Monday, November 30, 2009

What Grounds Our Hope?

“What Grounds Our Hope? ‘The Angels’ Point of View,’ a short story by J. B. Phillips”

Sermon for 1st Advent, 11.29.09

Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

Please pray with me: May we take heed and watch; for we do not know when the time will come. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

On a long drive, who doesn’t remember the inevitable question: “Are we there yet?” And the inevitable answer, “Not yet.” Only a few days ago, I flew to Pittsburgh. Of course there were delays and this time it was adults who were asking “how much longer,” followed by a flurry of cell phone activity. This is part of Advent: impatient waiting and urgency in all we do because we must finish all those cards and presents on time.

But it’s not only secular. As the days become shorter and as the cold really sets in, it’s hard to wait for the warmth and wonder of our caroling, of our Christmas Eve service, and of the days that follow, filled with memories and singing, generosity and hope. Once more the airport can provide an analogy: We wait and wait for those connections and finally, if we are blessed, we land where family and friends have also been waiting. And then what celebration, even from dignified grown-ups: hugs, smiles, laughter. If there are children, they may fling themselves at you, with total abandon.

This too is Advent, the longing for the blessing of a savior who comes as a beautiful baby, who is sufficiently like us so that we can believe in his friendship, sufficiently noble, powerful, and humble so that we can depend on his love. What if we ran towards the holy moments of Christmas and the Christ child with the same uncensored trust and love that we receive from the children who love us? What if our joy were so infections that it pulled others along with us? And not just for the celebration of his birth but for all that follows?

There’s even more to Advent. You’ll notice that our Scripture readings this morning don’t tell us about Mary and Joseph or the shepherds or the kings. They come later. Instead the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah won’t let us forget that this world in which we must live is far from perfect. We long for rulers who will execute justice and promote equitable relationships. The Psalmist’s troubles, on the other hand, are personal. He is tortured by memories and longs for a God who will be gracious, who will deliver, who will “remember not” the sins of his youth; a God who will forgive. These writers are looking for the baby who will be born in Bethlehem.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is more complicated, however, because it speaks of the many ways in which Christ comes. How do we respond to the Christ who has already come and who can direct our imperfect ways? Furthermore, Paul reminds his young church in Thessalonica that the risen and ascended Christ will come again. His letter prepares us for the shocking Gospel lesson from Luke that describes universal distress and the shaking of heaven and earth.

Unlike the first Christians and some fundamentalist Christians today, we may not believe that the Second Coming is about to arrive. But it is basic to our faith and a certainty built into every Creed of the Church worth its salt that God has the power to intervene and that Christ’s work is not yet finished. Whether people preach on it or not, the coming of the Son of Man is one of Jesus’ major themes in the Gospels.

We are kidding ourselves, therefore, if we don’t remember that the Church has always understood Advent in at least two ways: God’s gift of mercy in the manger is a wonderful beginning, but it must be balanced by God’s eventual coming in majesty at the end of time. As we rejoice and reflect upon the first so we must reflect and prepare for the second.

There are two important points here: Because everything earthly must come to an end, each new day is precious, not only to each of us as individuals but to us as members of a community that longs to bring God’s kingdom to completion. There is much to do.

That is why it is so important to link the two understandings of Advent: The Lord who will judge is the Jesus whom we have known as a baby and whose teachings we follow. We know he loves us. Continuing to follow him will turn the Day of Judgment—or days of our own tribulations—into times of grace and redemption.

As we begin our Advent journey, it may help to consider “The Angels’ Point of View.” This is the name of a story, written some 50 years ago, by J.B. Phillips, a giant among the translators of the New Testament:

“The Angels’ Point of View” by J.B. Phillips

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of interstellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”

“That,” replied his senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”

“Visited?” said the little one. “You don’t mean visited by ———?”

“Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps over-clean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.” And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

“But how?” queried the younger one. “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”

“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘why’s’, except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them—how else do you suppose could He visit them?”

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”

“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”

The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

“Close your eyes for a moment,” said the senior angel, “and we will go back in what they call Time.”

While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backwards quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.

“Now look!”

And as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.

“Well, what am I seeing now?” queried the little angel.

“You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,” returned his companion. “Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father’s knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.”

“Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?” asked the junior angel rather crossly.

“It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendour have no idea what it is like to live in the dark. We hear the music and the Voice like the sound of many waters every day of our lives, but to them—well, there is much darkness and much noise and much distraction upon the earth. Only a few who are quiet and humble and wise hear His Voice. But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.”

The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe, there appeared a light, tiny but so bright in its intensity that both the angels hid their eyes.

“I think I can guess,” said the little angel in a low voice. “That was the Visit, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them; but in a moment, and you will be able to tell that even with your eyes closed, the light will go out.”

“But why? Could He not bear their darkness and stupidity? Did He have to return here?”

“No, it wasn’t that,” returned the senior angel. His voice was stern and sad. “They failed to recognize Him for Who He was—or at least only a handful knew Him. For the most part they preferred their darkness to His Light, and in the end they killed Him.”

“The fools, the crazy fools! They don’t deserve ———”

“Neither you nor I, nor any other angel, knows why they were so foolish and so wicked. Nor can we say what they deserve or don’t deserve But the fact remains, they killed our Prince of Glory while He was Man amongst them”

“And that I suppose was the end? I see the whole Earth has gone black and dark. All right, I won’t judge them, but surely that is all they could expect?”

“Wait, we are still far from the end of the story of the Visited Planet. Watch now, but be ready to cover your eyes again.”

In utter blackness the earth turned round three times, and then blazed with unbearable radiance a point of light.

What now?” asked the little angel, shielding his eyes.

“They killed Him all right, but He conquered death. The thing most of them dread and fear all their lives He broke and conquered. He rose again, and a few of them saw Him and from then on became His utterly devoted slaves.”

“Thank God for that,” said the little angel.

“Amen. Open your eyes now, the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth flow.”

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

“You see what is happening?” asked the senior angel. “The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.’’

“Yes, yes,” said the little angel impatiently, “but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?”

His senior shook his head. “We simply do not know,” he replied. “It is in the Father’s hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, but now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it; He is working out his plan upon it.”

“Yes, I see, though I don’t understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet.”

