Sunday, December 10, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid, Mary

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon:
Our theme for Advent comes from the words the messengers from God, the angels, be they Gabriel or a whole host, say when they appear to share the good news of Jesus' birth. Do not be afraid. Our world is a fearsome place, and we are fear-filled people, often for good reason. But the angels remind us that such fear can keep us from hearing and experiencing the good news that God is with us. Last week, we looked at the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and cousin-in-law of Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother. His fear was so much a part of his identity he didn't believe the angel standing in front of him. This week, we are talking about Mary, and our fear that God has made a mistake and that nothing can ever change.

So as we delve into this story, let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for the words of your messengers, and ask that they sink into our hearts today as we worship you. Amen.

Aaron and I returned from vacation just over a week ago. We went on a big European adventure for our thirtieth birthdays, spending most of our time in France, though we also spent a few days in Italy and an afternoon in Switzerland. We drove, well, Aaron did anyway, to get from place to place because we figured we would see more that way. Anytime we saw a really cool old church or old castle, we could just stop on a whim. Except every town in France has an old church or castle. That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I distinctly remember at one point Aaron pointing out the window and saying, “Oh look. Another castle.” Now castles sometimes cost money to go inside, so we didn't always go in those. But churches are free. So we visited a lot of churches. And most of them, being Catholic, seem to be named Notre Dame, or Our Lady, in deference to the Mary we read about in our scripture today.

We saw so many statues, icons, and paintings of her in these churches, particularly of the moment our scripture today describes. She's always calm and serene, regal, usually reading a Bible or some kind of devotional in the Annunciation. Even if she appears small and child-like in stature, there is a calmness to her in these images that makes her seem not just older but otherworldly. And though we Protestants may complain about this veneration of Mary of Nazareth sometimes, we too are guilty of relegating Mary to a pedestal of perfection. Because the more perfect we make her, the less we feel we can emulate her.

But when I read this scripture, I don't read this Mary as this meek, ethereal being. I think she's kind of snarky. Whereas Zechariah cowered in fear and clung to disbelief when faced with Gabriel, she raises an eyebrow and points out the flaw in God's plan. In fact, reading back over the scripture in preparation for this sermon, I had trouble figuring out where such a delightfully self-confident young woman was fearful. Notice the words: perplexed, not fearful: But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Zechariah is terrified when he meets the angel. The shepherds are as well. Mary is perplexed. She is confused and has no qualms about asking the angel to explain himself. That is a bit different than fear.

It is the angel himself who brings up fear. Writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner imagines the scene of Mary encountering the angel from the angel's point of view, and in so doing uncovers an interesting understanding of where that fear comes from. He writes:
She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. “You mustn't be afraid, Mary,” he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.1

Maybe the fear in this story is not Mary's fear at all. Maybe it's Gabriel's. From scripture, we do not know much about angels, what they think. We don't know that they experience emotions like fear. We only know that they share God's message with us. But I, like Buechner, wonder. Was anyone in heaven talking to God, throwing ideas about redemption back and forth. And did anyone think the whole incarnation thing was a good idea? As Buechner points out, “the whole future of creation hung on the answer of a girl.”

One of the beautiful images of Mary of Nazareth that we encountered in France was a Mary with an intricate and expensive crown on her head and royal bearing. This is not the Mary Gabriel encountered. Mary was just a young woman, girl really. She was nothing special in the conventional sense, certainly not someone who had proven herself responsible or worthy or anything else we might consider a requirement to bear God's own self into a world filled with violence, pain, and suffering. How could one young girl bring God into this kind of world?

So maybe the fear in this story is not just Gabriel's. Maybe it's ours. Fearing that God has made a mistake. A mistake to choose a young, poor, brown woman to bear God’s own self. A mistake for God to put on flesh and dwell among us at all. A mistake to keep loving us. A mistake to keep offering us opportunities to transform the world.

Most of us, though, would never admit that we thought God would make a mistake. But we act like we do. We throw up our hands and say, “I don't know what you're trying to do, God, seems a little off, and nothing we do is ever going to change anything anyway.” And so we don't. Even with angels before us, sharing God's plan, more often than not we don't say yes, as Mary did. More often than not, we have a list of reasons why God's plan wouldn't work. We want a total do-over, to wipe the slate clean. We've given up on the world as it is. We believe changing it is impossible.

