Wednesday, November 4, 2015

When we are young, we are often asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  As a child or adolescent, we may have big dreams.  When I was young, one of my favorite book series was Cherry Ames: Student Nurse. I imagined being a nurse, and then as I grew older, a doctor.  By the time I graduated from high school, I had decided that I would purse a career in physical therapy or occupational therapy.  Somehow, nearly thirty-years later, I am ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

There's a story to be told about how I got there.

My parents are well educated.  Both were the first to go to college in their families.  My father pursued an engineering degree, ultimately receiving his PhD in Industrial Engineering.  My mom's original degree was in Home Economics, but she later got teacher certification in food services, and then a Master's degree in marketing education. She often teased my dad that she had accrued more credit hours than my dad earned with his PhD!  Not only are my parents well educated, they were also professional educators, my mother in secondary education, and my father at the university level.

I grew up knowing I would go to college. In fact, I would say I was groomed for it.
So when I was in 8th grade and, my church gave me the opportunity to go to a career counseling center, my parents were all for it.  A group of 8th graders went to the campus of Austin College, where we completed a seemingly endless array of personality, aptitude, and cognitive tests, all given with the purpose of helping us think about a career path.  I don't remember much about it except that I REALLY liked the campus of Austin College.  It was the first time I'd been on a college campus for a visit without a parent along - testing the waters, so to speak.

I was a good student.  I excelled in math and science, and loved English and history.  If I were a student today, I probably would be channeled into a STEM program.  I was headed in one direction, and one direction only - a career in medicine.  I never wanted to teach; it never even entered my mind.  I was going to be a nurse.......or a doctor.......or a physical therapist.........or an occupational therapist.....

Imagine my surprise when I received the results of the testing to discover that the two careers most fit my aptitudes and interests were  TEACHER and MINISTER.   I was dumbfounded. No way, I thought.  I absolutely was not going to be a teacher, and in the mid-1970s, I didn't even know women could be pastors.  I laughed it off, thinking the results were way off base.

Fast forward a few years.  I started college as an engineering major (not at Austin College, much to my dismay).  After a couple of bad semesters <ahem>, I changed my major to secondary education with teaching fields of Biology and English.  After all, I needed a degree that would get me a job, or so the parents said.  I graduated, intending to still pursue a career in occupational therapy after a few years of teaching.  I taught junior high life science for three years, and I really enjoyed it, but after three years, I was ready for graduate school.  I was accepted into a Masters' Degree program for Occupational Therapy.  As I was working my way through the coursework that year, I experienced a call to ministry.  Once again, I changed directions.

As the years have passed, I have had time to think about my journey.  The road had lots of twists and turns.  Ironically, it led me directly to the two career paths I rejected in adolescence.  What is it they say?  "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

Monday, November 2, 2015

NaBloPoMo - Huh?

NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month.  It's a month to encourage bloggers to post something every day.  If you count yourself among the readers of this blog (all twelve of you!), you'll know that I don't even post every week, or even every month, so writing a post for each day might be a stretch.

I love Anne Lamott's writing.  She makes me think.  She makes me see the beauty not just in the images described, but in the words themselves.  She teaching writing, and has written a book about writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  She give instruction and encouragement for writing on her Facebook page.  Her suggested method?  Just do it.  Put your fanny in a chair and put some words on a page.  You won't like, but you'll feel like you've accomplished something.  Do it every day.

Sounds a bit like practice, doesn't it?  We all know that practice is the only way to become proficient at something.  You have to do it over and over again.  Not only does practice improve your skills, it also develops a habit of practicing.  That's why I decided to participate in NaBloPoMo this year.  I need the practice.  I have always loved words and writing.  It's not a daily practice, but I would like it to be.  I'd like to loosen up some rusty writing muscles, and polish my skills. 

Those that know that I am a pastor may be wondering why I want to do this.  I write sermons every week, don't I?  Well, yes, sort of.  I mostly preach without a manuscript these days, which has advantages and disadvantages.  One of the disadvantages is that I seldom write in complete sentences in preparing for a sermon; I write notes.  And sermon writing is a different kind of writing than other writing.  So I want to practice writing, and I'd like to make my blog a "real" blog by posting more frequently.

