Monday, June 6, 2016

Becoming Like a Child: God Judges the Heart

        ( Based on I Samuel 16:1-13 & Matthew 18:1-6, 10-11)  
   Today we kick off a month long look at what has become one of my favorite chapters in all of scripture – Matthew 18. I think there is not only plenty of great stuff in this single chapter for a month worth of sermons, but plenty for a church like ours to chew on and work on for a long, long time. I’m very excited and hope you are too.
            We all know and remember that when Jesus was asked by his disciples who would be the greatest in the Kingdom or reign of God, he took a little child and said to all the adults around him, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Such a powerful moment! Such a profound challenge! We all know it is important, but we don’t know exactly what to do about it. We probably all feel a little like that old Pharisee Nicodemus. He’s the one that when Jesus said, “You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, replied, “What am I supposed to do? Crawl back inside my mother’s womb?” I might say, “Jesus! I’m 54 years old! I’ve got bad hips; I’m bald; I wear trifocals, and can barely bend over half the time! How am I supposed to become like a child?” But I am! And so are yoy! And some of you are a lot older than I, so we had better figure this out together!
            Writer Amy Johnson gets us started in her piece entitled “30 Simple Things to Make You Feel like a Child again.” She notes that, “Being an adult means life is filled with commitments and responsibilities, and these demands can often leave us feeling stressed out. Instead of living in the moment, adults find themselves thinking mostly about the future and the past. While children, on the other hand, see the world through curious eyes and find inspiration in everything. Instead of worrying about careers and bills,” Johnson writes, “children spend every day living in the moment, seeking out happiness and joy.
            She’s right! I’ve seen just how right she is in the 8 years I’ve had so far with my one and only daughter, Eloise. Eloise is so present in the moment. We’ll be taking a walk in a woods, and my mind will be running all over the place – next week’s sermon, the paint I need to get for the next day’s job site – and suddenly she’ll whisper, “Dad! Look! There’s a bunny over there.” She’ll point and I won’t see a thing. But with her guidance, soon I’ll see it – something beautiful and amazing that I would have totally missed otherwise, if I were on my own.
            Eloise has given me some incredible gifts in her 8 years of life, but one of the very best is the way she pulls me into the present moment, when my mind tends to keep me regretting the past or worrying about the future. I happen to believe that that is one of the exact things Jesus had in mind, when he said we have to become like children to enter the kingdom. We have to get out of our ever-churning minds so we can notice the myriad gifts that are right in front of our noses!
            Amy Johnson addresses this with concrete suggestions in that article I quoted a moment ago. Let me read you a couple of the items on her list of 30 things we all should do to become more childlike. Notice how they all have to do with complete presence in and openness to the moment – the now:

            Be impulsive. You want that ice cream? Buy it and enjoy it.
         Show physical affection to the people you love — the best way to                             show someone that you love them is to give them a big hug.
         Sing whenever you want to — burst into song on the streets if                                     that’s what you feel like doing.
            Instead of avoiding puddles, splash through them.
         Don’t worry about getting dirty. Instead, focus on all of the fun you                              are having
         And here’s my favorite: Live in awe of all of the things in the world                             that amaze you.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, folks, the one place Jesus wants all of us to be, no matter how old we get, is in this moment – right here, right now. Cause if we’re not there, we’ll miss the kingdom of God, even if it’s staring us straight in the face.                                                                                       
         I think we get some further assistance figuring out what Jesus meant about becoming like a child from social psychologist Steve Bloom. He has focused his research on the way children think. He’s interested in learning more about how children think and then getting adults to think like that! He writes:
“In some ways, our society seems dedicated to eliminating childhood. We often tell kids to stop acting like a child and grow up. Even the word “childish” has a negative tone to it.” He goes on. “At some point in all our lives, we stop being kids and start being adults. Eventually we all put down our toys and stop playing so we can take on bigger responsibilities. But as we grow up, we might be letting go of a little more than we should. Kids see the world in ways that we lose as an adult. When you’re young, you use your mind in creative, imaginative ways, ways that can really help you throughout your entire life, not just childhood. The good news,” Bloom continues, “is that childlike imagination and creativity still rests inside you – no matter how old you happen to be. Simply thinking back to when you were a kid will bring you into that mindset again.”He then goes onto point out five things kids all do when they think that we adults need to recapture. Ready? Here they are: 

 1) use imagination and play to boost ourcreativity                                                        2) open up to more possibilities – don’t limit our options so quickly                               3) don’t take life so seriously                                                                                            4) seek more playful interaction with those you live and work with, and                        5) reduce your inhibitions – we worry too much what others might think of us! Stop it! 

