Monday, September 26, 2011

Apple Festival Sunday

The Lord be with you./And also with you.
Our God is always working within us, so that we can follow God’s will.
Come, let us worship.

Sermon for 9.25.11: Apple Festival Sunday
Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32

When things seem all at sixes and sevens, I try to remember a blessing that I’ve just received. This can sometimes turn me around. It’s comforting to me that Paul is doing much the same thing in this famous passage from Philippians. There are problems in the church at Philippi and Paul hopes to help. He himself is in prison, waiting to be executed, and he wants to lift his own spirits too. I’m sure that the early church saved this letter in part because it showed the way faith can bring us through hard times.

So Paul starts by reminding the Christians of Philippi of all the good that they have experienced through Christ. Our translation starts with a series of “if”s: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit,” Actually the passage is a series of statements with which Paul knows the Philippians already agree: “Since there is encouragement in Christ, since there is consolation from Christ’s love, since there is fellowship in the Spirit”—since we know these things are true and since we know we are the better for them, it is possible to live in an even more Christ-like way. Doing so will bring us closer to salvation, will be pleasing to God, and can only make matters better among us in our community.

But how do we live in a more Christ-like way, with the same attitude or mind that was in Christ Jesus? How do we respond more appropriately, more fully to our blessings? To answer his own question, Paul quotes a hymn to Christ that also explains who Christ is. Maybe the most exciting part is that Paul introduces the hymn by asking us to be part of it: “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.” Eugene Peterson, in his interpretation, the Message, is bolder. He writes, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.”

The first part of the hymn states what we know: Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be [all puffed up about], but emptied himself, taking the [status] of a slave, being born in human likeness.” In other words, Christ, because he was God, was not only willing to humble himself in order to be born as a human. To become human, he had no choice.

The second verse too is familiar: Here is the Resurrection and Ascension! Because of Jesus’ humility, God exalted him and made him Lord over all, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue …confess that [He] is Lord”-- a power greater and better than anyone can imagine.

But first Christ had to be humble. Look at the way Christ’s humility is described. The hymn says he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (vs. 7). The Greek word that Paul used became important theologically: It’s kenosis. I want you to hear it, even if it sounds like the name of a disease or maybe an imported sausage: kenosis. Paul is imagining what it meant for Christ to empty himself of his Godliness in order to become one of us, to become Jesus. Self-emptying. The word asks us to think about the Incarnation, not only for Christ but for us.

To become man, Christ had to be humble, had to empty himself of all that Godly power and might, and-- to live among us—you know He had to be incredibly loving and humble. Not in the abstract, not remotely, from on high. Humble towards us, loving towards us, loving creatures so different than God’s own self.1 And because of this, Christ—the God/man---had to love justice, peace, and the well-being of all creatures. Such self-emptying was a passion for him—a passion great enough to die for. So how can Paul start with asking us to think of ourselves the way Jesus thought of himself?

In the second verse, we are told that we respond to Christ’s emptying of Himself by bowing before Him: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow” (Hymn 168). This doesn’t only mean praising God or a motion we go through in church before prayers. It means that we respond to Christ’s self-emptying with an emptying of ourselves. This isn’t just theology. There’s a message, a real hope here for each of us. Christ is asking something that might seem strange, impossible even, but in silencing our mind chatter, we are allowing Christ to enter our lives.

We get all puffed up with ourselves, our ambitions and dreams, all filled with our worries, our burdens, our anger, our hurt. But Christ, a higher authority, asks us to be like him. He tells us to have the mind of God’s humble servant and empty ourselves sufficiently to allow God to work within us.

Christ’s authority begins to come from within as we listen. As we allow God to work within us, we are more likely to act on God’s authority. Allowing the divine presence to work in us takes prayer work, the discipline of specific time given not only to talking with God, but listening to God speak within us. This is also humbling work. Sometimes we have to admit that maybe God is working within us in ways we can’t yet hear, ways we can’t yet understand. But if Christ could empty himself, we can at least try to do so.

There’s the old joke: If you were accused of being a Christian, what is the evidence that would convict you? After the last month, many of us would have the right to say: Lord, I was faithful. I came and worked at the church for hours, day after day, until I was exhausted. And this past weekend, Lord, was over the top! While pastor was upstairs happily typing, many of us were doing heavy kitchen duty downstairs. And all for your glory.

This is true and this is good. And yet, when we get a little rested and begin to recover, help us to remember that there are many ways to act on the Lord’s authority. Help us to remember that they also serve who only stand and wait for the Lord’s presence to fill the space prepared within our hearts.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us enthrone you in our hearts. Let us allow you to transform all that is not holy, all that is not worthy of you. Give us the humility to empty ourselves so that we leave room for you and your authority. Let your will enfold us in its light and power and love. Let our work be for your good pleasure. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grumbling vs. Honest Questions

The Lord be with you / and also with you
Our God is more generous than we can ask or imagine
Come, let us worship!

Sermon for 9.18.11: “Grumbling vs. Honest Questions”
Exodus 16.2-7, 10-15, 19-21; Matthew 20.1-16

I realize that “Revised Common Lectionary” may be a strange term. It’s important because it represents a huge ecumenical effort over decades and Methodists are asked to follow it. Last week, for good reasons, I made my own choices from Scripture, but usually we are to read and preach from four passages: a psalm, the Old Testament, something from the New Testament, and then the Gospel. We can use a psalm during our opening and then follow with two or three of the others. Two passages are ok, but using three is traditional and unites us with mainline Christians, including the Roman Catholics. That doesn’t mean that everyone does this; often they don’t. But the idea is for all Christians to be united in as many ways as possible. And so, for me, the idea that on Sunday morning, we are all focusing on the same texts, praying over them, trying to understand them better is a truly holy thing. We should never discount the power of Christian unity: working together and praying together as the full body of Christ, even across denominations; honoring together the words that have been saved for us in Scripture to tease our minds into more active thought.

That being said, I read only two passages this morning, and I did play around a bit with the verses in Exodus. These two readings and the psalm--considerably shortened--are from the Revised Common Lectionary. Note the word “Revised.” Pastors, priests, and scholars struggled over the selection for years because they hoped that by following these readings in three-year cycles, the faithful would hear or read the crucial parts of the Bible. Not everyone loves their choices. Another way is to read chapter by chapter on a daily basis, and many of us do. But this lectionary attempts to showcase those parts most relevant to our growth as Christians. That means a lot of history and those “begots” can be put to one side. Sexy parts too. There has also been a heroic attempt to chose passages that go together in some way. Sometimes pastors tear out their hair; sometimes pastors try very hard to draw them all together; and sometimes we just give up.

