for one another, in sickness and in health, in times of joy and grief and loneliness. The kingdom where we build homes for those without and all children have loving parents. The kingdom where we march or walk for a living wage, or climate action, or racial justice or a cure for breast cancer. The kingdom where we worship God. The kingdom where we eat joyfully together, inviting children and strangers to the table. That kingdom that may seem to be in peril, threatened by evil or indifference, but whose ultimate victory is assured. The kingdom where Christ greets us, at unexpected times and places, through unexpected people. So keep your lamps lit, your engines tuned and your gas tanks filled, said Jesus, for you do not know when the master will be coming. And blessed are all who are ready.
As twenty-first century Christians living in North America, practicing discipleship with our possessions and money is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face. The temptation is great to put too much of our treasure and too much of our heart into things and bank accounts. We’re constantly told that the more we have the safer we are; that our wealth reflects our worth; that our “lifestyle” says something significant about who we are. Although this is not true for everyone, as a nation we share very little of our money beyond taxes — even Christians give only a few percent of their disposable income, mostly to churches and colleges. So when Jesus says sell your possessions and give alms, when Jesus says be rich towards God and make yourself purses in heaven, he’s speaking to us.
But that doesn’t mean to give away all our possessions and all our money. Very few Christians have taught that — not even monks and nuns and Mennonites. For money and possessions are also blessings. Blessings that keep us in good health, that provide shelter and strength and a measure of security. Blessings that give us leisure for learning and even fun so we can be refreshed for the work of Christ. Blessings that can help us be ready for the Kingdom. Ready to work for peace and justice and to love our neighbors near and far.
So that’s the challenge: finding the sweet spot, the right relationship to our money and stuff. And so I covet your prayers for me and my Prius. That I may receive it with thanksgiving, appreciating all who built it and the metals that were mined from the earth to make it. That I may care for it, keeping it in good form, ready to help me in service to the kingdom and keeping it out of a landfill as long as possible. But also that I save my love for God and neighbor. That I don’t confuse the Prius with myself, so I’m ready to sell it and give alms when I no longer need it. That I — that all of us — may trust in God and not in our stuff, remembering the words of Jesus: “Do not be Afraid.”
|7/10/16 - No Excuses by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:12am|
|7/10/16 - No Excuses|
Summit Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:8-14; Luke 10: 25-37
The parable we call the Good Samaritan is so compelling we usually dive right in and overlook the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that prompted it. But that’s what I want to focus on today. Luke says that the lawyer — a scholar of religious law - stood up to test Jesus. He asked a question that any good rabbi ought to be able to answer: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus turns the question back to him and asks what’s written in the law. The man combines verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he gave the right answer. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.
Everyone could have gone home happy at this point, but the lawyer doesn’t stop there. He asks, “who is my neighbor?” Now that was a legitimate question. In a world with so many people - family, friends, foes and peoples across the sea; in a world with so many languages and customs, religions and boundaries (a world like our own) surely he wasn’t required to love everyone like himself.
It’s a legitimate question — but. The lawyer wasn’t an earnest student seeking wisdom, or an inquiring mind wanting to know. Luke says he asked the question because he wanted to “justify” himself. Perhaps he hoped to trap Jesus, to show himself to be the better scholar. Who doesn’t want to be the smartest one in the room? Or maybe he wanted to reassure himself that he was a good and righteous person, that he was already loving everyone he needed to love. Perhaps he was overwhelmed — finding it hard enough to love his wife and kids and the folks next door, and the people in his synagogue and the beggar who wandered into town. He may have been looking for permission to just draw a smaller circle. He could have had any one of these ordinary motives. We know what it’s like to want to justify ourselves. We’re always looking for excuses.