But Mary didn't. She asked questions, of course. “How can this be?” she asked, eyebrow still arched in confusion. Almost like she's saying to the angel, “You know there's a pretty big problem with your plan, so how are you going to get around that?” But when the angel answered her, she was in. Because she believed the angel. Nothing is impossible with God. This mess that our world is in is not irredeemable. God uses us, maybe not to bear Jesus in the same way that Mary did, but God uses us to bear God's self, to bring light and love into a hurting world, and to work for the kingdom that will have no end.

Now, I should admit to you that I had a rough week. I found myself crying or clenching my teeth in rage whenever I turned on the news and heard something about politics. On Friday, I read a powerful letter about moral bankruptcy in our country and in the church that made me wonder if we should just shut everything down. And then I came back to this sermon. I came back to Mary of Nazareth and her unwillingness to let fear turn to disbelief and disbelief turn to apathy. When God said, “Will you do this with me?” She said, “Here I am. Let's go.”

And so, even though the news is filled with stories of morally bankrupt leaders, I began to think of other stories, stories like Mary's, of people who have not given into despair but instead transform the world by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” I want to share one such story with you.

Tarana Burke is a name that has come up recently in the news.2 She is the founder of the Me Too campaign ten years ago, recently taken up on social media and exploded. An actress used this campaign, writing, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The hashtag exploded everywhere and got people talking about the epidemic of sexual violence in the country, and even creating cultures in some places where that violence is no longer tolerated. Tarana said that the campaign evolved out of her own experience. She said the simple words, “Me too,” are so powerful because someone said that to her. She is a survivor, as well, and those two words helped her in her healing, and so she has been able to help others in their healing. We still have far to go, so far it may seem daunting and impossible. And in some ways it seems useless, as some senators are being forced to step down over allegations of harassment but others are possibly getting ready to be voted in regardless of similar acusations. How easy it would be to let our fear that nothing will ever change, our fear that we are powerless keep us from breaking the silence! But Tarana didn't let that fear keep her locked in shame. She spoke out, and through her campaign and survivors sharing with survivors, she shared God with a hurting world.

Now perhaps it's not exactly a fair comparison, to say that either Mary of Nazareth or Tarana Burke's stories are about a simple response of hope in the face of fear and despair. After all, Mary's “Here am I” launched her into a pregnancy outside of marriage and a motherhood that would lead to watching her son die on a cross. Tarana Burke's “me too” has deepened her organizing work with hurting people in hurting places. You can't say, “me too” and go back to life as usual. But so often we think that if it isn't something big, it isn't going to make a difference, so why even bother? Mary's and Tarana's stories show that even simple words can be transforming in big, though difficult, ways.

Do you know of other Mary of Nazareth stories? Of people who refuse to let the fear that nothing will ever change and God's plans are crazy keep them from working with God anyway? Perhaps you may know one from history, like Harriet Tubman, or maybe from watching television and hearing of peacemakers like Malala Yousafzai, or maybe you know someone from church or school or work who has in some way brought God into the world. Find those people. Become those people. Yes, our God might seem pretty crazy at times. But, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary, nothing is impossible with God. Let's jump into the possibility together. 

 
1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, as quotes in Maria LaSala, “Mary's Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency,” 19 December 2011, https://rewire.news/article/2011/12/19/marys-choice/.
2See 17 October 2017 accessed 9 December 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/10/17/meet_tarana_burke_the_activist_who. See also Tarana Burke, “The Inception, Just Be Inc., accessed 9 December 2017, http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movement.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Birthday parties for those who are gone

When you have had multiple miscarriages, it seems like the whole year is filled with anniversaries of death and destroyed possibilities. The anniversary the end of last month was particularly hard: the first anniversary of my first baby's due date. I would have planned the world's most obnoxious Star Wars-themed birthday party. I would have tried to make BB-8 cupcakes that would have been an epic #pintrestfail; I would have fought with my sister about how my baby did not need a drum set but rather we wanted donations sent to UMCOR for hurricane relief instead; I would be annoying my spouse by obsessing over which characters we, including all the animals, would dress up as. The party would be at Susquehannock State Park in Pennsylvania where we got married so we could throw in a little 5th wedding anniversary celebration. I would have had a Death Star pinata, though I would feel guilty about cultural appropriation, and I would have spent entirely too much money on a giant Millennium Falcon to hang from the ceiling of the pavilion (and later our bedroom...I mean the baby's bedroom). Oh and if anyone had wanted to get me a present, that would have been fine because I also turned 30, and 30-year-olds appreciate presents more than 1-year-olds do.