This morning I left out the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, although it would have been fun to tie it in with the grumbling of the children of Israel wandering in the desert and the workers in Jesus’ parable. Paul is grumbling because he’s in prison and wants out so badly that he wishes that God would end his life. You can read any of the passages on your own before church since I print the readings for the following week. When I was sitting in the pews, I liked to try to guess which the Pastor would pull. This wasn’t so much an intellectual exercise; I wondered how to make a fuller picture of God’s Word.

There is a common thread in Exodus 16 and the parable from Matthew. In Exodus, the people haven’t been on their journey for very long, but they’re already complaining: Not “Are we there yet?” but “Why did we come at all?” They had been desperate to escape Egypt, and for good reasons. Now a very small part of their life in Egypt becomes what they long for most: the familiar taste of bread. This is so human and so true to life.

The people make life a nightmare for Moses and Aaron. But God hears anyway. "They want bread," says God, "I’ll give them bread." And it was wonderful bread: with the taste of coriander and honey. HOWEVER: God’s ground rules are different. If they tried to hoard this bread, it became unfit for consumption: full of worms. Could it sound like "Give us this day, the bread that we need for this day—that we actually require"? God’s blessings, like manna, cannot be hoarded. God’s blessings, like manna, are fresh every day.

The complaints in Jesus’ parable are different: There everyone gets paid the same wages for the day, even those who had been hired for just a few hours. It’s tempting to side with the workers who’d gotten out early and sweated through the entire day. Their question is an honest one: We ask God such questions all the time: Is this fair? I don’t understand, God. Why? And especially, Why me?

But this is not a story about labor relations or even about God as a rigid parent/boss who requires that we follow the rules, whether we like them or not. Don’t forget the opening. This is a parable that describes the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who….” And then it explains how things work in this kingdom that we pray will come to us on earth and that we will find in heaven. A kingdom that we pray will come, even though we can only dimly grasp what that means in moments of grace, in those moments in which we transcend out usual selves. God answers the workers questions. The first may seem authoritarian: “Can’t I do what I want with what belongs to me?” But listen to the second: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

The message here is about a world, here and hereafter, that is not run by clocks or payscales. That is not run the way we usually think things should be run. It is not about the way we compare ourselves to others. It is a way of showing God’s generosity. The kingdom of heaven is conceived and implemented by a generosity that our conditioning makes hard to accept. Too bad this isn’t a sermon on stewardship; the message applies. It is a message that shines upon those who in so many ways work hard for the good of this church, even those who come to help at the last minute or who hope that whatever their honest contribution, it may be of some use. It is a message that shines upon those who seek to learn how to be emergency responders for a crisis the likes of which our region has not experienced in some time.

The kingdom of heaven comes a little closer as we stretch towards generosity of spirit through time, money, and whatever talents God has graced us with. Remember the father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father is willing to wait until his son is on the road home and then welcomes him with the fullness of love. Even if we show up later than others, God longs for our hearts to be moved in this way. And God can be patient. As for those who were First Responders for the Kingdom, that’s cool too. God pays them in full. As the father says to the son who has labored at home all those years, “I am always with you and all that I have is yours.”

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, thank you for your overwhelming generosity to us. Give us the grace to trust it, even when to us it seems slow in coming. Help us to be more generous to those whom you have given us to know. Help us to be more generous in the way we see others. Help us to be more generous in the time that we spend with you. Help us to be more generous in judging ourselves, for we are your laborers, valued and provided for by you, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We Have Options

The Lord be with you/ and also with you
No matter what happens, even when shadows gather, we can trust our God.
Come, let us worship!

Please pray with me: Dearest Lord, by the might of your Spirit lift us to your presence, where we may be still and hear your word and your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

These have been sobering weeks for us—as a congregation, a town, and a region. We have said our earthly goodbyes to two women loved in this town, Mabel Myers and Ruth Van Leuven. Kingston paid its final respect to Doug Cordo, the young soldier killed in Afghanistan. And then our region was ravaged by winds and floods, with many still in desperate need of help.

Now we are observing a national day of mourning, the tenth anniversary of the attack upon our country by terrorists. If any of you had personal losses on that day, I invite you to lift them up during our time of concerns. But even those of us who were removed from the carnage and grief, remember the disbelief and then the horror and despair of that first 9/11. The unthinkable had happened. I was in New Haven at seminary. I remember the vigils all over campus. There were a few angry signs painted on plywood as I drove home. But mainly people stood in speechless sorrow with their flickering candles, looking for some way of being with others when words were impossible.

How is such a wound healed? How is such a nightmare quieted? How do we live with such memories? Where is God in all this? As I read through the special issue of New York Magazine this week, I was haunted by a photograph of two men who jumped from the towers. Many such photographs have been suppressed, considered an insult to the dead and too shocking for the living. These photographs make us realize in one more way just how vulnerable the victims were. Probably 7 percent of those murdered on 9/11 died by jumping. “Those trapped in the towers had only two choices--, “ wrote the reporter Susie Linfield (p. 82), “to jump to their deaths or to be incinerated—which is to say they had no choice at all….What the 9/11 victims faced was the absence of options.” It is essential that we honor all those faced with the absence of options.

We must also honor those who, God knows how, made options for themselves. Those directly affected have been telling their stories this week. There was the firefighter father who went to ground zero looking for his son. He didn’t find him, but as he looked he found others. Here is someone’s son, he realized, here is someone that needs to be found. I heard an interview with a young woman who must have been barely twenty when she lost her mother. She has spent the last ten years making documentaries of terrorist action in the Muslim world to show the many caring and reasonable members of Islam the horrors that are being enacted in the name of their faith. And there was David Bouley, owner of a 4-star restaurant near Ground Zero, who for weeks afterwards fed any worker who came in.

