Monday, April 29, 2013

May Newsletter

I was asked to lead worship at our recent meeting of Northern Lights Presbytery. Here is a revisit of the message I gave during that service (the Scripture reading was Isaiah 43:1-3, 18-19)...

It is 1933, the world is in the midst of the Great Depression. Farmland is being turned into a dustbowl. Banks are failing. Unemployment is sky-high. There is no social safety net. But 1932 had been an election year, and a new President had been elected in the US. And in his first Inaugural address Franklin D. Rooesevelt uttered a phrase that has become one of the memorable classics of political discourse:...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...Really? As the economy crumbles around us, as people are losing homes and land, as families are struggling for food you make the claim that we have nothing to fear? There must have been some people who at the very least scratched their heads in confusion as those words were uttered.

And yet they have become classics. I am sure that there are many people who could have finished the phrase for me. It stands with other classics like “Four score and seven years ago...” or “Ich bin ein Berliner”. And part of that was because FDR was a great orator. Part of it was because he knew what the people of the US needed to hear. But part of it was because that is a message that we need to hear over and over and over:
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

Did you know that phrases like “Fear Not” or “Don't be Afraid” are among the most common statements in Scripture? There was a graphic circulating around Facebook recently that they occur 365 times – one for each day of the year. The reading from Isaiah we just heard is written to people in exile. And God tells them not to be afraid, “I have called you by name, you are mine...I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth”. Whenever something big happens, when the world is about to be changed, God says something like “Fear not for behold I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be for all people....”
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

Some days I think that without fear our media and political systems would break down. News media seem to go out of their way to breed fear – like the station that figured a good way to cover news of a fertilizer plant explosion was to ask people living near a different fertilizer plant if they felt safe. Our political leaders routinely try to make us afraid of what might happen if they can not do what they are proposing. And so we too need to hear the words:
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

Those words still seem overly simplistic. There are things we fear. We worry about what will happen in North Korea. We worry about the sustainability of our congregations – what will happen if a few more families move away. We are afraid that what we have to say may not matter. We are afraid of many things. But as the hymns we just sang reminds us, God says “Don't be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear...and I have promised, promised to be always near”
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

It won't always be easy. God never promised it would be easy (neither did FDR). God says there will be water and fire. But we will not be overwhelmed or consumed. We can live into the changes of the world with confidence, with hope, striding firmly towards the promise.
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

Can we do it? Can we take the leap of faith and live out of love and hope instead of fear? All it takes is faith and trust and we can fly (at least so Peter Pan told us). Do we truly believe that love and hope are stronger than fear and despair? In a world where fear and despair seem to have leading roles, can we claim there is a different way?
...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

Not by ourselves. But with God we can. Thanks be to God.

Looking Forward to May 5, 2013 -- 6th Sunday of Easter

The Scripture Reading this week is Luke 24:13-36

The Sermon title is God Revealed in Bread Broken  

Early Thoughts: The Risen Christ is sometimes hard to recognize. It is sometime hard to see that God is walking along side us.

One of the markers of the appearance stories is that people never seem to know who they are talking to.  It isn't until something happens that suddenly people realize what is happening.  This story is no different.

Strangers on the road.  Chatting with a fellow traveler.  And then at the end of the day God is revealed.   One part of me thinks back to the old show Touched by an Angel.  As the bread was broken and Christ revealed did he start to glow like a cheap lighting effect?

More seriously though....
It is my belief that Easter was not a one-time event.  I think that Easter was and is an on-going event.  Easter is that moment where we realize that Christ is among us, not as a memory but as an active "thing" (person, presence, life-force).  And I think this realization comes to people in a variety of ways.

For the early faith community it appears that one way was through the shared meal.  In Paul's letter to the Corinthian church it appears that the shared meal was an actual meal, not just the symbolic bread and cup that it has become in our worship services.  Something in that meal made the presence of Christ real.  Was it the memory of the Last Supper?  Plausibly that was part of it.  Was it the memory of Jesus' practice of being willing to eat with anybody?  Plausibly.  But for whatever reason the shared meal was and is one of the ways the church has celebrated the presence of the Risen Christ.

And notice what happens after Christ is revealed to the travelers.  They look back over the day and ask "how could we not know?".    Is that our reaction to realizing God has been present and we were clueless?   What is it that reveals God in our midst?   What do we do after that?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking Forward to April 21, 2013 -- 4th SUnday of Easter, Earth Day Celebration

This Sunday is the day before Earth Day.  And so we will use our worship to mark that occasion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 104:1-23
  • Genesis 1:26-31
The Sermon title is Standing on Holy Ground?