But, Jesus doesn’t give him what he wants - or seems to want. Instead, he tells a story. A parable that implies his neighbor may be someone who’s not of his tribe, or religion, or city; someone he may think of as an enemy, “Lesser” in some way: less human, less righteous. The story also suggests his neighbor could be someone he’s afraid of — a man on the street who’s been in a fight, and maybe even have started it. Someone who looks like they’ll need money and who knows where that will end. In short, it may be someone he doesn't want to love. Jesus also points out that being a neighbor demands action: the Samaritan went out of his way, delayed his trip for days, touched the man, bandaged wounds, gave money and even came back later. So it’s a hard commandment, one few of us could say we follow fully or consistently. But although Jesus challenges the lawyer he doesn’t shame him: indeed, he gives him the chance to answer the question, to show that he gets it. And then Jesus simply says go and do likewise. The road to eternal life lies before you. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
This week has shown that in this world we’re a long way from loving our neighbors as ourselves; it’s been a week of heartbreak, tension, fear. The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castillo were two more needless deaths, more evidence that many police see and treat African Americans differently, especially African American males; that racism is still a strong and destructive force in this country, that we need to keep saying Black Lives Matter - because too often they’re treated like they don’t. And then there were the deaths of the five police in Dallas, an example of anger turning to hate, when the shooter no longer saw the humanity of the police; here we have to affirm to that Blue Lives Matter, that all deaths matter. But we didn’t need the events of this week to know that racism still has a tenacious hold in this country. We didn’t need these deaths to know that we’re far from being a beloved community of loving neighbors. Why can’t we get this right?
There are many reasons, of course. Racism is an institutional evil with deep historical roots and shows itself in complex ways. But today that lawyer haunts me. He seemed to be asking one question - who is my neighbor? - but was really concerned with another: how can I justify myself? Now, in this upcoming sermon illustration I’m going to be talking about white people. I’ll be speaking broadly. I know it may not apply to all white people; and maybe other folks will find it applies to them in different situations. But here it is: too often we seem to be asking one question: how can I combat racism, for example — when really we’re concerned with another: how can I prove, to myself and others, that I’m not racist? How can I justify myself in this unjust system? And then the gymnastics begins. So just as the lawyer was looking for a definition of “neighbor” that would allow him to feel good about himself and right with God, we look for a definition of racism that allows us to feel OK about ourselves — and we may not realize that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we define it as a feeling of hate or contempt, and can honestly say that doesn’t apply to us. Or we point to the police, or to certain politicians with orange hair, or to people in less enlightened neighborhoods than Mt. Airy as the problem. Or we look for other reasons for the hardships that African Americans face and find that class, too many guns, a low minimum wage, all play a role, which is true, but rather than letting those factors deepen our understanding, we use them to pivot from race, thereby defining racism as something less central than it is. We step back, we close our ears — even when we think we’re listening — we move on to other matters, we don’t read and study like we could. And so we do not love our neighbor as ourself, and things don’t change, or change enough. Because change needs every one of us.
But this is the good news of Jesus Christ, for all people: we don’t need to justify ourselves. We’re all sacred children of the most high, beloved in God’s sight. We don’t need to prove that we’re good people, or righteous Christians — our worth lies in simply being created in God’s image. Yes, God wants us to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbor as ourself. God wants us to listen to the commandments placed in our hearts, to follow the teachings of Jesus. But when we don’t — when we stray — Jesus offers us grace. We can repent - or our racism, our greed, or addictions or whatever else we need to turn from — and find our way back. In the words of Ta’Nehisi Coates, who I am paraphrasing, we don’t need to be obsessed with the politics of self-exoneration. We can lay that burden down. Which will be a relief to everyone.
And then, listening to others, we can face the truth of racism, in ourselves and our nation and our world, and see what we can do to help. We - all of us together - can end it. The secret is not on Pluto that we need to send a spaceship; the answers are not 10,000 leagues under the sea, that we need to send down submersibles. The answers are in the Word that God has placed on our hearts, in our thinking and learning and listening; in our willingness to make changes. Some of us will need to let go of privileges; others fears. We’ll disagree on what exactly needs to be done — that’s politics. And of course racism isn’t the only challenge we all face — it isn’t the only obstacle to life. But it’s a big one. And although in the short term such change may feel like a loss, even a threat, in the long run we’ll all be blessed.