But I did not plan a party. Last year on the date I would have liked to experience a day of birth, my baby was long gone, and my spouse and I were looking for rainbows in Niagara Falls. But the promise of a rainbow did not come true for us this year, just as it hasn't for many years now. Though we did become pregnant soon after that first due date, our second baby died too, and so we added more grieving days to our calendar.

Except that on the day I would have liked to be having a party, I was not devastated, consumed with bitterness and angry with God as I have spent so much of the last three years being. Instead, I was thankful. Thankful for so many people wrapping me in prayer and love. Thankful for so many--- from homeless shelters to Urgent Care to right after church today--- who share their stories with me, stories of loss but also of hope. I had rejected that hope before, looking at my track record of constant brick walls of diagnoses just when we thought we were close to having our baby and being realistic that not every still mother gets her rainbow baby. But at some point I realized I could be angry and bitter that I have experienced pain--- and who hasn't?--- or I could recognize that I still have so much in this life to be thankful for.

I think what I am most thankful for, though, are my babies. It might seem strange to be thankful for fetuses whose non-viability has caused me so much pain, but I am. The joy those babies brought us when I was pregnant, as we imagined what they could be! Even now as I navigate the alternate grief timeline imagining what they would be like now, I still feel joy. Because I love them.

Now tomorrow, of course, I may be texting my friends about how much I hate everything. I may lay in bed all day wondering what the point in getting up is. Those are also ways we grieve. But so is gratitude. So today, I will give thanks for love.

And I will look up recipes for BB-8 cupcakes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Leaning into God: Living by Faith

A sermon for Calvary UMC right before Reformation Sunday.

Scripture: Romans 1:16-17,3:21-31 (NRSV)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Sermon:
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for your wisdom and ask that you move among us to open our hearts to receive that wisdom. Speak to us this morning through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.

October is a wonderful month, and October this year is very special. It started with a very important birthday of my own, and it is ending with a very important anniversary--- 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began. One of those days may be a bigger deal historically than the other. But anyway, this month we are celebrating with a sermon series on the important themes of the reformation that continue to help us reform today. Last week, Pastor Steve preached on God's sovereignty, a much needed message in the midst of the chaos that sometimes seems overwhelming. Today we will talk about another key theme: living by faith.

Faith is one of those words we use a lot without being too clear on what it means. Sometimes we use it to mean trust. I have faith in the new directors that the next Star Wars movie will be good. Or, perhaps more relevant for us in church today, we have faith that God is at work in the world. Sometimes we use faith to mean believing in what we can't see. Hebrews 11:1 is one of the more famous Biblical definitions: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Belief in heaven, for example, or the resurrection of Jesus. And faith is those things. But I think the definition of faith we often forget, the one that Paul speaks of in our scripture today, is more than trust, more than belief. Faith is the ability to open ourselves to receive the gift of grace God has already offered to us.

Martin Luther, the German monk who lit the tinder that began the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago, became obsessed with the concept of faith.1 Luther was a monk, faith was his job. He was trained in the faith, immersed in scripture. And still, he doubted. He felt distant from God, sure his sins could never be forgiven and he would find himself eternally punished. He sought to discover what good works could cleanse him. And yet, still he felt distant, and he began to see how the payment of indulgences that were created to help assuage people of their guilt and give them a way to atone for their sins prevented people from truly connecting with God. It wasn't until he discovered this passage in Romans that we read today, let it sink into his heart, that he realized he had gotten faith all wrong. In reading how the righteous will live by faith, he felt the “burden of his soul” begin to roll away.2 He knew he no longer had to earn his salvation. That God has done the work. He had only to open himself to God and receive the gift of grace.

Luther preached this good news of faith his whole life. The Church was Reformed, and for five hundred years we have experienced the peace and joy that comes with the assurance that God loves us and forgives us, right? Well, apparently, this ability to walk by faith is more difficult than it appears. Though it ought to bring us relief, though it ought to feel for us like we have strong, comforting arms wrapped around us in love, too often we want to be in control. Believing we can earn our own salvation means that we have some control, that we don't have to rely on God after all. If we check the right things off a list, or if we pay the right amount of money, we can control our fate. We can earn God's love.