         I believe that Jesus wants us to think more like children think, and as Bloom said, we all still have these five thinking capabilities within us! We just need to use them again! Bloom cites all sorts of university level studies where groups of adults were divided in half. Both groups were given the same problem or question to solve. But one group was challenged to think like 7 year olds, while the other group wasn’t. Care to guess which group consistently came up with better, more creative solutions? Yep, the group that endeavored to think like 7 year olds. As we get older, Bloom claims, “we start to narrow our thinking as a result of entering the so-called ‘real world.”’ We don’t flex our imagination muscles as much as we once did. And like every thing else, if we don’t use it…we lose it!                                                      
       There are all kinds of great reasons for us to become more childlike – to be more present in the here and now, and to free our thinking from all of our habituated adult restraints. But the best reason of all to become more childlike might be found in that story from I Samuel 16. Israel was ready for a new king. Saul had proven to be a big disappointment, so the people turned to the priests and prophets to go through the established protocol of anointing a new one. God sent Samuel to a man named Jesse who had 7 sons. Jesse paraded each of his first six sons before Samuel, starting with the oldest one, Eliab. Eliab was huge, handsome, athletic. Samuel assumed this was the one God had in mind, but no! Then came the next oldest, Abinadab, another strapping stallion of a son, a real warrior. But, again, God told Sam to wave that one off too. This process repeated itself – five more times – as Jesse brought his sons out from the oldest down to the second youngest. And after the seventh son passed by Samuel, Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” I can’t imagine that old Jesse was too pleased with how this king contest was going. To have all of his 7 sons rejected, especially when they were all big and strong and handsome, genuine warriors! So then Jesse says, “Well, there is still the youngest, but…you’re not going to want him. He’s the runt, and he’s out tending sheep, which is about all he’s good for at his age. “Send for him,” Samuel commands.                                                                                                          
       The Lord had whispered to Samuel early on in this parade of Jesse’s sons. The Lord said, When you’re looking for a king, do not consider his appearance or his height, for the Lord does not look at the things you humans look at. Humans look at the outward appearance; but the Lord looks at the heart.” So in comes David, small, pock-faced, and covered with sheep turds. And God says, “This is the one, Samuel. This is my choice. Annoint him.”        God judges the heart, folks. God judges the heart. And kids have great hearts; they’re open, they’re not jaded, they’re trusting, they’re not prejudiced. They’re willing to believe and to have faith and to try new things. But sometimes, as we grow older, as we live through some disappointment, some loss, some nastiness at the hands of others, our hearts sour and shrivel up. Jesus warned us about this in Matthew 24:12. It’s on the cover of your bulletin. He told his disciples before he left them that they were going to go through a bunch of really hard stuff in their lives. And he said, “As the wickedness in the world is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.” But Jesus went on in verse 13 to say, “But the one who keeps loving, who keeps a loving, open, child-like heart, will be saved.”                                            
       That’s our job, folks. That’s our mission. That’s what is supposed to make us different out there in the world. We, who dare to follow Jesus, are supposed to maintain our child-like hearts. Even as wickedness is multiplied; even as people continue to do horrible things to other people; even as terrorists wander and roam the earth; even when it looks as though the world is going to hell in a hand basket; we’re supposed to be the ones who maintain our loving, trusting, and open hearts.                                                                                       
        Can you do it? Can you get back in touch with that child deep inside you? Can you recapture that childlike mind, that incredible imagination? Can you learn how to come back into this moment, the holy here and now? I hope so, for Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like a little child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amen.                

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Remember! A Memorial Day Reflection by Toby Jones 5/29/16

                         (Based on Deuteronomy 8:1-18 and John 14:23-26)

            When I was in seminary at Princeton, I chose to concentrate my studies on the Old Testament, because I already knew the New Testament pretty well and knew next to nothing about the old one. In my study of ancient Hebrew and of the ancient Jewish people, I discovered pretty early on that the single most important word in the Hebrew scriptures is the word “remember.” The Hebrew word is actually “zakar."
            The people of God – the Hebrews - are reminded over and over again - particularly by Moses but by others as well – to remember. Remember what, you may ask? Remember God’s presence, action, and loving intervention throughout their journey with Yahweh. Did you know that every single Jewish holiday, from Passover to Hanukkah, and from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, is designed to help the Jewish people do one thing: remember, remember some important event in their history. Each and every time a Jewish holiday rolls around, faithful Jews are to re-tell or re-read the story of the ancient event and perform certain actions and rituals called for in the original account of the event recounted in what we call the Old Testament.
            Why, do you suppose, remembering is so important to God and to the Hebrew people? What is it about remembering that is so vitally important to a people of faith? Well, I think Deuteronomy 8 provides a pretty good clue, so let’s take another look at this pivotal passage in Hebrew Scripture.
            As I think you remember, the Hebrew people went through some pretty tough times together. They were conquered and kicked out of Israel several times. They were conquered and then occupied several other times. They had their temple destroyed. They wandered through the desert for 40 years at one point. There was no shortage of hardship in their journey as a people. But all along that journey, they developed a sense that Yahweh was with them, that they weren’t alone, and a huge part of their beautiful Jewish faith called them to remember – to remember those times when Yahweh made his presence particularly palpable. That’s what every one of the Jewish holidays celebrates – a time when Yahweh’s presence and saving action was undeniably real.
            So that brings us to Deuteronomy 8. The people of Israel have been wandering and suffering, hungering and thirsting for a very long time. And finally, at long last, they are about to enter the promised land, their homeland, a place where they won’t have to wander and worry, a place where no foreign powers or hostile dictators will rule over them. And at this pivotal moment in history, Moses brings them all together to remind them, to help them remember. He says, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water (remember – they’d been in a desert for 40 years!), a land with springs flowing in the valleys and the hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey, a land where bread will not be scarce and where you will lack nothing.”
            Moses says, “Be sure that you remember, for when you have eaten and are satisfied, it will be so easy for you to forget…to forget to praise and thank God for the good land God has given you. Be careful that you never, ever forget the Lord your God and all that Yahweh has done! Otherwise,” Moses continues, “when you eat and are satisfied, when you build your houses and settle down, when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all that you have is multiplied, your heart might become proud, and you might forget that the Lord your God is the One who brought you out of Egypt, freed you from slavery, and led you through the vast and dreadful desert…If you’re not careful,” Moses said, “you might forget all the manna God provided in the desert, when you were hungry. If you’re not careful, you might sit with your full bellies in your nice big houses and start to think, ‘My power and the strength of my hands has produced all this wealth for me.’ But remember,” Moses concludes, “remember that it is the Lord your God; it is Yahweh that has given you this place and the ability to produce wealth. Remember and do not ever forget. Remember…”
            Remembering is important…Remembering is incredibly important. You may live in a beautiful house with a nice yard on a peaceful street. But if you’re not careful, you might start to think that that was all made possible by your own hard work. You might start to take a little pride in the fact that you and your children live as comfortably and as safely as they do.
            I have a friend who uses a funny expression. When he meets a person who is a bit full of himself or perhaps not as grateful to his parents or ancestors as he should be, my says, “That guy was born on third base, and yet he acts like he just hit a triple.” I hope that is never said about you, me, or any of us.
            I think that is what Memorial Day is all about, isn’t it? I think Memorial Day is a holiday designed to remind us that we didn’t necessarily hit a triple to get to third base. There are lots of people, whose names we might not even know, whose faces we might not even be able to picture, who paid an extraordinary price, so that we could be here right now – in a beautiful place, safe, warm, well-fed, and free.
            Who are the people that we ought to remember and thank this day? Some are soldiers, some are officers, and some are presidents. And some may not have fought at all, but maybe stayed home and fed the rest of us, or kept the economy and other things going while the soldiers were away.
            We are so much like those Hebrews as they stood at the edge of the Promised Land. Here we sit in a free and prosperous America. Most of us don’t have to worry about where our next meal will come from. Most of us have all kinds of creature comforts. We may need that exact same reminder that Moses gave the Israelites – to remember and not forget all that God has done for us, and all that those who came before us and fought for us have done as well.
            Jesus talked a lot about remembering too. He instructed his followers to remember a lot of things. We’re to remember the poor. We’re to remember that he washed the feet of his followers and we’re supposed to as well. We’re to remember the five loaves and two fish and the feeding miracles. We’re to remember how we’ve been forgiven, so we, in turn, will forgive others. But Jesus also gave us a powerful tool to aid us in remembering all this important stuff.
            In the passage from John 14 that I shared a few minutes ago, Jesus said that one of the chief functions of the Holy Spirit is that it will teach us all things and remind us of everything Jesus said to us. The Holy Spirit lives in us and stays with us SO THAT we never forget.
            Moses said, “Be careful – especially once you’ve eaten and are satisfied! Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God and all that Yahweh has done! Otherwise,” Moses continues, “when you build your houses and settle down, when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have is multiplied, your heart might become proud, and you might forget that the Lord your God is the One who brought you out of Egypt, freed you from slavery, and led you through the vast and dreadful desert…If you’re not careful,” Moses said, “you might forget all the manna God provided in the desert. You might start to think, ‘My power and the strength of my hands has produced all this wealth for me.’ But remember,” Moses concludes, “remember that it is the Lord your God; it is Yahweh who has given you this place and the ability to produce wealth. Remember and do not ever forget.”
            Memorial Day is an incredibly important holiday for Christians. We need to take it as seriously as our Jewish brothers and sisters take all of their holidays. We need to remember and give thanks. We need to remember and be humble. We need to remember and recognize that we didn’t get where we are today on our own. We have so many men and women to thank. We have so many ancestors, relatives, and soldiers who paid dearly – often with their lives – to give us what we have today.
     There’s a really cool story in the Old Testament book of Joshua. We often forget that when the Israelites finally entered the Promised Land, Moses didn’t get to go in with them. Even though Moses had so faithfully and bravely won their freedom from Pharaoh; even though Moses led them through the 40 years in the wilderness, Moses didn’t get to go with his people into the land of Canaan. Joshua did. And as one of his first acts as the new leader of the Israelites, Joshua instructed an elder from each of the twelve tribes to bring a stone from the Jordan River to their first encampment within the new Promised Land. Joshua piled the stones together, prayed over them, and called the place Gilgal. His purpose was that when future generations came along and asked what the stones meant, they would be told all the stories of what the Lord had done for them. “These stones,” said Joshua, “shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” I like to think that the first stone in that pile would always remind them of Moses. Joshua may have been the leader that got to go into the Promised Land, but he was only there because of Moses. Who is your Moses? Who is my Moses? Who do you need to remember and give thanks for this Memorial Day?
            Zakar…Remember. It’s time. It’s always time to remember and give thanks. We may find ourselves standing on third base; but that doesn’t mean we hit a triple to get here. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sometimes, All I Need is the Air that I Breathe... 5/22/16