|7/3/16 - Reading Round the World by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:11am|
|7/3/16 - Reading Round the World|
Summit Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20; Isaiah 66:10-14
Reading Round the World
Several years ago, for an Earth Day Service, we invited everyone to bring a picture of a place they loved where they felt connected to God. We pinned the photographs on a board, and I remember pictures of purple mountains and woodlands and ocean beaches and coastlines. My favorite was a picture of Don White tending his garden, especially since I think it also came with some zucchini. I wasn’t here for Reinhart’s sermon last week, but I understand he also talked about encountering God in the beauty of the natural world. God speaks to us, thrills us, comforts us and grants us peace through God’s creation. For many of us, places of natural beauty are the place where we feel the divine presence most intensely. God comes to us through such places.
In our scripture today, Isaiah speaks of God coming to the people through a different kind of place: a city. The holy city of Jerusalem, also called Zion. Jerusalem was the site of the temple, the center of the small nation of Israel, home of the Jewish people; Jerusalem represented the people and the country. Our reading comes at the very end of the book of Isaiah. It was written about 500 years before Jesus was born. Persia had just conquered Jerusalem, which was actually good news. Sixty years earlier Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon, and in their pacification policy Babylon had sent Jerusalem’s leaders, the educated of the city, to other parts of the Empire. Those 60 years are known as the Babylonian Exile, or the Babylonian Captivity. You may know the line from Psalm 137, where where it says By the rivers of Babylon we wept when we remembered Zion. But when the up and coming empire of Persia took Jerusalem, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return. It was a time of rejoicing. Isaiah praised Cyrus, calling him an instrument of God. But even with this change in fortune, all was not well. The dreams of return were not matched by reality. The city was still in ruins, the temple gone. There were tensions between the returning exiles and those who remained. The people were still poor, hungry, and struggling. They were still under the yoke of an Empire, even if was a more benevolent one. So it’s in this difficult time, when the people are exhausted, that God speaks a word of hope through Isaiah.
God tells all who love Jerusalem to rejoice with her for they will be nursed and satisfied from her consoling breast. They will drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. They will be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. Like a mother comforts her child, says God, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. Prosperity will be extended to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream. You and Jerusalem will flourish. The Jerusalem that the exiles loved and longed for. The Jerusalem for whom the people sang hymns. The Jerusalem that was then still suffering. But, indeed, things did get better, at least for a while. Israel was never again independent, except for a brief period: first the Greeks came, and then the Romans. But the temple was rebuilt. The people enjoyed a measure peace. God’s promises were not completely fulfilled — we’re still waiting — but the people were comforted and nourished.
A simple, straightforward reading of this passage - and much of Isaiah — suggests that God favors Jerusalem above other places, and the people of Israel over other peoples. After all, it says the wealth of other nations will flow to it . . . . . and also fortells destruction of Israel’s enemies. But if we read deeper in the Bible, before and after this passage, it gets more complicated. God also promises to draw people from other nations to God’s Holy Mountain; and from the beginning God said other nations would be blessed through Israel. God is also understood, in Isaiah, to have permitted if not commissioned the destruction of Jerusalem, as punishment for unfaithfulness and injustice among her people — so being from Israel didn’t give anyone a pass. We might be tempted to portray God as a patriot of Zion, but God refuses. And then in Luke, Jesus sends out the 70 apostles to gentiles as well as Jews. After he has risen, he will tell the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations — and the Holy Spirit will send the apostles to the ends of the earth. It’s part of God’s plan to bring the Word, including these words from Isaiah, to all peoples and all nations. So how do we understand this scripture, knowing that it’s being read around the world?