Only, have you tried to earn someone's love before? How did it work out for you? But we still do it all the time. This is not a problem of the medieval Catholics, my friends. Even today we find it easier to clench our fists in control than we do to open our hands to receive.

Two hundred years after Luther nailed 95 theses about how we are made right with God through our faith not through our works, John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was also struggling with his faith. John Wesley was the son of a preacher. He experienced a miracle as a young child being saved from a fire. He started a club in college with his brother and other friends that earned them the name Methodist because their practice of faith was so regulated, scheduled, methodical. He became a missionary, crossing the Atlantic to preach to people in Georgia in early 1736. He was on board a ship bound for the Georgia colony when a ferocious storm shredded the main sail and flooded the decks. Many of the English passengers aboard screamed in terror that they would soon be swallowed by the deep. But a group of Moravian missionaries from Germany calmly sang throughout the squall. They were unafraid of death, an astounded John Wesley later recounted in his journal. But it wasn't until two years later on May 24 that Wesley, back in England, discouraged by the path his life had taken, and miserable, stumbled into a Moravian society meeting. He would never have gone if he did not remember the calm singing on the ship two years before. That evening someone read from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m., he writes, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley realized that as much as he tried, he could not control God's love for him. It is a free gift. The Moravians he saw on that boat understood that gift. They found peace even when it was difficult because they were secure in God's love for them. They knew God was with them through the storm. They didn't have to compete for God's affections, or try desperately to get God's attention. Their hands were open, and they trusted God.

I myself have been try to unclench my hands and open myself to receive God. As I have mentioned to you before, I might not be the most organized person in my everyday life, but I have a plan. Graduate college, graduate seminary, get a job, get married, get ordained, have kids...only that last piece hasn't worked so well for me. Three years of trying, two miscarriages, and decreasing hope. Last year, I lamented to a friend that hope hurts too much. That I don't trust hope. And so she told me not to focus on hope. She said, focus on faith. Lean into God in troubled times, stop trying to control everything, and look for the good things in life. Seek the gifts instead of just the things you are missing. Around the same time, someone gave me a simple gift, a candle in a jar with the words, “Faith does not make things easy--- it makes them possible.” And for a year, I have lit that candle and prayed. I have tried to lean into God when I am feeling bitter and hurt and lost. I have given thanks when I don't really want to because there is always something to be thankful for. I have tried to let go of all the “shoulds” I have in my life. This should have happened. And instead I have tried to see God beside me and receive not the grace I think I should receive, but the grace I already have just for being a child of God.

Now, Wesley still struggled with doubt, and so did Luther, and I certainly will too. Wesley wondered why he wasn't more joyful sometimes. Reformation is a constant process, which I hope you will find through this sermon series. Faith is a journey. It is something we have to live by.

I don't know that one day I will wake up and lean into God naturally, always seeing the beauty and possibility in every day. Luther and Wesley didn't. But in those moments they did, in those moments I do, that is what it looks like to live by faith.

So in what ways do you clench your hands, telling God that you know a better way of doing things, or simply unable to believe that God could love you of all people? And what can help you to open your hands ever wider to receive the gift of grace God offers us? My prayer for all of us is that we can continue to reform our own hearts, that we may live by faith.



1Marin E. Marty, Ocober 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2016), 19 and 23.
2“We Live By Faith- Romans 1,” 1 June 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, accessed 14 October 2017, https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/we-live-by-faith-romans-1/.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lombriz of Grace

Another sermon for Calvary UMC in Frederick.


Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”



Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sermon: Lombriz of Grace

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, help us to listen to scripture, the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. When you tell us many things in parables, open our hearts to receive the word of the kingdom of God, and to live into that kingdom. Amen.

I hope you all will get to meet my grandfather. He and his girlfriend like to travel bit together, so they might come by one Sunday. He doesn’t quite get the whole preacher thing despite the fact that his daughter and granddaughter are pastors. But he dutifully brags about me anyway. That’s what grandparents are supposed to do after all! One of the things he brags about most, though, is about how many places I have traveled to. He always says, “Tell Ruby again how many countries you've been to!” And sometimes, if he wants to tease me, he'll say, “And how many of those trips did you go on for free?” Because most of the trips I raised money for either through missions boards or research grants. And frankly, if someone offers to send me somewhere, I will go. For instance, my last year of college, I took a year-long class on agriculture and politics in Venezuela just so I could go to Venezuela.