These people, in the midst of grief, either their own or that of others, found options. In some way, they were beginning the process of healing by reaching out to others, known and unknown. They were proving that peace and community are stronger than hate and violence. Think of the concentrated emergency-service response—the largest in American history (New York, 62). Despite all the horror, the outpouring of energy and courage and selflessness of the next days and weeks cannot be forgotten. It was as though the only possible response was to give all one had, without thought for the consequences, even though, for many of the rescuers and workers, those consequences were fatal. They were and must remain amazing role-models.

God had to have been moving the hearts of many in that tragedy. God had to be at the side of those struggling to respond and then struggling with the toxic after effects, either physical or spiritual. As Christians, we can honor “the circles of fellowship” that formed and that continue to strengthen those changed by that day. Without in any way minimizing the tragedy, we must realize the gift that those responders and those survivors have left us. I see in them a gift of healing and a gift for our future together as a nation and beyond. I see in them a reminder that as Christians, we have options.

In looking for Scripture that would comfort and guide, I was drawn to Isaiah’s God-given vision of a world in which there is neither weeping nor cries of distress. In which there is neither murder nor destruction. These are powerful words. They are not fantasy or poetry. They are words of prophesy, even though, in their own way, they are as hard to believe as news reports of sudden tragedy. They are the words of a God who gives us options.

The first Christians believed that such a world was possible if they worked towards it together under the guidance of Christ. In the passage from Acts, we are told of the choices they made, the options they forged for themselves. They ”devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They gave to any in need. They were inspired to do so “because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” We read of conversions, even of public officials, and of countless physical healings.
Such productive fellowship may well seem unrealistic, beyond our reach. And yet, at times, we approach it. I have seen it in this church, among us here, over and over again. All Christ asks is that we fall in love with the possibility and that we see it as an option. Christ asks that we work our hardest to listen and follow his parting words: I leave you my peace, but my peace is not what the world gives. As your pastor, I cannot presume to say what each person’s individual choices might be, but I am convinced that, as a start, we must seek and nurture God’s peace within ourselves, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in any part of our lives where they are needed.

Each one of us can begin with basic questions: Am I willing to be forgiven by God? By myself? By someone else? Am I willing to forgive someone else? Am I willing to be the one to act? Am I praying for any group toward whom I feel fear, anger, resentment, or indignation? Am I also praying for myself?

For me, it is good to remember the prayer of St. Francis: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant they we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Celebration of the Life of Ruth M. Van Leuven

August 23, 2011

Dearest Children of God,
We are here to celebrate the life of Ruth Margie Van Leuven, a descendant of some of the first settlers of this region. Like her forebears, Ruth was a hard and conscientious worker, one of those whose steady commitment to their job and their family keeps the community going. Ruth had dreamed of becoming a model. She certainly had a beautiful figure and was accepted at modeling school, but because of an accident that was not to be. Instead she became a nurturer, in her paid work and beyond.
She was always buying presents for the children she knew. She cared for her brother Walter’s home and those of many others. She’d do anything for anybody. She was good to her neighbors. She’d take them on errands. Does it matter that sometimes she’d get a bit annoyed when they asked her to take them to one place and ended up asking her to go to four or five? She was a woman of strong feelings. Her neighbors probably knew that finally Ruthie wouldn’t say no.
The bottom line for Ruth was always to be there for those she knew. Her heart was as big as this world. If you were a little short, she gave you money. She loved to cook: her family remembers her mac and cheese and her fried chicken, even though she herself stopped eating meat years ago because she could not bear the suffering inflicted upon the animals used for food. She loved to go fishing, but never brought fish home because she would usually let them go. One hobby that she dearly enjoyed was doing ceramics. Her class was every Tuesday night. Should we be surprised that she made animals and angels? She loved her church as well, and was a shining light in the Church of the Nazarene in Kingston until it closed. More recently she began coming to this church and would have continued except that her illness made it impossible.
Ruthie’s first love was her family. She took care of her parents when they became ill. Her nephew Jimmy remembers the wonderful Sunday drives that she, he, and Walter would take. They’d go to Vermont looking for antiques or to Lake George where they could enjoy the horses, or to Connecticut, and they’d have a nice meal on the way. In time, she began looking after her sister Elaine in Port Ewen. First, she would have coffee every morning with her sister Eloise who lived around the corner from her in Kingston: coffee in the morning and a little visit and TV at the end of the day. Even after she became ill, she continued going to her brother Walter’s house to care for Elaine. She did not shirk her responsibilities.
Her three-year fight with cancer was terrible and so hard to accept. Why would this happen to such a good, upright, and caring person? There is no easy answer. She did not deserve to suffer. Anger at this ending of a life is fully understandable. The hole that she will leave in the hearts of her family and of those of us who knew her is huge. But we must be thankful that her suffering is finally over.
Now bear me out and understand the comparison I am going to make. Ruth had a little dog named Chance, who is still alive and well at Walter’s. Chance was a rescued dog, so named because Ruth knew she was giving her a second chance. That is what God does for each one of us. We no longer see Ruth, but she is not gone. God takes each of us from wherever we are in this hard and sometimes harsh mortal life. God surrounds us with a divine love and care and mercy that we can hardly imagine. God gives us a second chance. This is our faith and this is our hope.
Ruth is now resting safely from her pain and her labors. There can be no doubt in my mind that she is a lamb of our Savior’s own flock. She has been redeemed by our Savior’s own life and terrible death among us, and freed by our Savior’s mighty Resurrection and glorious Ascension. Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light. Our faith tells us that Ruth has been received into everlasting peace and into that glorious company of the saints of light. She has been raised into new life, a life that everything in her life among us was preparing her for. This is cause for celebration and for praise, and this is why, despite our terrible grief, we know there can be joy in this day.
I must say of Ruth what I love to say of each blessed departed soul: She now knows so much more than we do. She is in the presence of the one Beloved. We are still pilgrims with miles to go, but Ruth has finished her course, living in her heavenly home for eternity. We sing Alleluia--Praise the Lord--with the hope and faith we can muster, but Ruth’s hope and faith have finally been fulfilled. Her song is richer than we can yet know, but we can join her in saying tegether: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. So may it be, Lord Jesus. And let the people say,

Who Is Jesus?