     (Based on Genesis 1:1-2, 2:4b-7, Job 33:1-4, Matthew 3:13-4:2 - And on a great   song by The Hollies!)

            All through the month of May, we’ve been celebrating the environment that is so closely linked to the God we worship and serve. We’ve seen God in the soil – that wonderful and rich provider of nourishment, life, and growth; that soil from which we were all created…that soil to which we shall all return. We’ve celebrated God’s presence in water in its many forms, particularly the form of Jesus’ living water offered to the Samaritan woman in the well. Today, we turn our attention to the sky, the air.
            For centuries and even millennia now, Christians have come to picture God as living way up in the sky, remote from us, unreachable, in a totally separate realm we refer to as “the heavens.” Many Christians still believe that we can never get there – that place where God is – until we die. Does that make sense to you? Are you comfortable with that?             
          The writer of Hebrews sure wasn’t. He put it this way in chapter 4 verse 15: “For we do not have some high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we have.”
            Paul wasn’t completely comfortable with a remote, distant God either. In Romans 8:26, he tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We don’t even know what to pray for but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Spirit “searches and knows and dwells within our hearts.” That’s close!
            Take a look at that amazing quotation I put on the front of the bulletin today. Once again, it comes from Diana Butler Bass and her amazing book Grounded.
            "For centuries, we have distanced heaven, placing it beyond reach and  making it impossible to experience. If you think about it, however, heaven is not far away at all. We may walk on the ground, but the rest  of our bodies move through the sky all the time -- the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere that extends upward from the earth's surface to about thirty-    five-thousand feet. The sky begins at our feet.
            "To say that God is in the sky is not to imply that God lives at a certain address above the earth. Instead, it is an invitation to consider God's presence that both reaches to the stars and wafts through our lives as a spiritual breeze."

