Audio Sermons, Sermons

Long-Distance Relationship

kissing train station
Off to war.

(A sermon for Ascension Sunday–May 12, 2013–Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23audio here, beginning at 27:35)

We’ve all lived those moments: the train leaves the station; the bus pulls away from the curb; the person we love starts the car, backs out of the driveway, and we watch for the kiss we hope they’ll blow. Times have changed, but I can still remember the days when we walked to the edge of the tarmac and watch my daddy climb the stairs to a Piedmont jet. I would wave and wave, trusting he would turn around one last time.

In the movies, we see romantic farewell embraces at the train station; we watch the lover follow the train down the platform. It’s such a common image, it’s been spoofed in movies from “Young Frankenstein” to “Airplane.” When the love interest doesn’t want her hair mussed by a kiss, or runs alongside a plane instead of a train, we know something is hilariously wrong.

Goodbyes are supposed to be meaningful and memorable.

When I deliver my older children to airports, or to bus and train stations, I bid them farewell expecting a return or a reunion. We do this so regularly, it feels normal. I remind the college students to text on arrival. In between visits, we connect via Skype or Facetime to keep up with what’s going on at home and in their other worlds. To his amazement, our college boy discovered he could send his mother flowers via the Internet. As he put it, “Crazy, right?”

Wherever we are, we are part of each other.

Stained Glass Clouds

For Jesus’ friends on that long ago day, it was a different kind of farewell. Their loved one moved out of sight on the Great Cloud Elevator that some believe will return him to us. It was not normal, unusual even for scripture, the first supernatural departure since the whirlwind lifted Elijah. If he waved, scripture does not record it.

If they ran behind him, or leapt to reach out for him, the author is kind enough not to expose them.

Jesus’ farewell is the beginning of a new story, the Acts of the Apostles. These Acts are an Epic Adventure! Lives will be lost along the way, and the world will be changed. For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?

Like Luke, Acts begins with angels confirming a message from God. The two figures in white robes redirect the disciples just as the two men in dazzling clothes redirected the women at the tomb. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why do you stand looking up into heaven?

In the first case, they explain something that is part of our understanding, reminding the disciples what Jesus said about his fate, that he would be tried and crucified and would rise again. We observe and remember these things each year with established rituals. We tell the stories. We share the Lord’s Supper. We strip the altar. We light candles, then extinguish them to symbolize the way Jesus’ friends deserted him. We pause and wait in the silence of death and the tomb. We bring flowers and trumpets into the church to celebrate the triumph of new life. We expect to do these things.

We do not have similar rituals for Ascension.

The second part of the speech of the men in the white robes does not feel so familiar. We do not grab this text out and use it for Children’s Sunday, building elevators we will re-use from year to year like a manger, lifting some child dressed as Jesus to the ceiling on a paper-decorated platform.

We do not go outside and stand in a field and look at the sky every Ascension Day, lighting candles and keeping vigil.

Now, let’s be clear. Perfectly faithful Christians, who agree on many other things, can and will disagree about what may have happened to the body of Jesus Christ after his death and resurrection. But even the most dubious of us can get behind the idea that life returns in the spring and with it a reminder that God gives us new life in unexpected ways, often when we have given up hope.

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

Ascension is trickier. It promises something we have not yet seen. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b, NRSV) It remains a mystery. We don’t even mention it every year. Those of us who don’t hold tight to the notion that Jesus will come again are okay with that. We might like other versions of Jesus better. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, he tells us plainly, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Get to it right now. No need for a second coming; no need to see him resurrected, either. His arrival is the story. The presence of God right here and right now is the story.

The author of Luke and Acts takes parts of Mark’s simple story and elaborates it for a Greek audience. The Great Cloud Elevator seems like a device from Greek theatre, the deus ex machina. That’s

a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object… (In Greek drama) a crane (mechane) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.”[i]

Here the crane, or the cloud, carries Jesus off-stage. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine place was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between? Crazy, right?

Practical people may not like this story. We like the apostles forming the first church community, naming Deacons and getting their mission program together for widows and orphans. We can picture them in up-close relationship with other people, helping the way we do when we contribute to New Hope, or work in the Community Garden, or visit the sick. We live in the now doing our best for Christ’s sake, not waiting for the Great Cloud Elevator to descend in glory.

Practical people may not like this story. We like our Jesus in the flesh, teaching in the synagogue, stirring up trouble, walking dusty roads with his friends, healing the sick, or sitting thirsty beside a well. We may not get to sit with him, but we can picture him, can’t we? We can picture him in up-close relationship with other people. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that his location is undisclosed, for now.

