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|6/4/17 - For the Common Good by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:21pm|
|6/4/17 - For the Common Good|
For the Common Good
The tower of Babel is a puzzling story. In a way it’s like other ancient myths, a kind of “just so story” that explains why people are scattered across the earth, speaking different languages. In the Biblical story, it helps move humankind from from the Garden where Adam and Eve and the snake talked with each other under the tree - - to the many languages and civilizations of the ancient world. But theologically, it’s hard to defend or explain. Why did God confuse their language and interrupt their city-building project? They were doing so well! Some folks say it’s because their project was too grand, they were trying to be God-like in building a tower to the heavens. Others have detected an anti-urban bias in the writers; throughout history, cities have been considered hotbeds of evil by those who don’t live in them. Others say that God saw a rival in a united humanity: “this is only they beginning of what they will do,” God says — “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
I have my own theory, a kind of midrash, a story from the story. It’a based on a poignant detail in the text that I noticed for the first time this week. Those busy beavers in the land of Shinar were messing around with bitumen — a fossil fuel. Bitumen is a hydrocarbon, viscous and black, 83% carbon, 10 % hydrogen with smaller amounts oxygen and other elements. (That’s my google factoid for the week. You know I always try and give you one!). It’s a thick kind of petroleum, the product of very long dead plants. The United People of Shinar were using bitumen as mortar, as they built their tower of bricks fired in ovens. It was clever of them, for bitumen is very good at keeping water out of towers, something we know at Summit is extremely important. They hadn’t yet discovered the use of bitumen — or related hydrocarbons - as fuels, but surely God knew it was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before those humans figured out how to dig up the dead on a massive scale, drilling and mining fossils that had cooked underneath mud and water and stone for hundreds of millions of years, turning into oil and gas and coal even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Surely God knew it was only a matter of time before human beings learned how to unleash the massive energy and also the massive danger held by those fossils. So when those humans on the plain of Shinar started messing with bitumen, perhaps God slowed them down in an act of wisdom and mercy. To give them time and space in order to gain knowledge, wisdom, spiritual and moral maturity. So God confused their language. Rather than one there were now many languages, each with its own beauty and precision. God led them throughout the world so they could build civilizations and cultures of all kinds, each with their own ingenious inventions, sculptures and paintings and music, writings and food and philosophy. God also showed God’s self to them in many and various ways: speaking through the heavens, with the firmament proclaiming God’s handiwork; giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai; sending Jesus the Son to live among them, to die and rise from the dead; revealing the Qu’ran to Muhammed; and more. Over time, these scattered peoples came together, in ways both violent and peaceful, constructive and destructive. They learned each other’s languages and discovered new ones to share. The most important new language they learned was a way of investigating the universe: Observing. Developing an hypothesis about the way things worked. Testing the hypothesis with experiments. Repeating those experiments, sharing the results, asking for criticism, refining the theories, building on common knowledge. This way of learning - called science - proved to be very powerful, and when humans began to dig up the coal in earnest and discovered oil and gas and applied the science it was only the beginning of what humans could do. Indeed it seemed that nothing they proposed was impossible for them! Flying through the air. Diving to the bottom of the sea. Going to the moon. Finding cures for all kinds of diseases. Speaking and looking at each other even when they were were separated by vast oceans. Making life long and comfortable for billions of people who now finally had enough to eat. The marriage of fossil fuels and science didn’t bring blessings only: their power was used for evil as well as good, as people continued to kill, enslave and oppress one another. But truly, human beings had made a name for themselves.
But the same method of investigation that had unleashed the power of those fossils began to warn of danger. After many, many observations, experiments and computer models, scientists around the world agreed: burning all those fossils was warming the earth. The release of all that long buried carbon and methane was changing the climate. Melting the ice at the poles and on the mountains. Raising sea levels. Bringing longer droughts, heavier rains, wilder storms, higher floods, stronger heat waves. Changing the chemistry of the ocean, killing life within it. Changing the timing of the seasons, bringing plants and animals to the edge of extinction. They warned of ecological collapse, of famine and floods and chaos that would threaten all cultures and civilizations, indeed, human life on earth. Scientists could only make well educated guesses as to how and how soon such collapse would come. But nearly all agreed that if humans kept burning those fossil fuels unchecked, catastrophe was coming. Not many days from now.
And so, after many delays, aborted meetings and lots of squabbling, the scientists and leaders of all the nations of the earth came together. Like those long-ago folks on the plain of Shinar, they gathered for common project. This time they were in Paris, creating an agreement that would lead the world away from fossil fuels. An agreement to unleash the power of wind and sun, water and atoms. Every nation came up with their own plan. All commitments were voluntary. Most everyone agreed that the plans weren’t strong enough, that more would need to be done to avoid catastrophe, but it was a start. Every nation under heaven signed except two: Syria, who was engulfed in civil war; and Nicaragua, who wanted to go on record as saying it wasn’t strong enough. The peoples of the world (along with lots of translators) came together in a common cause and hope.
But then a new leader of one of those nations, the nation that had released more carbon and methane in the air the any other nation; the richest nation in the world who had benefited the most from the blessings of fossil fuels; the most heavily armed nation in history; the one whose voluntary plan to turn from fossil fuels was really quite modest and would even be good for the economy; the leader of that nation said, “it’s not fair.” And he withdrew that nation from the common project.
So here we are. In middle of the story - or maybe near the end, we don’t yet know. It’s not yet clear if God’s delaying tactic at Babel was enough. If we’ve been able to accumulate enough common wisdom and spiritual maturity and courage to do what needs to be done, with or without the President of the United States and his partners in congress. But the story of Babel, and my creative expansion of it, are not the only stories we have this morning. We also have the story of Pentecost, when people from every nation under heaven were gathered, and the power of the Holy Spirit led them to hear and understand all that the disciples prophesied. The miracle, the blessing, wasn’t just linguistic. I wasn’t just that they could all hear in their own language or speak in a different one. The miracle of Pentecost is that they all could hear and understand what the Spirit was saying. We don’t have the exact words of the Apostles in Acts 2:1-11. But we know the good news they proclaimed. We’ve heard it and seen it and been transformed by it: that Christ offers the repentance that leads to life: that God forgives our sin, allowing us to let go of the guilt and shame that keeps us from doing the right thing. That Jesus rose from the dead, showing that nothing is impossible with God, that torture and death and military might do not have the last word. That the Holy Spirit is at work among all peoples, putting no nation first and no nation last. This is the good news that we hear on Pentecost.
