Just for today, in spite of everything still to be done - services not quite complete, gifts not yet wrapped, meals still unmade, errands still to run - I'm going to try to heed these words, just a tiny bit.
Rejoice over everything. Exult. Exhilarate. Be glad. Be delighted, elated, and bowled over with joy!
Frolic freely, hop, hope, dance on the dare, cheer, champion the little ones, revel in the riotous light.
Invoke God without ceasing. Pray with passion. Whatever you do, do not quench the Spirit.
Take care not to douse or dampen the bold blaze in your depths. Jump into life. Hold fast to it. Give thanks for everything.
For everything, even the most misshapen and misunderstood, is the disguise of the divine.
As you have heard next Sunday is our “Grow One Sunday”. And so during this week we are asking you to pray about whether God is calling you to grow one step in giving this year – Either by making a pledge if you haven’t done that in the past, or by growing in the portion of your income that you give. And to help us get started in our thinking and praying, let’s think about mustard seeds. (Instead of mustard seed, The Message paraphrase says “poppy seed” – most of us have probably had a poppy seed muffin or bagel, so we can picture what he’s talking about) So, let’s think about poppy seeds.
When I came to this story from the bible that is assigned for today, I had to stop and think for a minute and try to remember. What was going on that caused the disciples to say to Jesus, “Give us more faith”? I couldn’t remember, so I read backwards to see what had been going on. And the context is this: the disciples had just asked Jesus a question: with all this talk of forgiveness, Jesus, how often do I have to forgive someone who wrongs me? Seven times? And Jesus replies: no, not seven. Seventy times seven. You have to live life of forgiveness. Wow. That's a lot of forgiveness. No wonder the disciples said, “If that’s the case, Jesus, you’d better give us some more faith.” And Jesus answers them in this surprising way. “If you had as much faith as this tiny seed, you could say to this tree, “be planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” And you can almost hear the disciples, can’t you? "A poppy seed? Really? That’s all the faith we need? Well, I’ve got that much faith!" And that’s exactly the point.
The original text of this passage is in ancient Greek and Greek grammar can be a bit tricky. When Jesus says, “If you had faith as big as a tiny see…” it’s a clause according to fact. You know how we say, “Is the Pope Catholic?” It’s the same sort of thing – it’s as if Jesus were saying: if the sky were blue… iff birds could fly… If you had faith as big as a poppy seed… Which you do! You’ve got that much faith! And it’s enough. That’s enough faith. You just have to use it.
There is a story about Alexander the Great, the Greek ruler who created one of the greatest dynasties in history. A man came to Alexander, asking for ten talents. Alexander responded by giving him 50 talents. The man tried to stop Alexander, saying that 10 would be enough. And Alexander replied, “True, ten are enough for you to receive, but not enough for me to give.” Alexander’s giving had to do with who he was, not who the recipient was. His giving had to do with his own need to give. That’s the question for us today: How much do we need to give so that we can grow in faith?
There was a time in the life of the church when we made some serious mistakes regarding stewardship. Mistakes that have proven very difficult to undo. There have been times when we have acted as if stewardship is all about the church’s need to receive money. And in doing that, we have lost focus on the real meaning of stewardship as a spiritual practice. We’re trying to correct that.
You may have noticed that in recent years, when we start to talk about stewardship, we don’t usually say much about the church budget. Because as we talk about stewardship, to focus on the church budget, would be to miss the point, it would be to ask the wrong question. The question, in Alexander’s terms, is not “how much does the church need to receive?” As if God were waiting for a hand out from us. After all, we are a part of the church of Jesus Christ, established by God to endure through the ages.
And we know that this congregation that we’re a part of is doing great things – in missions, with baby kits and Father Bill's and our new church wide emphasis on housing needs. We’ve got a new Sunday School program for the kids and the Breakfast club for the teens and an entire youth group experience focuses on helping kids reach out to help others. We trust that, Chuck Frary has said about a thousand times since I’ve known him, God gives us what we need to do the work God wants us to do.