Christ’s farewell to the disciples, his trip on the Great Cloud Elevator, began our long-distance relationship with God’s right-hand man. History is full of such relationships. I remember being fascinated by the phrase “epistolary romance,” a relationship conducted by the writing of letters. We call it snail mail now. We expect more instant communication. Even email is too slow for the Smartphone set; they prefer text.

Before I married and moved here to Mechanicsburg, my own long-distance relationship relied on cards in the mail, but also on “Friends and Family” cell phone minutes and unlimited text messages and Google chats and conversations on Skype. Somehow, most of the time, we felt connected. But what we really wanted was to be in the same place.

Following him on Twitter doesn't count.
Following him on Twitter doesn’t count.

How can we connect with Jesus? We can’t pick him up at the airport. We can’t send him a Facebook message. We can’t text him and expect a quick response. We must employ more old-fashioned forms of communication to reach him. We read about him in scripture. We pray to him with words and in silent intensity. We worship, singing songs that express our feelings. Most importantly, we live in community together as his body. Christ is the guiding head. We are his hands and feet in the world. He is part of us; we are part of him. We are far apart, but we are intimate.

Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details about his body and God’s timing doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. Go out and have the Epic Adventure of being Christ’s Church. Live into the wonder of a long-distance relationship that commands new connections in the here and now, connections that show God’s love not just in word but in action.

Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and show the Good News of God’s love. Make some up-close relationships, in Christ’s name. Amen.

Audio Sermons, Proverbs, Sermon, Sermons

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

(A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 19, 2012–Proverbs 9:1-6click here for audio)

They’re partners. They spend a lot of time together. Tim is idealistic and emotional. Frank is cerebral and cynical. Their temperaments clash, and in the day to day of life, they’ve been known to bicker.

Tim feels frustrated because he thinks Frank fails to observe the humane niceties that mark polite interaction, and at the end of what is, well, a bit of a rant, he says, “You never say please! You never say thank you!”

And Frank responds, “Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank and Tim

Maybe some of you will now recognize Frank and Tim, fictional Baltimore Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss, from the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. It’s a funny little exchange that characterizes their relationship, but it’s also a representation of Frank’s philosophy. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And they are out in the world trying to solve the worst sorts of crimes, so why should it matter whether or not he is polite to Tim? Isn’t the subject of the argument idiotic?

Human beings *can* excel at being idiotic.

Friday morning I was over at George and Carol Black’s house, and as I was leaving, I turned my head left to admire one of their adorable granddaughters at the same time I was turning the rest of me right toward the door and…

And I missed the step I should have known was there, and I came crashing down on the floor.

It’s a pretty basic concept: “Watch where you’re going.”

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Turning into the church driveway Friday morning, I thought of the text. “You that are simple, turn in here.”

I felt pretty simple, which is to say, unwise. It’s not that hard to watch where you’re going. But a propensity for accident is part of the human condition. We’re distracted and out-of-balance and overwhelmed by the demands of life, and the shiny things that loom in front of us, and the “need” to hurry, and even the coo of a baby in a Pack-and-Play.

Maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that people have been this way forever: idiotic, misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

It’s been suggested to me this week that I’m too hard on myself, but I certainly felt idiotic and embarrassed as I assessed the situation and picked myself up as quickly as possible, getting away before anyone else could see the damage.

I came back to church and looked for the First Aid Kit in the kitchen, only to discover that we really need a new one. Then Lyn sent an email to the Trustees asking if they would replace it, and since George is a Trustee, the Blacks quickly figured that I was the patient in need.


And since I know they know, well, here we all are no longer wondering why I’m wearing a specially purchased Band-Aid that fits on a knee.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Turn into Wisdom’s House. The book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a feminine figure of power who partnered with God in Creation.* The Hebrew and Greek words for Wisdom and the Spirit of God were feminine; this is an ancient understanding lost when the Greek became Latin and the Spirit of God became masculine instead.

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has built the place herself, carving the entrance from wood or stone. She is wise and accomplished in matters both discerning and practical.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.

Wisdom prepares the table for those who need what she will serve; she oversees every detail of the meal and its presentation.

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Wisdom invites the simple, those without sense, to come and gain maturity and insight. And it fascinates me that it’s not a lecture hall in which the answers will be given, or the Temple or some other place of worship. It’s a house where a banquet will be served, where bread and wine will be shared.

Wisdom comes through the senses, for those without the sense to watch where they are going.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Frank is tough on Tim. He’s tough on everybody. He’s an educated Catholic, the product of Jesuit schools. He is well-read and widely knowledgeable. He is scarred by the world and defends his heart with his intellect. His retorts are smart, and he knows a lot, but he could use a dose of insight about the value of the living people around him, the people, like Tim, who care about him.