Now, I explained last week that Aaron and I are from the country; we grew up around farms and helped our parents garden, but I am not a huge fan of dirt--- or rather worms. I won’t even eat gummy worms. But, as it turns out, dirt and worms are actually a big part of agriculture, even in Venezuela. Taking this class about Venezuela was great, and going to Venezuela was even better, but at one point on the trip, we were standing in this huge pavilion positioned near the top of a mountain, listening to one of our hosts giving a lecture in Spanish about worms. In this pavilion they had huge troughs where they put a combination of manure and dry coffee husks or paper with rice inoculated with a beneficial fungus that prevents disease. They threw some worms in, the worms ate the mixture and secreted the resulting compost that was then taken to the fields. Underneath the troughs, they collected the juices that dripped through the dirt and they bottled it up. Apparently it is really good to then pour on top of the soil or spray on the leaves of plants and stuff. So, here I was, a little grossed out by all these worms, listening to this guy talk about worms in Spanish and throwing some political teachings about socialism in there too, wondering what the heck I signed up for.

I also should confess, that sometimes I feel that way when I read some of Jesus’ teachings. What the heck is this Christian discipleship thing I signed up for? Look at this parable. Jesus shares the parable, and, in a rare teaching moment, also interprets it for us. The seeds are the word of the kingdom, he says, meaning the kingdom of heaven, the world of goodness and mercy that God intends for us. The soil is our hearts. He doesn’t tell us who the sower of the seeds is, so we’ll come back to that. Once he explains what the seed is, he gives us four types of soil, or people’s hearts. He says that some people hear about the kingdom of heaven, but they don’t understand it. Rather than having time to ruminate on it, instead the devil snatches it away. It’s as though they never experienced God’s love at all. Then there are people who receive the word of God, perhaps they start going to church or a Bible study or AA, but as soon as trouble comes their way, they let go of the word they have received, angry that they are still struggling. Bitterness and anger don’t just define them for a season, but shrivel them up until they turn away from God. Still others hear about the kingdom of heaven, start to seek it, but choose wealth and other cares of the world instead. It is the good soil that we want our hearts to be like--- soil so healthy that the harvest is beyond our wildest imaginations and we find ourselves doing mission and studying scripture and inviting others into our community. These hearts make up for the failings of the other hearts, and ending with the abundant harvest leaves us without worry for the future.

Most of us have heard this parable many, many times. So you might be confused about why it makes me wonder what I signed up for. But here is my question: how many of us can say our hearts are that good soil, healthy soil, all the time? What about all the people I love who are like the hard-packed path: people who just never grew up in church and never quite get what’s so good about Jesus or church or the Bible? Or who did grow up in church and were treated so poorly by people calling themselves Christians that they just cannot let those seeds take root? Will they remain that hard-packed path forever? And what about those times I myself feel like the rocky ground, that all the goodness God has showed me withers under the bitterness in or busyness of life? Can I and people like me never become good soil again? Sometimes when you start asking questions of scripture, you begin to wonder if it really is such good news after all.

But then I remembered standing on that mountain in Venezuela listening to a guy talk passionately about worms. Before learning about vermicompost, I assumed the quality of soil was fixed. Rocky soil will always be rocky. Certain weeds or thorns can never be gotten rid of. Missing or depleted nutrients can never be reintroduced. The soil was created that way and thus it shall always be, right? Wrong. Soil can be transformed. Adding compost to soil, fertilizer, or worms--- you can buy thousand-count red wrigglers in packs for vermicompost in case you were interested--- these are ways you can add nutrients back into tired or thin soil, give it a boost to help nourish healthier plants. Can all soil become good soil? Probably not, and definitely not without time or work. But soil quality can be improved. Just as our own love for God can grow and transform us.

So there is good news in this passage. It’s just such news involves work. We can become good soil through the simple acts of being in community, praying, reading scripture, and serving one another in mission. It may be a long process, even worms cannot transform soil overnight, but it can be done. And then that soil that may have been too inviting to the birds, or too rocky, or too thorny, might slowly be transformed until it can bring forth grain, growing up and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

Remember who the sower represents, after all. Sowing seeds is an ancient way to farm, but people hearing Jesus tell this story would not be picturing a rich person but rather a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who can only eke out a living. Such a person would want to sow wherever the best possibility of a harvest would be, not on a path where birds could eat the seed, or on rocky soil, or somewhere where there was a weed infestation! But the sower did sow seed all over those places, extravagantly, as though there was an unlimited supply.1 Do you know anyone so extravagant? Jesus, perhaps. You know, the guy who fed five thousand people with some bread and fish, who could heal people if they just brushed up against his clothing, who stood up to the might of Empire and the power of evil to show us the way of love.