No, the question at hand is not how much does the church need to receive, the question, as Alexander asked himself, is how much do I need to give? That is the question for me and it is the question for you: How much do I need to give to be true to myself? How much do I need to give to be faithful to the God that I know in my life? How much do I need to give as a spiritual practice? For giving, at its best, is a spiritual practice that benefits us, the givers.
We have talked all summer and into the fall about spiritual practices. A spiritual practice is something that we do intentionally that connects us to God – to God’s creation – and to other people. A spiritual practice is something we do to create an open space within our lives, within our hearts, where God can come and dwell. And giving – regular, planned, disciplined, generous, giving is a spiritual practice that is foundational for all of us who want to follow Jesus. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said it this way: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.
Occasionally someone will say to me, “I don’t really need to make a pledge. I give whenever there’s a need – I give when they need money for Father Bill's or for the disaster relief or for baby kits. But I don’t want to make a pledge." And when I hear that, I think of how giving is like prayer. Many, perhaps most, Christians pray at certain times in our lives: When we are going through a difficult time, when we’re grieving or worried. We give thanks when something wonderful happens, when we feel blessed and thankful. And those prayers are so important.
But it is the other kind of praying that really bears fruit. Regular praying, every day, day in day out, in good times and bad times – but mostly the in the in between times. Praying whether we feel like it or not. Praying whether it seem like it’s doing any good or not. Regular, disciplined, planned praying – this is the spiritual discipline that opens the space in our hearts where God can come in and dwell.
And so it is with giving. Giving when there is a special need or perhaps when we’ve had an unexpected windfall is important. But it’s the regular giving, every week, every month – writing the check whether I want to or not, whether I feel like I can afford it or not, whether I feel changed by me giving or not, that eventually make the place in our hearts where God can dwell. You have heard testimonies last week and the week before from people about how their own giving, in some cases, their own tithing, has changed them. How they have been made different because they give. A greater trust in God, a deeper peace, a sense of being a part of something much greater than oneself, freedom from the power that money tries have in our lives. It’s different for everyone. But giving in this way changes us.
But back to the mustard seed or the poppy seed. Most of us who gather here are trying to come closer to God, to have some experience of the holy. We are trying to put that poppy seed of faith to use, and giving as a spiritual practice is one way which we do that. So my prayer is that as we prepare for our Grow One Sunday is that we would follow Alexander’s example, and ask ourselves, “how much do I need to give?” What is the portion that I need to give to open that place inside me where God can come and dwell? May God be with us as we put our poppy seed of faith to use. Amen.
We recently watched “Herb and Dorothy” a documentary about Herb and Dorothy Vogel. They are art collectors, now in their 90’s, with a passion for minimalist and conceptual art, but also for post minimalist and abstract expressionist work. He was a postal clerk, she a librarian, living in Manhattan. Ever since very early in their marriage, they have collected art. They decided to live on her salary and use his to acquire artwork. They visited galleries and studios, developing close friendships with many artists who would later go on to be universally acclaimed – Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle. They didn’t collect art as an investment – indeed they made a decision to never sell anything they had bought. They collected because it was a passion – it was their life’s work. They had two criteria for selecting work: they both had to like it and it had to fit in their modest one bedroom apartment. They collected well over 4,000 pieces of work. Over 1000 are now in the National Gallery of Art (they chose that institution because it has a policy of not selling its work and because it is free to the public). But they had far too many pieces for the National Gallery. So they established “fifty works for fifty states” – giving an institution in each state 50 pieces of art. Inspirational! Read more here: http://vogel5050.org
I love this end of the summer season in the flower gardens. The end is near, so I no longer feel compelled to pull every weed or bit of crabgrass – I now pull up only those weeds that dwarf the flowers or threaten to take over the garden. Fallen leaves begin to blow into the beds. The purple morning glory has ventured across the garden and mixes with the basil and the roses. In the spring, I wonder why I plant marigolds, and in the fall I remember, for now they are the most brilliant players. Yellow zinnias and pink petunias have grown long and leggy, and the lily gives one last squeak of a blossom. A few sunflowers still blossom, but most have become places for the birds to perch and feed. Whatever early May plan I had for the garden is forgotten – whether it was a success or not no longer matters. The chrysanthemums begin to show color, but aside from the morning glories and marigolds, everything else is gasping its last. It’s a time of acceptance - of appreciating the beauty that is there and overlooking the rest. It’s a welcome contrast to life at the church, where the fall brings more to do and greater expectations. I love this season in the flower garden.