And because of that good news, we have hope. We have hope — indeed confidence - that the world can turn away from fossil fuels and harness the power of the sun and the wind; we have have the technology and if we propose it together it will not be impossible. We have hope - indeed, confidence — that we can come together across divisions of nation and language and religion and class to care for creation and build a more just and peaceful world. We have hope, even confidence, that we can lose our lifestyle — what is wasteful and excessive in it - in order to gain life. We have hope because the Holy Spirit is among us, with a power and energy even greater than all the power locked up in fossil fuels or in atoms.
So, to work. Beginning with our baptismal vow to renounce evil and it’s power in the world. Coming together for the common good in ways large and small: voting, calling our senators, marching peacefully in the streets, turning off the lights and adjusting our thermostats and making do with less. Gathering together with our differences and across divisions so we may work for the common good in our common home. Inspired by the power and the love of the Holy Spirit.
|5/14/17 - Holy Skill Set by Donna Williams on Sep 4, 4:18pm|
|5/14/17 - Holy Skill Set|
Holy Skill Set
The day after tomorrow, at 6:00 in the morning, election-day volunteers will enter the Summit gym and begin setting up for the municipal primaries. They’ll put out the tables and the voting machines, and donuts in the kitchen. It’s an important primary, the race for District Attorney being the most heated, with seven candidates in the democratic field. I’m not going to endorse anyone from the pulpit -just in case you’re getting nervous. I’d be tempted, but I’m still undecided! For months people have been talking and posting about the candidates. Who has the right vision for the D.A’s office? Who has the best position and ideas, on issues such as civil forfeiture, cash bail and the death penalty? Who has the experience to be effective and follow through on campaign promises? Who’s the most ethical, given that we’re having this election while the current DA is under indictment? Who’s been endorsed by who, who’s gotten money from who, and what does it matter? Good questions, important questions. Questions we need to wrestle with as we try and figure out who to vote for. Very different questions, however, then the ones asked by that early church in what we might call the first congregational election.
To step back for a minute: since the day of Pentecost, the number of disciples has been growing exponentially, with hundreds, even thousands of people being baptized in short order. That may seem like good news — doesn’t everyone like church growth? — and it was good news, but there’s nothing like a growing church to generate conflict. New people with new ideas coming in. Different interpretations of God’s Word. Arguments about what needs to change and what should stay the same. Anxiety about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Systems that used to work perfectly well no longer working and people getting irritated. Much of Acts is about the conflicts that arose in a rapidly growing church, and this is the first big one. The Hellenists — Greek speaking Jewish Christians — are complaining that the Hebrews - Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians — are neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of food. We don’t have the full story, but it seems to be a fairly straightforward problem of an “old” system not being able to keep up with new demand, with some group favoritism or suspicion possibly throw in. The twelve disciples identify the problem as a shortage of workers. So they call together the whole community, and ask them to chose seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, that they can appoint to the task. Everyone thinks this is a good idea - please note the Risen Christ is working a miracle here — and the congregation chooses seven people. The apostles pray and lay hands on them, and as far as we know, the Hellenist widows and the Hebrew widows were all cared for from that time on. And the number of disciples continued to increase.
So the problem is solved, the conflict resolved, even though - as far as we know - none of the seven had food pantry experience. None of them were asked about their qualifications - if they could cook, read a budget, or if they had a driver’s license. None of them were asked to explain their vision for the food program — or their position on the nature of the resurrection or the meaning of the cross. No one lobbied to be chosen, or greased any palms. They were chosen for three reasons (in addition, we must acknowledge, to being men): they were in good standing, meaning the people trusted them; they were filled with the Spirit; and they were filled with wisdom. That doesn’t mean they were especially smart or innately spiritual. It means their ears were attentive to wisdom, their hearts inclined to understanding. It means they opened themselves to the Holy Spirit and presumably showed forth its fruits — fruits such as love, joy, peace, gentleness. For the in Bible, the Spirit and Wisdom come from God. And if the church was to be the church it had to be guided by the Spirit and the wisdom of God. That’s what mattered. The practical skills of food distribution could be learned.
Today, when a church-wide nominating committee thinks about who might serve as a church officer, it’s perfectly appropriate to think about particular gifts and talents. It’s helpful to have people on the Trustees with an understanding of accounting and plumbing. It’s good to have folks on the Session with experience in Christian Education or personnel and an understanding of theology. Deacons need people who know how to listen and who have organizational skills. But all of those qualifications are secondary. They’re not necessary. What’s necessary is for the church leadership, and the church as a whole, to have people full of the Spirit and wisdom. People who incline their ears and hearts to God. People who pray, and who seek God’s word. People who are open to the Holy Spirit and show forth its fruits. People who understand that the church is the church of Christ, and our calling is to follow Christ — not just to do what pleases us or even what seems right.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. It’s easy to confuse our will with God’s will, especially when we’re anxious. It’s easy to let practical concerns obscure our purpose and calling as Christ’s church. And Jesus understands that we’ll stray, we’ll be distracted, we just won’t get it much of the time. But if we seek the Spirit and wisdom of God, if that’s our prayer, both here at Summit and in the church universal — we’ll be the church of Christ. Folks will be fed and the Word will be served. Justice will be done and peace proclaimed.
I’d like to close with a few words about MK. At our Session meeting, during the joys and concerns that we share before our closing prayer, an Elder offered thanksgiving for the ministry of MK among us. That began a little conversation about MK’s gifts for ministry, which might have burned her ears, since she wasn’t there. She “has the goods” as one person put it. She relates to people of all ages, said another. We’ve seen her eloquence and growth in preaching, her creativity in worship, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s a darn good cook and a fabulous fundraiser. But really, what qualifies MK for leadership in the church, whether or not she’s ever ordained as a minister, whether or not she’s ever hired as staff somewhere, is her attentiveness to the Wisdom of God and her openness to the Spirit. It’s her love and faithfulness, her joy and gentleness. So we give thanks for her time with us, as we remember the calling that we all share, whether or not we’re ordained and whether or not we even serve on a committee. It’s the calling to follow the Spirit. For we’re all called and we’re all qualified to be disciples. No experience necessary.
|4/30/17 - Promises to our Children by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:24pm|
|4/30/17 - Promises to our Children|
Promises to our Children
When Alysia and I were looking at dates to have the children baptized, I didn’t know that on April 30th, Acts 2: 36-42 would be the lectionary reading. You’ll recognize it as the scripture we always quote at baptisms, so that makes it easier than usual for me to connect the sacrament with the scripture. Which is what you're supposed to do. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives the preacher a break!