If this is the one who sows the seeds, then this one can help us transform our at times thin and pitiful soil to reap a harvest that you would not believe, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. Jesus’ audience that day, would consider a twofold harvest to be a good one. And instead their ears hear a story about a sower who throws seed and reaps and abundant harvest. It was yet another story that reminded them and should remind us that, with God, all things are possible. Maybe that first time we hear the word, it will not take root in us. Sometimes we have to talk about it, share it with others, pray about it until we finally get it. But God can help transform the kind of soil we are, so that we will bear fruit of the kingdom of God, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

I want to end with a prayer written by a pastor on a beautiful blog called Unfolding Light. Let us pray:

Sower God, what hard-worn paths of habit, what packed-down roads drivennness have we trod out across our lives, ruts that do not receive your seed? Soften them.
What birds of desire snatch up your seed before it roots in us? Calm them.
What shallow, rocky soil lies in our hearts, what refusal to open our depths and surrender? Loosen us.
What thorns of bitterness choke your grace? Let them wither, all of them.
And where is your lovely soil in us— humble, human hummus— thick with holy rot and death, rich with all that has failed and fallen, crawling with the secret worms of grace that give life in the dark earth that we are? 

Find those places, fall upon us, sink in, and flourish. Amen.2

In this time of dedication, pray on those worms of grace.


1Some of this was inspired by Sarah Dylan Breuer, “God is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's,” Proper 10 Year A, 6 July 2005, Sarah Laughed: Dylan's Lectionary Blog, accessed 11 July 2017, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/07/proper_10_year_.html.


2Edited for first person plural rather than singular. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Sowing,” 12 July 2017, Unfolding Light, accessed 15 July 2017, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/2232pzkreec8354mnsjkp99ywa9bg6.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Rest in Our Souls

This was my first sermon for Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, my new appointment where I serve as the associate pastor. 

Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19 and 25-30 (NRSV)
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
...
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Sermon:
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give thanks for this day, for an opportunity to see new mercies. We don't always give thanks for your word, especially when it is confusing, but we know we should anyway. So we give you thanks for this word too, and ask that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts help us to better understand you, and open us even more to that mercy and grace you shower upon us. Amen.

Someone asked me what I was going to preach on my first Sunday here, and I said the scripture where Jesus talks about giving us rest. I have always liked this scripture because of a song that quotes it, but I guess it might come off as a little strange that your new pastor has only been here a week and she's already talking about weariness and a need for rest. But no, this is not a cry for help! Or not exactly. Because I think what Jesus was telling his followers here is actually something I need help with, and I suspect some of you may need help with as well.

Summer is often seen as a season of relaxation in our culture. Many of us try to go on vacations. We spend weekends with friends eating hot dogs and hamburgers, especially for Memorial Day and Fourth of July. But I find for many of us summer becomes even more of a scramble than the rest of the year. Who will take care of the kids when we are at work? Will we get enough rain for our gardens? When will we find time to mow the lawn? Or, for many of us struggling with the basics, where will our families find something to eat without free school lunches? Where will we find a safe and cool place to sleep if we can't afford air conditioning in our own homes? The heat alone can make us weary. Summer brings so many questions and it can easily become more of a juggling act than a restful season.

Our culture is not one for rest anyway. How often have you felt like you are trapped in a hamster wheel, trying to do all the things, but as soon as you accomplish one task, there are ten others? And of course, we can't ask for help. We have to be independent, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or something. Sometimes we seem like we'd rather do it on our own than actually rely on God.

My story is definitely one that as much in love with God as I am, I have been known to try to do the work on my own rather than rely on God. In fact, my call story is one like that and the last few years have been like that as well. I was called to ministry when I was nineteen years old. Well, it was before that, but I didn't pay any attention. I didn't think God knew what God was talking about so I kept doing my own thing. My mom is a pastor and I certainly didn't want to be like her! (I was a teenager, after all.) In fact, the call I heard first was not to be a pastor but to be a missionary. I went on a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina when I was sixteen with our very own Beth Richards, among others. And I had never heard God clearer than in that country, with those people. I had never really recognized the transforming power of God's love before I went to Bosnia. So I was set. Sixteen years old, I knew what God called me to do and I worked to make it happen.