When I think about the calling to be a pastor, sometimes I am amazed at the blessing and sometimes I am overwhelmed with the impossibility. How can we hope to do this? We hold in our hands matters of life and of death, of loss and of love, of hope and disappointment, anxiety and despair. We deal with things as powerful and as mysterious as prayer and healing and sacrament. And yet we also must deal with an argument over the bake sale or a flower arrangement. We sit with someone as they prepare to pass from this life to the life beyond, and then, an hour later, we sit through a protracted discussion about replacing a window pane or the price of copier paper. How can we hope to do this? How can we bear it? And yet, we try to make meaning in all of it, to sense God's Spirit, to name God's presence. How can we hope to do this? Only through the One whose presence we seek. Jesus, the broken bread, the broken body. Jesus, who, in one moment had a mystical experience on the mountaintop, and in the next moment listened to Peter talk about a building program. Jesus, who taught his friends about the ways of God only to hear them argue about who was most important. The holy in the ordinary. God, give me eyes to see it. And words to name it. And love to share it.
This week I'm thinking of the spiritual practice of walking. And it's led me to think about spiritual practices in general. My understanding is that a spiritual practice is something that we do that allows God to work in us. I usually think of a spiritual practice as something like centering prayer or praying the psalms, but reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World is encouraging me to think more broadly. A spiritual practice is not like a diet or working out at the gym or learning Spanish, where you know that if you do x (eat less, exercise more, study 30 minutes a day) than y will result (lose weight, get in shape, know Spanish). The results of a spiritual practice are not predictable or instantaneous, they can’t be scheduled. When I do a spiritual practice, I don’t know what God will do or how God will do it or when it will happen. Trust. Wait. Do the practice whether I like it or not, whether it is rewarding or not, whether I see “results” or not. Trust that God can and will work in me.
Three more photos from Andalusia: one of the out buildings on the farm - sad to see that several barns are not being preserved or maintained at all. a peacock - so beloved by O'Connor, at one time she had over 100 peafowl on the place. She loved all fowl, as a matter of fact - sometime I'll tell you the home economics class story. her bedroom - perhaps originally a parlor, it's to your immediate right as you come in the front door. You can see her crutches propped up against the wardrobe. Her actual desk and typewriter are at Georgia College and State University in town (yes, we saw them, too). The rooms are dark, almost dreary, but in the sweltering hot Georgia summers, I'm imagining that would make it seem cooler.
I just read an interview with Dustin Pedroia about his teammate, David Ortiz. Of course, everyone’s wondering and talking and speculating about what kind of future Ortiz has with the sort of painful shows he’s been making lately. Here’s a bit of what Pedroia said: “David’s fine. He’s one of our teammates. It could have been me…It happens to everybody…Relax. I’m tired of looking at the NESN poll… David’s fine. We believe in him… He’s going to come out of it…Papi’s fine.” How great to play with a team that believes in you and has your back and encourages you. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could play on such a team? Wouldn’t it be great if the church were a team like that, where we had each others' backs and looked for the best in each other?
