Monday, July 8, 2019

Mine, Yours, Ours

This summer we have a tree in our sanctuary, and every week we are hanging a different fruit from the tree.  Every week we are exploring a different fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Preaching in series is something relatively new to me; I'm preaching some old scripture verses in a new context, and preaching some Bible stories I've never preached on before as well.

Last week our theme was joy.  The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  And the text that I chose (usually read during Epiphany in my tradition) was from Nehemiah 8.  And of course the verse itself is so well-known, although most people don't know the story surrounding the verses.  "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

I've seen it on plaques.
I've heard it in songs.

But not really thought much about it.

One of the things i do these days (that I never have done before) is find images for the sermon.  We have projection in my congregation, and I look for pictures and sometimes for words that I can put up on the screen.  And I was looking for this verse, "The Joy of the Lord is your strength", and what was interesting to me is that, for the most part, I found this verse on line:  "The Joy of the Lord is my strength."

It made me think.  Those pesky pronouns.  I thought, of COURSE when Ezra is speaking to the people, he is going to say, The Joy of the Lord is YOUR strength."  But what does he mean?  Does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as an individual believer?  Or does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as a part of a community of believers?

Does it even matter?

Those pesky pronouns.  I was recently reminded in a Bible study that faith is an individual matter.  No one can believe for someone else.  We each stand before God on our own.  No one else's good word can get us in.  (Okay, except Jesus'.  That one doesn't really work.)

It's true; no one else can believe for us.  Except that I catch myself thinking about the times when I went to worship, with all of my doubts, and said the creed along with all of the other believers.  Somehow their faith made me stronger.  Maybe we can believe for one another sometimes.

And maybe the joy of the Lord is not my possession or yours, but it is the gift of the Spirit to the community of faith.  it is the Spirit that doesn't just live in our hearts, but it is the Spirit that also lives in our community, where we share joy and sorrow, fruit both bitter and sweet, and good.

On Sunday morning, I took out a small bottle of bubbles to show joy.  But I wasn't very good at blowing bubbles, and the six year old girl sitting next to me said, 'You're doing it too fast!"  Then she showed me how to blow a bubble properly.

And the joy of the Lord was our strength.

The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy

“The Power of Joy”
Nehemiah 8:1-10

             The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  

            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

            Do you recognize that verse?  I have seen it on placques, heard it in songs, know it by heart.  “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  
            Just one verse – but have you ever thought about it?  How is joy a strength?  Is joy strong?  Is joy powerful?

            Sometimes we think just the opposite – that joy is a child’s virtue.  I know when I close my eyes and think about joy
             – I think about children – the children at the pre-school, who, when I come over to visit – just to check in – are so happy to see me – are so excited to show me their new shoes, or tell me about their baby brother, or their trip to the Coca Cola Factory in Atlanta!  Joy!  
            They are joyful. But then -- they don’t have to deal so much with life – at least – most of them don’t.

            Joy seems to be a luxury sometimes – for us adults – 
            it’s a serious world after all. 
             There are many wrongs to right, so much pain to heal, so much tragedy ….  A little bit of joy might be okay, but in moderation….too much seems wrong, and frivolous and even – naive …. 
            You know what they say about Pollyannas, and their annoying cheerfulness – their unrealistic idea that you can always find something to be GLAD about….

            Pollyanna…. I even rented that old movie this week –(Pollyanna) in an effort to understand Joy,   
            I remembered that this movie was one of my dad’s favorites – my goofy dad, who liked to tell the same joke over and over, and who made up his own words to songs.  
            Pollyanna was one of his favorite movies.  
            And I remembered again about the girl who played the “Glad Game” – who tried to find something to be glad about everywhere.  Her father taught her the game.
            They were missionaries, and they were poor, and they had to rely on charity.  One thing Pollyanna wanted more than anything else was a doll, but they didn’t have money for it.  
            So they waited for the charity boxes from the missionaries.  There was no doll – but there were a pair of crutches.  What was there to be glad about?  Pollyanna’s father told her that she could be glad – that she didn’t need the crutches…. That was the glad game.  To find something to be joyful about – even In a pair of crutches. 

            And the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  
            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.  But joy doesn’t seem to be that powerful.  It doesn’t even seem realistic, sometimes.  In our world.   In our time. And it probably didn’t seem to be realistic to the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time either. 

            Nehemiah – the book where those words “the joy of the Lord is your strength” comes from.   