We all know people who are smart but have no sense, don’t we?

Yes, I recognize me. I haven’t always been wise. I’ve looked away from where I was headed toward the person I thought others wanted me to be, without enough thought for what God really had in mind or who God made me to be.

Or which step I was about to miss.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank is a homicide detective, and it is his job to look at terrible things and to solve horrible crimes. He is not just disappointed in people. Having seen the depraved way people harm each other, he is disappointed in the God who created them. We can blame God for letting us be free-wheeling … idiots. That seems to be part of the set-up, doesn’t it? We are here walking off steps while looking the other way, as if we didn’t have the sense God gave a goose.

We do worse things, too. Frank wants God to do a better job keeping order, and I sometimes agree with him. We see the terrible things people do to each other, the rough handling and rude dismissals and thoughtless neglect and outright violence.

But here’s what Frank, with all his learning, misses.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

He misses the invitation. And it’s for all of us. Because believe me, no matter how good our grades were once upon a time, no matter how we excel in our work, no matter how well we have developed our gifts and talents, we are all simple. And knowing how we are, God has not left us alone in the world. God came to us in Jesus. God remains with us in the Holy Spirit, at the table of Wisdom.

God calls to us, all the time:
“You that are simple, turn in here.”

We probably wouldn’t want to paint that on the church sign, nor would we buy an ad in the paper saying, “Those without sense, come eat our bread!” And churches are not always the ultimate in wise institutions. We don’t know everything, and we don’t get everything right, with each other or with the world. But the good news is that when we are misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance – even when we’re downright idiotic – and even when we’ve done wrong – we are welcome to turn in here. The doors are open. The coffee is hot. We’re all in the same situation, and some of us are even willing to admit it.

Maybe we’ll even help each other get up again after a fall.

So, please, don’t be an idiot. Thank you. Turn in here. Amen.

*Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney for her insight and scholarship on this passage at Working Preacher.

Audio Sermons, Exodus, Sermons

Bread and Whine

(A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 5, 2012–Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35click here for audio)
Are we there yet?
Has it been five minutes?
How much longer until we get to the beach?
When can we stop and go to the bathroom?
These questions are the not-so-musical refrain of vacation travel. We want to get away. We’ve got to get away. But when you’re traveling with children, these are the questions asked and heard. And asked and heard. And asked and heard.
And whined.  And heard. Sometimes the people asking are not the children.
The Israelites did not have the modern conveniences even of a 2001 Honda Odyssey: the doors that open with a remote control if you’re racing for the car in the rain; the air-conditioning vents aimed at “the way back;” the proliferation of cup holders for the omnipresent water bottles we require for travel. Even still, there were times, with a teenager and a 2nd-grader in the back seat, when the grown-ups in front wished for the kind of panel a limousine driver can close for the privacy of the passengers.
  • When the ear buds slip or the volume is loud and the music of two iPods can be heard.
  • When the boy starts petting the girl’s hair and you hope she doesn’t push back, literally, the way her older brothers would likely have pushed her.
  • When he asks her the same question so many times she finally says, “It’s the same answer as the last time you asked me.”
And then the mamas asked, “Are we there yet?”
The Israelites complained:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3, NRSV)
The Super-Dooper Looper–our kids are on their somewhere.

I’m sure Moses and Aaron felt worse than two dads in the front seat of a minivan.

We’ve brought you out of slavery! We’ve saved you from oppression! We’ve taken you to the beach and Hershey Park! 
Yeah, but when are we going to Disney?
Whine, whine, whine.
It would have been better for God’s own hand to kill us in the land of Egypt, because at least there we had enough to eat.
“Did we bring any snacks? When can we stop for a snack? I’m hungry!”
Honey, we just got started. Hold on. We’ve got 40 years of wilderness to go.
40 years – really, that was a lifetime under those circumstances, a lifetime of wandering and marrying and giving birth and burying the dead and getting into arguments and wondering what God meant by sending the people, so many people, out into the wilderness without the proper provisions.
***Some people say the Israelites needed to wander that long
so no one would be alive to remember Egypt
when the younger generation finally got to the Promised Land. ***
No one would remember the fleshpots – the hot meals in a pot – the meat and the bread that kept them going while they worked for their Egyptian masters.
Really, he got them out of there.

What a relief it must have been to Moses when God promised to rain down bread from heaven!