            How cool is that? The sky begins at the top of our feet. She’s right, isn’t she? The sky begins where the ground ends. Butler Bass points this out because, like me, she is not a fan of the traditional understanding that God is “up” there, way above us in some separate, heavenly realm. If we recognize that the sky begins here – at our feet – then God can be all around us, literally as close as our next breath!
            Job understood this. He said in Job 27:3For as long as life is in me, the breath of God is in my nostrils.” And in 33:4 "The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
         A little later this morning, we’re going to sing that classic hymn, “Breathe on my, Breath of God.” Did you know that in Hebrew – the language of the Old Testament – the word Ruach means wind, air, breath, and Spirit. What a word! It encompasses all those things that we have since separated with our many words. And Greek – the language of the New Testament – is similar to the Hebrew in this regard. The one Greek word “Pneuma” can mean spirit, Holy Spirit, wind, and breath. Ancient cultures were actually way ahead of us on recognizing the nearness of God, and their language reflects that!
         I think Jesus and the writers of the gospels worked hard to reinforce the nearness of God as well. The passage I shared from Matthew, which is actually covered the same way in all 4 gospels, has the heavens being torn open and that spirit of God – the Ruach, the Pneuma – descending out of the heavens and staying on the earth. It doesn’t go back up! Matthew’s account emphasizes that not only does this spirit come down and rest on Jesus, but it stays! In fact, it is that same spirit that then compels Jesus out into the wilderness. And it’s that same spirit that comes upon and surrounds the disciples in Acts chapter 2, the day of Pentecost that we celebrated last week. It’s the same spirit that hovered over the waters before creation in Genesis 2. And the same breath  - the breath of God that called everything into existence. It’s all connected! It’s all the same thing! It’s in the wind; it’s in the air; it’s in the sky; it’s in your lungs and my lungs; it’s in this space above our shoes, in everything that’s above the ground. Wow!
         So if all this amazing stuff is connected – sky, wind, air, breath, breath of God, God’s Spirit, what does that mean for us and for our lives? Well, first it means that every time we breathe, we become more connected to God. I’m going to shut up so we can all breathe for a while. Ready…. (Breathe)
        Secondly, this truth about air, wind, spirit, sky, breath and God should help us remember that we are all connected with each other, right? What’s the one thing that connects every living human being on the planet…? We all breathe. The very act of breathing is what connects us, no matter what color our skin is; no matter what country we live in, no matter who we vote for, no matter what religion we are. It is our breath that connects us! Not only do we all breathe, but more importantly, we all breathe the same air. This might not be the most pleasant thought I share with you today, but in this room, right now, the very air that you take into your lungs is the exact same air that has been in and out the lungs of every other person in this room. (Talk about recycling! I had us all breathing before; now everybody is holding their breath! ) And as we back the camera up further and move outdoors, that same principle applies. We come from the same soil as everyone else; we drink from the same well as everyone else, and we breathe the very same air as everyone else. Folks, we are all in this together.
          I learned about the incredibly connection our breathing builds between all people through a group I facilitated in the six years before I came here, I worked with a small group of adult students every Tuesday night in a Petoskey yoga studio, helping them explore and experiment with ancient, silent prayer practices. We would gather for an hour each week. The first 10-15 minutes, I’d offer some background and instruction on a particular silent practice. Then, for the next 20 or 30 minutes, we’d attempt the practice or discipline. And then in the final 10-15 minutes, we’d talk about what we experienced in the silence and meditation. I’m not sure what we expected would result from the silence, but some really cool things happened that we didn’t expect. One was that, over time, we started to feel incredibly close to each other. There was a real tenderness and compassion we felt for each other, by sharing that space together and entering that scary and often uncomfortable silence. Simply breathing together and not talking put us in a very different kind of realm. We rarely, if ever, had any lightening bolt experiences or flashes of the presence of God. But, in a way, that made our time together even better, for we were all humbled by our individual and collective emptiness. That time spent breathing in shared silence, waiting on God, made us all realize that weren’t as holy or as godly as we sometimes like to think.
         I want to close by sharing a very personal story of the moment when God showed me just how present She is in the air we breathe and in the wind. I was going through a very low and dark time in my life. I was lonely and very isolated. I was unemployed and feeling the pinch of long-term, day-to-day economic hardship. I was taking a walk in one of my favorite, most beautiful Northern Michigan bluffs along Little Traverse Bay, where there was tall, unmowed wheat grass on this cliff overlooking the bay. It was just before sunset and the sky was brilliant. The wind was up and, in addition to making the tall grass sway rhythmically, it was pushing the billowing clouds from left to right, from west to east across the sky. I was feeling weak, depressed, and totally alone.
         For some reason I stopped along the bluff and took a few deep breaths, as I looked out over the swaying grass, the whitecaps on the waves, the rapidly moving clouds. I felt the wind on my face as I looked all of this power and movement and beauty. And suddenly, it occurred to me that the air I was breathing was the exact same air that I was feeling on my face; it as the exact same air I could see blowing the grass, the waves, and the clouds.
         So I took in more of that air, and my chest began to swell and my posture straightened, and it hit me…It hit me that I was connected to that swaying grass and those billowing clouds and those strong crashing waves. I realized that I had access to that exact same power that I saw and felt all around me. It was God’s spirit – all of it. And I wasn’t separate from it. I was connected to it! I was a part of it, and it was a part of me.
         After several minutes, I started walking again, and I felt incredible – powerful, strong, hopeful, and it was nothing like being alone. In fact, I knew more at that moment than I ever have, that I am not alone. I am never alone. I knew right then that I am not weak, but infused with the same power of that wind that was everywhere around me.
         I come back to that moment, to that scene every now and then, for it reminds me that the air, the wind, the breath of God, my breath, your breath – it’s all connected. Loneliness and separation – as real they may feel at times – they’re an utter illusion. Human loneliness and isolation are a lie. The Truth – with a capital T – is that we are far more connected to each other and to God than we can even imagine. And when we forget that, when we lose sight of that powerful and eternal connection with God and with each other, all we have to do to get it back…is breathe. Just breathe. Mindfully take in each breath remembering all that is within it – your breath, my breath, the breath of the world, and the Ruach, the Pneuma, the breath of God.
         That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s the good news that I have for you today. Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Jesus, the Living Water, Reverses the Curses!