Sermon for 8.21.11, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Who Is Jesus?”
Common Lectionary Scriptural Lessons: Psalm 124; Exodus 1.8-2.10;
Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

Please pray with me: May my words please you, dear Lord, and may your Holy Spirit speak them to those gathered before you, here, in your holy place. Amen.
From today’s Epistle: “…We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”

Sometimes the lessons chosen for the Common Lectionary really support each other as a unit. Today they seem to have gotten it right! In Exodus, the women work together to disobey Pharaoh so that the children can survive. In Romans, Paul asks us to think of ourselves as one body, each part absolutely connected to the other and each part not only having different functions but having unique and true value. And then in Matthew, we hear Christ proclaimed by Peter as the “Son of the living God.”

These passages are a perfect introduction to the themes of the combined Vacation Bible School that took over the Reformed Church this past week and took over the schedules of some of us on the VBS Committee here. The Vacation Bible School is offered by the combined efforts of three churches in Port Ewen: Town of Esopus United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church, and Presentation Roman Catholic Church. Two years ago, when I first came, there were 44 students. Last year there were 59, and this time we had 70. The upper classes that Susan Dolce and I taught (grades 5 & 6, 7 & 8) topped out at 18 students. We don’t usually see all those children in our churches!

It was clear that the children genuinely enjoyed their time. Through their collections each morning at worship, they brought $219 to the Port Ewen Food Pantry (housed and run by our Methodist Church) and over 157 items of food. They brought materials for 11 school kits. The older students, under Susan’s direction, packaged 18 full and 7 partial kits of toiletries. These older ones came down to the Pantry and helped inventory and shelve the donations. From the questions they asked—such as “Why are there so many cans of green beans?”--it was clear that this work made an impression on them. They also gifted us with the blankets that we have placed over the altar rail; these are for us to give out in winter so that a few people at least can feel cozy.

But the week was far more than these statistics. VBS is community building and mission in the deepest sense. Children are our future, our responsibility, and a way that God blesses us. They bring their individual and age-related gifts to the body of Christ of which we are all a part. How good it is that there were so many and that some will remember that at least three different churches gathered them. The children may not yet know how serious the differences among our denominations can be. More important is that we prayed, sang, played, and talked about God together. There were unchurched children there as well and children from other churches. Many some from each group came in part because their friends were going or because it gave their moms some precious mornings off. What nobody knows is that word, what activity, what response will come back to them, maybe years from now and maybe in an hour of need. Let them remember that diverse as we may have been, we are all the children of God. So much the better that the space we shared was safe and the time filled with laughter.

The lessons were organized around five very basic yet important questions. We didn’t start, as does Jesus in the passage from Matthew, by asking, “Who do people say that I am?”. Instead we asked much the same question that our Lord was really interested in: “Who do you say that I am?” Tuesday’s question was “Why can I trust Jesus,” then “Why do I need Jesus,” then “How can Jesus help me when I mess us,” and finally, on Friday, “What does Jesus want me to do?” I could spend the rest of my life on these questions!

I taught two days, Pastor Jim Beukelman two, we overlapped on Friday, and Susan Dolce, bless her heart, was our five-day continuity. We wanted our examples to be as concrete as possible for our age group, and so we chose Bible stories that we thought the students could imagine themselves into. For warm-up, we tossed beach balls back and forth; the one left holding them when I chapped had to give a quick answer to a question such as “What makes a friend?” of “Tell us something that no one would guess about you”—questions that we could apply to Jesus later on. But sometimes we popped the big question: “Who is Jesus?” Aside from “Miracle Worker,” “God,” and “Savior,” we got “someone who helps me with my fears” and “Jesus is bread.”

For the balance of this first lesson, we had them divide into small groups, read the stories of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, and then draw pictures showing what kind of person they thought Jesus was in the story. The results were telling: Often the Jesus figure looked very much like them, small and vulnerable, but not backing down, despite a huge or very red devil, surrounded by amazing clouds and lightning.

There was also a Bible verse for each day. On Wednesday, the day of looking at why we need Jesus, the verse was from John 10.10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” As we worked through our story choice for that day, the feeding of the multitude, the students translated “abundant” as: “amazing,” “more than enough,” “as much as I need,” “feeling filled,” “an awesome life,” “graceful/grace filled,” “filled with wanting to give,” “enough for others,” and—simply—“satisfied.” We then asked them to complete two questions: “I need Jesus because…” and “Jesus needs me because….” Here’s what we heard: “He fills us,” “He understands us,” “He listens,” “He notices us.” And conversely: “Jesus wants us to pray,” “to love him,” “to care,” “to continue his ministry,” “to protect his church from harm.”

I’m sure that some of these responses began developing on the previous day when the students did a trust exercise: They were blindfolded and someone told them how and where it was safe to go. On the next day, the students loved pantomiming the story of the Prodigal Son. No words, just actions, as they considered this story of a messed-up boy and a God who is always waiting.

Susan and I struggled to find the right story for the last day. We didn’t just want to preach discipleship in the abstract. We wanted a story for the students to act out that would show Jesus reaching out to someone no one else would go near. It was Susan who came up with Zaccheus, the tax collector. Our play opened the Evening for Families and Friends on Friday night.

Susan Dolce: We wanted to end the week with something that would tie together the five questions proposed by the VBS program. I thought of the story of Zaccheus because I wanted something that would hold the interest—and energy-- of 5th through 8th graders and help them answer the questions. We thought of making it into a play because the interaction would help them understand the story better. For those not familiar with the story, it would be easy to follow.

A tall and gentle young man named Tayshan Grey portrayed Jesus. Zaccheus was portrayed by one of the shorter members of the class, Mike Miller. The tree that he climbed was a ladder draped in table clothes. I put a slit in the top, so Zaccheus could pop his head out of it and wear it like a poncho. Of course the audience laughed! Our two narrators, Robert and Olivia, helped the audience picture the scenes. The rest of the class and Pastor Jim were the crowd that followed Jesus and tried to stop him from going to Zaccheus’s house. But Jesus refused to listen, and the two sauntered off, with a changed crowd following behind.

The class became very involved in the play and those with reading parts wanted to practice them over and over. The rest of us noticed that the more they read out loud, the more they seemed to understand. When we had our final rehearsal, I asked how the play answered our questions from the week’s lessons. And here’s what we heard: Clearly this is a man we can trust and one we need. Look how he turned around that awful tax collector who worked for the Romans! Look how he changed someone who had been really messed up. Look how he changed us in the crowd! Pastor Dora and I loved our interactions with all the boys and girls and the insights that the young are so able to provide when we give them a chance and a way.