Maybe the people would believe and be more cooperative!
But if he had already gotten them out of Egypt, with God’s apparent and miraculous help, why didn’t they believe already?
Maybe it’s our nature to question.
Are we there yet?
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom (God) has sent.” (John 6:28-29, NRSV)
Maybe it’s our nature to question. Which is exactly what makes it, whatever *it* is, hard to believe. We always seem to want more than we have, no matter how much we have. We’re hungry and afraid of starving even when we’re overfed.
I’m not just talking about bread here.
The crowd following Jesus had been fed – as Holly told you last week, the command to sit down and eat meant it was a real, filling meal – but they wanted more. They followed him and asked for a sign. I find this baffling. Turning five loaves and two fishes into a banquet for 5000 people wasn’t enough of a sign for them?
But they wanted to know for certain.
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”
Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:30-33, NRSV)
“Who are you? Are you the one we’ve been hoping for? Can you show us one more sign, prove it to us one more time?”
Are we there yet?
They wanted to get there in a less confusing way. They had trouble following the route of Jesus’ thoughts. He left them wandering in a wilderness of words.  They knew the stories of their ancestors well. Being fed out of nowhere had a precedent. Jesus had done it, too. But who was he? That’s what they wanted to know. Who was he?
“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The bread was not enough.
The people wanted more. They wanted to understand. But when he answered, they grew more confused.
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34)
It’s a theme in John’s gospel. Jesus is the living bread, the living water.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
We live in the time of fast food. We can buy just about anything between two pieces of bread or two halves of a roll. Few of us have ever ground wheat by hand. Maybe some of us have baked our own bread. Most of us go right to the store. Hunger was real to the people Jesus met. They knew the complex and time-consuming process of making bread, or drawing water. This man claimed to be the one who would eliminate not only hunger and thirst but the effort required to relieve them.
I am so sure this is a metaphor that I cannot understand not understanding him—except when I can.
“Lucy, have you found your college yet?”
Her seatmate in the back of the van asked this question all through vacation. He is seven and interested in her, and he wants to understand. We tried to explain that you can like some colleges, but then you have to be sure they like you before you can decide which one you like the best. That answer was too complicated, so he asked the question again.
“Lucy, have you found your college yet?”
Finally she said, “It’s the same answer as the last time you asked me.”
Are we there yet?
We are. We’re two thousand years past the people following Jesus, pushing closer to ask him what they need to do, and who in the world, who in heaven, he is. We understand the metaphor.
Well, we understand that there is such a *thing* as a metaphor, that Jesus isn’t actually bread or water.
But are we there yet?
“I am the bread of life.”

We aren’t. Because really being there means taking in what he said, not just in our heads, but in our hearts and bodies. It means really trusting that God will feed us, in the ways that matter, always. It means letting go into believing.

That’s hard.
So we whine, all the way to the Bread.
Are we there yet?
It’s the same answer as the last time we asked. Come to him and never be hungry. Amen.
Audio Sermons, Ezekiel 17:22-24, Mark 4:26-34, Sermons

Little Known Facts

(A sermon for Pentecost 3B–June 17, 2012–Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34click here for audio)

Lucy Van Pelt, herself.

And now a few words from the gospel according to Lucy; Lucy Van Pelt, that is.

Do you see that tree?
It is a Fir tree.
It’s called a Fir tree because it gives us fur,
For coats,
It also gives us wool in the wintertime.*

In the musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Lucy shares these and other “Little Known Facts” with her younger brother, Linus. And I’m no arborist, but even I know that’s wrong.

Just to give you a sense of how little I *do* know, in 2007 I went to Skillins looking for something to plant where we lost a big shrub in the Patriot’s Day storm. In our backyard there is a pretty flowering tree, and I went hoping to duplicate it. I had no idea what kind of tree it was. It buds hot pink and then it opens white, but still pink in the center. I remember watching it happen the spring I bought my house and marveling. I thought there had never seen such a tree before, but of course I then began to see them everywhere. When a space opened up in the backyard, I wanted more.

I memorized the leaves and the way the bark looked, and I drove to Falmouth and began my search. The names of the trees on the little tags meant nothing. We were past the season of blossoms, so that was no help. I described the blossom and the leaves in a short conversation with someone on the staff, then based more on the bark than anything, I chose a little tree. I planted it according to instructions. Then I waited.

The following spring, 2008, it blossomed. The flowers weren’t exactly like the ones on the other tree, but it was pretty, and I convinced myself I was satisfied. Then in 2009, the tree surprised me. Where there had been blossoms, I looked one day and noticed apples. Full of wonder, I began telling everyone who would listen, but no one would believe me when I told them about the unexpected apples.
“You mean crabapples,” they would say patiently. Or, “That isn’t possible. You need two trees to pollinate.” “Surely they would have told you at the nursery.”