Our tendency is to think that since God is speaking to us, too, and Jerusalem is also symbolic, we can substitute the “United States” for Jerusalem, and to think of God promising peace and prosperity and comfort to us through our country, and to our city. I think that’s fair: God does promise to all God’s people, including us, comfort and joy. But the temptation is to then think that God is speaking these words only to us, and that God favors this country like we do. But French Christians are also reading this word, and likely replacing, “France” or “Paris” for Jerusalem. Congolese Christians are reading these words and probably substituting, “Kinshasa” or the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” for Jerusalem. Venezuelan Christians are surely thinking of “Caracas” and Venezuela” when hearing these promises. And in all of these nations it’s not just Christians, it’s not just the native born, who love their country and their cities. God promises in time, the comfort of a mother’s breast, prosperity and joy for all who love their cities, and their countries, but who are looking at ruins, fearful of bombs, worshipping in secret, exhausted from hunger. In Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Baghdad, Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Brussels, Dhaka, Damascus.
God comes to us where we live, where our feet are planted, and also where we roam or where we have fled. God comes to us in specific times and places, and promises the restoration of places that we love, not necessarily as they were before — the Jerusalem of King David was gone — but as places where we may know joy and receive comfort. God comes to us in the cities and countries that we’ve built, where we work and worship and live. So we can love our city, and our country. As long as we remember that others love their cities and their countries, and that God makes promises of comfort and hope to them, too. If God calls us to work and pray for the well-being of all cities and countries and peoples of this world. For we’re bound together, like it or not: through the global economy, through the threat of climate change, nuclear war, and terror; through social media; through the church, and through other world-wide faiths. Most important, we’re bound together through the love of God. We know God through the grace of Jesus Christ, but we can trust that God works in many ways to bring love and comfort and joy to all who love their countries, and their cities around the world.
This is my prayer, O God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for their land and for mine. Lloyd Stone, 1921 (adapted)
|6/19/16 - No More of This! by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:10am|
|6/19/16 - No More of This!|
Summit Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016
Luke 6:27-36; 22: 47-53
No More of This!
Last Sunday, the night after the Orlando shootings, the musical “Hamilton” won eleven Tony awards. Now some of you know my secret: that I stopped listening to musicals when I became an adult. Until Alvina Ransaw did an intervention a couple of years ago I had never even heard - to my knowledge - any songs from Phantom or Les Mis or the Lion King. But after seeing a clip of the opening from Hamilton, I ordered the Original Broadway Soundtrack. To say I’m obsessed is putting it too strongly - captivated is a better word. For those of you who haven’t heard, Hamilton’s a musical about Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, founder of the national bank, chief staff aide to George Washington during the war, defender of the constitution. I’m not going to tell his story, but the play is based on a popular but respected biography and for musical, there’s not much poetic license. The history is fairly conventional: it’s about those white men we call the founding fathers. It’s sympathetic to them and their cause. Women are included - they have great songs — but they’re secondary; Africans and slavery get only passing if pointed references. What makes it different from a high school history class is that it’s told primarily by African American and Latino actors; the music is mostly hip hop. It’s powerful to see the telling of history turned upside down. For until recently, it was white men who told other people’s stories — at least the official versions — or chose not to tell them. And the play is brilliant, and brainy, and heartbreaking and the music is totally convincing — you can really imagine Thomas Jefferson rapping at a cabinet meeting.
When I listened to it for the first time what struck me most was how gun violence was so central to Hamilton’s story, and to the story of our country from the very beginning. I’m not just talking about the violence of slavery at the point of a gun. Or about the violence of a revolutionary war fought with guns. Or about the violence that comes from using guns to take territory from people with less lethal weapons. I’m talking about the personal I’m going to shoot you because you disrespected me kind of gun violence that we may think of as more contemporary - or urban to use code. I’m talking about the gun violence of angry men trying to preserve their honor. Of angry men taking revenge or trying to be heroes. For Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. He was killed by Aaron Burr, the vice-president of the United States at the time, who was never prosecuted for the crime, although his reputation and career suffered. Burr and Hamilton were long-time personal and political foes. They had insulted each other many times, until Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and he accepted. Historians aren’t clear on exactly what happened, but Burr shot Hamilton dead. And this duel was not an isolated incident; Hamilton’s 19 year old son was killed in a duel, defending his father’s honor. Hamilton and Burr had both participated in other duels, although they had not shot before. Now, I learned in the number “Ten Dual Commandments” that there was a protocol for duels. You sent your second, also called your lieutenant into negotiations and most disputes ended without anyone being shot. But the negotiations were done under the threat of the gun. Because nasty and vehement political debates, and they were even nastier back then - — weren’t enough. Because bitter, hard fought battles for President or Governor couldn’t just end when the winner was declared. Honor demanded satisfaction. Satisfaction demanded violence. Not from everyone all the time, but enough to establish that those wealthy white men who wore funny wigs and frilly shirts could shoot to kill. And they did.