Before I read the passage, I want to set the scene. It takes place after the Risen Christ has appeared to the disciples and also after he has ascended into heaven. According to Luke, before ascending Jesus told the apostles they’d receive the Holy Spirit not many days later, and sure enough, 50 days after Easter morning, the Spirit arrived. On that day Jews from all nations were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival. There were gathered together when suddenly the Spirit came upon the disciples, resting on them like tongues of fire. The disciples began speaking of Jesus, and all who were there heard them speaking in their own language. (We celebrate that event on Pentecost, May this year). Peter then gave a sermon proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ. Our scripture today opens at the very end of that sermon. Listen for the word of God.
[Scripture reading, Acts 2:14a, 36-42]
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, describes her baptism as an infant in her book, “The Preaching Life.” Her mother was southern Methodist and her father Roman Catholic, so her parents presented her to the “pre-Vatican II” Catholic Church as an infant. Taylor says, “that medieval event proved so traumatic for them that we did not attend church for the next seven years and neither of my younger sisters was baptized until she was an adult. My mother’s explanation is simple: “The priest took you out of my arms, going on and on about your sinfulness, my sinfulness, everybody’s sinfulness, and I thought, ‘This is all wrong.’ You were the best thing I had ever done in my life, and I could not wait to get you out of there.’
That 1950s baptism — or at least what Barbara Brown Taylor’s mother memory of it, and Catholic practice has changed — represents what is both mystifying and disturbing to many people about baptism, especially the baptism of children. If baptism is about washing away sins, how does “sin” even apply to an infant, who can’t yet know right from wrong let alone make a confession of faith? And how is it that baptized people are among the world’s greatest sinners?
What we’re doing in baptism - or rather, what God is doing - is not self-evident. Most of us are at least a bit mystified by it. And although what happens in baptism will always be beyond our full comprehension, I thought it might be helpful to go into teaching mode today and talk about the different meanings of baptism. I’m drawing from the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” published by the World Council of Churches, a council that represents hundreds of Christian traditions, including our own. (Faith and Order Paper No. 11, 1982).
1. We believe that in baptism - in a mystical way— we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean we’re living his life or crucified with him, or suffering has he did. But we believe that through baptism the “old Adam,” or “old self” is crucified and buried. That the power of sin is broken and we’re liberated from guilt or old patterns that keep us captive. It doesn’t mean we no longer sin — wouldn’t that be nice — but that when we do, we’re always given another chance to turn to Christ and start again. We’re always invited into new life — into resurrection. That new life may be reflected in relationships, sobriety, a new commitment to work or ministry, or through the lifting of depression or grief. Now you may well ask “what does that have to do with infants? And the key is in our scripture, when Peter says: “The promise is for you and your children . . .” Baptism is not just what happens at the font. It begins but it doesn’t end there. It’s a promise. A promise that the grace of Christ will always be offered to us and to our children, as they grow year by year, in love and we hope in faith.
2. Baptism means “confession of sin and conversion of heart, a pardon and cleansing.” In our scripture today, it says the people were cut to the heart and Peter called them to repent and be baptized. When an adult is baptized, they renounce sin and turn to Christ; Infants can’t do that. But baptism is also a promise; so it’s our hope that if we nurture them in the church, that as they are able, they will also renounce evil and it’s power in the world and turn to Jesus to help them do the right thing.
3. Baptism is about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Spirit is at work in our lives before, in and after baptism - it works where it will. But we might think of Baptism as the “first installment” of our inheritance as God’s children, no matter what our age. With it, we receive the promise that the Spirit will nurture our life and faith, and our children’s faith and life until that final deliverance when we enter into the Spirit’s full possession — which is why we say at funerals that a person’s baptism is now complete.
4. Baptism is incorporation into the body of Christ. A sign and seal of our common discipleship. We believe that in baptism we’re brought into union with the church of every time and place. That even though we’re of many denominations, doctrines, languages, and politics, we belong to the one holy catholic (meaning universal) and apostolic (meaning handed down through the witness of the apostles) church. And even though Zion can’t yet vote or become a deacon, — although watch out for that Church Nominating Committee — Zion is every bit a member of the church as a serving Elder who’s been here for decades. There’s no junior membership in the body of Christ.
5. Finally, It’s a sign of the Kingdom of God and the life of world to come. That even in us, old sinful us, through the gifts of the Spirit, God’s reign of peace and love can be seen — and that may be even more evident in the baptism of children.
So — participating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ; conversion, pardon and cleansing; the gift of the Holy Spirit, incorporation in to the body of Christ, a sign of the Kingdom. All of this happens at the font, but it’s also a promise for our whole lives and the lives of our children. That promise asks for a response: adults make it before baptism. With children, it’s made on their behalf but it’s our hope that when Zion and Ahkiria and Ahmir are older, they will respond to this gift with the affirmation of faith that their parents have made on their behalf today.
I thought I’d to end with a reflection on my baptism, which I hope will help you to reflect on yours. My father was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and I was baptized at St. Michael’s Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church in Yonkers, NY. The Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church is part of the Roman Catholic church, but its worship, its “rite,” is closer to Greek Orthodox. I was baptized at 3 weeks old and I did not step into St. Michael’s again until the death of my uncle, 15 years ago. Although I had been baptized at St. Michael’s in deference to my paternal grandmother, my mother had been raised in various Protestant churches so I grew up in the Episcopalian church. The funeral at St. Michael’s was something: it was a beautiful church with icons and painted screens at the altar. A chorus of elderly Ukrainian women sung and chanted throughout the long service. We were all invited to process up the aisle and kiss a crucifix held out by the priest - which I did. I learned from my mother that my father hated these Greek Ukrainian Catholic funerals. Like many first generation Americans he wanted to get away from his parent’s culture, he wanted to get away from his troubled family. He used to tell my mother “Please bury me in Scarsdale Presbyterian” —Scarsdale Presbyterian being as far away from that elderly Ukrainian Chorus and kissing a cross as he could imagine. (We buried him at Grace Episcopal in Hastings on Hudson which wasn’t quite Scarsdale Presbyterian* but close enough). But as I was sitting at the funeral I understood those words we often say, “remember your baptism and be thankful.” I was grateful I had begun my Christian journey in the church of my forbears, so different than the Presbyterian one to which I now belonged but also not so different, being the holy, catholic apostolic church. Gratitude that God had called me through my parents to life in Christ. Gratitude that the Spirit has been with me since my baptism at that font, to an adult profession of faith and even ordination. Grateful that I had been taught to trust in the love of Christ as a child, and that Christ continues to offer new life to me — and to all of us. So, — I invite you to also remember your baptism and to be thankful. [Silence ending in prayer].
