Thursday, February 26, 2015

Backpacks full of stones are heavy. Words for the week, Feb 22 - March 1.

We’re in a focus on forgiveness during Lent at Peace. We're also mostly off the lectionary.
Last week, I preached about the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and was about to be stoned to death in John 8.  Jesus told the crowds ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  One by one, people put their stones down and she was free to go.  Jesus showed compassion for her.  It’s only through God-given compassion that we can forgive one another. 
I told a personal story of forgiveness between my father and me.  For years, I experienced the lack of forgiveness between us like a heavy backpack of stones.  I could always reach in and find an old hurt to hurl at him.  I was always worried that something I’d done would be flung at me.  The burden of carrying all those hurts weighed me down.  When I decided to ask for and offer forgiveness, it was a huge relief.  As we both set our backpack of stones down, we allowed for the past to remain the past and for the future to be something new.
Listen to the sermon here:
This week, I will preach about the decision we all have, in the face of hurt, to choose to harm or choose to heal.  Drawing on two Biblical stories of brothers, Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32) and The Prodigal Son and Older Brother (Luke 15), we’ll see how God’s future comes through healing, not through revenge.  Healing isn’t easy and it can take time, sometimes years.  Throughout the process, God is with us, empowering us, every step of the way. 
  1. In the world, where do you see people clamor for revenge?
  2. If you forgive, is that the same as letting someone off the hook?  Have you ever withheld forgiveness because you were concerned about being fair?
  3. When have you experienced a homecoming like the one the father offers his prodigal son?
Be at peace,
Pastor Sarah

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bye Bye Buy Buy Baby

For Friday date night, my husband and I went to Buy Buy Baby.  We were no farther than the first aisle when I needed to sit in a glider for 20 minutes and take a break. All we'd looked at were cribs but I could see the shelves of stuff threatening ahead.  I was overwhelmed.

How many kinds of bottles or blankets or strollers need to be made available to expectant parents?  How much of my waning energy will be sucked up by researching the difference between car seats or brands of diapers?  And how much is this all going to cost???  We made it through every aisle but we had to stop at the grocery store on the way home. This called for ice cream.

We were demoralized.  It wasn't that the experience made us think we'd be terrible parents exactly.  It's that it's all new landscape and we want to do our best. Having the right stuff seems like it should make the navigation into parenthood easier but the sheer variety of choices just makes it harder.   

After emailing some close friends and family for advice, I quickly learned this is a rite of passage for middle class parents-to-be.  Go to the big box baby store; get totally overwhelmed; feel daunted by the consumerism of this supposedly natural and holy event; eat ice cream.  

It reminds me of when I went into the Peace Corps.  I received a standard packing list for my host country and I began fretting.  I bought tee-shirts and returned them for button-downs.  I couldn't find the perfect dresses so I sewed some myself.  I lost sleep - yes, lost actual sleep - over the question of how much shampoo to pack.  I weighed and reweighed my suitcases a hundred times as I tried to get the perfect 81 lbs of stuff, my sole provisions for 2 years.  

It was not until after I settled into my life in Malawi that I realized how much my stress about stuff was really misplaced anxiety about the transition itself.  After all, people in Malawi live their whole lives with what they can get there.  Duh.  This couldn't have been about the stuff.  It was about my need for control and predictability in a time when everything seemed strange. 

As I fret about baby stuff, I know that it is mostly about trying to control and predict what is uncontrollable and unpredictable: what will happen with our child's life.  All the stuff in the world won't be able to answer that.  It's a faith challenge to trust God, my husband, and myself with the gift we're about to receive. The words of Psalm 23 ring in my ear: "The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need."

We'll do the best we can to prepare, of course.  The lists from our friends have helped tremendously.  Victory! We've actually chosen a stroller and car seat.  People have been generous with hand-me-downs and our stockpile is growing. Plus, we can actually purchase things after the child is born, right?   

A little perspective helps too: most parents throughout time and history haven't had the luxury of such choices.  Our choices mean we're rich.  We have the basics covered: food, shelter, heat, health care.  I can't imagine the anxiety of wondering how we'd provide for this child's most essential needs.  And plenty of people who long for children and have experienced the pain of miscarriage, infertility or drawn out adoption processes would kill for our problem. We're hardly facing a crisis.  

Still, I'll probably feel overwhelmed by stuff again.  When I do, I'll cling to the advice my mother wrote in the face of my buy buy baby panic.

"I don't even know what a bumpo or a boppy are.  What a child needs most is parents who love it and yours already has that."  

It most certainly does.  