Let us pray: Dearest God, help us remember that we have been visited by the King of Glory who came into the world as an innocent and vulnerable baby. Give us grace to celebrate both his first and his second coming. Give us grace to keep his light burning steadily. May his Advent be as a sanctifying time of both repentance and anticipation. AMEN.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Discerning Obedience

Sermon for 11.22.09, Christ the King/Reign of Christ

2 Samuel 23.1-5; Psalm 132.1-18; Rev 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

Please pray with me: May our soul wait for you, O Lord. May Your word be our hope. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If I didn’t love being your pastor, I would probably spend much of my time painting. I don’t draw with ease, but I can be totally absorbed by color and especially the transparency of color possible with watercolors. One starts with the lightest tints, the least amount of pigment, and then gradually lays on shades of stronger colors. This layering can create an effect far richer and far more exciting than the most carefully mixed color that is applied only once. A mixed color can become heavy or muddy, whereas in a series of applications, the first washes allow light from the paper to shine through, and this translucency can be retained even with several subsequent layers.

Perhaps I thought of painting when I read David’s last words from 2nd Samuel. David says that a just ruler “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” One has the sense of gentleness, beauty, clarity, and the integrity of the whole under such kingship.

The emphasis in the passage from Revelation is different because of the historical situation. Given the persecutions during which it was written, the author, someone named John, makes strong assertions about a God who moves effortlessly through time and who has not yet finished his work, a god “who is and who was and who is to come.” When he does come, every eye will see him, and the result will not be subtle: Everyone still totally committed to this world—“all the tribes of the earth,” the persecutors—will wail. Which picture is more appropriate for this Sunday that is entitled Christ the King or The Reign of Christ—David’s or that of the author of Revelation? Which picture fits us?

The Gospel of John gives us a drama that seems to have escaped from Holy Week. This passage asks us to think about transparency or its lack in the context of Kingship. There Christ, on trial for his life before Pilate, is asserting his Kingdom and his Truth. Pilate certainly has power of life and death over Jesus, but is there clarity in Pilate’s arraignment? As we listen, Pilate’s predicament deepens. Pilate understands kingship in earthly terms, and, for a Roman, “king” has political and insurrectional meanings. Pilate may not even yet fully realize the subversive nature of Jesus’ total loyalty to God. But he does try to trick him, to catch him in a capital offense: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And then Jesus is his usual brilliant self. He realizes what a murky situation he is in, but he asks Pilate a direct question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He knows that the Jewish leaders may be cornering Pilate and that Pilate may be wondering whether he has enough troops to quiet them should they not get the execution they want. Pilate’s main goal may be to stay in control at whatever cost and avoid being dragged back to explain things in Rome.

Even so Jesus, ever the teacher—ever the savior—explains that he is operating out of a very different notion of kingship and that his kingdom is not from here. He is inviting Pilate to listen, to be authentic, to be transparent—to let light shine through. “Everyone,” Jesus says, “who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus is not speaking of intellectual truth, that which is reliable, quantifiable, or merely believed in. This is truth as reality, as revelation. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Really listens, and follows through on that listening. Doing so is the opposite of unrighteousness and for this reason, Jesus’ truth must be an active thing; it is doing, it is faithful living and witness.

And so, aren’t we also on trial here, right along with Pilate? If Christ is our King and we wish to live under his reign, honor and extend it—if we love David’s luminous vision of “the light of morning”—we’ve got a lot of listening to do. Listening that is predicated on being transparent to God. Wise and humble listening that discerns the truth and then acts upon that discernment. Listening that constantly tries to distinguish the murky promises of this world from the light and reign of Christ. We’re not just talking about a contemplative high here. As one of the brothers in the monastery recently reminded me, “spiritual formation and Christian discipleship are the same.” This is Brother Charles, who runs their bookstore, but who knows that it’s not the reading of the books that matters, but moving beyond into Christian loving and living, into mission, into holy practice. Into discerning obedience.

This phrase comes from the book Beyond Mere Obedience by a wonderful theologian named Dorothee Soelle. She urges weaning ourselves from authoritarian models of obedience that can blind us even to the ethics of this world and then blind us to Christ, our king. Discerning obedience is “an obedience which has its eyes wide open, which first discovers God’s will in the situation” (p. 25). This doesn’t mean that we shrug off the world, but that we seek to transform it through the Grace of Christ. This is a tall order and I think it’s one of the reasons that we have church, so that we don’t have to do it alone.

On this Sunday, the Church Universal, including our own Methodist Church, declares that Christ is King. This has only been a day of observance only since 1925 when it was created by Pope Pius XI—you’ll love this—because of the spread of democracies. It’s a kind of paradox because Americans, who don’t usually bow to their elected officials, belong to churches that announce that we do bow, but only to Jesus the Christ. And Americans, who profoundly believe in the cult of the individual and the individual’s own right to decision-making, support churches that urge us to attend to the sovereignty of Christ.

And this is why we need discerning obedience as a daily spiritual discipline, a transparency before God that faces the truth about who we are, whom and what we worship. Our sovereign, resurrected Christ is also our shepherd, “the king of love whose goodness faileth never” and who, having ransomed our souls, continues to lead us throughout our length of days. There is a freedom and a joy in this commitment to discovering Christ’s truth, Christ’s revelation, both individually and in community over and over again. I am convinced that living into Christ’s reign, doing Christ, as best we can and through the grace of God, can be progressively transforming for us and for our communities, even here and now.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we bless you for a Kingship that is both powerful and liberating, for your truth that gives us strength, courage and hope. Help us to be transparent before you and before one another. Thank you for loving us and for filling each stage of our lives with your luminosity. Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Radical Reliance

Sermon for 11.15.09

1 Samuel 1.4-20; 1 Samuel 2.1-8; Psalm 113; Hebrews 10.11-25.

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Call to Worship: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.”

A number of years ago when I was teaching at Columbia College in New York City, one of my students was arrested and had to appear in court. He had no family nearby and asked if I would go with him for moral support. He was basically a good young man and had been assessing what he had done; he was also very apprehensive. I knew nothing about the judge, but the moment my student stood up in front of him, he snapped: “Take that gum out of your mouth and show some respect.” My student replied, “I mean to show respect for the court, your honor, but it’s my tongue, you see. I’m frightened.”