                                 (Based on Genesis 3:1-13, John 4:4-15)
         Offered to FCUCC Gaylord – May 15, 2016 – by Toby Jones

            I suppose we’d have to be living under a rock not to notice that water is everywhere in the news lately. Whether it’s the on-going and horrifying crisis in Flint or the frightening water shortages in places like California, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, water – something we used to take for granted – is now a precious and precarious commodity.
            We know that when God created the world, God understood water’s importance, which is probably why She made this planet 3/4ths water – some for drinking, some for transportation, some for beauty and recreation, some for silence and contemplation – and plenty for all people.
            The Bible – both Old and New Testaments  - are full of stories suggesting a deep connection between God and water. As Diana Butler Bass puts it, “the interplay between water, wellness, and spirituality was well known to our ancestors.” (Grounded, pg. 81). Think of how many Christian holy places, from shrines and temples to cathedrals and monasteries, are built over springs or beside wells and rivers. And it’s not only the Christian faith that recognizes this important connection between God and water. To Hindus, the Ganges River is the destination of their holiest pilgrimages. Muslims, in their creation story, depict Allah sitting upon the waters, for in Islam, the waters existed before anything else did.
            There is such power in water – spiritual power - whether in rivers, oceans, streams, lakes, the rain that falls this time of year, or the simple cup of water we offer to a thirsty stranger. Jesus put it this way: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”(John 3:5)
            That brings me to my favorite water story of all – in John 4, where Jesus has this amazing conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. In many ways, it tells us everything we need to know about Jesus – who he is, what he cares about, and how he rolls.
            I’m going to start by telling you everything I’ve known about this passage historically, and then end by telling you what I only recently learned about it that I never knew before – something that makes me even more fond of this terrific text. Are you ready…?
            First, the story tells us how Jesus was NOT one to play by anyone else’s rules, especially those of the religious authorities of his day. Did you know that faithful, law keeping Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t ever supposed to enter Samaria? Samaria was a region within Israel that lied between Galilee and Jerusalem. And the people who inhabited it were of mixed race and mixed culture. In addition, many Samaritans still participated in some polytheistic religious rituals. So for all these reasons, faithful, orthodox Jews not only wouldn’t speak to Samaritans, but they wouldn’t even set foot in Samaria! They would walk all the way around Samaria, adding as much as a half-day’s journey rather than set foot in this unclean, pagan place.
            So, as Jesus is leading his disciples from Jerusalem back up to Galilee, he goes right through Samaria. He doesn’t deviate from his course at all, walks right into the center of town, and sits at the well in the town square. His disciples were shocked, dumbfounded and scared.
            Here’s another note before we go further. Did you know that in Jesus’ day, Jewish men didn’t speak or fraternize in public with women – period. Not their wives or daughters, and definitely not strangers. And in this passage Jesus has his longest recorded conversation with anyone in all the gospels, and it’s with a woman – a stranger, and a Samaritan! Are you getting my drift about Jesus being a rebel? He shocked his disciples and really shocked this woman. A Jewish man…speaking to her…and a Rabbi no less? Jesus was way out of bounds here!
            But it gets even more amazing, as we turn to the particulars of this woman. We already know she was a Samaritan, but as the passage unfolds, we find out that she has been married 5 times and is now living with a 6th man! Back then, this woman was about as low as she could get – even in a Samaritan community. And yet, Jesus spoke with her.
            Perhaps the most important thing for us to realize about this Samaritan woman is how she felt about herself. We know she felt like a total loser with a capital L! We know this because of a tiny detail in the story that most people don’t even notice when they read John 4. At the end of verse six, the line is: “It was about the 6th hour.” That means it was 12 o’clock noon.” No big deal, right? Actually it is a HUGE deal. Guess who went to the well to get water at noon….NOBODY. Care to guess why? Going to the well meant carrying a heavy wooden bucket- even heavier once it was full of water – over several miles. To do so at noon meant going in the hottest part of the day AND a time when a good deal of water might evaporate on the way home. Biblical scholars point out that there is only one kind of person who would come to the well at high noon: a person who is so despised and mistreated in her community, that she chooses to go get her water when NOBODY else would be apt to be there.
            How telling that Jesus has his longest and most compassionate conversation with THIS Samaritan woman – not only a woman – who Jewish men are not supposed to talk to in public; not only a Samaritan – who Jews are forbidden to have any dealings with; but a five time marital loser who gets verbally attacked by everyone she knows, and is a pariah, even among a nation of pariahs! I love Jesus! I love this man!
            And what does Jesus say to her? He offers her “living water,” living water. He says, ‘if you drink the water I’m offering, you will never thirst again.’ As Diana Butler Bass puts it, “Jesus implies that he’s not just a well; he’s the water!” Jesus lets this woman know that if she connects herself to him, if she taps into him, he’ll quench her thirst forever. He’s going to bless her spiritually and in a way that lasts.
            Now here’s the new thing I learned about this already amazing passage, and I just learned it this week, reading this amazing book called “Grounded” by Diana Butler Bass. Before too long you’ll be getting an invitation from me to study this book with me in a book group, maybe this fall. But back to what the author taught me this week.
            Diana Butler Bass notes that this story in John 4 creates an exact reversal of the story of the fall, going all the way back to Genesis 3 and Adam and Eve. I’d never seen it before, but Butler Bass is right – it’s there, plain as day! In Genesis 3, we have this serpent coming to Eve and saying that if she eats of the tree of life, the knowledge of good and evil, her eyes will be opened and she’ll gain spiritual wisdom right. So Eve accepts the serpent’s invitation to eat and what does she get…? She gets cursed. She gets booted out of the garden and becomes an isolated outcast, right?
            But in John 4, look what happens. Jesus invites the woman to drink from his well of living water, and this time, instead of being cursed and cast out, she is blessed! The woman is blessed in such a profound and dramatic way, that she runs to tell all her friends. She leaves her empty water bucket at the well, and in her excitement runs to the town and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ? The Messiah?” John goes on to tell us that “many Samaritans came from the town and believed in Jesus because of this woman’s testimony.”
            What a transformation! What a blessing! You’d think no one would believe anything on the basis of this despised woman’s testimony, right? But that’s how the living water of Jesus works! Once she took into her heart and spirit, it reconnected her to God, it reconnected her to herself, and it reconnected her to her community. This Samaritan woman goes from being cursed to being blessed, and, in so doing, she not only blesses others, but through her, the long standing curse associated with Eve is blown to bits; it’s undone; it’s reversed!
            Jesus turns curses to blessings; that’s what the living water of Jesus does! Jesus takes old, worn out, damaging understandings that we have of ourselves, and sets things right. Jesus restores us to who we really are.
            So what about us? What does this John 4 story of the woman at the well mean for us? Well, first it means that we need to realize that we are not cursed either. We are NOT sinners in the hands of an angry God, as Jonathan Edwards thought. We’re blessed, not cursed. Can I get an amen? Second, we need to consider what we can we do – you and I, right here in Gaylord – to help others understand that they’re not cursed either? How can we help reverse that curse that so many people around us feel? Who do you know who feels despised, cast out, and unwelcome? Who in our community is convinced that their mistakes and past actions have cursed them forever, that they are no longer worth anything?
            Maybe it’s time that you sat down with that person at the Gaylord town well. Don’t worry about what other people might think. That never stopped Jesus. In fact, the more despised and cut off the person is, the bigger the opportunity for blessing. That’s how Jesus saw it.
            The people in Samaria had gotten it wrong where this woman who had been married five times was concerned. They thought they could cut her off, but she was a part of them. Their blessing depended on her blessing. The Jews in Israel had gotten it all wrong too. They tried to cut themselves off from the Samaritans. Little did the Jews know that their blessing depended on the Samaritans being blessed right along with them. And so it goes, all throughout human history. We ostracize, we cast out, we curse those we view as different from us, failing to notice that we’re all one. We have a common destiny. We drink from the same well. We’re either all going to make it, or none of us will. That is the lesson of the water and of the well. That is the lesson of John 4, the Samaritan woman, and the living water of Jesus. That’s the good news of the gospel. Eden’s curse has been reversed – for ALL of us. Amen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"And We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden" - 5/1/16