Some folks think of those early years as the time we were a truly Christian nation. And in some ways, perhaps, we were. But this model of honor is very un-Christlike. Gun violence — or sword violence - is very un-Christlike. When we look at Jesus in all four gospels he never throws a stone, or draws a sword, or even throws a punch. His words could be harsh towards his opponents, even insulting— at least as his followers remembered them. But he never gets in a duel, he never defends his honor or demands satisfaction. Instead, he heals. He heals people of sickness and expels their demons. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. He welcomes outsiders and eats with those who are shunned, tax collectors and sinners. He feeds the hungry, he speaks with women. He has words of foreboding about God’s judgement, but he never calls his followers to violence: He tells them to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to visit those in prison, and to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty. And when he’s betrayed — when a so-called friend delivers him to the enemy with a kiss, he doesn’t try and defend his life or his honor. His followers are ready to do so — they ask can they please take up their swords — but he says no. And when one of them takes his up anyway, and slices off the ear of a servant of the High Priest, Jesus says, “No more of this!” and touches his ear and heals him. Jesus didn’t seek martyrdom, but he also refused to answer violence with violence, or terror with terror. He loved his enemies, he didn’t shoot them.
It’s a week since the shooting in Orlando, and the pain of those who were hurt, the grief of the family and friends of those who were killed, is still raw and intense. Many of us are still reeling. There are so many layers of evil to the crime. Many places where we may look for cause and lay blame. There’s the hateful rhetoric and the destructive violence of ISIS that Omar Mateen adopted, even though it seems he had no concrete connection with any terror group. There are the conditions that gave birth to ISIS, which are very complex with many responsible parties. There’s the internet culture, where people can immerse themselves in all kinds of hateful propaganda and fantasy worlds, without the reality check that comes when you’re interacting face to face. There’s homophobia and the denigration of women: two closely connected, cross-cultural, cross-faith phenomena. American life and church teaching still has plenty of both, especially in certain quarters. There’s the idea, taught explicitly and primarily to boys but girls also pick up on it — that brandishing a gun is honorable and satisfying. Many fantasies grow out of this idea. There’s the fantasy of being a hero, defending women and children against the next crazed gunman who walks into a classroom, or a theatre or a nightclub. There’s the fantasy of defending one’s honor, of defending one’s manhood by answering an insult with a shot. There’s the fantasy of taking out those evil Christians or Americans or Muslims or women or gays or Latinos that you’ve learned are responsible for all that’s wrong in the world and all that’s wrong in your life. We don’t know much about Omar Matteen, we may never understand his motivations, but we do know he was angry and troubled since childhood and it was easy for him to get his gun.
Now, you may be thinking, wait a second, is Cheryl comparing the Burr-Hamilton duel with the Orlando mass shooting? — and I guess I am. Of course they’re different. Neither Burr nor Hamilton went out shooting scores of people they didn’t know. They didn’t abuse their wives, they weren’t frustrated out of control loners, and they also didn’t have access to AK-15s, because machine guns hadn’t been invented. They both did much good in life, especially Hamilton. But there is a common thread. A thread which I believe underlies not only the gun violence we see in this country, but a reluctance among so many folks to put any restrictions on anyone obtaining any kind of gun. It’s idolatry of guns. It’s idolatry of violence and it can take ahold of even peaceable people who would never place the first shot.