*Scarsdale Presbyterian does not actually exist!
|4/23/17 - Fully Human? by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:21pm|
|4/23/17 - Fully Human?|
In Creation as well as in the miracle of Jesus in Earth, we experience a conflation of humility and honor. We accept this somehow, just knowing that God is in all of us and we are in God, and knowing that Christ lived and died and came back to life, and we fear that if we question it too closely it will all fall apart. Like grasping a handful of sand - if we leave our hands open it's fine, but if we try to hold on too tightly it will sift through our fingers.
But the miracle of God's experience on earth, through us and through Jesus, can stand up to the increased scrutiny.
As humans, we face a lot of strife. We face the worst, almost every day.
When our ways are blocked, we find new ones. We take what we learned, salvage the good things and flood the rest of our world with tears of rage and frustration and grief, mourning what should have been, and then we extend an olive branch and build new things using what is left over from last time.
Sometimes when we rise, it is unexpected, unfathomable. In the gospel lesson, Jesus shows up uninvited to dinner with someone who thought he was dead, someone who wanted a miracle, who prayed for one, but who couldn't actually fathom one.
So when Thomas needs a little more proof, of course Christ, who is fully human, grants him access to his wounds. "Here I am, friend. My emptiness is yours. My pain is fresh, but I trust you."
A Christ who is fully human tells his best friend Mary first. "It's ok, I'm here, don't be afraid." When she passes on the message, the guys - who never liked her anyway - demand proof. Her word has never been good enough - she is a woman after all, and a prostitute at that - they've got to hear it from a "real source." So Jesus shows up and proves her right. Millennia of patriarchal norms and fragile masculinity later, women still need to work extra hard to be heard by male colleagues. Women of color, sex workers, LGBTQ women all face these gatekeepers even more - just watch Hidden Figures again to see that it's still real.
A Christ who is fully human knows that people don’t always believe other people. The disciples do not believe Mary, and Thomas does not believe the other disciples. Christ knows, as only someone who is fully human can know, the weight of doubt. Thomas needs to touch Christ’s hands and sides to be sure that it is his friend who is back - not a mirage, not a craigslist scammer, not a dream, but the actual man.
And Jesus will prove his own resurrection to those who need it. He will show up to dinner when we doubt our friends, and he will let us touch him when even his face is not enough. For everyone else, we believe it when our friends tell us the good news, that He is risen! But when we doubt, when we need to touch it or poke at it, the resurrection does not fall apart. It is not a mirage in the desert, it is the gospel truth.
For centuries a quest for the historical Jesus has been various degrees of fruitless. One of my textbooks flat out addressed this search as a thinly-veiled attempt to create God in our own image instead of the other way around. We crave proof - that even if we buy the whole Big Bang thing, Creation must still have happened in the way it’s depicted in the poetry of Genesis. Even if we know that the darkness that covered the whole land when Jesus died was probably a solar eclipse, we still need that bit to have occurred. What we have with this familiar story of the doubters, Thomas and the other disciples, is evidence that Jesus came back even for those of us
Jesus in Resurrection HAS to be fully God. Conceived by Mary and the Holy Spirit, sure, sure. But agreeing to a painful, embarrassing death, and then saying “no, no, I’m going back” - that is Godlike. When we are humiliated, embarrassed, hung on metaphorical crosses for our friends and families to see us in our human ugliness, we do everything we have to stay hidden after it’s done. To return in three days, to say “I forgive you for pretending you didn’t know me,” to return to the life that betrayed you, that takes heavenly courage.
Traditionally, Christ’s humanity is found in the ways he serves others. He performs acts so menial they might be considered gross - I, for one, will never ever voluntarily wash someone else’s feet. And his godliness is found in the ways he breaks free from that messiness - such as, of course, defying death.
But what if what we understand as Christ’s human side - his servile nature - is the fully God aspect? God washes the dust off our feet and also flips over tables of injustice. And what we understand as godliness is actually his human side? Christ feeds his friends the way we do here every Tuesday at Elder Diner.
And what could be more human than surviving trauma?
Over and over again, humans prove that they can survive pretty much anything as long as we work together. What God learned in God’s stint on earth was not how to die - but how to return to life , even when life is what killed God in the first place.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this we know. But Jesus is also a paradox. So also, I think, are we. We come back from the dead, face our fears, and go right on feeding our friends. And if we can’t return to a particular source of trauma? That’s also perfectly fine. Resurrection does not mean going back to the way things were, but being able to live with what is left over, and making that, too, Good.
I hope you all find in yourselves that paradox of existence that was in Jesus - the love and the truth, the bravery and the fear, the human and the God. It is ok to doubt, to need proof, to see for yourself the beauty and the pain which surrounds you. God is big enough for all of this. For every one of us, bending our knees and singing our praises and passing the peace of Christ that exists inside us to each other.
Amen. The Lord is risen indeed!
|4/16/17 - No Longer Alone by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:12pm|
|4/16/17 - No Longer Alone|
No Longer Alone
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone. According to John, she didn’t come with any of the other women: Joanna, Salome, the other Mary. She didn’t come with any of the men: Peter or John or James. Maybe she needed to be alone. Grief can be like that. It can require solitude, getting away from other people, no matter how loving or sympathetic. Or maybe grief had isolated her - it can do that, too - and she didn’t have the wherewithal to ask anyone to join her. Or perhaps her friends declined to come, scared by the intensity of her pain and her desire to go while it was still dark. For whatever reason, Mary came to the tomb alone.
She saw the stone had been removed. This was not news that she could keep to herself, although at this point she thought it was bad news - a stolen body not a raised one. She ran to Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. The two men then set out: together at first but then the other disciple outrunning Peter, their feet pounding the ground separately, no words between them, with the other disciple reaching the tomb first. He waited for Peter but when he arrived they didn’t go in together: Peter went in first, and saw the linen wrappings lying there. Then the other disciple also went in. John said he “believed”; but we don’t know what he believed, as no words were exchanged and John said they did not yet understand the scriptures. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Homes, plural. Peter to his. The other disciple to his. Perhaps they needed solitude or perhaps they were driven to it, isolated from each other by the unsettling mystery of that empty tomb.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Alone. And then it all happened quickly: peering into the tomb and seeing the angels. Seeing but not recognizing Jesus in the garden, until he called her name. She held onto him, or started to. Jesus asked her not to so he could ascend to “your God and my God” but then gave her clear instructions: go back to the other disciples and to tell them what you’ve seen and heard. Which she did. We don’t know how the news spread to the different homes, but by evening the disciples were gathered together. They were still fearful, but then the Risen Christ entered the room and said, “Peace be with you.” He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. It was just like Jesus had told them it would be when they ate their last supper with him — their weeping turned to joy. It was at this moment, according to John, that the church was born. In the Garden of Eden, when God made Adam, God said, “it is not good for this one to be alone.” In this new garden, Jesus saw it was not good for the disciples to be alone. As the risen Christ, he gathered them back together.