            Here’s the scene. It’s about the year 538 BC.  
            The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon and they have finally been allowed to come home. They came back to a temple in ruins and a city whose walls had been destroyed.  And in those days it was important for a city to be fortified to have walls.  So the exiles had a lot of work to do.  
            Under the guidance of the governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and they rebuilt the walls of the city – not easy tasks.  There were a lot of setbacks and arguments and it was hard to unify the people.  
            They were probably tempted to give up.  A lot of times.
            But finally, in today’s reading, the walls are finished, and the people are gathered by what is called the “Water Gate.”  You might call it a sort of resurrection – the resurrection of the city of Jerusalem –
            And while they are there they asked the priest Ezra to read to them from the scrolls of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.  And we don’t know exactly what he was reading from the Torah –
            Just that they hadn’t heard the Word of God for a long time –
            And that while he was reading, he was explaining so that they could understand, and that while he was reading, they fell on their faces and wept.
            And that is when Ezra told them to get up, and stop weeping -- for the Joy of the Lord is your strength.

             Why were they weeping?  They had reason to weep.  
            Some people speculate that they wept because they realized how they had failed their God, and strayed from him.  
            They heard the word of God, and the law of God, and they could not find anything to be glad about. Not just because of the way the world was – a dangerous place – but because of the way they were – turning their backs on God – forgetting his promises, and their responsibility to bless the world.  
            They wept because they realized all these things – and all of them were true –

            But the priest Ezra told them the truth – That Joy is more powerful than tears – and that the Joy of the Lord – is the most powerful of all.

            Get up and realize that despite everything – God is still with you.  Get up and rejoice in the voice of God.  Get up and feast – and share what you have with others who have less. Get up and realize that you are alive….

            It can be like this for many in our own day.  
            Sometimes it seems like our religious institutions are crumbling.  People are abandoning their practice of the faith, churches are closing, the situations in our society are leading to a lack of mercy and compassion for others.  
            When we see how far we are from the Word of God, we might want to weep.  The tasks we face as a church as a big as anything faced by the people of God in Nehemiah’s day.  
            But the joy of the Lord is our strength too.  And if we stand in that joy, the work we must do will be done.

            The joy of the Lord is resurrection Joy.  It is the fruit of the Spirit.  

            It is the city of Jerusalem come back to life. 
             It is the gift of the word of God, the God who is still speaking to you, the God who still has a mission for you.  It is the gift of life – and it is the gift of the community – standing TOGETHER as they listen to the word of God.

            The joy of the Lord is our strength – and it is resurrection joy – and it is a communal joy. –We can give it to one another.  Pollyanna gave it to her community – where she came to stay – and they gave it back to her when she lost joy and felt she couldn’t go on.  

            The fruit of the Spirit is joy.   Resurrection joy.  
            We give it to one another. 
            Where have you seen joy this week?  Where do you find joy?

            I have a friend who has had cancer – who I have prayed for – and kept in touch with – and this week – I saw on video – I saw that she has been raising monarch butterflies – and releasing them.   

            Go out and look for joy this week!   And then come back to witness to the power and presence of God in the world.



The Fruit of the Spirit is Love

 Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

Ruth 1:1-21

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            I read an article the other day that might not seem to have anything to do with this verse – but it does.  Bear with me. 
            The article began with an odd experiment in what we notice.          People were asked to watch a basketball game.  
            Half of the players wore white shirts and half wore black shirts.  They were asked to pay attention to how often the ball was passed among the players wearing white shirts. 
             Shortly after the game began, a man in a gorilla suit came out and walked among the players.    
            And you know what? -- fully 50% of the observers did not notice the gorilla.  
            In fact, they would have sworn that there was NO gorilla.  They were looking for something else.
            In our modern world, we have been trained not to see something which was obvious to generations in the pass:  that a personal God is active and moving in the world.  
            We still believe it – or we say we do.  But our senses have been trained in other ways.
            So this summer, we are going to train our senses to see what we believe – that a personal God is active and moving in the world.
            Starting, today, with love.
            The first of the fruits of the Spirit.  
             It’s no accident, I think, that it’s first.  
            After all, Paul also writes that, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three – but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is first.  
            And the other fruit is connected to love.   It is sort of a foundation fruit – and you will see that when you see love – you may see another one of the fruits as well.  