Hence, the writing of a post each day (I hope...) during this month of NaBloPoMo.  The posts may not be particularly erudite.  They may be pretty boring.  There will be days that I use the suggested prompts because I just don't have anything myself, so things may get a little random.  But I'm going to try to write each day, and I hope you'll try to read each day.  Leave some gentle critiques, but don't be too tough.  You don't want me to quit, do you?!! <grin>

Sunday, June 21, 2015

With A Heavy Heart

Psalm 130
Psalm 40

This week I got the bulletin done early, and was well on my way to having a sermon completed early. Then on Wednesday night, it happened. The news of 9 people murdered and one left to tell and child who played dead, at a church, by one who had been welcomed in, hit the news.

And I wrestled. And I prayed. And I read. And I listened, and I prayed. And I worried that I will sound like a broken record and that you might be angry if I dare preach what I was afraid I was called to preach. And I prayed some more.

As I debated what to do – do I go with what I have, or do I start from scratch – I remembered something. We’re taught that preaching is contextual. After all, it was one of the consummate Reformed theologians, Karl Barth, who said one should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Our experience is to be interpreted in light of our faith. Our faith is to be interpreted in light of life. There are inexorable connections between life as we know it and the words of scripture. We cannot deny them. We cannot ignore them. We cannot claim those connections on the one hand, and dismiss them with the other. The Bible speaks to us in ways that comfort and in ways that discomfit. And so this week, with the news of people murdered in church in the name of evil, I changed direction.

We have been working through the psalms for a few weeks, a very brief visit to the psalms, but representative of the style and content of different psalms. Psalms speak directly to the circumstances of life. Sometimes it seems as if the psalmist took the words right out of our mouths. They contain all the emotions a person of faith, things that WE might and do experience as we seek meaning for the things that happen to us and in the world. There are psalms that praise exuberantly. There are psalms that are reflective and prayerful. There are psalms that acknowledge the reality of sin, our own and that of others. There are psalms of lament, and psalms of thanksgiving, psalms that quietly proclaim thanksgiving that God has heard our prayers.

This week, I have found myself thoroughly back in the throes of despair and lament. I feel I am crying from the depths, wanting God to hear, desperately hoping that God will hear my voice, OUR voices, our cries of pain. Voices that are tired of violence and hatred. Voices that cry at the reality and injustice of racism. Voices that are afraid to admit that we do indeed have a problem. Voices that wish things were different, that we could just see some sign of change, of progress.

Because the truth is, no matter how difficult it is to hear or how uncomfortable it is to admit it to ourselves, there is something wrong. There is an epidemic of hatred and shrill voices and racism and denial of racism that is flooding through our country. This sin is not only personal, but also corporate, systemic and REAL. And as people of faith, we must face the ugly truth. We have sinned. We have, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to the ways things are and have been.

The psalmist calls us to the same honesty that we see in the psalms. The same exuberant expressions of praise, and the heartfelt lament we feel and a deep acknowledgement of our sin.

“Let your ears be attentive to my cries for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”

We call out to God not just about the evil and wrongs done TO us, but also those done BY us. Because psalms are all about honest communication with God. Psalms are all about laying our souls bare – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And so today, as people of faith, let’s do that. Let’s cry out about the evil done in Charleston this week and the lives lost and the shock and grief that overwhelm. Let’s cry out in weariness that we are again faced with violence, and the reality of racism. Let’s confess to our own denial, and ignorance, and reluctance to act. Let’s cry out about our unease and our discomfort. Let’s even cry out that we’re not sure we believe that racism and violence are endemic or that we are part of the problem.

Honesty is demanded. But lament isn’t just a benign acknowledgement of reality. It isn’t a “poor me” kind of prayer. A lament demands action from God – “out of the depths I cry to you.” A lament contains an expectation that God will act – “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits……I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning….” And when we demand action, and when we expect God to act, we have to KNOW that God calls us to be part of that action. We will be called to self examination. We will be called to confession. We expect that God will change us, and that God will change the world. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. But it never is when God is making all things new.