It’s Easter Sunday, two thousand years later, and people are gathered together in churches around the world. More people come on Easter Sunday than any other Sunday, for different reasons, all of them good — and if you think you’re just here for the Easter Egg Hunt, the Holy Spirit can work through ulterior motives. You may be here because you’re an active member of Summit or another congregation, and this is one Sunday you wouldn’t miss. Or perhaps you don’t usually come to church - you pray and read the Bible on your own - but today you’re here to be with family. You may be a neighbor who came for the music. You may have seen the sign outside and were curious. Or you may be wondering if there’s something here for you to believe. When I was an agnostic in my 20s I used to go to church on Easter morning and silently challenge the preacher to make a persuasive argument, or give some convincing proof, that would allow me to believe in the resurrection. I never heard such a sermon (I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never given one) And because I didn’t believe, I didn’t feel right coming back the next Sunday. At least not for many years. Perhaps you’re in that same position.
So I invite you to come back, no matter what you do or don’t believe. Come back because it’s not good to be alone. Come back for the community. At his last supper with the disciples, Jesus said “I give you a new commandment - that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” We hope you’ll find love here. As we pray together, lifting up our struggles and joys. As we study scripture together, seeking God’s guidance for our lives and sharing doubts and questions. As we visit one another in the hospital, comfort one another in a time of loss, eat together at Elder Diner, teach each other’s children, laugh together at coffee hour. We hope that you will find love as we serve others, hosting those who are experiencing homelessness or collecting food for those who don’t have enough. As we march together for justice and peace. Please don’t let your reservations about the Apostles Creed or your questions about what “actually” happened at the Resurrection to get in the way of coming back. Let the love come first, and belief may follow. Because ultimately what we’re called to believe is not every line in the Apostles Creed or the Westminster Confession or that the resurrection happened exactly as John or any other gospel writer described it 2,000 years ago — which would be hard, since they don’t agree. Where called to believe that the Risen Christ is with us, through the Holy Spirit. That we’re not alone. In the church, in the world, and in the universe.
And it’s faith in the Risen Christ makes church different. Because - full disclosure - to the naked eye the church may look an awful lot like another other place where folks gather. There’s the same stuff you find everywhere: gossip, politics. Money worries and arguments, broken pipes to fix, burnt pots at church dinners, misunderstandings and hurts. [I can see Summit members breathing a sigh of relief — it would have been awfully hard to live up to the idyllic picture I just painted). On the positive side, other human communities also share love and do good. But in the church we confess that it’s not all up to us. We rely on the Risen Christ to guide us, through scriptures and the Holy Spirit. We confess that it’s in Risen Christ we find the courage to forgive one another - as we’ve been forgiven. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find strength care for one another. That it’s in the Risen Christ we find the hope and courage to face the most challenging and despair-inducing problems of our day: racism, climate change, war and terror. Indeed, we even rely on the Risen Christ for faith itself, which is a gift, not something we gain by willpower. So, as Jesus said when he first encountered potential disciples, “Come, Taste and See.” And let the Spirit work.
And when you come we hope and pray that you’ll not only find love, but joy. The joy of Mary and the disciples when Christ appeared to them, showing that death does not have the last word. The joy we know in worship and singing, especially this glorious Easter morning with the trumpet and bells and the Hallelujah chorus. The joy that comes even in the face of death, in the midst of terrible grief, when we hear and trust in the promises of eternal life. Now it’s true that even for the most faithful among us have dry periods, times of wandering in the desert, times of grief or depression. And that’s why it’s good we’re not alone. We are the church, and together we can encourage each other: Christ is Risen! Death did not and will not have the final word. Weeping will turn to joy. Jesus has not left us orphaned. Christ is Risen! Hallelujah, Amen.
|4/9/17 - Inaugural Crowds by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:11pm|
|4/9/17 - Inaugural Crowds|
The size of a crowd is notoriously hard to measure. In the modern method of crowd counting — which dates to the 1960s and a professor named Herbert Jacobs - you know I can’t resist sharing factoids I discover on the internet — in the modern method of crowd counting, you use geometry and arithmetic. You measure the area where the crowd is standing, divide it into grids, estimate the density of the crowd — is it 9 square feet per person, or 4?, and multiply. These days serious crowd counters use digital cameras on weather balloons. They count heads in blown-up photographs, they take pictures at different angles and investigate on the ground. But crowds move. People are hidden by trees. They clump together in funny ways. You don’t know who you’re missing and who you’re counting twice. At best, you can give a numerical range and rule out the most unrealistic claims.
But it’s not just the math and the logistics that make counting crowds difficult. It’s the passion. It’s the vested interest people have in the numbers. In a democracy, crowd size matters: so protestors usually claim there are more people at a march than official estimates. Speakers speaking from the speaking platform almost always think more people are listening to them then disinterested observers believe. (Kind of like preachers speaking from pulpits). Egos make it hard to count crowds.
Matthew says crowds followed Jesus nearly everywhere; both in Jerusalem and in the countryside. To hear him teach. To be healed. Matthew doesn’t try and count them, with the exception of the time when Jesus fed the crowd with with just a few loaves and fishes. Matthew says Jesus fed five thousand men that day - besides women and children, because in the ancient method of crowd counting you didn’t count women and children. In this procession that inaugurates the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem, Matthew says only that a VERY LARGE crowd went ahead and followed behind, laying out cloaks and branches. We don’t have any corroborating non-gospel accounts, so it could have been what we’d call a modest parade or it could have been a massive demonstration. Matthew claims the whole city was in turmoil.
But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in the size of his crowds. Not in this one as he enters Jerusalem, or in Galilee. He never boasted about the numbers. On occasion he even tried to withdraw from the crowds, but since he had compassion on them he would return to heal and teach. When Jesus entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, he acted alone; he didn’t encourage or incite the crowd to follow him in this act of political theatre. (Which is why, perhaps, the temple police didn’t confront him — the temple complex was so big they may not have known about it). The chief priests and scribes were disturbed by the folks surrounding Jesus — not by their numbers, but by who they were. The blind and the lame who were being cured. The little children who were calling him Son of David. We can understand their concern about children — we worry that leaders will manipulate young people into following them — but Jesus wasn’t encouraging or using them. He quotes scripture, pointing out that children also praise God. According to Matthew — and other gospel writers - Jesus didn’t court, manipulate, or incite the crowds. He wasn’t a crowd counter.