Last week we went on a pilgrimage of sorts. Or, I should say, I went on a pilgrimage and Stewart patiently indulged me. We were going to Alabama to visit his mother, but we first made an overnight detour from the Atlanta airport to Milledgeville, GA to Andalusia, the farm where Flannery O’Connor lived during her most productive years of writing (from age 26 until her death at 39). Andalusia is a most unextraordinary place. A very simple farmhouse – O’Connor and her mother moved here from a more grand place in town, where they had lived with a wealthy cousin. Flannery had inherited the farm from an uncle and the house allowed them to live on one floor – a necessity as her lupus began to restrict her mobility. The house is simple, the furnishings unremarkable. What a contrast to O’Connor’s inner world, which was populated with grotesque freaks and misfits. She led a quiet and conventional life – many people in the community couldn’t believe that she was the author of the stories that bore her name. Who knows the forces, inner and outer, that shape a person’s imagination and character.
Luke 23:39-43 “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Two criminals, side by side with Jesus. Strangers, all three, but all suffering the same slow and painful death. One of them says, scornfully: aren’t you the Messiah? If you are, save yourself and us! But the other criminal scolds him and says to Jesus: Remember me when you come into your kingdom. And to this one, Jesus says, “Yes. I will.” Both of them ask the same thing, don’t they? Save me! But one, scornful, demanding, wanting proof, distances himself from Jesus. The other reaches out to Jesus in reliance and hope and trust. And Jesus, knowing nothing of this criminal but what is revealed in his asking, reaches back. Yes. Today you will be with me in paradise. In one sense, it’s an almost ridiculous scene. One condemned and dying criminal turning to another and asking to be saved. And yet, in that moment, we find hope. It is in our reaching out, in our asking, in our reliance and hope and trust, that we experience that today – right now – we are with Jesus. The moment when our hearts are open and our hands are empty, then we are able to receive the presence of Christ.
The pink geraniums from my yard spend the winter in my office in the Fellowship Center. The windows capture the full morning sun, brilliant on a day like today. The even coating of snow that came last night after the rain reflects every precious bit of the February sun. Even in these best of all possible windows, it’s just not enough sun for my geraniums, and they turn towards the windows. Since I haven’t tended to them in a week or so, they are pressing themselves against the window, greedy for more sun. They’ve grown leggy, too, long thin stems with small leaves. I need to turn them around and pinch them back. Get rid of the leggy stems and let them put their energy into growing fuller. I feel like those geraniums. In February I strain for the renewing rays of the life giving sun. My spirit has grown leggy, thin and sparse. And so, thank God, it is time for Lent. Time for me turn and get a new perspective. Time to allow myself to be pinched back – pruned. Time to begin the journey to hope.
Last Thursday I had my gall bladder taken out. The surgery went well – it’s day surgery – in at 10, to the OR at 11, into the wheelchair and out the side door at 4. Recovery’s gone fine, too, except that on Sunday I came down with a cold, which has left me tired and achy beyond the incisions that pull when I cough or sneeze. But today I’ve felt better – done a bit of desk work (or, more accurately, counter work – since at home I work at the wide kitchen counter). Tony the Wonderdog has been so mopey while I’ve been mopey, so it was time to get outside a bit. A snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow, but today skies were blue, the sun was shining brightly and I could hear some birds singing down in the cattails by the blueberry patch. I gingerly threw the ball, Tony enthusiastically fetched. And, by the kitchen doorstep, I noticed some daffodils poking their brave heads up through the winter hardened soil. Spring is coming. Not right away, of course. This is New England. A snowstorm’s coming first – and probably more than one. But spring is coming. And I thought how good it is, at least for those us in the northern hemisphere, that Lent – this season that calls us to difficult reflection on the wintered hardened places in our lives – Lent comes in February and not in November. For in February, there is promise in the longer days, the higher sun, the bluer skies. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot. But by God’s grace, the bud will blossom.
How come I always have such creative ideas for blog posts while a. in the car b. in the shower c. out for a walk d. in a meeting e. sweating on the elliptical? And how come, when I sit down to write, those ideas have vanished like the smoke of an extinguished candle? How come?