I remembered this incident when I read the story of Hannah this week. Seeking the security and comfort of the temple, Hannah fled there to weep out her grief to God. Since prayers were usually said out loud, when Eli saw only her lips moving, he dismissed her as a worthless drunken woman. To his credit, he accepts her explanation and gives her a blessing. This is the same Eli to whom she will later entrust her young son. But how often do we misunderstand the depths of someone’s pain or the way they are reacting to it? Such a poignant detail in Hannah’s story makes her hard to forget. Her story is too important to miss.

Like Ruth and Naomi last week, Hannah has been defined, limited, and devalued by her culture. It’s true that she has a generous husband who loves her despite the fact that she cannot bear children, but she is tormented by his other wife and she lives in shame. We can feel the “bitterness of soul” that prevents her from eating her share of the meat that her husband has sacrificed.

Many of us may remember leaving a room quickly to hide embarrassment, grief, or anger. We may recall making extravagant promises if only God will fix things: “I’ll never leave my project for the last minute,” “I’ll never lose my temper again.” Such is Hannah’s promise. Although men usually took nazirite vows only for a limited period of time, she will dedicate the son she needs to the Lord “until the day of his death.”

But in her deep trouble, she also enters deep prayer. She pours out her very soul to God, not caring about her appearance. It is this commitment to prayer, I believe, rather than Eli’s rather perfunctory blessing that allows her to return to Elkanah, her husband, to eat and drink with him, and be sad no longer. She has done all she can; she has put her life totally into God’s hands.

And God hears her! A baby is born! We all love babies and new life. But things get complicated again very quickly for this baby happens to be Samuel, a tremendously significant figure who lived in troubled times and who, with severe misgivings, anoints the first king of Israel. Since this account, this Scripture, is sacred history, the struggles of Hannah and then Samuel must be important to us too. They also remind us that nothing in this life is static and that all things must grow and change. Through that growth and change we are, like Hannah and Samuel, totally dependant on God’s grace.

This total dependence—a reality that it is often convenient to push to one side—brings us to the dialogue from the 13th chapter of Mark and the need for God’s grace on a more cosmic scale. To the innocence of the disciples’ opening line, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus replies—coolly, emphatically, gently, we don’t know—“Not one stone will be left here upon another.” As you probably know, Mark was written either right before or after the destruction of the temple, the temple Jesus knew during his life. Certainly by the end of the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, that temple was demolished for ever.

Think of our modern parallels: Who would have thought the twin towers would crumble or that a tsunami would leap across great portions of the Pacific Rim or that New Orleans and her people would be submerged or that someone would go amuck at Fort Hood. Innocently, we long for what is secure: the baby in our arms, a civilization, a culture and an earth that are predictable and safe. It is not always so and our sense of innocence is cruelly taken away.

Mark’s 13th chapter can be read in many ways, but Jesus and his disciples are only a few days away from the Passover and his time with them is getting short. When the disciples ask him when the temple will come crashing down, he doesn’t answer directly. Instead he urges them not to let anyone—themselves included—lead them astray. We too can become so focused on analyzing the signs of the times that we forget that something even greater is taking place. Jesus calls it the start of birth pangs. He may well be referring to God’s final judgment and to his own second coming. We must understand that behind such thinking is the conviction, central to Judaism of this time, that God controls not only individual lives but all of history and that the evil of the world is so great that only God can save it by establishing a new creation.

Such assertions may overwhelm us, frighten us, even though we are troubled by what we see around us. It is more comfortable to ask God to fix smaller things, like us, bit by bit. And there is nothing wrong with that. What we shouldn’t lose, however, is the bigger picture and the chance to see how Salvation is challenge as well as hope. Salvation brings the birth of a new age, and Salvation is not a static event for any of us. It is a Grace-driven process—a birthing—of repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration. It is manifest in individuals and in a dedicated faith community. And so we start by lamenting what we see around us just as we lament what we detect in our own hearts. One of my teachers from Divinity School puts it to us squarely: Our witness is to “move from darkness to light, from alienation to divine community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, from the fear of hostile powers to [the] liberty and assurance” [of children of God] (Emilie M. Townes). This is the work of faith, and through faith, by God’s grace, we are saved. And we need to be.

This was also Hannah’s work. Although she did not know Christ, her connection to God is inspiring, almost mystical. She knew how to give herself totally, not with formal petition or with traditional sacrifice. The abandon with which she opens her heart speaks to her certainly of being heard.

Hannah’s story is too important to miss because it can also be our story. We are not always as grief-stricken as Hannah, but remembering her surrender, her humility, and her conviction that God is close by, we too can come to God in our awkwardness, our fear, our brokenness. In doing so, we move through and beyond isolation, insufficiency, and worry, beyond appearances, to the newness of life that is Christ’s gift to us.

Let us pray: Dear God: The pillars of the earth are Yours, and on them You have set the world! Your blessings are beyond our comprehension and often we cannot fathom them. But You are still God and still our God, ever near. Even in our moments of disappointment and pain, may we remember Your power and remember to magnify Your name. And in all that we do, open our hearts to the great gift of Your son, Jesus Christ, our companion in the way and our Savior. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Faithfulness: A Love Story

Sermon for 11.08.09

Ruth 2.1-8, 10-12; 4.13-15, 17; Psalm 42; Mark 12.38-44.

Please pray with me: May we love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind…[and] love our neighbor as ourselves.”

From today’s Gospel: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow…out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sunday evenings seem to be God’s time for epiphanies, for taking me by surprise. When the phone rang this past Sunday, it was my friend Cathyann. We hadn’t had a phone visit since I started coming to Port Ewen. We became friends in seminary. She had just become a single mom with a daughter to raise, essentially on her own. She was determined not to let circumstances hinder her call. By the time she was ready to take a church, the only available full-time job was two half-time churches in the middle of rural Kansas. There’s nothing wrong with Kansas, but Cathyann had never lived anywhere but the East Coast. She had no friends, relatives, or associations with the Midwest. But off she went.

Unfortunately, one of the churches did not work out and so, two years later, she was without a job. Because she is United Church of Christ, there was no connectional network to place her. She would have had no place to go had not a friend from seminary, now in Nebraska, invited her. The next year was tough, lonely, and poor—another displacement for a woman now in her mid-50s. She refused to give up, responsibly reshaping her life through hard work and faithfulness to the covenant that she had made. She became a chaplain, began to do supply work, and then was invited to become a full-time interim pastor in a church that loves and appreciates her. This has been her dream and the Nebraska part really didn’t matter.