Be at peace,

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Words for the week: Feb 1 - Feb 8

From Pastor Sarah
Last week, my sermon focused on 1 Corinthians and the debate over eating sacrificed meat.  Paul pointed out that this raging debate wasn't really about their diets, it was about their witness.  Our actions should always be influenced by the question: Does this action show God's love? 
It's tempting to turn our faith into a morality lesson.  Certainly our faith in Jesus affects our sense of right and wrong but Jesus did not die just so we could get a new set of rules that we would then - because we're human - fail to follow.  No, Jesus showed us something beyond ethics, beyond morals.  Jesus showed us love and love isn't summarized in a list of right or wrong actions. 
Listen to the sermon here.
This week, my sermon will focus on Mark 1:29-39, where Jesus heals illness and casts out demons. As I've prayed and discussed and studied this text, it's become abundantly clear that deeply faithful people have a variety of viewpoints on what is meant by these demons.  We don't know exactly what plagued the people Jesus encountered.  Were they displaying symptoms of what we'd now consider mental illnesses?  Were they epileptic?  Were they possessed by an evil spirit that goes beyond modern scientific explanation?  Does that spirit still enter people's bodies now?  Does it operate on a more communal level?  What is evil anyway? 
I admit that I'm puzzled by what exactly Jesus was doing back then or what the corollary would be for our time.  But I can say this for sure: Jesus was concerned with healing bodies and spirits, individuals and communities.  The healing ministry of Jesus is one that can speak directly into our lives, for as we all know, everybody is in need of healing of some kind.  
  1. When you think about evil and demons, what comes to mind?
  2. Jesus went out in the wilderness to pray.  Is it difficult or easy for you to find time alone to pray?
  3. In what way are you in need of physical healing?  Do you ever feel like you have a demon that needs to be cast out? 
Be at Peace,
Pastor Sarah

Monday, February 2, 2015

Words for the week: Jan 25-Feb 1

From Pastor Sarah
Last week, in a sermon about Jonah, I pointed out that Jonah's pouty response to the Ninevite's conversion reveals something true about all of us:  We find it easier to be righteous when we have a clear enemy.  Or put another way: it's easier to be the good guy when everyone knows who the bad guy is.
When a person you'd written off as unworthy changes, you may have a hard time allowing them to be different than they were before.  Their change means you have to change too.  Since God's mercy extends to the Ninevites, Jonah would have to accept those Niniveites were no worse than he was in the eyes of God.  Now Jonah would have to face them as equals which would mean confronting - yet again - his own shadow side.  He probably just wants to get rid of the fishy smell that lingers on his body and these Ninevites remind him, he's as in need of God's mercy as they are.
Listen to the whole sermon here:
This week, I will preach on 1 Corinthians 8. Paul wrote to a new church as they tried to figure out the rules that would govern their life together.  In their case, at issue is if they should eat meat that had been killed in a sacrifice to idols.  Since we no longer have that struggle, it's a safe, non-emotional case study for us to learn something about how to resolve conflicts within a church.
Churches can so often get polarized into our various camps that we forget that the central reason we are together is because God loves us. Church isn't made up of people who know the most or even who do the best.  We're made up of people equally in need of God's love.  Yes, we need order and rules, but it's love that undergirds them all.  As Paul writes, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
  1. Have you ever been so focused on being "right" that you damaged a valuable relationship?
  2. How would asking yourself "what's the loving thing to do?" change a conflict you are currently in?
  3. What small gift of undeserved love has someone given to you recently?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Last week this week - Jan 18 and 25

Note: each week I send a summary of last week's sermon, a preview of this week's, and discussion questions to our church email list.  I am going to try to also post these on my blog weekly in the hopes they may be useful to others.  Be at Peace, Pr Sarah
Last week, I preached about Samuel, Eli and the courage it takes to follow your calling.  We all are called by God to be part of the on-going project of spreading the good news of Jesus. This takes different forms: volunteering as a Sunday School teacher, being a parent, working a job you find meaningful or being the best neighbor you know how.  All people can serve God wherever they are. To paraphrase Martin Luther, if you're a plumber, be a plumber for God.  

The difficulty is that sometimes when start to see our lives as part of God's calling, it leads us into unknown and scary territory.  We can feel quite alone.  Think of how a lone dancer at an outdoor concert becomes the leader of an all-out dance party.  One person starts, but then a few people have to follow and pull others in.  When we step out in courage, we are tempted to think of ourselves as the lone dancers, but really, we're always followers.  The followers are essential - otherwise there's no party! - but the followers aren't the ones who start it. Jesus precedes us as the first dancer, giving us the courage to get on up and follow to where we hear, deep down, God is calling.  

Listen to the sermon here.