3 of our apples from 2009

But I could see differently. There were apples—small ones—five or six of them. In the fall, I ate them. They were lip-pursingly tart, but they were apples.

Lucy goes on:

This is an elm tree.
It’s very little.
But it will grow up into a giant tree,
An oak.
You can tell how old it is by counting its leaves.

A mustard seed is tiny. I know because I have seen one, held them in my hand. I know they are smaller than apple seeds and acorns; there is an elegant logic in the idea that a bigger seed grows a bigger tree. It suggests that the essence of the outcome must be found in the first expression of a material thing.

The people listening to Jesus knew about mustard seeds, knew they grew a scraggly shrub, not a thing with spreading branches, which to our minds suggests a tree.

And here is something that fascinates me. There are some people who want everything Jesus ever said to be exactly true, and to prove it, they want to make everything he said exactly factual. So they go to Israel and seek out mustard shrubs gone wild. They sit beside them and look for birds flying near them. They try to prove that the Kingdom of God is defined by a plant, just to make Jesus right.
I find this to be a failure of imagination, which is something Lucy never has.

Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown

And way up there,
Those fluffy little white things,
Those are clouds,
They make the wind blow.
And way down there,
Those tiny little black things,
Those are bugs,
They make the grass grow.

To which Linus replies, “Is that so?”

And his sister answers: “That’s right. They run around all day long, tugging and tugging at each tiny seedling until it grows into a great tall blade of grass.”

It’s about that time Charlie Brown sighs and utters his classic line, “Oh, good grief!”

After the great apple crop of Ought-Nine, I eagerly anticipated 2010. And we got…nothing. I heard on the news it was a bad year for apples, and I felt my heart beating in perfect sympathy with apple farmers all over Maine. I also began to wonder if I had really seen those apples the year before.

I mean, really, what do I know?

The sower in the parable does not know all the scientific details of how the wheat is transformed from seed to crop. The kingdom of heaven is as if a man sows seeds and while he goes about the rest of his life, somehow, magically, good things are ready to harvest because they are simply growing into what they were meant to be. Gardeners, does this sound right to you? Don’t you have to work a little harder than that to get results? The bugs are not running around tugging on each green bean to stretch it out to full length.
Really, that’s the truth *and* a fact.

As fall turned to winter in 2010, I looked out the window at my tree—my apple tree—and wondered. Would the weather conspire to bring me apples? Would the conditions be propitious? I tried to believe, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas.

D’you see that bird?
It’s called an Eagle,
But since it’s little it has another name,
A Sparrow,
And on Christmas and Thanksgiving
We eat them.

Oh, Lucy. It’s not a fact just because you say it.

Jesus spoke of spreading branches, welcoming the birds who came to nest. He painted a picture of arms spread wide to receive all who would come to him, all who would come to God. That, he said, is the kingdom of God.

I think the people of long ago had a better way of using words. They didn’t expect everything truthful to be factual. We’re going to hear more parables this summer, and I’m not going to try to turn them into proofs, like a geometry problem. I’m hoping they’ll expand our thinking about how God works among us and to imagine together what images might express the kingdom of God today. Longer ago, when Ezekiel recorded prophetic words, no one thought he was writing a horticultural manual or an ornithology guidebook. People heard the words the way he meant them: God can take a twig, a tender sprout from the high branches, and make a mighty tree, sufficient for the support of all the birds. In other words, God promises a kingdom with enough for everyone.

Last year I watched my apple tree, mother of six tiny apples two years earlier. I watched and waited, and after the blossoms, there came the little green buds of apples-to-be. I counted them. I encouraged them. I loved them. I gave thanks for them. Otherwise, I did nothing practical for their protection or promotion, because, to be clear, I wouldn’t have known what to do.

Other people doubted them. I heard the same negative talk from before. They can’t be apples. Are you sure they aren’t crabapples? And from one wise…acre: “Ah, there must be another tree somewhere nearby in your neighborhood.”

There are lots of ways we set limits on what God has made. We listen to what others tell us is possible. We fall into believing and then making the failures we expect ourselves, whether it’s a poor crop or an invasive weed or a failed transplant of the top of a tree.

God sees more for each of us. God sees more for the church. God’s hopes are expansive, not restrictive. The kingdom of God is a like a twig full of hope that becomes a great tree of life. The kingdom of God is like a harvest we did not anticipate. The kingdom of God is like a shrub that outgrows its potential to the surprise and wonder of the neighborhood.

Our apples, 2011.

By the end of last summer, my apples began to look like the real thing. Thirty or so grew and became red. And although some fell to the ground too soon, eventually we had enough, and of good enough size, for a pie. Yes, they were real apples.