Pastor’s closing prayer:
Dearest Lord: May we remember your gifts to us: that you are in our lives; that we can trust you; that we need you more than we might know; that we can always turn to you, even when we’ve messed up—or find ourselves with others who have; and, finally, that you want us to reach out in love even to those who are very different from us. Give us grace to remember that all of us, diverse as we may be, are part of your body, are part of your love. Help us to keep asking the questions we asked the children this week and to live into them more deeply day by day. We pray in your name. Amen.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Living Hope

Morning Worship
Third Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2011
“Living Hope”
Lectionary for Fourth Sunday of Lent:
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Invocation (in unison):
Holy and awesome God, we come this morning for hope that will sustain us in times of fear and confusion and doubt. Wash us today with the living waters of your presence so that we may accept your mercy and your grace for ourselves and, in so doing, be able to offer them to others. Open us to the possibilities of encountering you in unexpected ways and of sharing your love and generosity in unexpected ways with those whom we encounter. Amen.

Prayer for Guidance: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised. Amen.

Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Patient and ever-faithful God, we confess that we can be an unsatisfied people. When things do not go as we wish, we murmur and complain and doubt. We lose hope in the people around us, and we lose hope in you. We put you to the test rather than trusting your loving kindness. Forgive us, we pray. Let us quench our thirst through you. Amen.

The Lord be with you/ and also with you
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
May your name be praised!
Come, let us worship!

Sermon for 3.27.11, Third Sunday in Lent: “Living Hope”
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42

Please pray with me: May my words help turn our hearts to you, Dear Lord, and may the Holy Spirit add its blessing. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Jesus replied, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”

Such an unexpected thing happened to me on Tuesday night. I was on my way back to Connecticut at about 9:45 and thought I’d stop on 9W to get gas and a hard roll. But when I walked into the station, not one roll was left. “Not one roll anywhere?” I moaned because I know the people who work there. “Not one,” they said. Then behind me, I heard a lovely male voice, “Rolls? You want rolls? I have rolls.” None of us knew him, but he was apparently making his delivery rounds for the next day—not to the station where I was, however. When I followed him outside, he opened the back of his truck, handed me a bag and said, “You may have two.” Inside, the women were waiting with butter. “Dinner on the world tonight, pastor!” We were all laughing, and I certainly had what I’d longed for.

The Children in the Wilderness had a far greater need than mine, but an unexpected blessing was waiting for them too. They’re stranded miles—even years—from nowhere and there is no water, for them, their children, or their livestock. Moses was to hear this story over and over again. Whenever anything went wrong, they would grumble and complain, “You couldn’t just have left us to die in Egypt!” God, who’s heard it all before too, of course, provides them with real and good water in the most improbable way—by having Moses strike a rock. This was not the first time God, through Moses, had given them living hope. They might have remembered the parting of the Red Sea. Still, God’s people are easily frustrated and frightened. Who can blame them? The story can really come alive because of the many places today, including Japan and refugee camps, where people don’t have good drinking water. The point is that God still loves those wandering in desert places and does not allow that love “to be soured [or] frustrated” by short memories.1

The woman at the well in the Gospel of John, on the other hand, certainly didn’t know what it was that she needed. In the middle of everyday chores, a thirsty Jewish man suddenly asks her for water. She’s perfectly aware that Jews and Samaritans have had religious differences for centuries and that they regard one another as outsiders. But this one is thirsty and she has the water bucket. Because of her five husbands, the usual interpretation is that she is a loose woman and, when she begins to ask Jesus questions, bolder than she should be. But John is clever; he’ll tell you one thing—and it will be true, but only partially, for it will also have another meaning.

So we need to look at something else here, and that’s why I wanted Ed and Lisa to read together this morning. I wasn’t type-casting them as Jesus and the Samaritan Women. For one thing, they’re married; they’ve made a covenant with one another. Well, where did boy meet girl in ancient Israel? In case we’ve forgotten, Jacob is mentioned three times at the start of this very passage! And Jacob fell in love with Rachel at the well! There were usually onlookers, so one had to behave, but the conversation could begin. When Lisa and Ed read, they were playing their parts, but the truth of who they really are underlies that, and we here know it. In this case, who they really are adds to our understanding of the passage.

So too with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus is the thirsty traveler and the Woman has the bucket. And then the roles reverse and a love story of sorts begins. Unlike Nicodemus, just one chapter earlier, the woman does not back off. She begins to engage Jesus in real conversation. She asserts herself as a Samaritan and defends the authority of her ancestor, Jacob. But she is a good listener and only a few verses later, she asks for the water that Jesus is offering to her. Notice that Jesus doesn’t chide her for being literal, or make fun of her, as he did Nicodemus. He could have considered her an outsider, a woman, and therefore invisible. Instead, he talks to her and offers her eternal life. As she begins to understand and accept this hope, as she starts her new spiritual life, he keeps the conversation going. He is not condescending, but amazingly reveals himself as God, as the “I am.”

The woman is as overwhelmed by his respect and his kindness as by his revelation. Leaving her water jar behind, she rushes into the city to proclaim her Good News. She cannot keep her experience to herself. “He told me everything I have ever done,” she keeps repeating, and with no suggestion of having been found out or disgraced. “Come and see,” she says, echoing the words used by the first disciples as they recruited others. She essentially becomes a disciple herself and “many Samaritans …believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” They proclaim him “the Savior of the world.” They are ready to accept his new covenant.

We don’t hear more of the woman’s story, but we know that Jesus has started her on a serious journey and that a covenant of faith has been established between them.2 Faithfulness between God and God’s people is often described as a marriage. It is certainly a mutual relationship, for if Jesus has offered her a living hope and shown her the face of the Messiah, she has accepted his words, become his apostle, and already begun living the hope he has given her. She has begun to embody that hope for everyone she meets.

We too are people who hunger and thirst. Like the Children in the Wilderness, we may lose hope because we think God does not love us sufficiently. It may be easier to hold onto our Massahs (places of testing) or our Meribahs (places of quarreling) than to do the hard work of turning ourselves around. Or we may try to tough things out ourselves without developing that closer relationship to God that the Woman begins to realize she longs for. We may also forget that Jesus offered living water to the Woman through patient and kind conversation, through a caring relationship. We can live that way with others as well.