Yesterday I was working on the church newsletter for February and people were bringing their health kits for Haiti to the Fellowship Center. As I was writing about Lent, the devastation in Haiti reminded me that life is so fragile and we as humans are so vulnerable. The reminders are with us every day of the phrase we repeat on Ash Wednesday - we are dust and to dust we shall return. We never know the moment of that return to dust – whether in the instant of the earth’s shaking or the silent creeping of individual illness. We can try to buy a little peace of mind by becoming preoccupied with building walls to keep mortality at bay. Or, we can put ourselves and those we love in the hands of the God whose love reaches even beyond death. Easier said than done, I know. But that is our journey of faith, not only during lent, not only in the face of unfathomable human loss, but each and every day of our ordinary lives.
Nice to have a bit of time to cook dinner and share a meal without dashing out the door!
Chicken with olives
Heat about 2 T, olive oil in skillet. When hot, add: 4 bone-in chicken thighs Brown on both sides. Pour off the excess oil. Try not to spill it on the floor (argh). Add: About 1 ½ cups canned diced tomatoes (though fresh would be great, in about 6 months) A handful of pitted kalamata olives – 15-20. Oregano – about 2 tsp dried (again, fresh would be better.) 2 shakes of crushed red pepper Salt ½ cup red wine (used pinot noir) Simmer till done. Serve with rice and sprinkle with feta.
Roasted green beans Toss green beans with olive oil and coarse salt. Roast at 450 for 15 minutes or so.
I've been away from my blog during the busy season of preparing for Christmas. and now I'm about to leave for a week of low tech vacation (i.e.laptop not going with me). I need a "reset" - seem to spending more unproductive time with technology. I'm headed for a time of reading, walking, maybe some biking - if the weather is warm enough in Destin, FL. Maybe a movie or two. Before I go, I'm posting today's sermon. The weather kept many folks home. And since I based the sermon on folks' responses to questions I asked earlier in the week, some are curious. If you want to hear it, you can go to the Church Hill website later this week: http://www.chumcnorwell.com/templates/System/default.asp?id=33862. But here's the text:
Sharing the Light: Jan. 3, 2010 Matthew 2:1-12 Isaiah 60:1-6
Most of you know that on Christmas Day, over in the Fellowship Center, over 130 people gathered for a celebration. The hall was beautifully decorated, the tables set with linens and centerpieces, guests were greeted with music and appetizers and laughter. Gail and her team of volunteers from Church Hill, and from other churches and from no church, give an amazing gift of love. In the days right before Christmas, I was regularly working in the office and answering the phone when it rang. I was glad to take folks’ reservations, but maybe even more moving for me were some of the people I spoke to who called to cancel their reservations. One woman who called to say she could not come after all said, “Even though I won’t be there, I still smile every time I drive down River Street and see your sign and think of everyone together there.” And another woman who had received a last minute invitation to a friend’s home said to me, “You have no idea how much it has meant to me these past weeks to know that I would not have to be alone on Christmas Day.” I thought about how many folks need the connection that we have here, the connection to God and Jesus’ message of hope and love and the connection to a community. I thought, maybe we need some more volunteers from Church Hill – not to help cook and serve – because we have plenty for that. But volunteers to sit at the tables and listen to people – get to know them a bit – hear their stories and make a human connection. To share a bit of light. On Epiphany Sunday we read the story of the magi, the story of those wise, wealthy, educated ones from foreign lands who saw a star and followed its light and came to worship Jesus. They were so different from Jesus and his people, the carpenter and the shepherds and inn keeper: different language, different religion, and different customs. And yet they came, guided by the light, and gathered with the others to worship the Christ child For us in the church, Epiphany is the season of light—the season in which we remember and celebrate that God is revealed to us—God’s light shines in the darkness. It begins on Christmas Eve, in the darkened sanctuary. I light my candle from the Christ candle, And then, very slowly, the light spreads. During this season, we focus on the ways in which we spread the light of Christ outside the sanctuary, in the places we live and work and play. To help my thinking this week I posed two questions via email: I asked: How did you come to know about Jesus? And then, what brought you to Church Hill church? I received 24 responses over the course of the week.