            How do we train our eyes to see love?  
            First of all, I think, by noticing the stories of love in the Bible – really looking at them – seeing the details, imagining the scenes. 
            Like this scene, in the first chapter of Ruth.   
            I think that if there is one thing that is famous in the book of Ruth – it is the verses spoken by Ruth – and we recognize them as words of love 
            – but most of us know them from popular weddings songs.   “Entreat me not to leave thee/for whither thou goest I will go…. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God… and where thou diest I will die.”    
            We know that Ruth’s words are words of love –

            But they are spoken from a daughter in law to her mother in law – and they are spoken in bitter circumstances.  
            Naomi and her family had left Israel during a famine and moved to Moab – and their sons had married two Moabite women.   But both Naomi’s husband and her two sons have died.  
            She has lost everything. 
            She knows she needs to return home.  
            And her daughters in law – being foreigners – there is no reason to expect they would be welcome in Israel – and really – no reason for them to go to Israel.  
            There have no children with their husbands.  
            They have no ties any more to Naomi.  
            And yet – both of them – at first – tell her that they will go with her.   
            And I think it is an act of love on Naomi’s part – to tell them they don’t have to come – she doesn’t want to tie them down.  
            She doesn’t think there is anything for them in Israel.   
            Naomi isn’t going to get married and have more sons that will grow up and be husbands for them – and that’s what both of these women need – in that time and culture.  

            But for some reason – Ruth won’t leave.  
            She wants to go with her mother-in-law.  
            She is willing to go to a place where she might experience hostility – and do what she can to help Naomi.    
            Between a Moabite daughter-in-law and her Israelite mother-in-law.  
            Maybe it’s not where you would expect to see love.  But it’s there.

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            And what does this tell us about love – the fruit of love?

            First of all – it tells us that the fruit of love comes in unexpected places and in unexpected people – even the “wrong” person.  
            The fruit of loves comes in a Moabite woman willing to go the distance for the mother-in-law that she loves – to go with her to a country that she did not know – and where a welcome was not certain  -- Look for the fruit of love – even in the unexpected and the wrong places.

            And the fruit of love comes to us in places the places of grief and death – also unexpected places. 
            Naomi is living in a strange land – she has lost her husband and both of her sons.  
            She expects that her daughters in law will leave her too.  
            Why would they stay? She has nothing to offer them.  
            And yet Ruth clings to her.  
            For us too – the place of grieving and death is also a place of love – maybe especially so. 

            It was on the night in which he was betrayed that Jesus said these words to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  
             And then he washed their feet – and then he died for them.  
            He was preparing them for his death when he said these words – when he gave them these words – words about his deep commitment to them – a love that would never let them go 
            – and their commitment to one another, a love that would also show itself to be fierce in the time of death.    
            Not then – but later, after he died and rose.  

            In times of death – love is the evidence of life.  
             Love that holds hands at a bedside, comes out for the funeral, brings casseroles, listens.  
            They are sometimes little things, but they are big things.  
            Where have you seen the fruit of love in this world, in your life, in this community?  
            Because we believe that a personal God is active and moving in this world.  But we need to retrain our senses to notice it.

            For many years I saw the fruit of love – but I didn’t that’s what it was for a long time.  
            I used to know a man who walked permanently bent over.  I didn’t know why and I didn’t really think about it much.  
            He walked permanently bent over, sometimes straightening up just a little, to say hello.

            Sometime after his wife died, I realized it.  
            Is wife had had polio as a young mother, and developed something called post-polio syndrome later on. 
            She spent most of their marriage in a wheelchair.  
            He gave up a job he loved as a professor to take a higher paying job, and they remodeled the kitchen so that the appliances worked for her.

            Even though she was in a wheelchair, they still enjoyed going to the theatre and to concerts together. 
            But in order to get her into and out of the car, and into places, he needed to carry  her.  
            From the car to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to her seat.  And so all of those years – in this bent over man – I was seeing the fruit of love.  
            Only I hadn’t trained my eyes to notice.

            A personal God is active and moving in this world…

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  Where have you seen it?   Where have you seen God?

            Go out and look for him this week…. 
            And then come back to witness to his power.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Hand Motions

Yesterday was Holy Trinity Sunday at my congregation, the Sunday we make special recognition of the name of the one whom we invoke every single week:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So, among the songs we sang about the Trinity, was this simple one:

Father, I adore You
Lay my life before You
How I love you.

I sing this song at the pre-school connected with the church sometimes.  It is simple enough to learn, even though the concept is too hard for pre-school children to grasp.  We learn the simple words, and we also learn some hand motions.