We meet the Woman as she begins her discipleship. We see the Children of Israel in the thick of crisis. The walk to Golgotha that we are invited to take with Jesus during this season of Lent is not easy, but if we persist, we will not only develop endurance and character, as Paul tell us, but we will begin living that hope with which Christ longs to fill all hearts. He carries the burden of our utter helplessness and he carries it with immense love for each one of us. His immense love and the peace that it brings are as inexhaustible and sometimes as surprising as a spring of fresh water that suddenly gushes up from the earth.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, give us the courage or the humility—whatever is required—to know that you are waiting for us wherever we are in our lives. Let us not reject your love or take it for granted, but let us long for it and cherish it. Let us take time, each day, to be with you. And if you surprise us with your presence, let us, like the Samaritan Woman, respond by seeking to know you further. Finally, dear Lord, let us live our hope in you. Let others feel your grace pouring through us. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Just How Hungry Are We?

Morning Worship for the First Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011
“Just How Hungry Are We?”
Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a;
Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Organ Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
Great and holy God, awe and reverence, fear and trembling do not come easily to us, but we come before you this morning, the first Sunday in Lent, knowing that your eyes are upon us and that your love surrounds us. It is you, Lord, who teach us and guide us. Help us to hunger after you. Help us to want what we need. Help us to rejoice in the gift of your unfailing love. Amen.
The Entrance
*Introit #269 “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (vs. 1 & 2)
*Call to Worship: Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)
Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world. Amen.
*Opening Hymn #402 “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”
*Greeting One Another with the Peace of Christ
Anthem by Our Choir
A Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)
Proclamation of the Word
Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (New Living Translation)
Musical Interlude
New Testament Lesson: Romans 5:12-19 (The Message)
Musical Interlude
The Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11 (The Message)
Sermon: “Just How Hungry Are We?” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko
Response to the Word
*Sermon Hymn #397 “I Need Thee Every Hour”
Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Dearest Lord, we are afraid to face the reality of our mortality and of our sins. Turning to you seems like too great a burden or we are ashamed to begin to admit our misdeeds. Instead we busy our minds with all manner of self-important distractions and worries. Forgive us for hiding from you or simply thinking we can turn our backs. Forgive us for tiptoeing into your presence with little expectation. Forgive us for finding it so hard to turn fully to you. In your steadfast love, cleanse us. In your Holy Spirit, restore us. In the name of our Savior, we pray. Amen.
(A period of silence for reflection and prayer will follow.)
Words of Assurance and Hope
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
*Prayer of Thanksgiving
Sending Forth
*Sending Hymn #398 “Jesus Calls Us” (vs. 1, 3-5)
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude

Sermon for 3.13.11, first Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3.1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

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

From today’s Gospel: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

I have to start this morning with my goats. In this season of self-examination and repentance, it’s not bad to see ourselves through an outrageous comparison. Goats are so determined: determined to find a way to push down the fence, to get into the garden, to whip around me and get into the grain bin. It’s not only about eating. It’s about independence and being what they please, over and over again. It’s about their understanding of freedom, which they love.

Our love of these same traits may help us look at our first story from Scripture: Adam and Eve in the Garden. We’ve heard it described so often as a tale about sin and sex. We all know the terrible rap that Eve and women have had to take because of this way of reading it. But the words “sin” and “punishment” do not appear. Maybe we should think about this account as a way to talk about God’s purposes for us.

Into this garden of original blessings, God placed the first humans, giving them clear instructions. The Hebrew tells us they were “to serve and to preserve or protect” this garden, not simply till and keep it. God is giving the man and the woman a vocation.1 This vocation is not to lord it over the garden or see what they can get out of it. It is to be responsible for what had been placed in it, and watch over it. In other early creation stories, the gods often created people as a by-product or a mistake. It was the most earnest belief of these first writers of Scripture that our God created us for a holy purpose, to care for what God had made and loved.

In doing so, God gave us a great deal of freedom, but the freedom was not total. God asked for trust and intimacy. And so this vocation and its freedom had limits, constraints considered appropriate by God, and consequences if these constraints were ignored. These limits are made real for us by that famous tree with its apple.

When the serpent asks the woman whether God really gave them such a command, he’s trying to redirect the way Eve thinks of her vocation. He also wants to erode her trust in God. “Think about what you can gain for yourself. You’ll have a whole new kind of seeing,” he argues, “You’ll know so much more.” Trying out his suggestion, Eve looks at the tree again: it certainly seems to have good fruit; it’s beautiful—and therefore can’t be all that bad for her; and she will have a whole new and broad range of experiences. So she decides to go her own way and eat.

The result of her hunger and that of her husband is to estrange them from God and, as we hear them quarreling, from one another. God didn’t simply want them to behave,2 to fall into line. God wanted fullness of life for them in that fertile garden, through a balanced relationship with God and all that God had placed there with them. But their desire to put their own personal knowledge ahead of God’s guidance means that they tried to become like God. They were no longer simply and wonderfully in God; they acted against God.3 Actions against God’s creation must follow.

Such willful breaking of their relationship with God is what we must call sin. It is a pattern for a whole list of sins—many of them horrible. Cain’s murder of Abel will follow. But we may take more from this story if we think about how subtlely the problem starts and repeats itself: with lack of trust in God, lack of relationship with God, with turning away from what God is calling us to do, with forgetting God’s gracious limits on our own self-centeredness. This is the human condition without grace.

God wants so much more for us and with us than that. And so we are given a second story from Scripture this morning, the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Just as we know that Eve will say yes, we know that Jesus will say no. But Matthew wanted us to hear Jesus say no, wanted us to hear the way he refused to act against God. Matthew also wanted us to realize that even for the beloved son there was testing. Just as the serpent wanted Eve to question God’s loving instructions, so that voice in Jesus’ ear wanted to mislead Jesus about sonship with God.

Each of the temptations is a variation on the desire for power or control. Each would separate Jesus from God and lead to self-destruction. These temptations continue to haunt us. Can stones become bread? Should we demand miracles? Should the laws of nature be pushed aside? As we increasingly learn to do so, should we abandon or mistreat the natural world that we have been given? What about spectacle, outward show, and risk taking? Should we long for such abilities in our leaders, our entertainers, and in our culture? How high have we turned the volume of our own lives? Who and what suffers because of such priorities? What about the sheer drive for power, political or otherwise? What models shape our decision-making, our conversations and our meetings: in our churches, school boards, and assemblies? How hungry are we for authority and esteem? How far do we allow jealousy and the desire for privilege to drive us? Who and what do we overlook and abandon?