This morning I’d like to share some thoughts about your responses as well as some questions it has raised for me. I won’t be quoting or citing anyone in particular, but if you replied you may hear some themes from your response here. The majority of responses said that you had come to know Jesus as a child or young person. Some heard bible stories read at home, and others mentioned Sunday School. More than one person said, “I can’t remember ever not knowing about Jesus.” Knowing about Jesus’ love was foundational for many of you. And even though you may have taken other paths or gone in different directions at various points in your life, somehow that foundational knowledge stayed with you, and at some point, it brought you home. It made me think about what an important ministry we have with our children who will join us here in a moment, clomping down the aisles to sit with parents or grandparents and kneel with us at the table. We are laying a foundation with these children. We are giving them something that will always be with them. No matter where life takes, no matter their success or failures, not matter the choices they make – good or bad - what they learn about Jesus from us will always stay with them. And something that was interesting to me was to discover that for those who told me how you came to know about Jesus, about 50 % more of you mentioned learning about him at church than at home. For most of you, the church – and most likely Sunday School, is the way your faith was formed. A couple of folks even mentioned childhood Sunday School teachers by name. One person wrote of being a child in second grade and seeing the people come out of the church across the street from her home, smiling – looking happy – and so she took herself to Sunday School there. The church’s role in forming faith in children is crucial. Some parents do not have a faith to impart to their children. Some do not know how to talk with their children about God. And yet those children still need to hear the message of Jesus’ saving love for them. How can we reach out to those children? How can we spread the light that we have received to the children in our communities who need this foundation, too? Some churches have weekday programs or special events or programs during school vacations that draw in children from the community. At our vacation bible school this summer, half the kids who came were kids whose parents don’t attend Church Hill. How can we build on that? And how can we make sure that those kids who come only for a few hours that week receive the kernel of the gospel? In your answers to this question, several people told about how they came to know about Jesus and then went on to say how, at a later time, they came to know Jesus. Knowing about Jesus at some point has to translate into knowing Jesus and having a relationship with him. That’s another sermon at least. But it is also interesting to me that while so many mentioned the importance of Sunday School, of bible study classes, of small study and growth groups. And not one mentioned Sunday morning worship. Now, I don’t take this to mean that Sunday worship is insignificant. But I do think that being together in small faith groups is an important, formative way in which the light gets through into our lives – when we share and listen and ask questions and hear each others’ insights and experiences. And it makes me think that we probably don’t have enough of those opportunities here at Church Hill. I also asked the question “How did you come to Church Hill?” and, about half of you said that you came here because you were “church shopping” as they say – you were on a deliberate search for a church that was congruent with your own faith and where you would feel welcome. Maybe you were new to the area, or maybe you were just looking for a place where the light could shine for you. And an equal number of you said that you came because you were invited. Someone offered you a specific invitation: come visit my church, come try my bible group, come, bring your kids to Vacation Bible School at my church. I know that to some, that seems pretty risky – but someone who knew you did take that risk and invited you. And you accepted that invitation because what they offered in some way touched a need. And many, many of you said that once you came, someone specific made you welcome. Someone reached out to you and helped you find your place at Church Hill. And I’d like to name names: Ruth and Everett Russell, Roland Scott, Carolyn Hathorne, Luke Lukoski, Nancy O’Donnell, Dot Underdown, Joan Gabriel, Harriet Loring. Some of you were mentioned more than once. Whether you were searching for a church or came because someone invited you, it is the personal connection that has made it stick. Someone, in some way, shared the light. We are here today because someone, maybe many people, have shared the light with us. As we come to this table this morning, we remember that we are recipients of a gift. Our faith in Jesus is not something that we created ourselves – it has been shared with us. And we are called to share it with others. With children and families. With people who are searching. With friends and family. With strangers. With those who are lonely or alone. As we come to the table today, we reach out to receive. And when we leave, we go out to share the light with others.