I grew up here in Texas, in the heart of the south. We just celebrated Juneteenth on Friday. I always thought that Juneteenth was a celebration begun in the African American communities celebrating emancipation, two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the surrender at Appomattox, because they had not received word of it. But that’s not exactly what happened. It turns out that slave owners in Texas didn’t want to give up their slaves. June 19 is when the US Army took possession of Galveston Island, and began the months long battle, literally, to force slave owners to free their slaves. This battle took hundreds more lives, predominately those of black freedmen.

I remember a conversation I had when I lived in Kansas with two other pastors from Texas, one of whom might described as conservative and one a bit more moderate, who are about a generation older than I. We were talking about growing up in Texas and both of them talked about how racist Texas is. I was dumbfounded. At that time, in my early thirties, I didn’t believe that I had grown up in a racist place, at least not a racist as those other racist states. My parents never used racial epithets, and I don’t remember my grandparents doing it either. My great-aunt and uncle had a close relationship with the black community in east Texas, but one of those close relationships was with the woman who cleaned their homes and received food grown in the garden and hand-me-down clothes from them. I went to school with black kids. I had black friends. But schools in Bryan, where I grew up weren’t desegregated until shortly before we moved there as I began middle school.

I have in my house a wash stand that was my grandmother’s.   As we were packing up and clearing out her house after she died, her oldest friend came by. We had been wondering where the wash stand had come from.
We were told that it came from the slave quarters on the farm where she grew up. She didn’t live with slaves, but it is likely her parents and grandparents did. I have wondered why she kept it; it’s not really anything special – very rustic and obviously made with whatever materials could be gathered. Perhaps that stand not only reminded her of her family and heritage, but also of the people who made it, those who were slaves.

There are colloquialisms –“nigger rigged”, and subtle ways of thinking that are ingrained into me that have taken years to see and and to face and to change. Racism is woven like threads into the tapestry my life, in the state and nation I grew up in. It is woven through all of my experiences so well that I can only just now begin to separate those threads from the others.

It has become perfectly clear to me, as I have raised my children, both of whom are biracial, that racism is alive and well, even here in Andrews. The racism we have encountered here and in Roswell is overt sometimes – kids can be meant to one another – and sometimes more subtle – in the ways adults treat and respond to our children. I am ashamed and appalled when I witness these events. I am enraged that it happens to my children. I don’t understand what it feels like completely as I have never personally experienced it, but I see what it does to my children and my friends and my colleagues who are people of color.

It would be easy to be stuck in lament that is just a cry for help. It would be easy to give in to the apathy that says nothing is really ever going to change. But that’s not who God is. And if we are going to lament, and we do, then we must be ready for God to do something in us and among us. We need to be ready to listen to people of color and to hear their experience and pain. We must be ready to speak out against acts and words of racism we see. We must not ignore that it exists, or our part in it.
It may take a loooonnggg time.

                       The psalmist says “I waited and waited and waited for the Lord,                                                                       finally, he heard my cry and turned to me.”

It will require new understanding and change.
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened,
 burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. 
 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. 
 I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.”

The good news is that our God is steadfast. Our God never leaves us – any of us. God has been present throughout the ages -when the Israelites were enslaved and when they were also the oppressors; as people have been enslaved throughout history; were in our own nation; as they continue to be through human trafficking and other means. God has not given up on us. God has not given up on providing justice for those who suffered and continue to suffer the ravages of racism. God leads us forward, God challenges us, God forces us to face our sin and shortcomings, but God never leaves us. God has not given up on us.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
Blessed i
s the one
who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.

 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened—
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
 I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”

 I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.
 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.

The good news is that even as we lament, we are able to look to the future because we know the God who created all of us in his image. We know his steadfast love. We know just how much he loved us when we remember Jesus Christ and his love even for the least of these.

Paul writes in the 8th chapter of Romans:

 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the assurance we have – that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. That gives us courage and strength to live into our calling. May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Shake, Rattle, and Roll!

An Easter Sermon

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and is indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'  This is my message for you."  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!"  And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

They come early, these two Marys – at dawn, Matthew says.  They come not to anoint him, as in the gospels of Mark and Luke.  They don’t worry about who will remove the stone covering the tomb.  Rather they come to see!  The two Marys go to see the tomb as the day is dawning. 