As Jesus rejects each temptation, he prepares himself for the cross. He prepares us, as we begin this season of Lent, to understand the cost of the cross that we are approaching with him. Jesus last temptation will come as he hangs “despised and rejected” and is mocked by those who pass by, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).

But Jesus is not yet there. In the wilderness, he drives Satan away with his final great assertion: “Serve the Lord your God with absolute single-heartedness.” Then angels come and bring him the food and drink his body must have longed for. I love the tenderness of the older translations here: “Angels came and waited on him,” angels “ministered unto him.”

In his systematic rebuke of Satan, Jesus shows, despite fatigue and hunger, that we do have incredible freedom, the freedom to be obedient and to trust the relationship and the vocation for which God created us. This is the freedom to which Lent invites us. This is the hunger that Lent helps us discover and promises to fill. Most of us are recovering sinners,4 needing over and over again to speak our misdeeds to God. But God’s grace and God’s vocation call us by name. Every day and every Lent.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, Give us the grace to trust you even when it is hard for us to believe that you are near enough to help. Even when it is hard for us to realize how deeply you love us. In this time of Lent, help us to turn our sins over to you. Help us to stop thinking so much about ourselves and to come closer to you and the creation in which you have placed us. Through our care of what you have given us and through mindfulness of your Word, let us return your love. We pray in your dear name. Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, 9 March 2011, 7:30 pm
Joint service for Town of Esopus UMC and the Reformed Church of Port Ewen

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

From tonight’s Gospel: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”

This is an evening to pray about our own mortality and to pray for greater love, and so I’d like to start with a story about three of my young nephews.

These boys had shared their home for most of their lives with Grandma Rose. After she was widowed, she really had no place to go. No one wanted to see her in a home, and so in love and compassion, the boys’ mother, my niece Li, invited her to live with them, even though it complicated an already exhausting life of motherhood, running a growing accounting firm, and serious involvement in church. But Li also wanted her boys to see such love and compassion in action, in the daily life of the household.

When you take an older person with some frailties into your home, there can be a risk. And so on Valentine’s Day, Grandma Rose was not in the kitchen when the family got home after school. When they went upstairs, they found she had died—apparently very quickly—of a massive stroke. You can imagine the shock, distress, and grief.

But there was something else they understood and that will continue to strengthen them despite and through their sorrow. Grandma Rose died at home, in her own pretty room, with all her familiar memories and expectations around her. The ones who found her and made the first decisions about her were not strangers, but those she deeply loved. In this, she was blessed. Her family too was blessed in its faithfulness and will continue to be blessed by their experience of love.

When I visited this past weekend, the boys were showing me samples of their dad’s cabinet work, but when we entered Rose’s room, the youngest went right to a dish of candy and brought it over to me. “Would you like some?” he asked. “Grandma always had it for us.” Just so, there could be sweetness in Rose’s passing because it was so tied to the sweetness that had been offered and shared.

And so I hope it may be with us. Who knows really why we come to an Ash Wednesday service. We know we are supposed to. We are present on this night because our faithfulness has led us here. Somewhere in our hearts, we may be telling God that we’re already as faithful as we know how to be. Are we really being asked to do even more? But once we are here, the ashes remind us of what we really know, but often try to forget: that our mortal lives—good, bad, mixed—will not last forever. The ashes will remind us that whatever our excuses or reasons, there are moments in our lives—perhaps more than moments—that might have been lived in a far better way. Because our misdeeds surely involve our relationship with others, we are also here to pray for those whom we have slighted or treated ill in all those ways spelled out in the opening prayer, given us by Isaiah.

There is another reason. We are here because this night is the beginning of a time given to us by Our Lord to be with him, to watch with him, as he begins his last walk to Jerusalem, and then beyond Jerusalem to Golgotha and the cross. Lent is an invitation to cease to know ourselves, for a little while, and to know Christ, to keep our eyes on him alone, to allow nothing to come between Christ and ourselves, if only in a few deeply prayerful minutes each day.

Surely this is one way to understand Jesus’ instruction to go into our most private room, our inner sanctum, and lock the door before we pray. We must enter deeply into the innermost layers of our being and invite Christ to be there with us, to guide us—no one else, nothing else. I literally have to set a timer during my serious prayer time so that I have no excuse to glance at my watch. It’s hard to put Christ first and make Christ all-important. Yet only in this way, can God begin making us part of the heavenly Kingdom for which we pray.

And so maybe most of all, in the middle of lives that are busy and often stressed, we are making time to be here because we love Our Lord, we love Jesus. But here’s the catch: we’re not only being invited to “do Lent.” It’s not a quick fix that will be over before we know it. We’re being asked to live Lent, to use Lent to shape a new life. This time set aside begins to get us into shape for Christ. The discipline of Lent can push other hungers to the side so that we hunger for Christ alone: His name, His Kingdom, His will.

Not long ago, I heard a wonderful organ piece that was inspired by Bach’s chorale prelude “Dearest Jesus, we are here.” This is how it begins: “Blessed Jesus, at thy word/ We are gathered all to hear thee./ Let our hearts and souls be stirred/ now to seek and fear and love thee.” Before we go home tonight, we will share together, and with Our Lord, a meal of sacrifice and praise and thanksgiving. We will hear the words that he spoke to his first disciples and to us. Communion is a meal that Christ gives us in an immense act of love. Gathering to receive it in this way, our hearts and souls can be stirred not only to seek and fear Christ, but to offer that love back to Christ, and to one another, and even to ourselves.

“Blessed Jesus, we are here:” The words are wonderfully direct, and so I had another more immediate thought as I heard this piece for the first time. “We are here:” I realized that this statement is an answer to the hymn we all know and sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” On this night, we are all there—and here—together: Now is the acceptable time! We are here to admit our own mortality and the vulnerability that Christ is willing to share with us. We are here in sorrow. We are here in repentance for all we have done to waste God’s gifts and all we have done to cause Christ pain. And we are here in ever deepening love.

