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.