                                 (Based on Genesis 2:4b-15 & John 9:1-7)

            It all started with soil…it ALL started with soil: every plant, every flower, every tree, and every vegetable, right? Any gardener, any farmer, any botanist or ecologist will tell you that it all starts with soil. But it’s easy to forget that something else started with soil too…You and me and ALL of humanity! According to Genesis two, we were made of the earth, of the soil, from the dirt.
            God has always been into dirt. As theologian Norman Wirzba put it, “God fashioned the first human being by taking the dust of the ground into his hands…and then animating it… God gave it life from within.”
            For those of us who are farmers or who grew up with farmer parents and grandparents, no one needs to tell us how vital and miraculous soil is. Soil is amazing! It is the life source. Dirt is no dirty word for people of the land. Kids know this intuitively. They are fascinated with soil and dirt. They love to play in it, to rub themselves with it, and to get it all over their bodies. And if we go back in time, before the Industrial Revolution came along, from the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s, we were all a lot more into and in touch with the soil than we are today, right? As Diana Butler Bass puts it, in the pre-industrial revolution days, “God, dirt, and divinity were easy companions. Creator and creation were part of the same theological ecosystem.” This is why, Butler Bass continues, “Jesus spun agricultural tales for his hearers’ spiritual benefit.” But, Butler Bass continues, “the Industrial Revolution transformed how we understood the dirt…People became estranged from the land; the dirt became an it.”
            Think about it! As we got more into machines and technology, almost all our associations with dirt and soil went from positive to negative. If your child or grandchild comes in from outside with soil on his hand or pants, you say, “Don’t come in here! You’re filthy dirty!” If a joke is off color and inappropriate, we call it a “dirty joke,” right? What’s another word for a pornographic magazine? In America nowadays, people from cities consider themselves superior and better educated than people from farms. “Country people” are thought of as poor, uneducated, with dirt under their fingernails. What about our language for sin? It’s the same thing, right? We say that a sinner is dirty, soiled by sin, and needs to be washed clean in the waters of baptism. It seems that dirt and soil are not things we appreciate anymore; in fact, they are things we avoid.
            It’s too bad, because God is in the dirt; God has always been in the dirt. That may be why there are actually more people involved nowadays in community gardens and in local farming efforts than there are in churches. Think about that! Just a few generations ago, no one would have even questioned the fact that God and dirt go hand in hand. As one man put it, “There’s no such thing as a secular farmer! The seasons are spiritual; the soil is spiritual, and so we farmers are a spiritual lot.”
            One way of reading our origin stories in Genesis, particularly the Garden of Eden, is that originally, we had a great relationship with the soil and the earth. That relationship was part and parcel of our relationship with God. But when Adam and Eve lost site of that connection, that relationship, they were cast out of the garden, out of that farming life, and began to wander the earth and take from it rather than nurture and give to it. So we really need to “get back to the garden” as Joni Mitchell put it in a song that Rokko and I will sing for you in a few minutes.
            This earth God lends us to protect and care for is a miracle, an absolutely amazing creation. And it all starts with dirt, with soil. The more in touch we are and connected we are with soil and with dirt, the more in touch and connected we are with God. Conversely, the more removed we are from the soil of the earth, the more detached and removed we are from God. I think that is why I can so clearly see God’s hand in the huge movement that’s going on right now toward both organic and local farming. More and more people - and especially young people - are trying to get back in touch, into more direct contact with the food they eat. They want to know where it comes from, how it was grown, produced, and packaged. A lot of America’s brightest young people are willing to spend more money buying and consuming vegetables that are grown locally, as close to where they live as possible. They even want to participate in growing it, if at all possible. So they join CSA’s – Community Supported Agricultural Cooperatives. God is present in the movement toward local food production and consumption.
            Folks, I may be talking about this now. But I have to confess that I never even thought about any of this when I was younger. I was a city and suburban kid. We went to a grocery store and bought the cheapest best deal we could find, without any regard for where it was produced, how it was grown, how it had been packaged, or how many thousands of miles it may have been transported to get to us. Not only did my “Christian” family and I not think about that, we certainly saw no connection between those kinds of ecological, environmental questions and following Jesus. We assumed that if we went to church on Sunday, put some money in the collection plate, studied the Bible, and treated others well, that that was all there was to following Jesus.
            But then, over time, I started attending lectures back in Indiana about why family farms were dying. I started watching documentaries about how food is being mass-produced and chemically manufactured. I started learning about GMO’s, pesticides, and the environmental damage that is done every time we people in Michigan buy lettuce from California and apples from Washington State.
            Only in the last 8–10 years has it started to dawn on me just how great the distance has become between the dirt and me. Without ever intending to, I have lost touch with the earth, with the very dirt and soil out of which I came. Scripture teaches that out of the dust and dirt I’ve come and to it I shall return. Jesus was all about the dirt. Have you ever noticed that 95% of his parables used the earth and dirt to teach us about God? He was always writing in the dirt with his fingers, sitting in it, leaning against a tree, sleeping on the ground out under the stars. In the passage I shared from John’s gospel a few moments ago, Jesus used dirt and spit to heal a man’s blindness. Mudd…to heal! How great is that? Jesus lived his entire life intimately connected to the ground.
            I read one study that said more and more churches today are building community gardens right on their property. Some are doing it to raise healthy local food for charities, food pantries, and hungry families. Others are doing it to supplement the church’s budget. Some are doing it as a primary fellowship activity, and many are doing it just for fun. But they’re all discovering that gardening is deepening their faith, reconnecting them with God. I wonder if we could try that? Reverend Anna Woofenden goes so far as to say that the church should be “a community where the church is the garden and the garden is the church.” I like that.
            Now, I’m no Luddite. I know that some technology is good, and we can’t all be farmers. We can’t just wish away the concrete we’re surrounded by concrete most of the time. But I do know that the closer I get to the earth – to the ground and the dirt and the soil - the closer I feel to God. I know that the more I consider where my food comes from, how it got from the farm to my table, the healthier, the more in balance, and more spiritual my life becomes. My faith has really changed and evolved over the years, and I hope it continues to. I am so thankful that God can be found and experienced just as powerfully in the dirt as in a beautiful building like this.
            In my faith journey, I’ve found that it’s really helped me to stop thinking about God as up there and out there in some distant and heavenly place. In fact, I’ve come to think of the earth as God’s own body – literally and physically. I think of the earth as God’s body rather than thinking of it as some planet that God just looks down on from on high. I want Eloise to grow up playing in the dirt and finding God in it. I want her to know that we’re all connected, and what better way for her to learn that than to learn that we all live on God’s body – the earth, the mother of us all. At school, just this week, incidentally, Eloise learned about what it means to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We take a lot of walks together, and she won’t walk by a piece of trash without picking it up and lecturing me on why we need to take better care of the earth. Kids get it. They really get it!
            Originally, all humans came from the earth. Everything we are, everything we eat, everything we need is in the ground, and that includes God, who’s right in there too. Over the course of history, many and even most humans in industrialized nations – without realizing or intending it - have moved further and further away from the soil and the land. In the process, we’ve inadvertently created a huge distance between ourselves and God, and I think we’ve paid a pretty big cost because of it.
            You know, it’s strange – we’ve come to talk about sin as if it’s some sort of dirty thing, as if sin means that we have somehow become soiled or unclean. But what if we’ve gotten it backwards or twisted around? What if our big sin is NOT that we’re dirty, but that we’ve gotten too far away from the dirt, that we’ve fled from our life source, from our origin, which IS the dirt, which IS the soil.
            Maybe Joni Mitchell was right? Maybe we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…little by little, inch-by-inch, row-by-row. It’s something to think about…