This week the texts are also about calling.  I'll preach about Jonah, that prophet who tried to flee from God's call only to find himself in the belly of a big fish.  You probably know that God rescued Jonah from that fish but you might not know the second half of the story.  "God's word came to Jonah a second time." He went where God had originally instructed and told the people they needed to change, to repent.  

This is a story about second chances.  God gives Jonah a second chance but it's not as if Jonah can now just do whatever he wants.  The second chance is another chance to follow God's will.  That means Jonah has to accept that other people - people who were his enemies - can change just like he has and receive God's mercy.  It's too much for Jonah.  The people repent but instead of rejoicing Jonah becomes angry.  His anger seems ridiculous, until I consider how often I hold onto grudges and refuse to let others change.  Jonah's example challenges us to consider why we get angry when someone else gets a second chance and invites us to ask what we do with the second chances God offers.
  1. Have you ever been angry when someone you didn't think deserved it got a second chance?
  2. Have you ever gotten a second chance?  How did it change you? 
  3. In Jonah, God is portrayed as angry at people's evil behavior.  What do you think God is angry about now?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hold onto Christmas

Hold onto Christmas

My little living room is awash in nativity scenes. Just a five years ago my parents gave me my first one.   Now, I have seven.  I got two new ones last year alone: in Haiti and in Bethlehem.   Each year, it's a joy to rediscover them and prepare for Christmas.

This weekend, they will finally come down. I will pack the Marys and shepherds and donkeys back in their boxes to wait in the basement another 11 months until they take their places center stage again.

This year, I’m toying with leaving out one Jesus when I put the rest away. When I see him, it would serve as a reminder during the gloomy months of January and February that God’s promises came true.  God is with us.  It would remind me to live a Christmas life all year around.

What is a Christmas life?  It’s a life that trusts God can come into the bleakest of situations and transform them.  It’s a life that gives generously toward others in love.  It’s a life that notices the variety of people who bowed down to worship the baby Jesus and tries to build a community to do the same.  It’s a life that recognizes the miracle of God-with-us every day of the year. 

The theologian Howard Thurman wrote this beautiful poem called The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Whenever we do something to remind others (or ourselves) that God’s love is real and life-changing - even if it’s in July - it's as if we sing a Christmas carol. “Joy to the world, the lord is come!”

Blessings on your year-round Christmas.
Be at Peace,

Pastor Sarah

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What shall we cry?

Below are excerpts from my sermon Dec 7 on Isaiah 40. I wrote this having heard from people in my congregation - and experiencing myself - concern, even outrage, but also feelings of powerless as to how to respond to the decisions in Staten Island and Ferguson. What role can I play in the healing of the nations?

Living between "What shall we cry?" and "Here is your God."

"Comfort, comfort my people" says Isaiah.   God comes to us in the wildernesses of our lives through people who offer comfort.  True comfort, however, often requires something besides caring presence: true comfort requires the promise of change

Something very important is happening in our society.  As Christians who believe all people are God's children and therefore equally valuable, we do well to pay attention.

As the Garner and Brown cases have been brought to light, they've also brought new light to the ways, small and large, that racism is alive and well in America.  Some of you have known that for a while.  Some of you can likely add to that testimony. Others of us are just now learning how much the legacy of racism in our society is not just a thing of the past.  I wish it were over and done.  We all do. It goes against our basic Christian values to accept a society rife with racism.
But, as with many of the biggest problems in our lives, many of us feel powerless and confused about what to do. How can we be part of the change that's needed?
When God says, "Cry to the people."  Isaiah says, "What shall I cry?" He too was confused and probably felt powerless.
Feeling powerless is no reason to give up hope.  Isaiah teaches us that we are powerless to do anything in God's name unless and until God comes to us, in our wilderness, and intervenes.  This means that we have to learn to cultivate Godly patience and be honest about the wilderness life we're living.  I don't mean we should sit quietly while we watch others suffer, but if you don't know how to respond (and I confess being in that category), you can be still be faithful and prepare for change, trusting the Holy Spirit to reveal a pathway forward.  I offer these practices:
  1. Pray earnestly and intentionally about prejudice in America and ask for God's help.
  2. Confess.  None of us is free from entanglement in systems of privilege and oppression.  We do well to confess both the ways we've contributed and our befuddlement at how to move forward.  After you confess, know yourself to be forgiven. 
  3. Listen and learn from other people, especially those who testify to the way racism affects them.  Trust the stories, even those that seem unbelievable to you. 
In all of this, we can trust God to act to make a way forward.  Eventually, even in the wilderness, the path became clear. God's freeing activity was made known and Isaiah was able to say with utter clarity: Here is your God. 
Be at Peace,
Pastor Sarah