But she called me last Sunday to invite me to her wedding! After her painful divorce, I’d never heard her express any desire to remarry. And she fought the proposal at first, but then realized that this man is someone she simply loves being with. We never thought that so much good—a church and personal happiness—was waiting for her, and especially in Nebraska!

What does this have to do with the book of Ruth? Actually, quite a bit. This is as much the story of an older woman as it is Ruth’s and it also is a story of exile and emptiness. As such, it speaks to us.

The story begins with famine in Bethlehem that forces Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons to immigrate to the land of Moab, even though the people of Israel had no respect for Moabites or their strange gods. These people were descended from Lot, for heaven’s sake, and if you don’t know what that means, you’d better read Genesis 19 as quickly as possible. The sons are described as “taking” Moabite wives, rather than marrying them. Then all three men die, leaving Naomi and her two childless daughters-in-law as widows. Naomi feels that God has turned against her and well she might. As a woman past child-bearing years with no male protector, she is destitute, and so she tells the two young women to go back to their own people where there is some hope of starting again.

Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses, speaking those words that are now read at weddings: “Where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” What is behind Ruth’s risky decision to make such a covenant? Was her love for Naomi or her compassion—her call to responsibility—so great that she ignored common sense? Was she moved by hesed, the deep loving-kindness of God? In the newness of her loss, did she reach for relationship? For someone to whom again she could show hesed?

Naomi’s reaction is odd. She doesn’t speak to Ruth during the trip back to Bethlehem. Her name means “pleasant,” but she tells the women at the gate to call her Mara or “bitter.” She certainly doesn’t introduce her daughter-in-law when they walk into town, and the story insists on labeling Ruth as “the Moabite.”

In the section that we heard this morning, Ruth, the Alien, goes out to glean or gather left-over grain in the fields. The laws of Israel specified that a certain amount must be left even for alien beggars. Then the narrator slyly tells us that she “just happened” to go to the right field and is seen by Boaz. Boaz may not really have been a kinsman. If he were, he would have a responsibility towards these women. The word could equally mean “close friend” of Naomi’s husband.

The passage is full of ambiguities. Boaz is described as “prominent” or “worthy.” Old Testament readers, knowing that his ancestors were Jacob and Tamar, as dubious as Ruth’s ancestors, would be on the alert. His words are certainly pious sounding, but can we be sure? Although he might very well have been drawn to Ruth, he might also have been simply curious. He also might have worried that if he showed her too much favor, other gleaners or even his field hands would expect more. So he says, conventionally enough, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds.” Ruth may sound humble, but she subtly switches the agency from God to Boaz: “May I continue to find favor in your sight,” she replies.

Such wordplays and ironies continue and, in the end, there is a marriage and a baby, but the story is not just about one happy couple. The women of the town give Ruth’s baby to Naomi, presumably to tend, but they call him Naomi’s son. Her emptiness has been filled, her barrenness has been compensated, her bitterness has turned to joy, and she is no longer homeless. And the story doesn’t stop there.

The story records a chain of events, a chain of faithfulness and loving-kindness. Ruth, an alien, persuades the prominent Boaz to show her loving-kindness. He, in turn, had been touched both by her faithfulness to Naomi and, more, by her willingness to chose him, an older man. And first there was Ruth’s loving-kindness, her hesed to Naomi.

It doesn’t matter that Naomi is uncivil when the story begins or that Boaz’s motivation may not be clear because the story is also shot through with God’s own hesed for all of these people. God sends Naomi and Elimelech to a place that brings disaster and yet she comes home with a gift. The gift appears to be a liability, a despised foreign woman, and yet she is guided to just the right field. Finally this baby of less than perfect lineage doesn’t only comfort Naomi’s old age but becomes the grandfather of David, the ancestor of Jesus who is the Incarnation of God’s Love and the Redeemer of the world. No wonder we are given this reading only weeks before Advent.

A good read becomes first a parable about true fidelity across age and ethnicity. About giving out of what seems to be a poverty, about being able to give when it seems that there is only poverty to draw from. About discovering and fulfilling God’s law through self-giving love. A further beauty is that this story seems to be telling us that human being personify and communicate God’s hesed to each other. But finally the love story is about God’s enduring faithfulness and love for us, unlikely agents that we are.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, to whom will we cling with steadfast love? To whom will we do hesed? Will we allow those who seem alien to be agents of our redemption? Will we see that a Ruth is standing there? Who gleams among us and how much do we first take from what we consider our own fields? These questions are difficult, but help us keep asking them. Help us tear down those walls that have been so carefully crafted. Help us embrace the scandal of your faithfulness and your fierce inclusivity. Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hearing God's Song

Sermon for 11.01.09, All Saints’ Day
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10; Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

Please pray with me: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

From today’s New Testament Lesson: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Today is All Saints’ Day, a day to remember our departed and to consider our own lives. It dates from the 4th century and it celebrates all Christian saints, those known to us and those unknown. I love the unknown part because we just don’t know all of those who have served or in what way—and we’d better not try to second-guess God. The passage from Ecclesiasticus reminds us that “of others there is no memory. But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” The Roman Church has a complicated and very careful way of canonizing saints, and that is fine for what we call the Church Expectant—the church in process. None of us knows who will be included at the end of time in the Church Triumphant.

It’s probably for that reason that even books compiled by Roman Catholic authors now include other categories: prophets, witnesses, those who were spiritual giants. Who would have thought, in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle, that Martin Luther King would become an “official saint.” On various lists, we find Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Kierkegaard. These and many others are those who mediate—who are connectors—between this world and God.

One of my favorites is a man simply known as Brother Lawrence. He became a lay brother of a monastery in Paris in the 17th century where he spent 40 years working in the kitchen. We know of him only because a visitor happened to begin a conversation with him and was so astonished that he needed to talk with him again and again. For Lawrence, things were quite simple. God, he said, “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

For hundreds of years, All Saints’ Day has been followed by another, called All Souls’ Day. This day is meant to commemorate “the souls of the faithful departed.” Protestants choose not to rank or grade the faithful, and so we tend to combine the two days. For us, the term “saint” may indeed refer to an extraordinary person—a spiritual giant—but it may also describe someone as modest as a Brother Lawrence. Thus we use it as the New Testament does, for all Christians serving a community and serving Christ. And we leave it for God to judge.