As Christians, we have to say, “No More of This!” “No More of This!” We need to let go of our national romance with guns which keeps us from passing even the mildest legislation to regulate them. We need to live honorably without turning honor into something that must be defended to the death — usually someone else’s death. We need to point to the one who asked God to forgive those who hung him on the cross, rather than plotting his revenge at the final judgement. We need to look to the one who invited to dinner those who were shunned — tax collectors and so-called sinners - but who ate with Pharisees, too. We need to look to the one who touched to heal and to serve — never to hurt.
It’s not easy. Jesus said it would be hard when he spoke in his sermon on the plain, telling his followers to love their enemies, to bless those who curse them, to pray for those who abuse them. It’s hard because we want to hurt those who hurt us, we don’t want to love them or pray for them. It’s also hard because although Jesus said pray for those who abuse you he wants no one to be abused, so we have to learn to love without accepting harm to us or giving in. In Hamilton one of the refrains is “winning is easy, governing’s harder.” Also, “dying is easy, living is harder.” We could also add “shooting is easy, healing’s harder.” and “hating is easy, loving is harder.” Hard but not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is impossible when we believe and trust in the love of Christ. When we trust in that love we don’t need honor from others. We can rest in the knowledge that we are loved and honored by the one who came for us and the whole world. The one who died for us, the one who rose for us, and the one who prays for us, now and forevermore.
|5/22/16 - Live into Hope by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:08am|
|5/22/16 - Live into Hope|
Summit Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2016
Live Into Hope
This passage states the core beliefs of our faith in one short, packed paragraph. One: we’re justified — which is another way of saying accepted, or saved — through faith rather than through the things we do. God tells us how to live, but we don’t earn God’s love through moral perfection. We don’t need to be always seeking God’s approval or fearing God’s anger. Two: we have this peace with God through Jesus Christ, who offers the grace, or forgiveness, in which we stand. Jesus Christ who suffered and died, but who also forgave those who persecuted him and rose from the dead. Three: we have hope in sharing in the glory of God, in God’s kingdom of peace, love and joy, that is now at hand and one day will be complete. In the meantime, God pours love into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace, faith, hope, and love . . . . through God, Christ and Holy Spirit. The perfect scripture for Trinity Sunday.
But I’m not going to preach on the Trinity — I hope that’s OK with you. (I know some of you wait all year with bated for Trinity Sunday — and for my illuminating sermons on the three in one and one in three!) So I’m not going to preach on the Trinity but I’m going to talk about the most beautiful but also the most dangerous sentence of this scripture. “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . . and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given us.”
It’s a long sentence. It goes from suffering to hope and it leads to a troubling question: — is Paul saying that suffering is a good thing? Something we should seek and boast about because it’s character building? The New International Version, translates it as “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (A different translation doesn’t always help). There’s a stream of Christian tradition and theology that has sought martyrdom and suffering. That’s seen it as a spiritual discipline, even as occasion for boasting or rejoicing. I’m thinking of monks in the Middle Ages who practiced mortification of the flesh by whipping themselves or wearing hair shirts. Worse, the idea that suffering is redemptive has sometimes been taught to people who are suffering as a way to keep them submissive — as when abused women or slaves or the poor have been counseled to “bear their cross” with a promise of heaven to console them. Now, it’s true that God works through suffering, and that we often learn perseverance and build character through it. But Paul’s words are dangerous when they’re used to support injustice, or to accept unnecessary suffering in ourselves or in the world. Jesus opposed both.
But that’s not what these words mean. Paul’s describing how hope is born. That it’s born in suffering and endurance. We may be optimistic without suffering, but optimism is different. To be optimistic is to see a bright future, to look at the glass half full rather than half empty, to believe things are going to work out. Some of us are blessed with a more optimistic temperament than others, but we all find it easier to be optimistic when things are going well. When there’s evidence to support a positive outlook. Hope is what we have when the evidence supports a negative outlook. Hope is born when things are going badly, when we’re suffering or weak or discouraged but still believe things can be different.