Jesus had his eyes and heart and mind set elsewhere. He knew where he was headed, and in the meantime he had work to do. In that last week he taught day and night inside and outside the temple, telling his most provocative parables and giving his most difficult instructions. He warned of the coming judgement. He emphasized the importance of the greatest commandment, loving God and neighbor. His final parable is the one where the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations, separating the sheep from the goats, saying that whoever gave a drink of water or cared for one of the least of these these also did so to him — and those who refused refused him as well. He told parables about those who would be left behind or cast into darkness in the coming age: tenants of the vineyard, foolish bridesmaids who forgot oil for their lamps; the slave who hid his talents in the ground; those who weren’t properly dressed for the wedding banquet. He denounced scribes and Pharisees, he argued about paying taxes to Rome, he lamented over Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of the temple. In other words, he didn’t give uplifting sermons. He didn’t give crowd-pleasing speeches. Jesus didn’t calculate his words, or keep silent to avoid trouble. He spoke as the Spirit moved him. He spoke the truth, hard as it was for people to hear. Indeed, Matthew claims that at the end the crowds turned against him. Now it must be said that sometimes our interpretations of his words have been tragically off the mark, teaching contempt for the Jews or even inciting violence. But that wasn’t the intent of Jesus: he’s calling his disciples, including us, to love. Not just the easy love for like-minded folks of our own clan that love us back. We can all get behind that. But to a more demanding love. A love that’s always ready for the coming of God and for the neighbor who may be sick or hungry, lonely or in prison. A love that chooses non-violence, even at risk to one’s self — as Jesus chose when he was arrested, telling his followers to put away their swords. A love which forgives others, as Jesus forgave those who betrayed and deserted him. A love which gives truthful testimony, as Jesus did before the Roman governor who ordered his death. A love which is triumphant over death, but that is also acquainted with suffering and grief. A love that puts serving God above pleasing the crowds. A love like the one that Jesus showed for the world.
It’s not easy for us to love that way. We prefer a crowd-pleasing love, even when we’re followers, not leaders. We prefer a love that skips over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and goes straight to Easter. We prefer a love that doesn’t demand change, in our relationships or in our world. We prefer a love that doesn’t ruffle feathers, a love that avoids conflict. But Jesus invites us into a deeper, risk-taking, love. A love that crosses race and class and other divisions we create. A love that challenges injustice. A love that speaks up for peace when war is much more popular. A love that makes us vulnerable. A love that is unafraid to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a world of fake news. A love where crowds may turn from us or wander away — even if those crowds are only friends or family. But it’s such a love where we find blessings. The blessing of walking with Jesus. The blessing of doing the right thing. The blessing of a world that is more just and compassionate. The blessing of resurrection hope, which comes when we go through grief and loss. May we have the courage and faith to love as Jesus loved. In this week and beyond.
|4/2/17 - "Now, Hard Part" by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:08pm|
|4/2/17 - "Now, Hard Part"|
“Now, Hard Part”
On Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article by Jonathan Lai, in the local section, called “Now, Hard Part.” The subtitle was Sorting Old City bones is daunting. It was about a graveyard that was recently unearthed near Independence Hall. (And before I go further, I’d like to thank the Inquirer for running this article two days before Ezekiel 37 came up in the lectionary. I suspect I’m not the only preacher who’s using it this morning).
A year ago, contractors were digging, getting ready to put up a 25-story apartment building, when they hit bones and gravestones. And not just a few, but many bones and coffins; it’s believed they’re from one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, the Old First Baptist Church burial ground. The bones were supposed to have been moved when the church sold the property in the mid-1800s, but apparently many were left behind. A forensic archeologist, a forensic anthropologist, students and other volunteers have been trying to put the bones together, and they’re finding it hard. Hard part: they can’t tell, for sure, which bones belong with each other. The bones were scattered and fragmented; joints are missing; they’re very fragile. They’re also hard to clean: they’re so dry, some of them, that when they’re touched with a wet brush the outer layer begins peeling off. There’s also the hard part of finding money for storage, supplies, and workers — the project will take years. The researchers would like to find out how many people these bones represent, who they are and what happened to them, but they know that they’ll never fully answer those questions. Most bones will only be known as John or Jane Doe. Which is also a hard part.
In Ezekiel’s vision, bones, very dry bones, are also sorted and put together. A valley full of them. Bones put together so that sinews may be laid on them and breath breathed into them. Ezekiel is the prophet that announces this great coming together, but it’s God who’s the forensic archeologist and it’s God who’s the forensic anthropologist, and for God, this is the easy part. For God knows which bones belong to each another. God knows the story of each and every one who was slain in that valley; God knows what happened and why. God doesn’t need to carefully drybrush each bone. Instead, there’s a noise, and a rattling as the bones come together, bone to bone. Then sinews and flesh and skin come upon them. And then, through Ezekiel, God calls the breath, God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that God breathed into Adam, God calls the breath to enter into each one. And then they stood on their feet — a vast multitude. That was the easy part.
Now, hard part: Ezekiel must prophesy to the living. To the living who say: “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The hard part: cracking open the hearts of a people who are defeated and despairing and divided. The hard part: tearing down resistance to God’s Word among a people who feel they’ve been abandoned by God. The hard part: planting a new Spirit within them, so that they know the Lord has spoken and will act. The hard part: bringing the living out of their graves.
Let’s begin with those graves. Do you know what I”m talking about, for us today? Ezekiel may have spoken these words over 2,000 years ago you know what I’m talking about. There are so many graves we fall into, coffins that trap us. Grief is one of them: the deep grief that comes from the death of a loved one, or from divorce, or from loss of health and the ability to do things we used to do. Our bones can become very dry. Depression is another one — that deep depression where death looks like a friend and all hope is lost. Physical pain can be another, the kind of pain that isolates and makes us feel like we are cut off completely. Debt, that deep hole — money troubles — you can add to the list.
We’re also in danger of falling into a collective grave — one that is being dug by the powerful and relatively powerful of this world. An Indian writer named Amitov Ghosh just wrote a book called, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” In it he asks: given the emergency we’re facing, why are so few people talking about climate change? Why is it nearly absent in works of fiction, in novels including his own - and other kinds of art? He says that when later generations - living, say, when New York City and London have abandoned because of sea level rise, — when later generations look back at our time, on our silence, denial and inaction, they’ll wonder what was with us — our time will be known as the Great Derangement. I haven’t read the book (I’m going to) but I can offer an hypothesis (not an original one) as to why it’s not getting the attention it deserves. It’s too frightening, too overwhelming, too exhausting to even imagine — so before we’ve begun we’re defeated, despairing and divided. We say that our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely — not so different than the first people who listened to the prophesy of Ezekiel.