There are so many saintly paths. There is the deep love of God to which Brother Lawrence refers. Two others are perhaps less obvious but thought-provoking: The English writer G. K. Chesterton defines a saint as one “who exaggerates what the world neglects.” On a different tack, Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that he must struggle “to be more than his weakest qualities.” (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Pubs) To a greater or lesser extent, each of us—with all our faults—is sometimes capable of both of these things: lifting up what no one else has noticed and managing to be better than we could be.

Last week I asked what it would be like if we tried imagining our church as a song. I had an answer sooner than I expected. On Sunday afternoon, I went to a concert that I had been told not to miss. The program was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, performed on two pianos. For an hour and a half, without a break, the two musicians each played his own melodic lines (his own piece, if you like), but always listening for the way in which a similar melody was being repeated or imitated or changed by the other. The pianos were placed so that it was possible for the two to be aware of one another, by a slight nod or by eye contact or even by their breathing. In ways that became more and more complex and intense as the concert progressed, the two independent voices interwove to form a richly layered whole, greater than either of the parts. The last section was never finished by Bach and so it stops, unresolved, in the middle of a phrase.

There I sat listening as dusk gathered. Suddenly I realized that this is the way church can work and the way in which the saints work together with God. We each are singing our own melody and God is singing God’s. At our best, we realize that we are not alone. God certainly knows this. And so, while being ourselves, we are also making our song with God. At times, through a prayer, a sigh, an action, a meditation, tears, or a moment filled with love, we are aware of a connection. The result is awesome. And our work need not be finished—all of our songs need not have been sung—before we are called away.

Our own music here at church echoes this interweaving when the instruments play different parts, or when one plays a descant melody over the others, or when we sing a round. Our sermon hymn will allow us to experience this. First we’ll hear the basic melody that we all will sing. Then we will hear the descant. Finally we will put the two together. Saints in training!

And what of those whom we no longer see? Later in the service, we will have a chance to name, either silently or aloud, those loved ones who have gone to their reward. In the Scripture for today, there is much to reassure us. The Beatitudes tell us of the comfort the departed will receive: They will be filled with good things and they will see God. So too in Revelation, we must not miss God’s tenderness for those whom God now fully shelters. God’s graciousness responds to the most elemental human needs: “They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

In different way, we each know hunger and thirst; we are scorched and stricken. We long to be understood and to be guided to living waters. We struggle to be better than we have been and to realize a vision with which we are sometimes graced. With our Hope in God as well as our failings, we want to be of that number when the saints come marching in.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we give thanks for those who have died and are now at rest in your presence. By your grace, count us as one with them. Stir up in us, by the power of your Holy Spirit, a love for singing in harmony with you. Enable us to learn by the example of your saints in glory, that we may proclaim to all the world that nothing can separate us from your love. AMEN.

*** BULLETIN ***
Morning Worship with Holy Communion - November 1, 2009
Additional reading for today: Psalm 24
Lectionary for next week: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127 or Psalm 42; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Instrumental Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
We bless your holy name, O God, for all your servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow your holy saints in all virtuous and godly living, to your honor and glory and so that we may come to those joys, which you have prepared for those who sincerely love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Introit #64 “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”
*Call to Worship #652 “Canticle of Remembrance” Response 1
*Opening Hymn #711 “For All the Saints” (v. 1, 2, 5, 6)
Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rejected your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Bring us to joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Words of Assurance
Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)

Proclamation of the Word of God
Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:1-10
Instrumental Music
New Testament Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
Instrumental Music
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon “Hearing God’s Song” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko

Response to the Word of God
*Sermon Hymn #405 “Seek Ye First”
Offering of Congregational Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
Prayer of Thanksgiving

Holy Communion
The Sacrament of Holy Communion
The Pastor will be using The Great Thanksgiving for All Saints Day, but the people’s responses are found as usual in the Hymnal, pp. 13-14. After the Consecration, you will be invited to name, either silently or aloud, those who have died in the past year.
The Great Thanksgiving UMC p. 13
The Lord’s Prayer
Giving the Bread and Cup
*Post-Communion Hymn #614 “For the Bread Which You Have Broken”

Sending Forth
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude

Monday, October 26, 2009

The One Who Serves

Please pray with me: Put a new song in my mouth, O Lord, a song of praise to you (Psalm 40:3, adapted).

From our Old Testament Lesson: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job38:4).

I want to start with a Shirley Corder story. The morning of Sara’s wedding last week, I was looking for a steam iron to take the wrinkles out of my robe. Before offering her iron and her living room, Dorothy smiled and said, “If Shirley were here, she’d do it for you.”

I never met Shirley, but from an assortment of stories I feel I am getting to know her. Here was a woman with strong notions, to be sure, but who was committed to take up tasks and serve. What a legacy: to be so present that even when you are no longer physically there, people reach out in memory, as though you were. What makes a Shirley? What leads to those generous impulses of giving of ourselves? The great Christian novelist, Tolstoy, observes, “As soon as a person asks the question, ‘How do I live my life the best way?’ then all other questions are answered.”

Our Gospel today speaks of serving, but uses blunter terms: servant and slave. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Perhaps it’s not coincidental that just last week, we heard a homily about one woman’s battle against slavery. But here Jesus seems to be endorsing the word. Why would he, in a world in which slavery was visible and usually horrible? Then there are the terms in our reading from Hebrews, words like “reverent submission” and “obedience.”

Do these words seem old-fashioned and do we shy away from them? How seriously can we take them? Think for a moment about how you use them. “I’ve been slaving over the hot stove all afternoon,” probably isn’t exactly the application Jesus had in mind. We’ll comment with varying seriousness that someone is a slave to fashion or cigarettes, or to their family or job. Then again, to what do we submit and to whom do we give obedience? Maybe we back off from confronting local policies or cultural habits that we feel powerless to change, thereby submitting to them? It’s not only teens that “go along with the crowd” or choose to let a cruel remark pass without comment. Perhaps we ask our children for “cooperation” or “a good attitude,” rather than using that more direct term “obedience.” But God certainly challenges Job and the demands are clear: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me... Tell me, if you have understanding.”