Come to think of it, every single song I sing with pre-school children has hand motions.  

Usually on Sunday morning we do not use hand motions.  We sing complicated songs with a lot of words, some of them hard:  words like "Trinity" or "Immortal" or "cherubim".  So on Sunday morning we were singing a song much simpler than our usual fare.

I decided to teach the congregation the hand motions too.

Why do I do hand motions with the children at the pre-school?  I can't say that I have thought about it very deeply.  It's just something you do.  Children need to learn not just with their eyes, and not just with their voices, but also with their hands and their feet.  Learning is active.  Learning is a whole-body experience.

I like to think that worship is a whole-body experience too, but when I think about it, I realize that a large part of it is learning to sit still and pay attention.  Sitting still does not seem very whole-body, although it is an important thing to learn to do.  It is also (and even more so) very important to learn to pay attention -- not just for an hour or two on Sunday -- but in every part of our life.

I learned well how to sit still in church.  And there were times when this skill was very helpful.  I was a good student.  I knew how to listen to the teacher.  There are times when sitting still is very important.

But I confess that sometimes I think I learned that lesson too well.  I was so good at sitting still, that I was afraid to get up.  If I sit still, I thought, I can't get into trouble.   Not getting into trouble became the point.

But sometimes faith calls us to get into trouble.  Sometimes faith even calls us to make a ruckus.  How do we learn that?  How do we learn that there is a time to sit still and listen, and there is a time to stand up and do something?  There is a time to walk right over to the wounded man by the side of the road in Jericho and help him.  There is a time to stand up and say something is wrong.  There is a time to use your hands and your feet and your whole body to worship God.  There is a time to stretch out your hand to help, to comfort, to heal, even to raise a fist.  There is a time to do the hand motions, to use your whole body to worship God, to follow Jesus.

Hand motions.

Jesus, we adore you.  Lay our lives before you.

Our whole lives:  hands, feet, voices, shoulders and knees, eyes and ears.  Our beating hearts.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Behaving in Church

One day during the coffee hour after church I mentioned to someone that I enjoyed the fact that there were more children in worship than there used to be.  "I think it's important for them to be there,"  I said, by way of making conversation.

My conversation partner agreed.  "Yes," she said, "it's important for children to learn how to behave in church."

"Behaving in church."  Is that what we are doing?  Maybe it is.  We sit and we stand at the right time.  We are silent when we are supposed to be silent.  We speak when we are supposed to speak.  We sing (or we don't sing if we don't know the song.)  We listen during the sermon, or our minds wander.  We shake the hand of the pastor as we leave, and say, "nice sermon, Pastor."  That is how we behave in church.

Or, if we are children, we sit still and try to fidget as little as possible.  We color in the pew, or we go elsewhere to have an age-appropriate experience.  Sometimes our parents help us follow along, a little.  But what is most important is to behave, not make a ruckus, not run up and down the aisles, not shout or say something inappropriate.  You know, behave in church.

There's 'behaving' and then there's worshipping.  We come to church not simply to behave but to worship.  To worship means to listen and to speak, to sit still and to stand up, to sing and to pray.  To worship is to participate.  I want children, in all of their fidgety, wondering uniqueness, to participate in worship.

When I was a little girl, I sat next to my dad most Sundays.  I looked up the hymns in my hymnal, and I sang along with my dad when he sang the hymns in his baritone voice.  He participated, and I wanted to participate too.  He said the prayers and I said the prayers.  I learned to worship by worshipping with him.  And I loved the liturgy because he loved the liturgy.  I still do.  I love knowing the parts by heart, when to sit and to stand, and to participate.

But that is just a sliver of what worship can be.  In our church now, we do something that we would never have done in my church growing up.  it would not have been considered proper.  Sometimes we invite the children up during the last song, to play musical instruments.  We let them help with the benediction by putting their hands up in blessing.  We let them know that worship is an active verb.

One Sunday, something out of the ordinary happened.  Just before the end of the service, a woman in the congregation asked for prayer.  She said she had gotten a text from her son, and her grandson was in the hospital.

So we did something that might not have been considered proper when I was a little girl.  We invited her to come forward, and we prayed for her grandson.  And I asked if anyone in the congregation would come up and surround her while we prayed, and help us pray for her grandson.

A few adults came to the front of the church.

 All of the children came up to pray.