Now, it’s a fact that Lucy about drives Charlie Brown crazy with her little known “facts,” and when the song ends, Linus asks, “Lucy, why is Charlie Brown banging his head against that tree?”

Indefatigable, the young teacher replies, “To loosen the bark so the tree will grow faster.”

I didn’t loosen the bark, but this year I listened to one piece of advice and had the tree pruned. And this week I counted the little green apple buds and stopped when I got to 50. It is both a fact and true that I am not informed about apples. I am repeating little things I’ve heard people say in passing. I did not know I was buying an apple tree. All I can tell you is there was a harvest last year and, weather permitting, this year there will be another.

Forget the facts. Here’s a little known truth. The kingdom of heaven is like a mis-marked tree, planted by an uninformed woman. Even if the planter does not know what she is planting, the tree will become what it was made to be, yielding unexpected apples.

We contain, from the beginning, the elements of who we will become. It doesn’t matter what the world sees. God knows our potential and awaits the harvest. And in the kingdom of God, it will be bountiful. In the name of the One who plants us all. Amen.

~Rev. Martha K. Spong

*You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the “Peanuts” characters created by Charles M. Schulz, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, 1967.

1 John 4:7-21, Acts 8:27-40, Audio Sermons, Easter 5B, Sermons

What is to prevent us?

(A sermon for Easter 5B–May 6, 2012–Acts 8:27-40; 1 John 4:7-21click here for audio)

She didn’t look like she belonged there, and she could see it for herself.

It was a summer Sunday, and she decided to visit a church, and she dressed casually because it was summer and it was Maine, and because, frankly, she wasn’t a dressing up kind of person anyway. She came through the rather formal entrance from the main street in town, the only door a person would readily find open, and a well-dressed couple greeted her. And as she looked around, she became more and more uncomfortable, because *everyone* was well-dressed. She could see and feel her own difference. And because I wasn’t there that day I can’t tell you how they treated her. I know the next time she came she sat in the back, and she asked the preacher – me – if the church had a dress code.

Apparently these exist.

We can tell when we’re welcome, or not.

I had a long conversation with her in which I tried to justify the people who dress up for church. I always dressed up for church, so I wasn’t really the one to make the case for coming casual. I understood why it mattered to look spruced up for Jesus. I also understood why it didn’t matter at all, and therefore put no pressure on my kids to dress up for church, figuring it mattered more to have them there. So on balance I think this makes me a moderate on dressing up for church, although I’m pretty sure I’ve only preached in pants twice, ever.

I had to try hard to see the visitor’s point of view, because I believed everyone ought to be welcome and everyone *was* welcome, as far as I could tell: welcome to come into the sanctuary, welcome to worship God, welcome to come to the table and certainly welcome to be baptized.

When Brittany asked me just a few weeks ago if Evan had to be dressed in white to be baptized, I assured her there was no dress code. I would have been just as happy to baptize him in footie pajamas as I was to baptize him in little khaki pants.
It doesn’t matter to me what a person wears to church, even though I can understand why some dress up and can support those who do not, whether the reason is philosophical, practical or personal.

For the people who greeted the lady in shorts, there was at least a long moment of wondering whether she had come to ask for money. That happened sometimes, because the church was downtown in a neighborhood gone a little to ruin, but I always thought the greeters did a great job making people welcome no matter the circumstances and no matter what they might have thought on the inside.

But I didn’t always see it up close, so if there was a moment of checking themselves, of regrouping to appear welcoming even when the feeling wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have known about it. There are invisible barriers, and when we are the ones who “live” here, we can’t necessarily see them.

I grew up in Virginia, as most of you know, and it was a time when some of the barriers were literal, spelled out on signs warning people of color not to sit in certain places or drink from certain fountains. And as things began to be integrated, I can remember overhearing a conversation at church. What would we do, people wondered, if an African-American family wanted to come to our church? This was a cause for worry, and not unlike the question of how we dress for church, the worry came from both ends of the spectrum. The youth group heard a rumor about church leaders being in the Ku Klux Klan. But what was more likely true was what usually is true in church disagreements: some people liked things the way they were, while others wanted to see the church expand its understanding of community.

The book of Acts, which we read in the season of Easter in place of readings from the Old Testament, is a story of pushing out the boundaries and including more and more people of different backgrounds and circumstances in the community of Christ’s people. Peter and the original group of disciples are all Jews. They want to expand the faith within their own race, and they struggle with the idea that you can follow Jesus without being a Jew, just like them, without following the rules about what you eat and how you wash and who can go into the Temple.