I have a barn kitty at home. That means a stray who has decided to check out my various outbuildings—and me with them. For months I have been trying to win her trust, hoping to get her into the house before winter. At first she wouldn’t let me get near her. Now when she sees me, she rushes up, flings herself on the ground at my feet, and turns over to expose her entire tummy for tickling. That marked Beta behavior before an awesome human is certainly a kind of kitty/Dora relationship and it sure looks like submission.

Psalm 34 this morning is interesting in this regard: It begins, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Bless: Say nice things about? Thank God? Praise? Closer, but in Hebrew “bless” also means kneeling in homage to the one on whom one’s life depends. The psalm is also meant to include others. The New Revised Standard Version in our hymnal reads “let the humble hear and be glad [because of the Lord].” While the New International Version has “let the afflicted hear and rejoice....” The Hebrew permits both translations since the humble are probably those who are afflicted and the afflicted have no choice but to be humble. And the singer of this psalm offers his/her own praise to such persons in proof of God’s goodness.

Perhaps these connections can take us back to Jesus’ use of the term slave, a term odious and unacceptable in any other context: “To be first [in God’s eyes], you must be slave of all.” For starters, Jesus’ use of the word is and was meant to be both shocking and eye-opening. Jesus did not only renounce power by accepting a shameful death. He also renounced ordinary greatness by his wholehearted service of others. He knew well what was expected of a pious God-fearing Jew. Proper speech was to be combined with reverent body language or at least with a heart disposed to utter reverence. One was also to depart from evil and do good; one was to seek peace and pursue it. Your spiritual checklist, like mine, probably tries to include these things.

But Jesus pushed further. The hopes of those around him for a Messiah usually included a triumphant moment when the humble and afflicted—or maybe simply the righteous—would triumph over their former masters. The good inherited this earth. I see something of this in the Prosperity Gospel Movement, when people are told to expect financial rewards here and now. But when James and John ask for a place of glory, Jesus deflates hopes for power and status. Jesus has conversations like this with his disciples more than once, and it is clear that rejecting honor, power, and status is hard for them.

Is a reversal of the world’s expectations hard for us? I know you to be generous, hard-working, and unassuming people, a church that welcomes and does not pass judgments. More than that, we are what I have begun to call “bright-eyed people,” people who give energy back on Sunday morning. Because of who you already are as a Christ-centered community, I have been wanting to report some of the ideas about the culture of our churches that were discussed at the Bishop’s retreat at the Mount several weeks ago.

First is the realization that this church of ours in Port Ewen has a culture, and that we love it so much that we long to invite others into it. Perhaps we could spend some time, individually and in our committees, talking more fully about what that culture is. What is it that we are seeking to say with our church? If our church were a sermon—or a poem or a song or a dance—what would it be like? To whom could it be sweet and chewy, like a honeycomb?

I don’t think we are a fortress, built only for our own protection. But that image has stuck in my mind because some churches are like that, proud of a splendid (and growing) isolation. We certainly do not isolate ourselves from our town or neighbors. We are not a club. But perhaps we could be even bolder and dare to innovate.

There is an urgency in God’s conversation with Job, in our psalm this morning, in Hebrews, and in Mark’s Gospel. Expect that urgency; train yourselves to hear it in Scripture, maybe in your own spiritual journeys as well. I know that when I am writing seriously, I have moments of insight, gifts of God’s grace that I must record even in the middle of the night or the words will evaporate. It’s actually exciting, I think, never to know when—or from whom—that amazing Grace will come. Let’s think in terms of now, therefore, rather than later. After all, we each have a certain time in which to make the difference God sent us here to make, each of us with our unique and precious talents.

And that brings us back to the Servant Heart, the slave’s heart, really, since we acknowledge God to be our architect, not only master but the source of all sweetness; the One who sends us forth with blessings and longs for us to magnify His name.

Let us pray: Dearest God, we thank you and we bless you. Continue to startle us with your truth and with the energy that allows us to open our hearts fully to you and to others. We pray in the name of Christ, whose serving ministry was simply his love for those most afflicted, and for you. AMEN.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Grace to Help in Time of Need

Sermon for 10.11.09
Psalm 22.1-11; Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

Please pray with me: In your light may we see life clearly and in your service find perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

From today’s Gospel Lesson: His disciples “were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

I have a friend who is charming, warm, intelligent; a mother of four, a grandmother, and now a great-grandmother. One has to know her pretty well before learning how sad her childhood was. The issue was poverty of affection. Her mother was not a nurturer and she was kept from knowing her father. As a result, she grew up feeling abandoned and that is an identity that she has never totally been able to shake. Recently we were talking about those times when the sadness seems overwhelming. I asked her whether it was possible to reach out to God in these moments. She thought and then said, “Oh, God still exists for me. It’s just that He’s busy with someone else. I’ve been abandoned.”

Job is in the same situation. One of the reasons that I hope you will read the lectionary readings in advance is that there is so much of our own lives in them. (They’re pretty dramatic at times, as good as a movie or novel. They’re also complex and require time to absorb.) So here is Job, good, decent, and pious, thoroughly God-fearing, suddenly deprived of all of his prosperity through no fault of his own. We hear his anger in the passage read just now. He complains bitterly because, despite his groaning, God’s hand is heavy on him. Job wants to be able to engage God, to argue with him. He wants God to listen; he wants to know God is there listening to him. And then, he wants an answer. In fact, the answer he wants is for God to agree with him. If God would only be reasonable—and see things Job’s way—everything would be all right. But Job cannot find him. He has lost his sense of God’s presence and feels helpless, terrified… I have been there with Job, haven’t you?

Much the same argument is going on in the psalm that we read together. Psalm 22 is typically prayed during Holy Week, as the altar is stripped on Maundy Thursday or on Good Friday. Its opening line is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the one that Jesus cries out during his crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus probably prayed out the entire psalm in his agony, just as we refer to an entire prayer when we describe someone saying the “Our Father.”

In Psalm 22, we hear the argument that Job wanted to have with God. The poet reminds God—and himself—that “it was you who took me from the womb” and “kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” This knowledge kindles—or attempts to kindle—faith, even in a time of despair, and responsibility on God’s part. It leads to the plea to God to be present, even though God seems to have abandoned him: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” I have had such conversations with God, fearing that they were only one-sided.