Because, they had learned how to behave in church.  

Friday, May 3, 2019

Casting our Nets on the Right Side of the Boat

I was innocently reading aloud the Gospel story the other day, when I noticed something I had never noticed before.

I've been a pastor for a long time, and occasionally I suffer from the occupational hazard of thinking that I know the scripture passages from which I preach.  Sometimes I even think I know them by heart.

But there I was on Wednesday, reading John 21, that addendum to the Gospel of John, that beach story of fishing and breakfast and restoration.  I was reading it to a group at an assisted living center, and I noticed something.  The disciples had fished all night and caught nothing.  (haven't we all had experiences like this?)  And then -- Jesus appeared to them on the beach, but they didn't know it was Jesus.

And Jesus told them (we all know it's Jesus, but the disciples don't) to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and they will catch something.

And of course, they do it.

And they catch so many fish they can barely handle them all.

So far, so good.

But on Wednesday, I noticed for the first time:  the disciples do what Jesus tells them to do, without knowing that it is Jesus.  They obey him, they take his advice, even though they think they are talking to a complete stranger.

Why do they do it?  Why do they cast their nets on the other side?

They are the fishermen, after all.  They know what they are doing (even though their expertise did not yield anything this time).  The person on the beach has wisdom (because he's Jesus) but they don't know that yet.

And yet... they do what he says.

I am reminded of the time I went to preach at the City and County Jail.  My text was from Matthew 4:  the call of the disciples.  I thought it was odd that the disciples dropped everything immediately and followed Jesus.  But the inmates were not so surprised.  It was Jesus calling their names, after all.  If Jesus calls you, you have to do it.  You can trust Jesus, even if you can't trust anyone else.  Of course they followed immediately.

But this time -- the disciples don't know who is telling them to lower their nets on the other side, the right side of the boat.  They do it anyway.

For some reason.

And I can't think of any reason why they do what Jesus suggests, except for this:  they have been fishing all night, and have caught nothing.  What do they have to lose?  They have come to the end of their own expertise and are willing to try something, something that might even seem foolish.

When I think of us modern-day disciples, I think that the problem is that we rarely feel that we are in this position.  Instead, we usually believe that we have a lot to lose -- too much to lose to risk casting our nets anywhere than where we have always put them down before.

I know that is often what keeps me stuck:  worrying so much that anything I do, any change I make, will mean loss to me, will mean loss to my congregation.  I don't realize that, in truth, my nets are really empty.

How do we get to the place where we have nothing to lose?  In truth, I do not know, but I know that somewhere, the resurrected Christ stands on the shore, inviting us to put our lives in his hands, inviting us to a strange and unexpected abundance.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Child Who Held My Hand

It was Holy Week last week.  Our new pre-school director had a great idea, something we hadn't done in exactly this way before.  She wanted to have a short chapel session every day, and every day tell a little more of the story of Jesus.

So on Monday we had palms and marched around the chapel and told about how Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and how people spread their cloaks on the ground and shouted 'Hosanna!" And on Tuesday we told about how Jesus washed his disciples feet and how he shared supper with them.  On Wednesday we had flowers and Jesus prayed in the garden, and we prayed too, and the soldiers came.  And on Thursday -- on Thursday there was a cross and a tomb, and a centurion told us how he felt about Jesus and the cross.

At the end of the chapel on Thursday, I told all of the children to gather with their teachers so that they could go back to their classes.  And as always, I went to the door of the chapel and greeted all of them as they lined up with all of their classmates and prepared to go back to their classrooms.  And somewhere, in the middle, one little boy grabbed my hand and just held on.

I could have made him let go, but somehow I didn't.

Because he held my hand, I ended up walking with him out of the chapel and onto the sidewalk.

Because he held my hand, I kept walking with him.

A couple of times he rubbed the back of my hand on his cheek.  And then he just kept holding on.  So I kept walking with him.  We went through the front doors of the school, and he kept leading me until I ended up in his room.

I keep thinking about the journey through Holy Week, and the little boy who held my hand.

Usually I just say goodbye to the students at the door of the chapel.  I don't go any further with them.

But on Thursday, I walked the whole way, just because he held my hand.

This is how it is with us, and with the story of Jesus as well.  We can leave it there at the door, and wave goodbye, and go about our week.

Or we can walk with the story all week.  Jesus can become real to us, and his story our story, and we can walk and walk until we find ourselves in a place we never thought we would be.