Let’s take, as an example, our children. I’m using the first person plural just like Paul, but when I say “our” children I don’t just mean children that we’ve birthed or raised, but nieces and nephews, students, friends — our collective children. We can be optimistic when they’re doing well. Bringing home good report cards. In good health, having fun on the soccer field, bringing home friends, being polite at the dinner table. We have reason to believe their futures will be happy. They’re happy, we’re happy — it’s wonderful when we can be optimistic. But often it’s not like that with children. At least not all of the time. They bring home bad report cards and the principal calls us. They don’t seem to have friends, they withdrawal to their room and spend too much time on the computer, they complain of stomach aches. They start talking back or slamming doors or waking up with nightmares. They may turn to alcohol or drugs, or find other kinds of trouble, ending up in jail or on the street or dangerously depressed. They suffer. We suffer. We have to endure as we learn we don’t have control. But it’s in that suffering we also can receive the gift of hope. The hope that despite evidence to the contrary, despite all the hurt — change and new life is possible. For our children, and for us. We may have to change expectations — they may never have the life that we dreamed for them when they were infants. But we can hope that ultimately, all will be well because of God’s loving care. That hope is a gift. It comes from the love that’s been poured out to us through the the Holy Spirit. The love which sustains us and helps us to keep loving children in trouble. Not necessarily by doing what they want— often love means saying “no.” So we can rejoice, and proclaim if not boast, that in suffering we have hope, hope in the God who raised Christ from the dead.
Or, to step back and think globally, take the issue of climate change. The time for optimism is past: a relaxed and untroubled cheerfulness about the future is no longer reality-based. The signs are that we’re still moving too slowly to avoid catastrophe. We may take heart from the Paris agreement, but that’s only a beginning, and it’s far from certain the nations will follow through. In our Congress the chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is still harassing scientists. We may soon have a President who snidely tweets about it and denies it for political gain. The suffering has already begun: record breaking temperatures and drought in India and wildfires in Canada are only this month’s news. But as Christians we can dare to hope that hearts and minds will change. Hope that we can turn from wasteful ways and fossil fuels and build a new energy future. We’ll need perseverance and character — but Paul assures us our hope will not disappoint because it’s based on the love of God. Love that is poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hope based on the peace we have with God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s reality based.
It may not seem that way to others. And we have to admit that the story of Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, rising from the dead after three days in the tomb may sound like fantasy. But if we live in hope we’ll be making that hope real, for ourselves and others. By loving our children and other people’s children. By working for a more just world. By caring for all creation. By trusting in the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by proclaiming that peace to all.
|5/15/16 Pentecost: Students of the Spirit by Donna Williams on Aug 12, 8:07am|
|5/15/16 Pentecost: Students of the Spirit|
Summit Presbyterian Church
Acts 2: 1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-26
May 15, 2016 (Pentecost)
Students of the Spirit
At our last “conversations on race” meeting on Wednesday, inspired by the film, we talked a bit about the American history we learned in school. Our experience differed depending on how old we were and where we went to school. But those of us who spoke felt we weren’t taught the truth, or taught enough of it, when it came to slavery, racism, the African American experience. College was better, but even now, much is left out or distorted in what young people learn about our collective history. Now, historians tell us there’s no such thing as “pure” history, no single truth about the past. History reflects the understanding and interests of those who teach and write it — which is true, and why we need to expand the circle of historians and always re-examine what we think we know. But we can’t deny it: the history most of us learned underplayed the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination in the North. It understated the achievements of Reconstruction and African Americans, left out the stories of many peoples or told them in simplistic ways: women, native Americans, Asian Americans. Those stories are being told more and more, but even when we seek them out we don’t necessarily explore what they mean for the present. Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: we haven’t reckoned with the truth that the past is not even past.