Early Thoughts: Scripture is clear that, as the song Take Off Your Shoes says
The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,
from the waters beneath to the heavens above
so take take take off your shoes
you're standing on my holy ground
 The question I have we actually believe that to be true?  How do we show that we believe that to be true?

How are we called to live on the earth?  Where do we find the balance points between all the competing needs on the globe?

This Sunday I invite you to consider those questions.   I invite us to consider how caring for the environment is not only sound financial and social policy but is also sound theology.  And yes that means making choices.  And yes, living in a country that has traditionally been "hewers of wood and drawers of water", a nation whose wealth has traditionally come form rocks and trees and fossil fuels, may well throw a curve into those thoughts.  In the end it is about balance.  So how do we find that balance.

There is a story I was going to use for Children's Time but it is a bit long for that.  So I will use it as a part of the sermon.  Come and hear about After the Beginning (the author, Carolyn Pogue, is the partner of former UCCan Moderator the Very Rev. Bill Phipps). 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Looking Forward to April 14, 2013 -- 3rd of Easter

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 23 (VU p.749)
  • John 21:1-19
The Sermon title is Catch Fish, Feed Sheep 

Early Thoughts: What do you do when the world has been changed?

The 50 days of the Season of Easter (also called the Great 50 Days) is a time when we explore that very question.  OK, arguably the whole church year is when we explore that question but these Sundays when we tell the appearance/resurrection stories the question has a somewhat sharper focus.

This story tells us that Peter's response was to go back to what he knew best.  Yes he had experienced the Risen Christ.  Yes he knew what had happened.  But still, his world had been torn apart, the world had been changed, and he and his friends went back to what they knew best.  After all, there is comfort in the familiar.

And there they meet the Risen Christ again.  Sometimes you just can't escape the changed world.

And the appearance of the Risen Christ in their midst, the presence of God among them, is all about food.  They know he is there through a massive, miraculous catch of fish.  And then he tells Peter to feed his sheep.

Catch fish---remember that memory of the call of Peter and Andrew at the beginning of the story where they were told to leave their nets and become fishers of men.  Feed my sheep, tend my sheep---care for those around you, see that they get what they need, listen to them, pay attention.

Some scholars suggest that this story also serves as a sort of restoration for Peter, whom tradition still refers to as the first Pope.  The threefold questions about love thus serve to counter Peter's threefold denial after Jesus' arrest.  And it is possible, maybe even probable, that this was in the Gospel writer's mind.

But in the Greek there is something more intriguing.  The first time Christ asks the question the word agape is used but Peter responds with phileo.  Both accurately translate to the English word love.  But they are different in degree.  So it appears that Peter is unable to offer what Christ is asking for.  The third time it is asked the question uses phileo.  Christ models that how we care for the people around us is by meeting them where they are at.  This is more important than being right.  This is more important that insisting on "my way or the highway".

Catch fish, feed sheep.  Care for each other, care for your selves.  Meet each other where you are and grow together.  That is one way to react when the world is changed.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Looking Forward to April 7, 2013 -- 2nd of Easter

This Sunday we will join in the tradition (practiced in some places) of Holy Humour Sunday.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-6
  • Psalm 150
  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Sermon title is Give Us to Laughter 

Early Thoughts: What is Holy Humour Sunday?  As this link discusses, it is an old tradition that is being revived.  Or you could read more at this link.

In her hymn based on Psalm 100 Linnea Good writes
Make a Joyful noise all the earth
worship your god with gladness
make a joyful noise all the earth
come to this place with a song
I would say it is equally accurate to change that last word to laugh.

Laughter, they say is the best medicine.  A full fledged belly laugh require us to relax (and also relaxes us), to let down our guard, to lose ourselves in the moment.

God, the Scriptures and the tradition tell us, wants us to be people of joy.  God, also according to the Scriptures, appears to be very foolish at times.  Sarah laughs at the foolishness of being told she would finally have a child when she knew that she was past the age where such things happen.  Paul reminds us that the whole idea of crucifixion and resurrection as basis of faith is itself inherently foolish.

There is a hymn that asks "Give to us laughter".  But I think more often we need to reverse those middle words.  Give us to laughter.  Let us relax.  Help us let go.  Help us appear foolish.  Most of us used to do it far more than we do now.  Why did we stop?  SO come and open yourslef to the laughter of God.

Now I just have to find some good (and church-appropriate) jokes....