I am a planner. That doesn't mean I'm organized, but I have a plan. My roommate in seminary reminded me recently that when we were serving as student chaplains in a hospital together, I mapped out all my hours and figured out what two days I could get sick. “You know you can't pick what days you get sick, right?” She asked me. But that's just how I am. I have a plan, and I put it into motion. I had a call, so I had decided how I was going to respond to the call, what steps had to happen. I recognized God's voice and then promptly told God I'd take it from here. So when I was nineteen and one of those steps I had to take to realize my call fell through, I was desolate. I was studying abroad in France at the time, and I remember feeling so lost. I would sit in these huge stone cathedrals, a little like this one, in fact, and wonder why God would make things so hard. Why would God give me a dream and snatch it away like that?

As petulant as it seems looking back on it, I have found many I minister with have the same question in their own lives. And I find myself asking the same thing now as I get angry at God for giving me the dream of a family and snatching it further and further away. Aaron and I have been trying to have children for years, and we keep coming up to roadblock after roadblock. It is wearying.

When I was nineteen, I first felt a little of that weariness. I was weary and angry and frustrated with God. But I was also a preacher's kid, and so I kept going to church anyway. I was so weary that I think I gave up. I didn't know where I was going to go or who I was going to be after college. So I brought my burdens to Jesus and discovered that his yoke wasn't so bad after all. That maybe he could be trusted to plan things a bit. I found an awesome church community in Washington DC, joined a Bible study and did mission with them. I began to experience joy again. I didn't feel so alone. And so at the beginning of summer, at a special worship service for young United Methodist students, in a small chapel with low lighting and the strum of guitars, a pastor friend of mine lifted homemade rainbow communion bread before us, broke it, and I had this incredible sensation wash over me. I felt like I was home. I felt completely loved, completely connected. My weary soul, searching for what I was to do, who I was to be, found rest at the Table. I found rest in Jesus.

But that rest was not a vacation. It was a call. God called me to keep working to make all people feel at home at that same Table. And God told me I wouldn't do it alone.

If you remember, Jesus urges the weary to come to him, but then he talks about a yoke. I should let you know, I am a country girl. Aaron and I went to a high school that had Take Your Tractor to School day. Still, I don't know much about yokes. In fact, when I think about a yoke, I think about bondage, even servitude. I think of a power that someone places on top of another, human or animal, and forces us to work for them. But I think what Jesus is talking about is more of a double yoke to pull together, in tandem, a team. We don't have to work alone, he says. We don't have to wonder how we are going to live into our call alone. Jesus wears the yoke with us, labors alongside us, is connected to us, and helps to make our work to spread God's love easier, not more difficult.1

I wrote in my newsletter that the scripture through which I seek to understand the journey of faith is John 10:10, in which Jesus tells us that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. As Christians, we often think we have to work hard, suffer a lot, deprive ourselves in order to be faithful. Such a life is not abundant. Such a life is not that of one yoked to Christ. Yes, we will work. Yes, we will suffer. Yes, we will have to give up some of the things we love. But we do not have to bear our burdens alone. Christ walks alongside us, working with us, offering us more abundance always.

God called me. God was not going to let me be alone, lost, empty. That doesn't mean that God will prevent anything bad from happening to me. But God says I don't have to weary myself trying to figure it out on my own. And God has called each of you by virtue of your baptisms. God is not going to let you wander alone, either. You might insist on doing the work yourself. You might try to be independent. But Jesus is there, reaching for you, offering to help so life isn't so hard. Offering to help so you can find new life, abundant life.

So, are you going to keep insisting on doing it your own way? Whether that's your job, your call, your faith, your relationships? Or are you going to settle your weary self down and take up the yoke alongside Jesus? This sermon is a bit of a commitment to you, to stop trying to do it all on my own and to learn from Jesus. For Jesus is gentle and humble in heart, and in him, we will find rest for our souls. Hallelujah. Amen.