But then we come to Hebrews, and we are in a different world. For what it’s worth, this text is neither a letter, nor by Paul, nor written for the Hebrews. It is a profound essay on Christ that probably took decades to develop, and it proclaims that we have access to God through Christ, that God sent Christ so that we would have access to our Maker. As we heard this morning, “before [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare, but we now have a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” and who “has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Knowing this we can be bold in asking for mercy and finding grace.

On a daily basis, we can remind ourselves that God is aware that we sometimes feel forsaken, that God understands those conversations in which we seem to be chasing ourselves in circles and digging holes to hide in. The Bible has preserved accounts like that of Job so that we know we are not alone in these feelings. God also gives Job a stunning reply before the book is over. Moreover, God has responded to our feeling of abandonment through giving us the life and continuing mystery of Jesus Christ among us, so that there is a leaven that will cause our hopes to rise.

That God’s reshaping of us may be a leavening process connected to the total way in which we orient our lives is indicated by the linked episodes that we heard today from Mark. First there is the young man who has followed all the rules, who has kept the commandments from his youth. There must have been something truly winning about him because Mark tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” But when Jesus invites him to join his movement, the young man cannot let go of his wealth and privilege.

The point, I think, is not that we should all give away everything we have, although it certainly should encourage us to think about the stewardship of money, material possessions, and our habits of consumption. Jesus was hoping to weld the young man’s understanding of a good and blessed life to his relationship to God. In his day, being pious and being prosperous were intertwined and that notion is still alive. This young man’s prosperity, like the prosperity that Job initially enjoys, was thought to be a sign of God’s favor. That same piety would cause him to be a benefactor to others from the wealth that God had helped him acquire. This in turn would win him gratitude and a prominent place in society. None of this is wrong, but it is incomplete. A too-easy correlation between prosperity and blessedness can hide the blessedness of those who have nothing. Preoccupation with personal prosperity can distract from the task of bringing in God’s kingdom. Most important, it can create the illusion that one is pulling this off on one’s own. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says it will be hard “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples, the straight-men as usual, are amazed. If the wealthy, who have the leisure to observe God’s commandments and the means to do good, can’t be saved, then who? Peter even gets all defensive and reminds Jesus of all he has personally sacrificed. Who can be saved? Jesus just gives them that look they must know so well and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.” He is urging them—and us—to remember who is in charge and who loves us.

We have tasks to do and commandments to internalize, as Job and the young man apparently had been doing for years, but we don’t have to go it alone. We don’t have to and we’re not supposed to since God’s plan of salvation has invited us into ongoing conversation. This may be hard to get used to, but it should also be comforting. The answer may not be immediate and God may not respond with the exact script we have supplied, but our prayers, our Bible study, our worship, our actions—all the marvelous variety of the “means of Grace” as they are called—shape us and warm us. It turns out that God is always responsible and acting responsibly. Then we suddenly realize that God has never just been busy with somebody else. In God’s way and in God’s own time, the miracle of God’s living yeast has always been there, growing within us as well.

Join me in prayer: Thank you God for your mighty gifts to us in creation and in Jesus Christ. Let us know that we may approach you with boldness and that we will find grace to transform our lives. Take the common stuff out of which we are made and touch us with your presence so that we may nourish hope within ourselves, peace among humanity, and health for our earth. We pray trusting in your name, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Prayer to All Animals

A poem by the Kingston, NY poet Maureen O'Sullivan read by Pastor Dora at The Blessing of the Animals in The Yard Beside the Church, Oct 4, 2009 at 3:30 P.M.


We gather together to celebrate the sacredness of our animal relations,

to rejoice in the beauty, grace and magnificence of all animals everywhere.

To the cats, birds, dogs and other creatures who share our homes,

We honor you and bless you.

To those running free in great herds across the African plains...

to those in rainforests… on rugged mountaintops...

and in feedlots and labs…

We send you our love, and bless you.

We honor the sacredness and holiness of all animals everywhere,

and together in loving remembrance

of the countless generations of animal companions of fur, feather or fin

who shared their lives with humankind from our earliest days on Earth.

They who blessed our homes with their affection, beauty and joy

In every land and through long eons.

You who were our most loving and faithful companions

always and everywhere.

Though your names may now be long forgotten through the mists of time;

we honor your memory and celebrate your earthly lives.

Most blessed and beloved children of our Divine Creator,

Divine Light shines down upon you always,

and lights the path of your life's journey.

Though you may walk unsteady in a crowded feedlot

Or gaze out at the world through cold cage bars,

you are never truly alone.

We behold the full range of your intelligence,

goodness, and sentience,

And rejoice in the full glory of your innate dignity,

compassion, and depth of feeling.

May you grace our world with your holy presence

now and forever.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Your Pastor's Witness

Sermon for 10.4.09
Genesis 32:24-28; Psalm 139:1-12; Hebrews 12:1-2, 12; Luke 12:22-31

Please pray with me: “O Lord, you have searched us and known us. You know when we sit down and when we rise up; you discern our thoughts from far away.” Amen.

From today’s Epistle: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….”

When my grandmother was twelve, she asked her father, a physician, for a dissecting kit for her birthday. He replied—tough old Presbyterian that he was—that she could have one if she perfectly dissected a robin. She did, and so he did. She went on to a remarkable witness: a practicing physician, wife and mother of five children, and my dear grandma. But she followed a specific and early call, and that was to become a doctor at a time when few women were able to do so.

I, too, had an early and specific call, though I didn’t share it with anyone. It was a kind of inner light that I held within me for years. The wonder to me is the way in which God has brought this call to birth and growing fruition, even though I seemed to have buried it.

When I was still in elementary school, I remember putting myself to sleep at night after prayers with my mother, by imagining that I was in a pulpit preaching. There I was in that pulpit, telling the people all about Easter and Christmas! That I did so seems unusual to me since I did not attend a traditional Christian church and had been in such churches only a few times. I know I loved going and longed to go more often.

My mother, a deeply spiritual woman, could not accept the harshness of the theology of the Presbyterian church of her childhood and had been seeking a more mystical and loving path. I remember her telling me about Saint Francis and the witness of relatives when I was quite small. She honored the daily prayers and Bible study that she had learned from her grandparents and parents and taught me to begin each morning in that way. One of her favorite memories was of her grandmother, who was actually in physical pain most of her life. My mother would wait outside the bedroom where her grandmother went to pray. She emerged, Mother said, looking like an angel. My mother eventually became a Christian Scientist and I went to church with her, although I always struggled with the basic beliefs of that church. By my mother and my Sunday School teacher, however, I was given an unfailing sense of God’s love and a knowledge of the Bible. Both have supported and directed my life.