And they don’t tremble in fear, these two Marys.  They are curious, perhaps even anticipating.  You see, the group of women which includes the two Marys has been providing for Jesus.  They have been part of the inner circle, along with the disciples.  They have been providing for Jesus as the angels provided for Jesus after the temptations in the wilderness.  They have been providing for Jesus in the same way as Peter’s mother-in-law did after Jesus raised her from her sickbed.  They have been providing for Jesus like the sheep in the parable care for those who are hungry or thirsty, sick or in prison, naked, or even strangers.  They have been emulating Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve.

They’ve been part of his entourage, and so they’ve heard him talk about his death and resurrection many times.  They’ve heard him say he will be raised after three days.  They’ve heard the promises, they’ve seen the crucifixion, and now they come to the tomb to see what has happened, to understand what Jesus meant.  They’re not sure what to expect, but they come in hope and joy. 

And they are not disappointed.  They feel the earth quake and roll under their feet, just as it did when Jesus died, when rocks broke open and the temple curtain was torn in two.  They see an angel of the Lord roll the stone back from the tomb, just as they had watched Joseph of Arimathea roll it over the opening to the tomb three days earlier.  They see the guards at the tomb, who are seized with fear, fall to the ground like they are dead.  And then the angel speaks to them, reassuring them, inviting them to look into the tomb, telling them that the promises have been fulfilled and that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

As they look into the tomb, they realize that what Jesus said has come to be.  The tomb is empty, just as he said.  And they are amazed and they are filled with joy, even a little bit afraid and awestruck.  And then the angel gives them a job to do:  run to tell the disciples what the angel has said – “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

So they turn to do what they are told.  They turn away from the tomb, leaving to go find the disciples and give them the good news.  And then the real seismic shift occurs: they meet Jesus on the way.  They practically run into him.  They touch him, and it becomes real.  He’s not a ghost.  He really had been raised from the dead.  They knew it in their heads, but now they know it in their hearts. 

Here’s the irony of Easter:  we think the most important part of the story is the empty tomb.  It is important, but what is paramount in this story is that it is only when they turn away from the tomb that the women meet the risen Christ.  They fall at his feet and clasp them, and worship him right there on the path.  I suspect they would have liked to stay there, but he sends them on their way.  He tells them to go out and tell the story. 

In each of the gospels, Jesus meets his followers after he has been raised.  Some believe and some doubt.  Some are afraid and some are filled with joy.  Some do not recognize him, and Jesus reveals himself to them.  He meets them on the path. He goes to them in the upper room where they are hiding.  He goes to find them at the Sea of Galilee after they have gone back to work.  He sends them to preach the good news.  He sends them to baptize in his name.  He tells them to feed his sheep. 

The resurrection does not end at the empty tomb..  Resurrection is not a one time event confined to an empty tomb.  It’s not that God did something amazing this one time. It’s not just one day a year.  It’s at the heart of who we are as a people – Easter people.  We cannot just keep looking at the tomb.  We have to turn around and head out into the world, where we will encounter Jesus along the way.

If we confine resurrection to one day a year, we miss out on the earthshaking truth that God wants to make us new.  Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of transformation, not just ours but the world’s.  Jesus’ resurrection is the sign of a new era, a time when God’s grace is breaking through, here on earth as it is in heaven. 

That transformation, like our own, happens bit by bit, step by step, day by day, moment by moment… God’s transformation of the world and of our lives will shake us and frighten us.  We will want it to make sense, but it probably won’t, because God’s ways are not our ways.  We will want to hold on to the moments of revelation with both hands, but they will get distorted in our minds, and God is making himself know in new ways, anyway.  We may want to tell the story in a few easy sound bites or in pithy platitudes, but God’s story is broader and deeper than sound bites or platitudes.  This work of transformation is scary and it is risky, but it is the journey Jesus sends us on.

The good news is that the tomb is already empty. Jesus has gone on ahead of us.  Jesus makes the way for us.  His resurrection is not confined to a moment two thousand years ago.  It is happening even now.  We are Easter people, people of the resurrection, trusting God to make all things new, even us. Let us continue on the journey with hope and joy.

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!