Despite their initial assumption, the message of God’s grace and forgiveness spoke to people beyond their community, and Gentiles joined them. Still, there were struggles, and Acts 6 tells us the Greek followers of Christ complained that “their” widows weren’t getting as much care as the Jewish widows. Philip, part of whose story we read today, was himself a Gentile, a Greek, and one of seven followers of Christ chosen to do active ministry, set to work making sure that inequity did not continue.

When increasing persecution caused the identifiable faithful to scatter, Philip went to Samaria to preach. The Samaritans shared ancestry with the Jews, but did not share all their practices and understandings, so Philip, a Greek, had to master another unfamiliar culture.

From a website so prim they call it “Philip and the man in a chariot.”

And then…

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

And the person the angel sent Philip to talk with was a lot farther outside his comfort zone than the lady in shorts was for the well-dressed greeters on Main Street, I can promise you.

The followers of Jesus were living on the margins, persecuted by the Jewish authorities, scattered to avoid mayhem, and now he was sent by the Angel of the Lord to talk to someone in a chariot?

Yes. The person in the chariot was a court official of the Candace, the ruler of what we know as Ethiopia, a queen in a line of female monarchs.* He was her treasurer, which means he holds a responsible position of authority. And he was a eunuch, a man who sacrificed part of his physical body in order to hold that position of trust, the idea being that a eunuch would not manage to marry or become involved with the queen, nor would he have a family of his own that might divide his loyalties.

I told you it was more complicated than wearing shorts to church.

The man was Ethiopian, a person of color, and he was a eunuch, and he was also a Jew. He had just come from Jerusalem, where he could go to the Temple, but not all the way inside. He knew the rules. Just getting close was enough.

Imagine if the lady with the shorts had been asked to stand in the vestibule, to listen to the service through the closed doors.
But he knew those were the rules, and he clearly left Jerusalem hungry for more knowledge, as he was reading from Isaiah, that beautiful book of prophecy that seems to point so clearly to Jesus. Certainly Philip understood it that way, and he proceeded to tell the eunuch all he knew about the life and death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Look! There is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The eunuch was ready to commit to a new way of understanding God. Would Philip let him in? What was to prevent him?
Maybe this person was too far outside the norms being established by the new community. Maybe his differences were too … different.

From the school website.

I can tell you that over many years, the school associated with my church in Virginia became multi-racial.

I wish I could tell you that the lady in shorts came back week after week, enjoyed staying for coffee hour, made some new friends, signed up to help with a mission project and eventually joined the church. I wish I could tell you that.

I hope it’s the truth that she was the one perceiving a difference that was too … different. I know her two visits to the church got us talking about how we made people welcome, and how we failed at it, too. We weren’t limber enough to make a change so quickly, between one Sunday and the next. We needed more time to identify the barriers, to process and respond.

Philip, thankfully, did not. He got out of the chariot with the Ethiopian eunuch. He got into the water with the queer, black Jew and baptized him.

What is to prevent us from doing the same?

In the name of the One who makes us one community of love. Amen.

*Many thanks to the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. for sharing her sermon, “Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch,” which both informed and inspired me this week.

Audio Sermons, Lent 3B, Sermons

Sweeter than Honey

(A sermon for Lent 3B — March 11, 2012 — Psalm 19; John 2:13-22 — click here for audio)

Last summer a friend brought us a jar of honey from her own bees. I don’t particularly like honey, but the jar was pretty, and I liked the little label with her address on it, “Fell’s Lane Honey.” I admired her willingness to work with the bees and go to the trouble of putting things in jars, because since in her day job she is a high-powered lawyer, she is not someone you would necessarily imagine in an apron, canning.

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear (or awe) of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

Sweeter than honey.

And I say I don’t like honey, but really I don’t know that. I just know I don’t like honey-flavored things. They have a sweetness that does not feel right in my mouth.

It’s a matter of taste, I realize that. Somehow I think of honey as sickeningly sweet, not marvelously so, which may be strange coming from someone who grew up eating not only Lucky Charms, but Sugar Pops. (Yes, kids, that’s what we used to call Corn Pops, in the unenlightened days of yore.)

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

But you heard those rules I read to the children, the Big Ten, the Law of the LORD. They are hard and direct. We don’t always feel like following them. Our language isn’t always what it should be, and we may have times we don’t feel like honoring one or the other of our parents, and hardly any of us hasn’t seen something a friend or neighbor has and wanted it for ourselves, whether it’s a car or a relationship or a vacation or a job. How sweet is that? Not very.

Not very.

By the time Jesus visited the Temple in the story we read from John’s gospel, there were far more than ten rules. There were so many that it took a lot of time to observe them just right. It was easier to do if you had servants to clean your pots and prepare your food the right way, so rich people had a much better chance to observe them just right.