There are many reasons for this. Sometimes they’re economic. The film explored how theories of race were developed to justify slavery and the removal of American Indians from the land. It’s not that white scientists or anthropologists said I’m going to make up a theory to justify slavery: but they asked questions that would give them the answers they expected and wanted. There’s nothing like greed, or fear of not having enough to keep people from facing the truth. Grappling with truth, especially an inconvenient truth — and most truth is inconvenient for somebody - also means change. Change is hard. Learning and facing truth takes work: listening, studying, observing - and we don’t always know for sure where truth lies. It brings conflict. Not only in presidential debates, but among family, friends, and congregations. It’s no wonder that the world cannot receive it — and that world often includes us.
After our discussion Wednesday, I remembered a time when I taught second and third grade, about 20 years ago. I taught in a progressive, teacher college-affiliated elementary school, with largely white, middle and upper middle class students. It was Black History Month — or maybe the Martin Luther, King Jr. holiday. We had been learning about the Montgomery bus boycott — a developmentally appropriate topic, as all second and third graders care passionately about where they sit on a bus. I gave a homework assignment to be discussed in class the next day. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased the question, but it was something like: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus because she knew it was unfair. Is there something in the world today that you think is unfair? (use at least four sentences and don’t forget to capitalize the first word in each sentence). I took care to phrase it in a neutral way. I told them it could be about anything they thought was unfair. . . I was trepidatious. I expected several of them to bring up an intimate experience of racism and economic injustice: The fact that their caregivers - their nannies — and the caregivers of their friends and neighbors were almost always black, and they were white. Their caregivers were almost always less well off than them. Their caregiver’s children probably didn’t see their mothers as much as my students saw them, as the children often lived far away, in Barbados or the Bahamas. I wondered what my students would say, and how I would handle the discussion. I wasn’t going to deny that it was unfair: 500 years after Columbus arrived on San Salvador island, a combination of racism, imperialism, sexism, etc. had led to this state of affairs. At the same time, I wanted to honor the relationships that the caregivers and the children had, with deep love often going in both directions. I wanted to affirm that caring for children was important, skilled and even joyful work — not something that anyone who had a choice would avoid. I wanted to respect the decisions of all parties given the constraints of our world. It felt very complicated and very fraught. I wondered if I should give the assignment: but I thought, if after discussing the Montgomery Bus Boycott we couldn’t ask such a straightforward question, what was the point?
And sure enough, a few children did write about it. Children are observant and honest. I have no memory of the discussion itself, except that I tried to listen and it also included issues like the unfairness of losing choice time if you talked too much in the hallway. I may have done more harm than good with the assignment. If I were to do it again I would have prayed and consulted more beforehand. (Have I said - recently - that pastoring is easier than teaching?) Truly: discerning truth, hearing it, teaching it, is no easy thing.
So it’s no accident that when Jesus says the Father will send the disciples an Advocate to be with them forever, he calls it the Spirit of Truth. He promises that they will know this Holy Spirit; that it will abide in them. This Spirit will teach them everything, and remind them of all that Jesus has said to them.
Today we give thanks for that Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that abides not only in those first disciples, but in all who love Jesus and seek to follow him. The Spirit of truth which reminds us of all that Jesus said. This Spirit of Truth guided the gospel writers. This Spirit of truth that helps us understand what Jesus’s words mean for us, not only in our personal lives but as the church today — it’s not always evident. Even though this Spirit abides in us, we don’t always understand it, or listen. But when we do, it brings us to Christ because it’s the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ who teaches us the way we should go and who also gives us peace. Not the peace of silence in the face of injustice. Not the peace that comes from avoiding conflict or change by going along with the majority opinion. Not the peace that comes from a life of ease: Jesus never promised discipleship would be easy. But it’s the peace grounded in the love and grace of God. The peace that offers forgiveness and new life time and again. The peace that assures us of our sacred worth in the eyes of God. The peace that tells us all will be well, as the world is being redeemed. The peace that we can rely on even in the midst of change or conflict that comes with truth telling. The peace we can rely on when learn that the things we thought to be true, knew to be true may not be so. The peace that gives us courage to seek truth and teach it, even when our hearts are afraid. For, as Jesus also said, “the truth will set you free.”