Monday, April 25, 2016

Who are We - The 1st Congregational UCC of Gaylord

(Based on Mt 5:14-16, Mt 13:24-30a, and Mt 25:31ff – 4/17/16)

Last week, we considered this crucial question of who am I? Who are you? We looked at it from an individual perspective and concluded that we are children of God – all of us, and all people everywhere – period. As I John 3 puts it: “See what love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!”
            This week, we turn to the corporate dimension of our identity. Today I want to explore who WE are, as the 1st Congregational UCC Church of Gaylord. What is the particular and unique identity of this congregation, and how can we learn from and be guided by that identity? I want to approach this question by telling a few stories – true stories - of some incredible things that have actually happened right here in my seven months with you – identifying things! So who are we? Let’s look at this important question in three Acts.      
                                    ACT I - WE HELP PEOPLE IN NEED
            Act I. Scene 1 – Over in the Parish Hall… A homeless woman in her 60’s came by at about 8 in the morning. She had all of her earthly possessions in two garbage bags and a box. She had been at the Refuge the last couple nights, but needed a shelter option that was a bit more long-term for her. When our secretary Karla Hawkins arrived, she invited the woman in and asked her if she’d like a cup of hot coffee. She did and Karla made her one and then sat down and shared a cup of coffee with her. The woman explained to Karla that two very nice women over at the Refuge told her they would pick her up here and drive her all the way up to the Mary Margaret House – a 90-day shelter for homeless women up in Petoskey, about an hour’s drive each way. Before long, as promised, two gals from our church pulled up, loaded this woman with all her stuff in their car, and drove her up to get settled at the Mary Margaret House.
Act I. Scene 2 – Also at the Parish Hall… Two of our adult members – one male and the other female – sat at a table on a Tuesday afternoon with a high school aged girl with dyed blue hair. She had a baseball hat cocked sideways on her head and wore a hooded sweatshirt that was several sizes too big for her. They were all staring back and forth between a laptop and a math book. It seems they were struggling through some Algebra II problems. As I passed through the room, they asked me for some assistance on a particular group of problems and found that I was no help at all. So they labored on together. This scene, by the way, happened over and over again, as volunteers from this congregation were committed to helping this young high school dropout get her GED. They would not stop until she had it!
Act I. Scene 3 – At the Parish Hall. It was a Friday evening, and a crew from our church was working with some folks from a downtown business preparing a meal. The preparations began at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Some cleaned and then set tables, while others labored over the stove. At about 4:45, a steady stream of people came in. It was a colorful crew of guests. Some were homeless, some weren’t. Some were completely on their own; others were couples or even families. Some were black and some were white. Some were there to relieve their hunger; others to relieve their loneliness. At 5:00 sharp, Tony Dockery-Fobar welcomed everyone and led them in prayer. Then table-by-table, the guests came forward to receive a lovingly prepared, balanced meal. Later, the leftover food was distributed to any guests who wanted more.
            Who are we? We are, most definitely, a church who helps local people in need.
Act II. Scene 1 – The pastor’s office… Back in October and early November, I preached a sermon series entitled “What Christianity Can Learn from Other Religions.” We spent a week each on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. I tried to honor each faith and celebrate its contributions to the world. Now, as you might imagine, in the current political climate, not everybody was pleased with my positive treatment of other religions in general and of Islam in particular. So one day, that following week, I welcomed a church member into my office, who questioned me – seriously, pointedly, and respectfully. We talked – well, mostly he talked and I listened for over an hour. It was a great conversation. It helped me, and I trust it helped him too.