But listen they did. And they told it to their children and wrote it down, and included it in Holy Scripture. For it was a prophesy that proved trustworthy. God did act, the exiles returned to Jerusalem. Now, the return may not have been exactly what they hoped for or expected: things were not the same, there were conflicts, it was far from perfect. But a new Spirit was planted within them - they rebuilt the temple, back on their own soil. It was a time of rich worship and theological exploration. Now, the returning exiles were not accompanied by hundreds of dead soldiers raised from the battlefield — this was a vision, not an historical event — but it was a vision of God’s power in the most hopeless of situations. A vision of God’s power to bring life out of death. A vision of God’s power that moved and sustained them. A vision of God’s power that would also show itself in the resurrection of Jesus, when the stone was rolled away.
Now, hard part: to trust that vision. To have faith in the power of God to bring us back from our the graves of grief, despair and fear, in our personal and political lives. To open our hearts and lives to the Spirit that God is breathing into us, or trying to breathe into us, if we would stop resisting, so that we may live. The Spirit that assures us of God’s love for each one of us, God’s memory for us, no matter how far our bones may eventually scatter. The Spirit the guides us in the way we should go, and that opens up the scriptures to us. The Spirit that draws us together in love, and grants us joy. The Spirit that gives us the courage to pray without ceasing and to work together in the face of this great emergency: a changing climate in a nuclear armed world. The Spirit that helps us bring about a world of peace and justice, where everyone is able to breathe. It’s hard to trust in that vision — suffering and loss can overwhelm even the most faithful among us. But God promises that we shall live — for although the raising up of the multitude was a vision, it wasn’t a tease. One day, at a time and hour we do not know, in bodies that are different than the ones we have now — we wont’ need our bones — all the world will be redeemed, the living and the dead, in the new creation. In the meantime, we have work to do, love to give, lives to live: for the Lord has spoken and will act. These bones can live.
|3/26/17 - Sites of Revelation by Donna Williams on May 25, 8:05pm|
|3/26/17 - Sites of Revelation|
Sites of Revelation
Two weeks ago, about 10 of us went to a training conducted by a group called Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training. As one of the exercises, they presented a model for thinking about the way societies are organized. They usually have a center where power and wealth and other resources are concentrated. Living in the center are the people considered “normal” (in quotes): needing no explanation, the standard against which others are measured. Those in the center are respected and admired, even by people who have reason to resent them. As you move away from the center, you enter into the borderlands. People who live on the borderlands are not considered “the norm.” They’re often identified by the ways in which the differ from the norm. They don’t have the same power or prestige. (Model based on the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa, esp. Borderlands/La Frontera)
The leaders then asked us to think about who’s in the center and who resides in the borderlands in our society. So we brainstormed at tables and used lots of chart paper and we came up with remarkably similar lists. In the center were white people — in the borderlands were African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics. In the center were men, straight men to be more precise— moving out from the center we find women, gay men and lesbians, transgender and queer folk. In the center: English speakers. “Standard” English speakers. . . . in the borderlands were people who spoke with an accent . . . . or those who didn’t speak English at all. In the center were Christians, with agnostics kind of hard to place, while toward the borders were Jews, Mormons, Hindus, Muslim. In the center? The middle class and wealthy — in the borderlands, those who were working class, the poor, homeless, those on government assistance. In the center were the able-bodied, — in the borderlands those with a disability. In the center college grads — in the borderlands those with less than a high school education. In the center: married couples, one man and one woman, with 2.5 children; moving out— those who were single, divorced, widowed. You get the idea. And as we talked, it was also clear that the real world is complex. Few of us reside only in the center or in the borderlands. We have different identities, with both privileges and disadvantages. Groups move around. The leaders pointed out is that people on the borders will often try to be like people in the center, in order to get those resources and power. But it doesn’t mean that anyone can move there, at least not completely. As an example that the leader gave, you can move from Hawaii to New York, to Chicago, to Washington. You can graduate from Columbia and Harvard and become a law professor. You can play golf and have a wife and two children and two dogs. You can be elected to public office and become leader of the free world — yet be succeeded by someone who gained power by claiming you were born in Kenya. You can be a baptized Christian and commander in chief of the most powerful military in history, and be succeeded by someone who began his political career by claiming you’re a Muslim. The solution — the leaders suggested — was not to get people in the borderlands to become “like” the people in the center. Nor was it to get a different demographic into the center while pushing the old one out. The solution was to change the system, so that all of us, with all our differences, could share in the power and resources now claimed by a relative few, often at the expense of others.
The man who was born blind lived in the borderlands. He had a disability; and in that time and place, that was seen as evidence and punishment for sin, a source of shame, pushing one even further to the edge — and hence the disciples’ question “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Being on the borderlands, he was also not fully seen, a common experience in the borderlands. All those sighted people around him saw only the fact that he was blind, and that he begged. So when he gained his sight - but in no other way was physically changed — they couldn’t even tell if it was him! And when he insisted that it was him they didn’t believe him . . . . not being believed another experience common to those in the borderlands. When the skeptics went to his parents they pointed out that he was of age, go ask him — John chalks that up to fear, but they were simply stating a truth the questioners should have understood. But disability wasn’t the only thing that kept him in the borderlands. He was poor. He was Jewish. He spoke Aramaic not Greek — for Greek is what people in the center spoke (including Romans!). You learned Greek if you wanted to be in the Center. The Pharisees and other religious leaders would have been closer to the center, but were not, caught in the middle, trying to negotiate the survival and well-being of their community under Roman occupation. The Roman rulers were in the center, although if you were a Roman soldier stuck in this colonial outpost you may not have felt like you were in the center. It was a complicated world, just like ours: but from nearly every angle, the man who was born blind lived in the borderlands.
And the works of God were revealed in him. First, in receiving his physical sight through the handiwork of Jesus, another person who would live and die in the borderlands. But, more importantly, through his witness. His clear and courageous witness. He wasn’t intimidated by neighbors who didn’t even believe who he was: “I am the man,” he kept saying. He recounted exactly what Jesus had done for him: neither exaggerating or downplaying. He gently and politely to pushed back, with the Pharisees who questioned him, even though they were well educated and respected religious authorities. When they insisted Jesus must be a sinner for breaking the Sabbath, the man asked, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” When they asked him who he thought Jesus was, he was honest and answered, “a prophet.” This courage, persistence and clarity did not bring a reward. Indeed, it says he was driven out of the synagogue, even further into the borderlands.