1Jan Richardson wrote a beautiful reflection on this passage that I draw on here: “If the yoke fits...” 2 July 2008, The Painted Prayerbook, accessed 6 July 2017, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/07/02/if-the-yoke-fits/.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A House Blessing

 Aaron and I have moved to a new church, meaning we also have a new house. As we have struggled with such grief especially this last year, we wanted to bless our new home, to claim the space for good. It will be years before everything is unpacked enough for a house warming party. So we decided to ask our friends and family to come and bless our house now, knowing their presence will make it more a home than unpacking anyway. What follows was created by me using liturgy and inspired by conversation led by Rev. Suzanne Duchesne for a group she calls the Luscious Ladies of Liturgy.

(Set up altar outside)

Gathering (by the trees)
Beloved friends, we come together to seek God's blessing upon this house that it may become a home for us, and a much-needed sanctuary, as the past few years have been so difficult.

Other places have been home for us before, but this is the first we have chosen and indebted ourselves to. We bring pieces of those homes to this one in our hearts and hands as we make this into our home. And we also bring some dirt from those places!

In the second creation story in the book of Genesis, humans are created out of dirt. The name Adam in Hebrew means something like earth creature. The word human has the same root as the word humus--- the type of soil not the chickpea kind. And when we die and are buried, we commit our bodies back to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes. We are creatures of the dirt.

At our wedding, we read a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien about becoming deep rooted in the soil of life together.
Contemporary Reading A Poem by J.R.R. Tolkien1
            Lo! young we are and yet have stood
like planted hearts in the great Sun
of Love so long (as two fair trees
in woodland or in open dale
stand utterly entwined, and breathe
the airs, and suck the very light
together) that we have become
as one, deep-rooted in the soil
of Life, and tangled in sweet growth.

Now we remember the dirt that formed us at the same time we look forward to deepening our roots in this same dirt together. (Pour out dirt under the trees.)

We are also creatures of the water. As Christians, we are born again through water and the Spirit. This new birth is full of new possibilities, recognizing God's grace constantly at work in our lives, all around us, luring the good. Dirt reminded us of our creator; water reminds us of our redeemer, working in us to make us a new creation. Aaron's friend from work gave him a gift of Holy Water from the river Jordan, where Jesus himself was baptized. We will sprinkle this water throughout the house, making it a space of new creation as well.

Blessing (outside the door)
As we open this door we may open ourselves to the fullness God calls us to be and that these walls provide support and safety for us to have the courage to be creative and discover our authentic selves.
May this roof may provide not only shelter but sanctuary,
and this foundation ground us in our relationship with God and one another.
May this become a sacred place full of praise and thanksgiving where our bodies and souls might be fed and made whole.2

Let us pray.
Loving One grant to this home the grace of your presence, that you may be known to inhabit this dwelling and touch those who come here, that your presence may be known through us. We pray this in the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

(Anoint the door with Holy Water as we enter.)

(Stop before the fireplace.)
As Christians, we are Trinitarian, and we've talked about our Creator and Redeemer, but we haven't mentioned our Sustainer. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and our comforter in scripture, the Spirit is the one who pours power into us. And the Holy Spirit enables us to keep working even when it is hard. We are asking that for the last piece of this ritual, you become the sustainers of the blessing, adding your own blessing either just through prayer going room to room or by adding a written blessing on a post-it note.

Let us pray:
Holy Spirit, swirl throughout this home, into every corner, underneath all the furniture, and into our hearts. Help us to claim this space for beauty and love in all that we do. Through the breaths of our prayers and the words on these post-it notes, let us mark this home as yours. Amen.

Consecration
In the name of the Triune God who offers us grace upon grace, the one who created us from earth, offers us new life through water, and sustains us in our journey through the Spirit,
we consecrate this home,
committing to God's love and care all who dwell therein, that they might take that love and care out into the world and share it wherever they go.
Amen.

Please go forth and add your blessing to the house, either on the post-its or in your hearts, and make sure you get something to eat!

Receive this blessing:
Let us remember that not just this place, but everywhere we go is a sanctuary--- all of creation, this planet, even our very bodies are holy places filled with the presence of God. So let us go forth walking differently upon the earth, moving not only with reverence but also with joy!3

(Offer the children bubbles and holy water to anoint the whole house with and allow the adults to help them or just add their blessings on the post-its.)

1From Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carter p.83
2Prayer written by the Luscious Ladies of Liturgy, 2017.

3Adapted from Jeff Ramsland, Calls to Worship for Native American Ministries Sunday, Posted with Permission on the Discipleship Ministries Worship website, 2009, accessed 27 June 2017, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/21st-century-worship-resources-for-native-americanministries-sunday