When my father had to flee his native Ukraine during the Russian Revolution, he also left the Orthodox Church of his childhood. I know the church was precious to him because of stories he told me. But once in his new country, he turned to nature and the out of doors for his sense of God and of the holy. This was one of his great gifts to me. I have wonderful memories of being in his garden with him when we lived in rural New Jersey, of walking, and of flying over the fields with a horse borrowed from neighbors.

Once I left home for college, I was free to look for a church on my own. My extended family had sent a number of faith missionaries to the Far East and others were Presbyterian or Episcopalian. I spent many weekends in Connecticut with cousins whose lives centered around their Episcopal church. They always invited me to come. Sometimes—if I slept in—I would hear their voices drifting into my window as they came walking back from church, and I was nurtured by the calm, kindness, and steadiness that they carried with them. I truly felt that I was beginning a new life when I asked them how I could be baptized. A year later, I was confirmed and joined their church.

I remembered my early dreams of preaching and being a church leader, but in the 1960s, there were no women priests in the Episcopal Church. I became a teacher and loved sharing what I knew with my students and mentoring them. It wasn’t until I had taught in a shelter and then in two inner-city districts, that I knew I needed a fuller way to serve the spiritual life of my students. I was pushed in my search by the witness of my African-American colleagues. It’s wonderful how such things work: I was standing by the door after the students had left one day, looking I’m sure, as though I’d been hit over the head by a log, and one of the other teachers simply came up and said, “Jesus loves you.” Next thing I knew, I was invited to early morning prayer meetings. These are not mentioned during teacher training, but they must go on all over the country. When you’re there, you know that everyone in the system needs God’s help. I was also struck by how powerful these times were, even though our prayer styles were so different. I surrounded my students with the light of Christ; they covered the students with the blood of the Lamb. We were all inviting God to be with us.

Then an enrichment course offered to public school teachers by Yale University led to my working with a professor who sometimes taught at the Divinity school. When she handed back my project, she told me that she would help if ever I should want to do more graduate work. For the first time, it occurred to me that it might now be possible for me to attend seminary.

But something else happened as well. Shortly before I began teaching in New Haven, I became the sole bread-winner for the household; I felt overwhelmed and frightened. I was tired, money was short, and I seemed to have lost my spiritual direction. On Christmas Eve, I decided there was no sense in going to church. It was bitterly cold and I was anxious to get the animals into the sheds and fed as quickly as possible and go back into the house to huddle by my own fire. Then I realized that my smallest sheep was missing. Turning around, I saw her against the snow. Suddenly she was more than a little grey rescue. Her poise and sweetness spoke to me of the Lamb of God. This was perhaps my first real experience of the risen Christ, but given to me so gently, on the eve of Jesus’ coming to be with us. As Lissa trotted into the warm shed to join the others, I realized that there was a place of warmth and community for me too. I quickly went inside, changed, and was just in time for a service a few minutes from my house.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t stopping there. Once I began teaching in New Haven, I was awakened on at least two nights, perhaps a month apart, by hearing my name called. So clear was the voice that I jumped out of bed to see if anyone in the house was in trouble. Since everyone was snoring away, I went back to bed and prayed to know why I had been awakened. On a third occasion, I was awakened by my own voice saying so clearly that I can still hear it, “I must preach God’s creation.” And once more, my experiences crystallized through the witness of others. This time it was the women in a small squatter’s village in Honduras. When a group from my church visited, I was awed and humbled by the way the women prayed for the hearts and souls of us rich Anglos.

What followed was my rejection for ordination, on the basis of age, by the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut and several years of struggle and prayer in which I begged God to help me reshape my life and lift the burden of failure and worthlessness. I could not dismiss the call I had been hearing and the love and purpose I had been experiencing in my classes at Divinity School and in my internships in several Episcopal churches.

It never occurred to me to jump ship and change denominations, but it had occurred to God! Gradually I began realizing that the Methodist Church had already touched my life. I had always been attracted to John Wesley and felt that I would had to have followed him had I lived in his time. I owned a little cottage in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on the Methodist Camp-Meeting Grounds for some twenty years, often spending most of the summer. Central to those summers was the community life that centered around the Tabernacle with its services and hymn sings. My ministry of bringing my farm animals to Advent Pageants brought me into two outstanding Methodist churches. In each case, I was impressed that these big churches were not producing lavish Christmas shows but offering the Good News of Jesus through outdoor events to the community. At Yale, meanwhile, I began to work at the Ministry Resource Center, under the direction of an outstanding Methodist married to the then District Superintendant.

Finally, when I had a liturgy project for school, I decided to attend several Methodist churches. In them, I felt fully at worship. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a posting for a job as Youth Director at Katonah United Methodist Church, called and was hired. I joined the Methodist Church several months later. Only later did I remember that years ago my dad had been brought to this country by a Methodist group. He always spoke with gratitude of “the Methodists” as having been responsible for his coming here and being my dad.

After a year and a half in which I built a Youth Group at Katonah, I wanted time to worship from the pew. I joined my local Methodist Church and actually listened when the pastor urged me to write to the Bishop. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I received a phone call from Jim Moore on Memorial Day, inviting me to interview here! This church is an inspiration and a joy, with so many possibilities for growth and fuller community engagement. Your witness is the latest in such a wonderful series of gifts. There may well be some differences ahead, but with the help of the Holy Spirit and of you, we’ve gotten off to a solid start.

Note the “we.” This sermon of Witness has not been only about me. It’s been about the active faith, the doing, of my people, of my colleagues, of women met briefly in Honduras—and about you. These continuing threads that we weave together are formative lifelines, Witness in the fullest sense for us all. And we’re not in it alone. I hope you’ve heard my awe at the way in which Christ, our sustainer, is always at work among us.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, Thank you for being with us on our journeys, even when we think we can’t see you. Be with us here, now, as we begin another part of our journey. Help us find marvelous opportunities for learning, leading, and serving together. Continue to startle us with your love! AMEN.