Act II. Scene 2 – On any Tuesday during Lent, from noon to one p.m., our parish hall was filled with anywhere from 20-30 people, at least five of whom were either from other churches or from no church at all. That group, in addition to digging into some wonderful soup and bread, also dug into the scriptures, asking some incredibly challenging questions. What if “original sin” is not the only way to understand our origin? What if Jesus didn’t come merely to “die for our sins”? Could he have had a larger or different purpose? What if heaven and hell and the traditional understandings of them - are more distortions of God’s truth than manifestations of it? We didn’t always agree or reach consensus during these sessions, but we were always civil. We listened to each other, we raised additional questions, and we knew that our friendships with one another were far more important that a forced uniformity of belief.

Act II. Scene 3 – This one happened just last week, and it’s going to happen again later this morning, and every Sunday after coffee hour for the foreseeable future. Over at the northwest corner of the Parish Hall, about 12-13 folks entered into a discussion about the morning sermon. People shared what they were thinking during the sermon, what memories or ideas came up in them. Some shared tough struggles they were having trying to see others as children of God. “What about the members of ISIS and other terrorists who would harm others? Are we supposed to consider them children of God too?” “What about family members who continually mistreat us or even abuse us?” “What does drug or alcohol abuse do to someone’s child of God status?” Again, we didn’t all agree or see these complicated issues in the exact same way. But we sure were willing to roll up our sleeves and ask the tough questions together – always together.
            Who are we? We are, most definitely, a church that celebrates questions even more than answers.

Act III. Scene 1 For almost two full years before I came here, this congregation undertook a very difficult but vital process. You worked through the United Church of Christ’s process to become an Open and Affirming Congregation. This “ONA” process, as it’s called, is an incredibly challenging one, but it’s particularly difficult in a small town like Gaylord, Michigan – a town that is almost exclusively white and known for being very conservative politically and theologically. This congregation took on this process, entered it faithfully, saw it through with the full knowledge that you would probably lose some members – which you did. And we will probably lose a few more. I have called upon and visited with several of the people who left this congregation over the ONA decision. I have listened to their opinions and understood them. But I have not tried to talk them out of their opinions nor talk them into coming back. Becoming an open and affirming church was absolutely the right thing for this particular congregation to do. Being as open as we are is not for everyone, and it’s clearly not for every church. But it IS an accurate reflection of who WE are and of what God has put US here in this town to be and to do.

Act III. Scene 2 – (right here in this sanctuary) – Every once in a while, we have a young man who shows up here to worship with us. When the weather is good enough, he often rides up to the door on a bright pink bike. He’s usually late. He can’t read, so we’ve gradually learned that it’s not a good idea to hand him a bulletin when he comes, for that makes him feel insecure, like he doesn’t belong. He feels that way in far too many other places in his life, so we don’t want him to feel that here. He has a really hard time sitting still, so he rarely sits through an entire service, and, yes, he can be a little distracting at times. He struggles with mental illness, but he’s not dangerous and poses no threat. When you ask him his name, he might say “Mike” one Sunday, and he might say “Fred” the next. I’ve even heard him say he doesn’t have a name. So many of us have learned to just say, “I’m glad you’re here! It’s good to see you!” He loves coffee hour and cookie time, and he’s a regular at the Friday evening community meal. But what’s most important is that he’s always welcome here, whatever his name is, and I like that!
            We are a church that welcomes all people – period.
            So who are we? We are a congregation that takes care of people in need, that asks tough questions as we wrestle with traditional theology, and that intentionally welcomes all people, no matter what problems or challenges being so inclusive may present. We have chosen to live as an unweeded garden, and while that’s a challenging way to live at times, it’s definitely the right choice for us. It’s not easy to describe our amazing little community to others. But it’s time we started to try, because we have something truly special here.
            Now some of you have wondered why we have to broadcast or advertise the fact that we are an Open and Affirming Church. Why do we have to put it front and center on our website or put up signs and certificates about it.” I think the answer to that is two-fold. First, we need to do that so that the very LGBT people who have been ostracized, excluded, and kicked out of basically every other religious organization, will know that they’ll be welcomed here. They won’t have to risk yet another rejection, walking into yet another unknown, unidentified church that might mistreat them! The other reason is that there are so many younger generation people and millennials who have written off all churches, often because of how closed most American churches are to people with any sort of differences or alternative backgrounds. Since the vast, vast majority of churches have taken such a negative stand toward our LGBT brothers and sisters, we don’t want anyone assuming that we have taken the same stand. Jesus said that we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel, but rather put it on a stand. A big part of our light, of what we offer to the world, is our openness to people who have been rejected by other Christian communities.
            As many of you know, I’ve been taking a class for the last 13 weeks about the UCC. One of the most memorable lectures was from the pastor of an incredible UCC congregation in Montclair, NJ. She made the following statement that I think really applies to us. She said, “Far too many progressive churches hide the fact that they are progressive and open, and they do this because they are afraid to lose members. So they try and keep everybody happy.” The pastor continued, “We made that same mistake, especially when our membership numbers fell to their lowest level in years, because we felt we couldn’t afford to lose any more people. But what really helped our church turn the corner and grow was when we flew our rainbow flag, when we broadcast that we were open and affirming, and when we let it be known that we were asking the questions that everybody else was running away from. Sure we lost some members; but we gained far, far more when we celebrated our identity as a progressive church instead of trying to hide it.”
            Folks, the last thing the city of Gaylord needs is another milk-toasty, middle of the road, don’t-rock-the-boat kind of church. This morning we have reaffirmed and celebrated who we are – a church who cares about and serves those in need – a church that asks and wrestles with the theological questions that other churches just blindly accept – and a church that genuinely wants to welcome everybody, because we know that diversity will make us stronger. We are a beautiful, unweeded garden.
            I am so proud to be a part of this little but growing church. Are you? Then let’s get out there and tell people who we are and the amazing things that are happening at The First Congregational UCC Church of Gaylord, Michigan. Thanks be to God. Amen.