The ordinances of the LORD are SWEET. Well, if they are really the LORD’s. In Jesus’ time, there were more rules than just the written ones. There were unwritten rules, too.  And people who came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple didn’t have much choice about where they bought their sacrificial doves and lambs. They came from far away and traded their local money for Temple money, and then they used the Temple money to buy the approved animals for sacrifice. Jesus was right. The Temple was more like a marketplace. People turned a profit on other people’s attempts to worship God.

Sweeter than honey, says the Psalm, sweeter than honey are these things: the law of the LORD, the decrees of the LORD, the precepts of the LORD, the commandment of the LORD, the fear of the LORD and the ordinances of the LORD.

We want to stop at sweet, before Jesus makes a whip out of cords and lets fly.

We want to stop at sweet, Sunday School Jesus, Honey Bear Jesus.

I think maybe those plastic bears are the reason I don’t like honey. I mean, the bears are cute, but the honey in them is not usually so delicious. I wouldn’t ever put it right on anything, but I’ve had it in tea. To me, it’s hyper-sweet. And I think maybe that is just what we want Jesus to be. We haven’t watered down his message so much as turned it to candy. We read the words “sweeter than honey” and hear it in our terms, in the context of a high fructose corn syrup world. Sweeter than honey – that’s a Snickers bar or a vanilla milkshake or a peppermint stick, yes?

We offer a sweet faith to our children that way, suggesting that everything will be just fine. We confuse faith with manners. We conflate faith with citizenship. We embrace the Jesus who calls little children to sit on his knee and ignore the very real Jesus who absolutely loses it in the Temple and knocks the tables over and releases the doves from their cages and makes the religious leaders so angry that they spend the rest of John’s gospel trying to kill him.

And this is only Chapter 2.

They had a sense of order. There was a way things were done. There was an acceptable group for leadership and a great middle segment of people who were expected to show up at the Temple on appropriate occasions and on the margins were the poor and the widows and the orphans and the sick and the broken, keeping to their appointed places.

Found it here.

Into the middle of all this order comes Jesus and he does not move the tables carefully, as Jeanne taught us to do yesterday in the Fellowship Hall. He knocks them over. He makes and uses a whip.

He pours the money on the ground.

He lets them have it.

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17, NRSV)

Zeal is a strong word. It has flavor, texture. It means fervor and desire and ardor. Ardor: that is not a Lucky Charms word, not a Sugar Pops word. Ardor for God’s house will consume me, they remember, fervor and desire and ardor. He is real put-your-hand-in-the-beehive Jesus, not some artificially colored and sweetened substitute. They can kill his body, but he is coming back again.

We want Honey Bear Jesus.  We want something safe and sweet instead of a bracing challenge to engage with the Christ who redeems us, who can heal us and make something new out of us.

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.  (Psalm 19:17-19, NRSV)

I don’t always get this right. I may not turn the house of the LORD into a marketplace, but I fail at upholding the sweet and right precepts of God with some regularity, even though Jesus made it simpler by shortening the list to three rules:

1. Love God with all your heart and soul and strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
3. Which suggests the third: love yourself.

I’ve been listening to people say all my life that honey is good for you when you have a sore throat or a cough. I’ve gagged on honey-flavored cough drops and considered the possibility of squeezing the plastic bear into a mug of tea, but I never felt enthusiastic about it. Then, this winter, I remembered those jars of honey from my friend. And I opened one, letting myself believe that in a small jar lay phenomenal cosmic powers. I stirred it into hot water, and I drank it.

I was pretty sick. I got better. I don’t know if the honey actually helped. I just know it was real put-your-hand-in-the-beehive honey.

Jesus put his hand in the beehive every day of his life on earth. He risked himself with the bees – that’s us – to prove there was still something sweet, something worth harvesting, some measure of healing and even transformation in the encounter between God and humanity.

They killed him for doing it.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I actually opened the jar, put a spoon in and tasted the honey, all on its own. Now I know. Real honey has zeal. It tastes like ardor. It makes me desire something truthful, drives me to fervor sweeter than honey.

These words, this book, they are old and sometimes feel dusty and even incomprehensible. The printed words are not what matters so much as the Living Word, Jesus himself. They broke his body down, but in three days he rose up again, and he is still with us, risking the sting of our disregard, our money-changing, our attachment to our own rules, and worst of all, our corn-syrupy sweet and safe version of faith. He is still with us, sticking his hand into the beehive of our lives.

And we can choose, each one of us, whether we will be processed and safely encased in plastic or whether we will risk zeal, risk being real and raw and changed forever. In the name of the One whose ardent Law of Love is truly sweeter than honey. Amen.