And it was there that Jesus found him for a second time, and where he again became a site of revelation. This time the work of faith was revealed in him. When Jesus said it was he who was the Son of Man, the man said, “Lord, I believe.” — the second person to confess “belief” in Jesus, according to John, after the Samaritan woman at the well, another person from the borderlands. For as we see throughout the Bible, God reveals God’s works in those in the borderlands: through this man, through the woman at the well, through the disciples, through Hebrew slaves and exiled prophets. It’s not only in the borderlands that the works of God are revealed: God also works through a Roman centurion - a soldier who commanded 100 others - by healing his servant. God also works through Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses. God is no respecter of the center and the border. God reveals God’s self in a Jewish Rabbi, incarcerated and executed in a backwater of the Roman Empire.
At the Crossroads training, we were encouraged to think about how we might break down structures in the church (and beyond) that uphold the center and keep others on the margins. As Christians, we believe that God has already broken down them down in God’s Kingdom, that those far away have been brought near in the divine economy. Our call is to break down those human barriers and to tear off the veils that keep from seeing, understanding and living into that reality. By truly seeing and listening to one another. By fighting racism and sexism in our hearts in the church and in the world. By welcoming and celebrating all kinds of families. By loving and respecting children and Elders. By making sure that everyone has enough, through just wages and fair taxes, through generous giving and grateful receiving. By removing obstacles to persons with disabilities, and by ensuring everyone has the health care they need. By caring for all of God’s creation so that future generations — which we treat as beyond the border, off the map — may enjoy the abundance of God’s creation. By proclaiming God’s love and the saving grace of Christ for all people, including us, no matter how close or far from the center we may be. For we were all born - in whatever way we were born - so that God’s works may be revealed in us.
|1/15/17 - Showing Up by Donna Williams on Feb 7, 2:59pm|
|1/15/17 - Showing Up|
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for leading non-violent demonstrations against segregation in that city. He spent about a week in jail. During that time, eight white clergymen who claimed to be sympathetic published a statement criticizing his actions in the local paper. So King wrote a response known as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
King was not from Birmingham, and during the civil rights movement, white officials and others would often complain that demonstrators were stirred up by outsiders; people from the north or larger cities. So King began his letter by saying: “I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham.” He explained that he was head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC had affiliates across the south, and the Birmingham affiliate had asked King to be on call if they decided to do non-violent direct action. “So,” King said, “I [along with several members of my staff] am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically,” he continued, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He went on to say that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . . so it was time to give up on the “outside agitator” idea. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman World,” said King, “so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.” Dr. King heard God’s call. He said, “Here I am.” He showed up.
In President Barack Obama’s farewell speech on Wednesday, the heart of his speech was a call for all of us to “show up, dive in, [and] stay at it” as citizens. To be “jealous guardians” of democracy not only during elections, or when our own narrow interests were at stake, but over the span of a lifetime. To not only vote, but to organize, and even run for office. After these exhortations, he moved into that part of a farewell speech where he acknowledged people close to him. He thanked Michelle, and called her his best friend; he told his daughters Sasha and Malia how proud he was to be their father; he thanked Joe Biden for his friendship and his staff for their support. There were tears. The crowd cheered. Obama was demonstrating another way we’re called to show up, dive in, and stay at it: by saying “I am here,” to family, to friends, to others close to us.
Moving to the scripture, the psalmist says, “here I am.” She begins by saying why she’s here: God drew her up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set her feet upon a rock, making her steps secure. God then put a new song in her mouth: a song of praise, a song that proclaims God’s wondrous deeds. Here I am, says the psalmist: I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; I have spoken of your salvation. I have not concealed your steadfast love and faithfulness. God said “I am here,” to the psalmist. She responded by saying “Here I am” to God.
As people of faith, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have heard God say, “I am here.” Each of us has a different story, but we all know something of desolate pits and miry bogs and finally having our feet set upon a rock — for the Lord is our rock and our salvation. Maybe God drew you out of the desolate pit of addiction, or grief or loneliness. Maybe God drew you out of the miry bog of guilt and regret, blessing you with a new start in life that you didn’t feel you deserved. Of course, our stories are not over, and being saved doesn’t mean our troubles are over. In fact, you may feel bogged down in the mire right now. But the words of the psalmist are true — happy are those who make the Lord their trust. For God is a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, even though there may be times when God seems absent and we must wait patiently. God’s wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us are more than can be counted. The heavens tell of the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
And because we have heard God say, “I am here,” we can say “Here I am” to God. By listening for God’s Word with those open ears God has given us. By listening to the law of God written within our hearts; by delighting in God’s will, and doing it as best we can. By singing a new song, proclaiming God’s love and faithfulness in worship and prayer.
We also say “Here I am” by saying “I am Here” to others. To our family: our children, our partners, our parents our sisters and brothers. To our friends and neighbors and all in our congregation. By giving of our time, by sharing our wisdom and treasure and love. And also by proclaiming that God is here: blessing our family and our friendships; rooting for us, offering help in times of grief and wisdom in times of confusion, sustaining the church of Christ, binding us together in love.
We say “Here I am” to God by saying “I am here” to our country and its democracy. By voting and organizing, speaking and listening, marching and writing, maybe even running for office. And also by proclaiming that God is here in our political life. Not blessing our country above others. Not sanctifying one party above another, or calling for the union of church and state. But God is here - seeking to guide us and our elected leaders in paths of peace and righteousness. Seeking to draw us together across all kinds of divisions so we can face the enormous global challenges before us. Giving us hope, and blessing our efforts to live into the kingdom of God.
Finally, we say “Here I am” to God by saying “I am here because injustice is here,” wherever that may be, and let’s face it — wherever we are, there it is. In our cities and our rural counties, where even full time workers do not have enough to get by, children don’t have enough to eat, or people face discrimination, even hate. For, as King pointed out, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. That’s never been more true than in this time of climate change, when the carbon emission from a smokestack anywhere warms the world everywhere, ensuring those who have done the least to cause climate change will suffer the most from it. We also say “I am here” by saying “God is here”: the God who takes thought for the poor and needy, the God who loves justice and asks us to do the same.
Saying “Here I am” is not easy: the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the lives of many other courageous and faithful saints testify to that. But it’s also the path of blessing and joy. For we have a new song to sing, a song that proclaims the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. Let us say, “Here I am,” and tell the glad news of deliverance to the world.
|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.