Let us pray: Dearest God, may we keep a holy Lent. Give us grace to treasure this time with you and prepare for our Lord’s passion and resurrection by self-examination and repentance and renewed faith. Grant us humility to understand that our chief end is to know and be known by you. Let us discover, more fully than ever before, how much we hunger and thirst for you. May our hearts be sustained by love of you alone. Amen.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Seek We First

Sermon for 2.27.11
Psalm 131; Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Please pray with me: May my words and the responses of each of our hearts bring us closer to You, our God, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning's Epistle: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.”

We are a consumer society, no doubt about it. Enough plastic water bottles last year, in the US alone, to go around the earth 190 times. To say nothing of all our discarded microwaves and refrigerators. We're running out of land fills. And then there are people who try very hard not to contribute to this. Take me. I always wanted a nice big house that would have room for anything I need to save: nice old hand knit sweaters that no longer fit, extra supplies for school and camp projects, pretty saucers that have lost their matching cups! An attic stuffed with things I'll probably just have to add to that landfill some day.

And then along comes Matthew's lesson for this morning. Last week we were being told to love our enemies. Not necessarily live with them, but forgive them. But this week we're being told to trust God. Full-time. Of course we love God and God loves us. Isaiah and Psalm 131promise that God loves us intimately, even more faithfully than a mother loves her newborn. But then—why do we worry so much? Why are we so anxious and why are we constantly making projections, financial and otherwise?

We may be a consumer society because we are an anxious society. I squirrel away all that stuff in part because I want to be sure it's there should I need it. It's my form of security. It's also my attempt at control. Control over any future emergency that might leave me in want. In bigger ways too, we feel that what we own—or are in the process of paying for or paying insurance or taxes for—provides security and freedom from anxiety. “I'll always have my house. I'll always have my land.” And yet these very things can be the source of anxiety, of the burden we carry. Hoping to use them as bulwarks against tomorrow, we try “to drive out care with care.”1 Keeping up with the standards of our community is even more burdensome.

Jesus is so smart. He understood our need—certainly mine—for comfort and pride and knowing what's ahead. He realized our need to believe in our own achievements. He also knew that so much of what we think we're building is a mirage. A mirage that looks like the real thing until we get closer—and then it shimmers into nothing. Jesus remembered that the manna found by the children of Israel spoiled if they tried to save it for the next day. And he understood that any number of things can turn our lives upside down.

And so he tells us in this passage not to idolize the rewards of this life, not to fuss “about what's on the table” or whether our clothes are the latest fashion. “There is far more to your life,” he says, “than the food you put into your stomach, more to your outer appearance then the clothes you hang on your body.... Don't worry about missing out” (The Message). More profoundly, Jesus tells us not to worry if we face real lack. Our heavenly father knows our needs and is far more powerful than we are. “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,” Jesus says. “God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (The Message).

This is a pretty tall order for faith. For our basic well-being, do we trust what our Bibles call Mammon or the wealth of the world for which we labor, or do we trust God? This brings me back to our bottles encircling the globe, even if they can be reused and even though water is very good for us. Are we running our lives by what everyone else does, even if this endangers the planet? Or are we striving to live more simply so that others—including creatures unlike us and plants—can simply live? Are we trying not to turn wants into needs? I remember the reaction of a young teen, returning to her parents' home after a mission trip to a small village in Honduras. At 4 am, she was walking around the house saying, “Too much stuff. Too much stuff.”

The faith-based trust that is being called upon in Matthew is not irresponsible. Jesus is not preaching an easy prosperity gospel: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and everything will fall into your lap now. Nor is Jesus suggesting that if we can work, we should neglect it. We have a bounden duty to care for ourselves and our loved ones to the best of our abilities. But we need to remember that these are distinct and subordinate concerns to our real work.2 “Before we start taking thought for our life, our food and clothing, our work and families, we must seek the righteousness of Christ.” 3

Making a commitment, even to a job, is tricky. That job, together with its rewards and anxieties about doing even better, can become a trap for our hearts or our lives. It can also drive us into the Little Red Hen Syndrome: “Well,” said the little Red Hen, “I'll do it myself.” And she did.

But in truth, we are not in charge, and to think this way is to dethrone God. That is why service to God and service to the world are incompatible. Upstanding, reasonable, church-going people that we are, we would so like to honor both: the God whom we love and the good things of this life. We'd like to think that we are building the kingdom when we are working for our families and our bread and our houses. And those are important things. But as sources of real security, they can compete with God. Unless we know who the real big boss is; unless we are first focused on our Creator above all else; unless we are first seeking our Redeemer's and our Sustainer's righteousness with a single and focused vision, there's going to be a tug of war. That will raise a barrier between us and God.

The call “not to be anxious for tomorrow” is not just an upbeat saying decorated with bluebirds and blossoms. Nor is Jesus giving us directions that we cannot follow. He is not mocking those who literally are in danger of starving. He is reminding us that desire, even need, for food and clothing is not the same as desire, even need, for the Kingdom of God. He is asking us to consider seriously what the joys of a kingdom of peace and justice might be. And to consider how we might bring that kingdom closer. Jesus is telling us of God's hopes for God's people: “Desire first and foremost God's kingdom and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Common English Bible translation).

Jesus is urging us towards such desire with our hearts and minds and deeds. This is what we must seek first. First thing in the morning. A cup of coffee or tea is allowed, but then a real time of prayer before the news or the weather or our emails. Before we are much distracted by many things. Before what we consider our “real” day starts. And this isn't an excuse to put off work. This is spiritual discipline and it is our real work: seeking first!

There is something more wonderful for us than anxiety about the world and its pulls. Paul tells the Corinthians to think of themselves as “stewards of God's mysteries.” Stewards are managers who watch over and have access to the wealth and resources of a community. They are subordinates who must be trustworthy and who will be judged if they are not.

As good stewards, we can together rejoice in the shared life of the body of Christ, shaped by our obedience to his gospel and to God. The hidden wisdom of God—God's mysteries—will not always be discernible and will not always be delivered quickly or on demand. But God's wisdom will guide our lives and our community as we understand ourselves, each one of us, as God's special creations, and as we place ourselves fully under God's cherishing care.

Let us pray: Dear Lord of our hearts, may you be the one with whom we start each day. May you be the one in whom we rest no matter what our other tasks. With the bread that we need for today, feed us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. Give us the grace to find You at the very center of our lives. Amen.

I would like to express gratitude for continuing conversations with Brother James Michael Dowd of Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY.