9/1/19 - Philoxenia - Hebrews 13:1-3, 15-16

Philoxenia

Hebrews13:1-3, 15-16

Emmanuel Baptist Church/FOCUS Joint Worship

September 1, 2019

Rev. Kathy Donley

 

It was 4:00 in the morning. I was in a hotel and I couldn’t sleep.  Looking out the window, I saw people working in the kitchen of a restaurant across the street.  The streets were dark, but the kitchen was lit up and inside it, people were active.   They were preparing breakfast for the strangers sleeping in those dark buildings.

My family and I got to visit  Europe back in May.   We did a lot of touristy things – museums and cathedrals and monuments.   We quickly learned to find the pamphlet racks.  Every major attraction provided printed material to explain and interpret the history or to point out various details about it.  And we learned to look for the English version, because it would be available in about a dozen languages.  On sightseeing busses and canal boat tours, there were guides who spoke English or we were offered headsets translating the narrated guide into our language.   I went to a lot of places.  Places where street signs were often confusing and the money was different and the landscape unfamiliar. My journeys were made easier by the preparations that others made on my behalf.  Preparations that included developing printed materials in multiple languages and  working in the kitchen overnight so that breakfast would be ready when I needed it.

Many people practiced philoxenia on my behalf, although I doubt they called it that.  That’s the Greek word hidden in our Scripture reading today.  It’s in verse 2, but let’s start with verse 1.  “Let mutual love continue.”  The Greek says “Let philadelphia continue.”  We are familiar with Philadelphia, the city of brotherly or mutual love.  The author of Hebrews instructs an early Christian community to keep loving each other, to keep on caring for other members.  In a world which was often hostile to the faithful, mutual support and love was essential for survival. 

Then verse 2 says in English “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers”.  The Greek word, philoxenia gets translated as hospitality to strangers, but it literally means “love of strangers.”   Taken together, the two verses say “Keep on loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.”   

“Keep loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.”  I was the stranger this summer, in foreign countries and several American cities and also in a number of churches.  And I have to say that it was the churches that seemed to need to hear this the most.  No one was ever mean or even rude, but in several cases, it just did not seem that they had prepared to receive strangers. Often the only person who spoke to me was the pastor and sometimes that happened only because I took the initiative.

When you visit a church, you are keenly aware that you are the stranger. It feels as though everyone is watching you, but few people are talking to you. You are self-conscious about whether to sing or not to sing, about taking communion in the style of this community and whether you will break some unspoken rule that all the insiders know.  It takes a lot of courage to set foot in a church community when you are the stranger. 

It takes a lot of courage to set foot in a church community when you are the stranger.  Some of you know this very well, because you have done it in the last few years, when you joined this church or another FOCUS Church, and we are richer for your presence with us. Some of you may have done it just today, and if we don’t recognize you as a newcomer, its because we think you’re a member of one of the other churches.  But I want to acknowledge how hard this is and how important it is for churches to love strangers. Can we offer a round of applause for newcomers who have had the courage to show up among us?

There’s Biblical precedent for being the stranger. Luke’s gospel records the time when Jesus sent seventy people out of their comfort zones into unknown, sometimes unfriendly, communities to seek welcome there, to be an active part of God’s unfolding love.   What Jesus modelled is this:  “They were not called to welcome the stranger; rather they were to be the stranger seeking welcome.” [1]

Did you get that? The early disciples were to be the strangers, the ones relying on the hospitality of others. We have lost that. Instead now we mostly try to be a friendly church, expecting strangers to come to us.  Becoming the stranger ourselves is not necessarily something we embrace, but maybe we should.

I was the stranger, outside my comfort zone, in need of welcome, when I went to Homestead in June. Homestead, Florida is the site of our largest child detention facility. In June, it held about 3000 teenagers who had been separated from their adults when they crossed the border. I went to bear witness.  I went as one seeking to welcome those strangers, but what I experienced was far more than that.

There are two main areas outside the child prison.  One is a gathering space with two awnings as shield from the weather. In this space, people hang out and talk with each other, or attempt to engage the employees, or hold up protest signs. 

The other area, 300 yards down the road, has stepladders where witnesses stand to see over the fence into the yard where the teens come outdoors. They wave and hold up hearts, never protest signs, in their own effort at philoxenia – sending love across the road and over the fence to those traumatized captive strangers.

On my first day, I took my spot on the stepladders.  For about an hour, it was just Mary[2] and me.  When there were no children outdoors, we talked.  Truthfully, Mary mostly talked and I mostly listened.  But then she got to the part about her Baptist relative who was completely opposed to what she was doing and pretty much everything she stands for.  I realized that I had already told her traveling companion that I was a Baptist pastor.  I figured she would hear it anyway and best to hear it from me. Now, you probably don’t know this, but Baptists as a group don’t always have the best reputation. (Before you laugh too hard, I’ll remind you that Christians as a group don’t either.) 

When I said I was a Baptist pastor, I thought she might fall off the stepladder.  She pretty much thought she knew all there was to know about Baptists and little of it was good. Plus the words “Baptist” and “woman pastor” just did not belong together in her universe. But you know what --  she held back her preconceptions and she asked thoughtful, loving questions and allowed herself to accept me for who I was.  By the end, she shook my hand and thanked me for being “real clergy” and “an authentic follower of Jesus.”  I told her I just keep trying to show up.

The second day, I met Becky.  Becky, was a former journalist who recorded mini-interviews with various people on site on her phone.  Late in the day, on camera she asked me how I came to be there and how it related to my work as a pastor.  When she turned off the camera,  she said, "off the record, would you answer another question?"  She said she grew up in Mississippi and she had heard me say earlier that I was a Baptist pastor, and she was having a really hard time believing that could be true.  So, I tried to give her Baptist history and polity in 100 words or less, assuming that I would bore her to death.  But then she  asked if I would say all that again on camera, because otherwise her friends would never believe her. 

Two days in a row. My only two days there so far.  I might have felt like a true Oddball Baptist, a real outsider, but instead I was invited to be myself.  With love and openness, Mary and Becky set aside their own negative experiences with members of my tribe and welcomed me as an individual.

At the end of that second day, one more thing happened. I had met Susan,  but just briefly.  I was heading for car to go home for the night, when Susan asked if she could have a private word with me. We took several steps away from the rest of the group and she hesitantly asked if I would say a prayer for her.  She said that she had only recently become "open to the Holy Spirit" and since she had heard I was a pastor, was it ok for her to ask and would I pray?  So of course I  did, and what a privilege that was!  I do know that when I pray for someone, it’s supposed to be about them, not about me.  But when I thought about this later, I realized that I had been welcomed to the point that my vocational gifts were also sought after by the community.  Loving the stranger also means inviting and accepting what they have to contribute. 

There are a lot of ways to greet people.  We might say “Hello.”  Or “Good Morning” or “How are you?”  In South Africa,  a standard greeting goes like this:

The first person says “I see you.” 

The second person responds, “I am here.” 

“I see you.”  “I am here.”  Isn’t that just lovely?  When we show up as a stranger, isn’t that what we want – to be seen, to be recognized as ourselves.  And to respond “I am here.”  I am fully present, with all my strengths and weaknesses, bringing my whole self into this place. 

“I see you.”  “I am here.” 

There are always strangers arriving at Homestead, some from the next town, some from across the country, and they are always received with love.  The local witnesses are prepared – they provide cold water and sunscreen and a lawn chair and or a stepladder. They patiently answer the same questions they have answered a hundred times. 

On the 123rd day of the witnesses being present at Homestead, something remarkable happened. About 30 teenagers showed up on a mission trip.  Every single stepladder and a few milkcrates were pressed into service, but still not everyone could see over the fence.

So they climbed up onto plastic barricades that stand in front of an unused parking lot.   The teens on the outside of the fence held up hearts and posters and waved to those inside the fence.  They yelled what the witness usually yell.  In English and in Spanish, they said “We see you.  We love you.”  They wanted to do more. 

One of the chaperones brought their van to the stepladder area and blasted the car radio. Soon youth on both sides of the fence were dancing.  Then some got the idea of climbing on top of the van to dance there.  (These were Presbyterian youth.  Go figure.)

And then this happened. [3]

They are yelling, “No estan solos”  “You are not alone.”

Right after this, it started to rain.  The teens on the inside of the fence knew that they would be moved indoors.  So they rushed to get as close to the fence as they could and they yelled and waved back to the teens on the outside. They were ecstatic at the engagement with people their own age.  The skies opened up and it poured, but the youth group stayed at their posts until everyone else went inside. Then youth moved on to their next appointment, but the local witnesses continued to talk about that morning. 

The story was told and retold to every person who arrived for the rest of the day.  Marty, the very first Homestead witness who spends hours there every week, said, “I now know to a certainty that the daily love and encouragement that we shower on our precious children inside the fence has a positive effect. Those kids came all the way from Colorado just to send love to other kids.” Charley is a young woman who left her job to be at Homestead every day.  Charley said, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever witnessed here.”

The local witnesses had been loving strangers on multiple levels for months.  Some were probably tired of newcomer’s questions.  Some were weary and discouraged, verging on burn-out. But they provided hospitality anyway.  I cannot tell you what a morale boost the presence of those Presbyterian teenagers was for them. It was almost as if they had entertained angels.

Sisters and brothers, let us keep loving each other and don’t forget to love strangers too.  Amen. 

 

[1] Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, (Cleveland:  The Pilgrim Press, 2016), p. 18

[2] Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

[3] (At this point, we played a short video clip. It showed a line of teens and sponsors, standing on the plastic barricades and on the roof of the van, repeating one in line in unison, over and over.)

 

8/25/19 - Perfectly Suited - Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 13:10-17

Perfectly Suited 

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17

August 25, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

                                                                                      

During my second year in Divinity School, I had an internship with the Massachusetts chapter of CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a national organization that lobbies for prison reform.  The previous year, I interned in a prison chaplaincy program and had learned a lot of disturbing things about sentencing and incarceration in this country. I was passionate about the need to improve prisons so the working with CURE seemed to be logical next step.

My boss was a Dominican nun named Dot.  I had never met a Catholic nun like her—she wore jeans overalls and lived in an apartment in my neighborhood with another Catholic sister. Sister Dot had been a high school art teacher for many years.  Messy and expressive and easily sidetracked, she fulfilled many of my stereotypes about artists. After retiring from teaching, she went to lead Massachusetts CURE, but to help pay the bills, she also worked a “Color Me Beautiful” consultant.  Do any of you remember “Color Me Beautiful”? It was a system for figuring out what color clothing a person should wear that grouped people into four seasonal types, each with its own sets of preferred colors.  

Sister Dot was a true believer in this system.  She told me at my first supervision meeting with her, “If you’d like to stay a bit late one day, I could drape you.”  I wasn’t really sure what this meant—for all I knew, it was something Catholics did—but I eventually found out that this was the process by which she would diagnose which season I was.  As it turned out, draping was unnecessary. One time, I was sitting in supervision running through my work from the previous week when she suddenly interrupted. “Stop right there,” she said.  “I can’t listen to another word. That sweater is a terrible color for you. Give it to me right now. You are a fall for goodness sake, NOT a spring!”

Sister Dot was not the most likely candidate to lead a statewide lobbying group, and she admitted as such.  She had spent a fair amount of time in prisons and had a very open heart to prisoners and their families. She was passionate and compassionate, but she wasn’t particularly organized or strategic. To her great credit, she knew her limitations.  And yet, she believed that her work with CURE was something God had called her to do. She was convinced of this, not because the job was a good fit for her gifts and aptitudes, not because she was the best person for the job, but because the job was important, that it needed to be done, and she was there to do it.

I didn’t learn a great deal about lobbying that year, but I did learn a LOT about my previously unexamined beliefs about call.  You see, I thought that the way you figured out what you should do with your life, the way you discerned your call, was by figuring out what you were good at doing.  I had taken any number of aptitude tests in school, tests that were designed to identify our strengths and then match those strengths to a series of possible jobs. If you were good with numbers, you were supposed to be an accountant.  If you were good with children, you were supposed to work in a daycare. I understood “call” in the same way. God gave each person gifts. Our call was to use those gifts to do God’s work in the world. Pretty straightforward, right? So, when I encountered someone who really believed she was called to do something she wasn’t particularly expert at, it kind of shook me up.  

Sister Dot is hardly the only one with this experience.  If you read the Bible, you'll discover that just about everyone who gets a call from God feels like there must be someone else better suited for the job.  And here’s the thing: they aren’t speaking out of false modesty. They are being honest with God about their limitations and God doesn’t disagree.  

Consider Moses, for example.  Moses tells God that he can’t be the right choice to challenge Pharoah to free the enslaved Israelites because he has a speech impediment.  God responds by promising that he’ll send Aaron along to help him communicate. Notice that God doesn’t fix Moses speech problem. Nor does God argue with Moses saying, “Oh no, your speech really isn’t all that bad.”  God calls Moses even though Moses won’t perform the task perfectly.

Jeremiah argues God out of calling him to be a prophet.  What’s his excuse? He’s too young. God has such a heavy, serious message for him to deliver to the nation of Israel. Shouldn’t God send someone with more innate authority, someone with a bit more gravitas, someone with a long gray beard and big, shaggy eyebrows?  Jeremiah is sure he is exactly the wrong person for the job, but God calls him anyways. And that story is repeated again and again in the Bible. God’s call is not a reward for a high score on an aptitude test. God’s call will ALWAYS mean facing into our inadequacy--and trusting that God can and will use whatever we have to offer. 

Emmanuel Baptist Church, may I be bold and suggest that your call from God follows this highly recognizable pattern?

There's a statement that often appears in your bulletin and is on your website that says you come together not only to celebrate, struggle and serve, but also to tell the Good News of God's love in the Capital District and around the world.  Really?? Isn't that biting off a bit more than you can chew? I'm not sure how many members you officially have but unless I'm mistaken this is a congregation of around 70 or 80 people. On any given summer Sunday, there are about 40 or 50 people in worship.  And this isn't 40 or 50 people who have a lot of time on their hands. Unless I'm missing something, this congregation doesn't seem to be composed of millionaires. And to complicate matters further, you don't all speak the same native language or come from the same culture.  

And then there's this building--it needs work, Emmanuel, so much so that it could easily consume all of your financial and emotional resources.  The sound system is touchy and the organ occasionally conks out in the middle of a hymn. And then there's your denominational affiliation--here in the Northeast, just about everyone assumes that Baptists are fundamentalists.  All summer, I've had to explain to people who've asked me where I'm working that you're "not that kind of Baptist". I don't mean to be rude, but let's face it: you have issues.

 And yet, it is completely clear to me that you are perfectly suited to tell the news of God's love in the Capital District and around the world.  In fact, I can't think of any group of people better suited to that task. You simply cannot pretend to have it all together. So there's room for the rest of us to fit in between the cracks.  You can't do everything and so there's room for me to step in and offer my own talents or ideas. You haven't worked out all your differences and so there's room for me to be different and still be okay.  These aren't just features of being a small urban church--they are ways to tell the Good News of God's love. They are ways to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

Friends, I know that there are a lot of times when it just feels like too much.  I know there are times when you wonder how to keep this place running given limited time, money, energy of the congregation.  I know that struggle not just because I've gotten to know you, but because that is my personal struggle as well. But as your neighbor, as a citizen of the Capital District and the world, let me just say, please keep it going.  We need you in this city, in this world because we desperately need imperfect people and imperfect buildings and imperfect groups to proclaim God's perfect love.


8/18/19 - So Great a Cloud of Witnesses - Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

August 18, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff

This past Thursday, I had the great privilege of witnessing my nephew Pablo become an American citizen.  Dan's sister adopted Pablo from Guatemala, and as the child of an American citizen Pablo had a right to citizenship in this country, but because he is 16 years old, he still had to go to the Federal courthouse in New York City and take the "Oath of Allegiance".  It was a terrific experience to witness the amazing variety of people who stood alongside Pablo during the ceremony. There have been so many negative comments about immigrants in the news this year that it was a great joy to spend an hour in a room where everyone was welcoming to these new Americans.

One of the surprises of the day was the oath itself.  We had been so focused on arriving at the right building at the right time with the right paperwork that none of us had thought to look up the exact wording of the oath until right before Pablo had to stand and repeat it.  His reaction when we read it to him was, "Wow, that's really old-fashioned!" It began with the declaration that "I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."  This language got me Googling--and I discovered that the Oath of Allegiance is based on a British oath from the 15th century. What's more, the wording has been unchanged since 1929.

That got me thinking.  My maternal grandmother, who was born in Cornwall, England in 1907 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1914, didn't become a naturalized citizen until 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II.  That means that she stood in a courtroom and said the same oath that my nephew said. Dan's maternal grandmother came to this country from Hungary in 1926 and became a U.S. citizen sometime in the 1930's, so she also would have said the same oath.  And my Irish great-grandfather probably said just about the same words, as did Dan's Ukranian ancestors. As Pablo stood with that line of people raising their right hands this week, I found myself imagining my grandmother, and his adoptive great-grandmother, standing behind him with their hands raised.  So many millions of others--some of your ancestors, perhaps--stood in that place. Suddenly the room felt full of witnesses, all of them celebrating the willingness of these people to join in with the dreams and struggles of this country.

Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine your ancestors--biological or spiritual--standing beside you?  Like most of you, I imagine, I tend to think of my family as my “roots”. They are what I have grown up out of, and tending to those relationships is akin to watering and mulching the roots of a tree.  A healthy root system keeps me anchored and stable and allows me to reach out and grow into the open sky.

That’s an image that fits pretty well with our modern American culture, doesn’t it?  We have come from somewhere, from someone, certainly, but we are loath to define our future according to our family’s past.  We kind of like the sense that the future is wide open, undefined, a limitless set of possibilities, a frontier waiting to be explored.  We grow, like the tree, into free and open space. This image of our past helps to explain why "go back to where you came from" is such an insult in our culture.  It doesn't just imply that a person should leave this country and go live in the country where they or their ancestors were born. It also suggests that they are excluded from the forward momentum which is such a valued part of our culture.  We should all be, at all times, going forward. Excelsior!

So what happens when we flip the metaphor on its head?  That’s what the writer of Hebrews does at the end of the passage we read this morning.  The writer reminds his readers about the stories of their ancestors, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Rahab and so on.  These people are spiritual ancestors to all of us, but if the original audience of this letter was primarily Jewish, then they would have been considered family, biological ancestors.  The writer reminds his audience of the faith of these ancestors, and then he declares that all of these people stand as “a great cloud of witnesses” at the end of the race that has been “set before us”.

Instead of imagining our ancestors as our roots, as our origin, this writer says that our ancestors are our destination, where we are headed, at the end of the race, cheering for us as we go, welcoming us as we arrive.  Perhaps some of you can root this metaphor in your own experience. Who here has ever been in a race of some kind—running or swimming or jumping in a burlap sack? If so, you know what it a difference it makes to have people cheering for you at the finish line.  You can be almost out of steam, ready to stop, but when you hear your people cheering for you, you suddenly find the strength to keep going, keep pushing ahead. That's what our lives of faith are like, according to the Letter to the Hebrews. We're moving towards a cloud of witnesses, a collection of faithful people, in time and beyond time.

But nothing is as inspiring as the finish line--which is where Hebrews says Jesus Christ stands, having already finished the race.  When I think of that image, I remember the race for crawling toddlers that we signed our daughter Rosa up for years ago as part of a family fun run.  In that race--which was all of about 100 feet--the parents stood at the finish line and yelling and sang and did little dances just to keep their toddlers moving in the right direction.  Sometimes I imagine Jesus needs to do all of that and more to get me to move!

 Friends, it has become increasingly clear to me that if I am going to avoid getting stuck in some side alley of despair or cynicism or depression, if I am going to stay hopeful and faithful and engaged, I am going to need more strength and wisdom and power and faith than I can generate on my own.  I need help--and I bet you do too. And so I've been holding in mind the diverse collective of people alive and dead who have shown us some light and encourage us as we face the challenges of our lives and times. If I close my eyes I can almost see those people standing alongside me, and Christ himself ahead of me, encouraging me to take one more step and then one more.

Let's imagine that group together this morning!  I invite you to reflect for a few moments and to remember people who have come before you who encouraged you in your life of faith.  Maybe these are people who formed and shaped you as a Christian. Maybe you will recall people in history who have been a model for you of some quality or value that you aspire to in your life.  Maybe those people are Christians--or maybe they embody a faith of a different kind. Call these people to mind and in a minute I'll go around with the microphone and invite you to share a name or two if you'd like..  Then, we'll lift all these names up together with a prayer of thanksgiving.



8/11/19 - From a Distance They Saw - Hebrews 11:1-16

From a Distance They Saw

Hebrews 11:1-16

August 11, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff   

   

Do you ever feel stuck?  

As soon as I ask that question I hear the voice of the professor of the one Pastoral Counseling class I ever took who insisted that the only four human emotions are mad, sad, glad and scared.  He claimed the other words we use are just attempts to avoid those four feelings. And while I think she had a point, lately I've been aware of a feeling deep inside me that is some uncomfortable combination of mad, sad and scared, a feeling that I can best describe as stuck.  

Do you know that feeling?  Sometimes it arises in response to situations when we know that we're caught in a behavior, in a relationship, in a life situation that you know is not good for us, maybe even one that could kill us sooner or later, and yet we feel unable to do anything to change the situation.  There have been times in my life when I've been very aware of that personal sense of stuckness, but for me right now, the looming sense of stuckness I feel comes from our national situation.  

It used to be that when I heard about a mass shooting I felt shocked and horrified.  I remember where I was twenty years ago when the shooting at Columbine High School took place--I walked into a convenience store that had a television hung high on the wall, behind the cashier.  I was surprised when I walked into the store that everyone was still and silent, staring at the television. What a shock to see those images of high school students being evacuated from their high school by a SWAT team.  And I was shocked again when there was a shooting in a church, and when there was a shooting in an elementary school, and when there was a shooting at a music festival. And then there came the day when I heard about another shooting and I wasn't shocked.  And last weekend there were two mass shootings and I wasn't shocked. I knew exactly how it would go--the vigils, the facebook posts, the "thoughts and prayers" and then the silence.  

I used to feel shocked at stories of immigrant parents arrested at their workplace and deported, leaving their families, their children behind in this country.  I used to feel shocked at the sight of arctic ice melting into massive rivers. But now those things don't shock me. I have a different feeling when I hear about or see those things--I feel a sense of stuckness, like our whole country has stumbled into something deep and sticky and we're caught, unable to get out.  Do you know that feeling?  

What's the faithful response to stuckness?  What do we have to offer here on a Sunday morning to people (like me, like you) who walk in here with the feeling that there is no way out of the mess we've gotten ourselves in?

 So, there's nothing like a job interview to focus the mind.  Last month, I drove out to interview with a church in Massachusetts.  A member of the search team asked me a question about how I address social issues in the context of worship--and as soon as she did the "DANGER!" light started to flash in my mind.  I didn't have a good sense of where this congregation stood politically and I knew that whatever I said would be too much for some people and too little for others. So I started in on a long, rambling, vague response about how we need to speak to the issues of the day but we shouldn't just repeat the same complaints and worries that we hear outside of church.  The committee pressed me on this--what, specifically, does the church have to offer that is different from what we get from the rest of the world? "Hope," I found myself saying, "We need to proclaim every single Sunday that there's hope for the world and for our lives."  

This seemed to be enough of a response for the committee who moved on to the next question at that point, but on my long drive home that night, I kept thinking about my answer.  Can churches really talk hope without minimizing the problems that we're facing as individuals and as a nation? I have no interest in telling people that there's nothing to worry about because God has a plan and I'm certainly not going to suggest that we have to endure the sufferings of this world as a test to prove ourselves deserving of God's sweet reward in the by-and-by.  The world needs Christians to do more than "keep on the sunnyside".  

The passage we read a few minutes ago from Hebrews has been a helpful conversation partner as I've continued this conversation in my head.  At the start of the passage, the writer connects faith and hope saying, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen."  In other words, faith connects the world as it should be or could be, with the world we live in, here and now. Without that connection, hope is just wishful thinking, day dreaming, playing "what-if", closing our eyes and blowing out a candle while saying in our head, "I want to win the lottery!".  But if we have faith in God, which is to say, if we trust that there is power at work in the world that is greater than our own, then that other world that we pray for and yearn for takes on a kind of substance because it is based not just on our wishes but on God's promises.

The writer of Hebrews offers as an illustration the story of Abraham who was called by God to leave his homeland and journey to a new land where God promised his descendants would thrive.  Abraham had no concrete evidence that this was actually going to happen--he was propelled in his journey by his faith in God's promise. That doesn't mean that his journey was direct--in fact, it included all kinds of turns and detours.  And it doesn't mean that Abraham never doubted or got impatient or frustrated. He did. But throughout the story of Abraham there is a kind of tug, a pull in the direction of the Promised Land.  

That pull is for me just about the best description of the power of faith that scripture has to offer.  And what's more, that pull is the opposite of being stuck. The author of Hebrews writes that people with faith, "desire a better country".  I have held onto that image this image this week as I feel despair welling up within me in response to more mass shootings, more children of immigrants separated from their parents, more people dying of drug overdoses.  Despair is the voice that says, well this is where we live now, we'd better figure out how to get used to it. But faith reminds me that this world is not where I'm going to settle. This is not my home. My God has promised me, has promised all of us, a world where lions lie down with lambs and no one is hurt or destroyed.

It is powerful to get together with all of you and to say this, to remember this.  But it is easy to forget it once we walk out these doors. It's not enough to know God's promises--we have to embody them, take them to heart.  Our country has started to establish rituals of despair in response to gun violence. We need to even more powerful rituals of hope. When the August Worship Design team met this past Monday, we talked about this.  Our conversation reminded me of a part of the Jewish Friday night Shabbat service when the whole congregation stands up and faces East and sings a hymn called "Lecha Dodi" to welcome the coming Sabbath. "Come my beloved," they sing, "Come, my friend."  Curtis immediately responded, "We should do something like that!" He pointed out that in our reading from Hebrews it says that people saw God's promise from a long way off and greeted it. I love that image and I have been thinking of how to embody it every morning.  How can I tie that string between God's promises and the world that I find myself in today? Maybe I can name that promise and find a way to stand and greet it every morning, even though it feels a long way off.

Shall we do that together?  What words would you put to the promises of God?  Let's stand and greet those things and welcome them in--to our lives, to our church, to our neighborhood, and to this whole hurting world.


7/28/19 - Ask and You Shall Receive - Luke 11:1-13

Ask and You Shall Receive

Luke 11:1-13

July 28, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff


Whenever I hear the passage we just read, especially the part about “Ask, and it will be given to you,” a song starts running through my head. It goes like this:  “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz….” Let’s listen to Janis sing it! [Mercedes Benz]

I love that song, don’t you?  It’s such an outrageous parody of something I think just about every person has done at some point in his or her life, whether or not they actually believe in God.  When we desperately want something, we find ourselves exclaiming, “Please God! Let me pass this test!” “Let me not get a speeding ticket!” “Let the results come back negative!”  Sometimes we try to sweeten the deal by offering something back to God. “If you let me get away with this just one time, I’ll never do it again!”

The practice of requesting things from God may be universal, but so is the experience of having that request go unanswered, or at least not answered in the affirmative.  One of the things we can safely say for sure about prayer is that there is not a clear relationship between input and output. Prayer is not a mechanical process. It is not like putting a quarter in a gumball machine.  We can't always get what we want (and no, we're not going to sing that song too!).

So when Jesus’ disciples ask him how they should pray, why does he tell them to make requests to God?  This is the opposite advice from a lot of directions we hear nowadays from teachers who have been shaped by meditation or contemplative practice. Those teachers talk about letting go of desire, releasing the thoughts that come into our heads about everything we want so that we can move to a more reflective, a more receptive place in prayer. But not Jesus.  He even puts words to our desires: give us food, forgive the things we’ve done wrong, keep us safe. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Why would he say such a thing?  Isn’t he setting his disciples up for disappointment? Isn’t he setting them up for a lifetime of unanswered prayers?

It’s a simple question to ask, but I think the answer is a bit complex because prayer is both expressive and formative, and Jesus is speaking about prayer on both of those levels.  

The hymn we just sung, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus", talks about the expressive quality of prayer--whatever you are feeling, the song says, you can "take it to the Lord in prayer".  When we do that, when we pray whatever is on our hearts, we build our sense of friendship with God. Think about it: in human relationships, we tend to feel closer to people when we are able to express ourselves freely and honestly.  If we feel that another person isn’t open to hearing what we have to say, we find ourselves shutting down, tuning out around them. The same dynamic is present in our relationship with God. If we want to build a sense of intimacy with God, we need to be able to express ourselves to God freely.  The truth is, all of us yearn for things that we don’t have or that are not the case. We yearn for world peace and we yearn for a new car and if we spend a lot of energy censoring our prayers and only sharing those that seem lofty or admirable, we’re inhibiting our hearts connection with God.

But Jesus isn't just telling his disciples to express themselves.  He’s teaching his disciples to pray in a way that will, over time, form and shape them into the kind of people who could actually follow him, not just travel with him, but actually live in his spirit, live in the way that he lived.  The kind of praying he's encouraging isn't just expressive--it's formative.

One clue that Jesus was forming his disciples' hearts with this prayer comes in the paragraph after the words of the prayer.  In order to hear what Jesus is saying, we have to hear them in the right tone. Although we often imagine Jesus to be extraordinarily gentle and serene, the Gospels show that he used provocation, hyperbole, humor and even a bit of teasing to make his points.  He tells his disciples a story here about a man banging on the door of his neighbor in the middle of the night until the neighbor finally gets up and gives the man what he wants. If we hear Jesus tell this story in a serious, didactic fashion, we are left wondering if we can actually make God do what we want by becoming sufficiently annoying.  

But I don’t think Jesus is trying to describe God with this story—I think he’s using a bit of humor to remind his disciples that persistence has value.  We know this from our interactions with people, Jesus says, so why not bring the same value into our communication with God? Underneath this provocative story, there is a gentle acknowledgment that when we pray, we often feel like we are calling out to into the dark.  We often find it hard to sense God’s presence in our prayers, so we begin to wonder if we are just talking to ourselves. Jesus seems to understand that feeling—and he says we should pray anyways. Just keep praying through the dark periods, through the doubting times, through the dry spells.  Keep saying these words, keep showing up to prayer, because in the end, this isn’t just about expressing what you feel or what you think. Prayer in this sense is like practicing a musical instrument or training a dog or learning to bowl or play golf. Only by doing something over and over and over can you ever learn to do it at all.  When we keep praying, even when we feel like we aren't getting anywhere with it, the practice of praying is itself having an affect on our lives. We're being formed by it. 

Share the desires of your heart, share your deepest yearnings with God over and over, year in and year out, and your prayers will be like the stream that carves its bed into stone.  They form in us a disposition of friendship towards God—a feeling that our deepest needs and desires are not irrelevant to God. God will not sleep through them. God will not keep the door locked as we pound on it.  In fact, God desires good things for us. Like the benevolent parent, God wants to give us bread, not a snake.

Do you believe that?  Do you have a relationship with God that is grounded and rooted in trust of that sort?  Or perhaps you would like your faith to be deeper, your relationship with God to be more trusting?  Then take a cue from Jesus here and examine your prayer practice. Don’t just consider how it feels to you or what it expresses.  Consider how you are training yourself by what you practice. You may tell yourself that you will pray more once you’ve resolved some of your doubts or once you have a better understanding of who God really is and how God really acts.  But by waiting for the mood to strike you, you may actually be training yourself to stay out of conversation with God, out of relationship.  

Jesus’ teaching here points in a different direction. Pray these words, he says, and pray them persistently, and you will actually be acting as if God is who I tell you God is—holy and hopeful and compassionate and connected.  Jesus says, pray as if what I tell you is true, and slowly, slowly, your prayers will form you into a person who can step into the kind of relationship with God, the kind of intimacy, the kind of reconciled friendship with God, which is the great, good gift Jesus came to offer us.


Mercedes Benz (Remix by Heather Kirk-Davidoff)

 

Oh Lord, won’t you give me the desire to pray?

To call out to you Lord, all night and all day

So much that I yearn for, so much I could say

Oh Lord, won’t you give me the desire to pray?

 

Oh Lord, won’t you give me a mind that can trust?

If it’s up to me, Lord, I know I’ll go bust!

I’ll count on your presence, if I really must

Oh Lord, won’t you give me a mind that can trust?

 

Oh Lord, won’t you give me a persistent heart?

I tend to give up, Lord, before I can start.

I trust that you’ll hear me if I do my part.

Oh Lord, won’t you give me a persistent heart?

 

Everybody!

Oh Lord, won’t you give me the desire to pray?

To call out to you Lord, all night and all day

So much that I yearn for, so much I could say

Oh Lord, won’t you give me the desire to pray?



7/21/19 - One Thing - Luke 10:38-42

One Thing

Luke 10:38-42

July 21, 2019

Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church

Here's my problem with the story of Martha and Mary:  I can't help but feel like I could have handled the situation much better than Jesus did.  Jesus doesn't take a moment to consider why Martha it is that Martha is distracted by many things at that moment.  Could it be because Jesus has just showed up at her house and she is trying to take care of him and be a good host?  And Jesus didn’t usually travel alone—he may well have shown up at Martha and Mary’s house with his disciples and a number of other people as well.  And it’s not like he was able to phone ahead and let them know he was coming! Wouldn’t you be worried and distracted if thirteen or more people showed up at your house unannounced?  I have a fantasy version of this story where Jesus says, “You know, you’re right Martha. We’ve made a big mess here. How about Mary and I both help you clear these dishes and then we’ll all sit down and talk together.”  That just seems to me to be a better way to manage the work involved with running a household and hosting guests.

This solution to the central problem of the story seems so obvious to me--and the gender and familiar dynamics of the story are so triggering to me--that it is hard for me to hear the spiritual lesson within this story.  If you share some of my struggle, I would suggest reading this story as a kind of parable. As with other parables in the Gospels, Jesus takes the common things in his world and uses them to teach spiritual lessons. Just as he used a lost sheep or a prodigal son to teach his disciples about the world that God intends for them, so too these sisters are illustrating something bigger than just the dynamics in their household.  If this passage is teaching a spiritual lesson, perhaps the push and pull between Martha and Mary is actually a spiritual struggle, one that takes place inside our own hearts.

Let's test that hypothesis by stepping into the story a little bit.  In your programs this morning, I think you'll find a sheet with a numbered list entitled "To Do".  Is this kind of sheet familiar to all of you? Who here makes a to-do list on a regular basis? Let's all make one right now, shall we?   It could be a list of errands you need to run or tasks you need to complete at work this week or calls you need to make or repairs you need to do to your house or all of the above.  Or it could be a list of all the things that you have you feeling worried and distracted, the things that go around in your head when you wake up in the middle of the night. But please note:  on this list, we are going to start with #2. We are going to leave item #1 blank!  

Now that you've started in our your list, let's check in.  How did it make you feel to write this list? Did it relieve stress or create stress for you?  Do you find it distracting to sit in worship with a to-do list like that in front of you (or did you have that list in your head already when you walked in this morning?) Do you want to hurry up and bring this service to a close so that you can get to work on your list?

Now let's consider item #1 on our list.  In the passage we read from Luke, Jesus says to Martha, "You are worried and distracted about many things.  There is need, however, for only one thing." And to illustrate what that one thing is he pointed to Mary. What is the ONE THING that Mary has on her to-do list?  How would you describe her behavior, her attitude, her choices? Now take a look again at the to-do list you just wrote. Find your own words for the ONE THING that Jesus is talking about in this story--and then write it on that top line.  I'll give you a few minutes to do that.  

Would anyone like to share what you wrote down?  How did it feel to put statement in the first spot on your list?  How does it affect the rest of the items on your list?

My bet is that if we take this exercise home, if we actually made out our to-do lists this way, we would discover that paying attention to Jesus like Mary did makes us look at everything else on our to-do list differently.  When we give total priority to the presence and power of God in our lives and in our world, a lot of what we spend our lives doing starts to seem unimportant. It makes a lot of what we worry about irrelevant. It makes a lot of what we devote our time to seem ridiculous.  So, when we have Jesus’ ONE thing as our ONE thing, that isn’t just a way to get all of our priorities in line. It’s makes a lot of our other priorities evaporate.

Once we really hear what Jesus is saying, our busy lives and long to-do lists start to look a little different.  These things aren’t just symptoms of our complex modern lives. Our multiple priorities are a defense mechanism. They are the way we keep Jesus and his call to radical commitment at bay.  Our distractions aren’t an accident of the media or technology—they are protecting us from what we might hear if we really paid attention. I know this habit well. If there’s a difficult conversation I need to have or a complex project I need to really think through, I will often find myself clearing off my desk, answering my email, doing my filing and watering my plants. I tell myself that I’m being productive, that I’m working through my to-do list, but really all I’m doing is avoiding the one thing on my list that will actually ask something of me.

Do you ever find yourself doing that?  What if that isn’t just a bad habit that some of us have?  What if that is actually a pattern that we see replicated within our community, by our country, throughout this world?  What if all the busyness, what if all the distractions that bombards us, are all ways in which we are actively avoiding addressing the things that really matter?

The story we read from Luke this morning describes an incident in the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago in a town thousands of miles away from us.  But this story need not stay so far away. What if the house in the story is inside us, in my heart, in your heart? What if God has come to that house, shown up in your life, become incarnate in your world?  There’s a part of you and a part of me that wants to notice God’s presence, wants to give it our complete attention, wants to learn from it and allow it to shape our lives. There’s a part of us that has been hungering for that kind of spiritual nourishment for years.  But there is another part of us that is so occupied, so busy, and that occupied self won’t even let the hungry self sit for a moment. That occupied self wants to pull everyone in. She wants to engage everyone around with the busyness of the day.

Can we hear the voice of God speaking to us in that moment? 

Heather, Heather, you are worried and distracted by many things.  There is need, however, of only one thing. That One Thing will rearrange the rest of your life.  Are you listening?


7/14/19 - When We're Overwhelmed - Luke 10:25-37

When We're Overwhelmed

Luke 10:25-37

July 14, 2019      

Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church            


Someone needs to say it:  The Good Samaritan got off easy.  

Think about it:  He encountered only one man on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and it was completely clear that the man needed help.  What's more, he knew what kind of help this man needed and he had the resources on hand to provide that help. What he did was kind and compassionate, but it was also obvious.

Where this parable gets confusing for me is in its application to our lives today.  If I were to extend the parable, here's how I would describe my life as I experience it:  The road I walk on every day is lined with people who have been stripped and robbed and left half-dead.  I'm not just talking about the people I see in Albany who are clearly in need of help. I'm thinking of all the wounded people I encounter as I read the newspaper or listen to the radio.  I'm thinking of people I know personally, family members and friends who are struggling. And if that's not enough to overwhelm me, at least once a week someone sends me a link to a Go Fund Me page.  If I click on the link, which I almost always do, I hear about friends-of-friends who are facing really difficult circumstances--they have medical bills that they can't pay, their children need medication that they can't afford, they've lost everything in a fire.  

And that's just the people I encounter.  Imagine that there are endangered species on the side of the road--polar bears and salamanders and monarch butterflies, each left for dead.  Imagine that entire ecosystems are there, gasping for breath. Imagine the ocean, the atmosphere, the entire planet, wounded and unable to ask for the help it needs.  But by the end of each day, I know I've walked by people, places, and things that need my help many more times than the Priest and the Levite in the parable ever did.

How do we walk on a road like that?  Does this parable, this simple story of a man who stops and helps a single injured stranger, have anything to teach us about how we travel a life journey in which we encounter an overwhelming amount of need?

As I've contemplated that question over the past week, it has occurred to me that while I don't find it easy to connect to the Good Samaritan, I do relate to another person in this story:  the lawyer who asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" That is a question that is seeking a limit, a boundary. Jesus has just reminded him of the commandment to love your neighbor and the lawyer wants to define neighbor so that he knows what the limit to that commandment is.  He's asking in order to figure out who is NOT his neighbor because then he's off the hook with having to care for those people.

So, what's Jesus' answer?  Jesus responds with a parable in which the person who stops and helps the person in need is not the person who you would expect.  The priest and the Levite, the people who you would think would know the law the best, walk past. The Samaritan who comes from a group that is understood to be an enemy to the Jewish people is the one who stops and helps.  So, Jesus' answer to the lawyer's desire to limit or define the parameters of care challenges boundaries that everyone listening would take for granted.  Jesus makes it clear that love pushes past boundaries.  It is our desire to clearly define the boundaries of love--not his.  Every time we draw a line to define who we need to care about and who we need to ignore, a line that indicates who matters and who doesn't matter, we'll discover Jesus standing outside our line, standing with the outsiders, asking us as he asked the lawyer, "So who's your neighbor now?"

That's a powerful lesson--but how in the world are we supposed to implement it?  We are limited people with a limited supply of time and money and energy. How are we to handle the unlimited demands we face along our road if Jesus wants to blur every boundary that we might try to establish?  

I've sat with that question all week, and I've come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion.  We can join Jesus in challenging the boundary between neighbor and stranger if we also challenge another boundary which is perhaps even more clearly established:  the boundary between ME and NOT ME. We need to stop thinking only of how I can respond to the world and starting thinking about how WE can respond to the world.  No one can bandage all the wounds of the world on their own, but we can do so much more when we act together, as a community.  

Now, let me be clear.  I'm not talking about writing a check to a refugee agency and then crossing refugees off our mental list and never thinking about them again.  I'm not talking about donating cans of soup to the food pantry and then congratulating ourselves for doing our part to fight hunger. There are ways we can support the work of other people that completely cut off our relationship to either those in trouble or those offering assistance--and we need to guard against our tendency to act this way.

But there are also ways in which we can act as a WE that actually deepens our sense of connection and relationship to others.  I know, for example, that a number of us feel that way about the work of FOCUS, the fifty-year-old organization of Albany area churches that runs the Breakfast Program at Westminster and the food pantry here at Emmanuel.  Whether or not we are currently actively volunteering in one of these programs or serving on the FOCUS board, we have a sense of connection to the work of the organization because we support it financially, we house the programs, we know people who volunteer and people who have benefited from the programs.  We have a sense of US-NESS with FOCUS that I know I value a great deal. Perhaps you have a similar connection to another organization. Or perhaps you know someone who does meaningful work that you cannot do yourself, but you offer support and encouragement and maybe even some financial support to that person or their organization.

The next time you encounter a person or a group or a place whose needs feel overwhelming to you, take a lesson from the other experiences you've had of US-NESS.  Ask yourself how you might connect with someone who is at the front lines of this issue? Is there a way to offer support to that person and/or organization that would build a sense of connection between us?  Could I write a letter of encouragement and mail it along with a financial contribution? Could I commit to praying for that person and their work as well as the people they serve? Perhaps even our act of noticing the hurt of the world, the moment I spend grieving over the sadnessess and cruelties of the world somehow make those who suffer less alone in their suffering.

Friends, it is tempting to read this parable as describing two types of people in the world--those who help and those who don't give a damn.  It is probably much more accurate to say that this parable is about each of us, or all of us. We are people who yearn for limits to the demands that love makes.  We are people who stop and help--but we are at least as often people who walk past. And in the end, we are also the one who has been beaten and is lying on the side of the road.  We have been helped, time and again, in big and small ways. We have been the recipients of grace--God helped us in ways that we could never help ourselves. As the old hymn says, "O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be!"  When we remember this--when we see ourselves as givers and receivers, as healers and as wounded--our hearts become more expansive and love wins.

Thanks be to God!


6/23/19 - A Part of It All - Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

A Part of It All

Genesis 1:1 - 2:3

June 23, 2019

Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church

As of this past Friday, it is officially summer.  Here's a summer memory that floats into my mind this time of year:  It's late afternoon on a hot day and I'm floating on my back in a lake in northern Minnesota where my parents have a cabin.  It's quiet--no boats, no people around me. I'm looking up at the sky which is bright blue with just a few wispy clouds, and I'm thinking about nothing at all.  I'm just in the lake, under the sky, part of it all.  

Do you know that feeling?  That's not a memory of being awed by nature, the way I felt when I first saw the Grand Canyon or Niagara Fall.  It isn't a memory of being surprised by nature, the way I feel when I turn the corner of a road and see a rainbow ahead, or look up and see a bald eagle.  The memory of floating on the lake stays with me for a different reason. I wasn't looking at nature and admiring it. I was in the picture--right there with the sky below and the water beneath.  I felt connected. Or maybe a better way to put it is to say I remembered that I am connected.

Have you ever had an experience like that?  Is there something you've done, something that you regularly do, that enables you to feel deeply connected to the natural world?  I'd love to hear your experience….

Thanks for sharing those stories.  They each illustrate to me an important insight, something we know in our bones, in our guts.  We are part of creation. We may spend most of our days in our heads, more connected to our phones than we are to the world around us, but at the end of the day we are made of the same stuff as the trees and the birds and the moon and the stars.  All day long we are doers and leaders and shapers and performers but at the end of the day, we are creatures. We are God's creation.

Now I do realize that for some people, those are fighting words.  "Creationists", after all, are people who stand in opposition to modern science.  They argue that Genesis 1 should be understood as a literal description of how the world we know came into being, regardless of what archaeology, astronomy or any other scientific study might reveal.  I'm the daughter of a scientist and I'm married to a scientist and so I learned early on that religious people should stay in their lane. We can talk about how to find meaning and purpose, but stay away from making comments about creation.  Better still, don't even use the word, "creation"! We can read Genesis 1 as a fascinating myth but we want to be clear that it doesn't say anything true about US.

But my mind has been changing.  It has become starkly evident that the way we have been living on this planet since the age of industrialization is no longer sustainable.  The oceans, the atmosphere, the fresh water we drink, the ground in which we grow our food are all heavily impacted by human use and abuse. And we're having a hard time facing this challenge head-on.  It seems to me that building a sustainable future for ourselves and our descendents on earth will require us to use every tool we have--scientific and technical tools but also spiritual tools. There is no sitting this one out.  Religious people have to put ourselves back into the conversation.

Which brings us back to Genesis 1.  What if we stopped thinking about the ways in which the story is not true and instead considered the ways in which this story is true, even in light of what we now know through science about the origins of the universe?  What is most true about this story to me is the role that humans play in the story. Human beings do not create the world, Genesis reminds us.  We are part of creation. We are in the same picture, in the same category as the moon and the stars and the plants and the birds.

Maybe this sounds obvious, like seeing ourselves as natural is the most natural thing in the world.  But consider how hard we have worked to see ourselves in a different way. So much of human effort is framed as overcoming nature.  We talk about history this way--we conquered land, we triumphed over the world of germs and disease and wild animals. We harnessed nature with irrigation systems and sails and windmills and domesticated animals and got it to do our will.  

We frame religious history the same way.  When we were cavemen, we worshiped the thunder god and the earth goddess but now we are more enlightened and so we understand that God is an abstract concept above all of the things we can touch and feel.  And when we talk about Jesus, we tell stories about him descending to earth for a short time and then floating away again on a cloud. He is, at the end of the day, a deserter of creation and a forsaker of the human journey.  Our goal as Christians is to join him eventually--somewhere else, away from the toils and snares of the created world.

This trajectory of human history is profoundly and succinctly summarized in one of the great theological works of our time--the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E.  Do any of you remember that movie? It is set at some point in a post-apocalyptic future when the earth has become so contaminated and so full of trash that is no longer habitable by people.  So the people have all evacuated to a gigantic spaceship where they sit in motorized lounge chairs and drink slurpees all day while back on earth a solitary robot is tasked with cleaning things up.  The movie makes it clear that human life, abstracted from the created world, is silly and meaningless. The story ends on a hopeful note, though, because the robot spots a plant starting to grow in the earth's soil and the spaceship lands and the people return and begin to plant and grow things again.

When my kids and I watched that movie ten years ago, I was so struck by the ending I wanted to stand up in the theater and announce, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm am a Christian pastor and if any of you would like to discuss the spiritual implications of this movie, I'll be in the lobby and would be happy to meet."  I was just floored that a children's movie had not only succinctly diagnosed the problem with the story we've been telling about humanity but also pointed to a way forward. We need to stop floating above the world in our spaceships. We need to land, to step out of our technological bubbles and remember that this world is our home.  The future will be built out of what we plant now.  

Friends, this isn't just the story of WALL-E.  This is the Good News of the Gospel. At the heart of the Christian story is this amazing promise:  God has not given up on the world. God loves the world so much that God showed up--shows up--right here among us.  Jesus Christ didn't take his disciples away from earth. He brought them closer to it. He taught them to come close to the people who were struggling with disease and to touch them.  He taught them to find lessons about who God is and what God wants in the plants and the animals around them. He taught them to consider the lilies of the field and to see themselves in some way as created by the same God.  And when he was crucified, when he experienced the worst of what this world has to offer, he didn't quit in disgust. He didn't leave us to our own devices. He came back and stood on the beach and cooked breakfast for his disciples and challenged them to keep loving and caring for all of God's good creation.  We are part of that story--that is who we are and whose we are. Good creatures of a great God.

Can I get an AMEN?


5/26/19 - Building the Movement:  Hooks - Acts 16:9-15

Building the Movement:  Hooks

Acts 16:9-15

May 26, 2019  

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

Just to catch up those of you who weren’t here for worship last week, we were talking about the Christian imperative to throw dinner parties.  Did anyone follow the teachings of Jesus and the model of the early church and throw a dinner party this week?  We actually did have the neighbors over for dinner this week (which was lovely) but I’m still mulling over a dinner we hosted a couple of weeks ago.  A couple we met recently came over with their two grade-school aged kids.  I dragged out an old box of puppets and that gave the adults time for some conversation.  We’re all fairly new to Albany so we talked about where we came from and how we ended up here and soon we were deep into conversations about science and research and public policy.  Eventually, the woman turned to me and said, “So how did you decide to become a minister?”

I get this question so often that I really should have a set answer by now—but I don’t.  Part of my problem is that I don’t have a specific, entertaining story to tell about my call to ministry—no visions on the road to Damascus.  I am also aware that without exploring my questioners’ past experience of church and church leaders, I can’t frame my response in a way that would make sense to them.  And then there’s the issue of vulnerability.  I can feel protective of my faith when I interact with people who are definitely not religious—I don’t really want to pin myself to the wall as “Exhibit A.”

So that night I said what I often say to people I don’t know well:  “That’s a story for another time.”  But afterwards, I kicked myself a little.  Why not talk to these nice people about the things that are most central to my life?  They asked—why didn’t I at least try to answer?

Do people ever ask you why you go to church, or why you’re a Christian?  Do those questions trip you up like they trip me?

When Kathy and Judy and I got together to plan worship for May, Kathy asked a question about the scripture we just read that I’ve been chewing on ever since.  “What did Paul say?” Kathy asked.  “What did Paul say that hooked Lydia?”  The story in Acts tells us that Paul went to Macedonia in response to a dream he had.  In Philippi, he met a group of women who were observing the Jewish Sabbath down by the river.  He strikes up a conversation with one of the women, Lydia, and by the end of the conversation Lydia wants to join the movement that Paul is organizing.  But although the text includes all sorts of intriguing details—the location of this conversation by the river, Lydia’s unusual occupation as a dealer of purple cloth, the town where Lydia is from which is not the town where Paul meets her—it doesn’t say a thing about what Paul said.  It just says they had a conversation and Lydia signed up.  She and her household were baptized, presumably right there in the river.

For those of us who have been to employment workshops where we have been told about the importance of having a good “elevator speech”, this is a frustrating omission.  There’s all sorts of research that suggests that people only pay attention to the first 20-30 seconds of what you say to them (which means of course that I have lost most of you at this point!)  So when you are trying to make a lasting impression, you’re supposed to be able to communicate your most important points in 30 seconds or less.  By the time he talks to Lydia, Paul would have had plenty of time to perfect his speech AND it would have been short.  Why couldn’t it have been included in scripture—at least as a footnote!

Have any of you felt the need for an elevator speech about faith?  Years ago, when I was a young minister in Massachusetts, the denomination I was a part of hired a church consultant named Tom Bandy who was going to come to Massachusetts and help the UCC churches get out of what he called “the spiral of decline”.  I found his trainings to be refreshing—he said things out loud that no one else was saying about how churches needed to change or die.  But at the core of his training was his assertion that every member of a church needed to have an answer to this one question:  What is it about my faith in Jesus Christ that the world cannot live without?

This question caused me all sorts of grief.  I was raised in a very mainstream Presbyterian church in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  We definitely did not spend out time talking to people we didn’t know about how they needed Jesus.  In fact, we never talked about how we needed Jesus.  We didn’t really even talk about Jesus that much—we talked about what he called his disciples to do and we talked about how we needed to get to work doing those things.

So I had to chew on Tom Bandy’s question for a long time.  I had to have some arguments about how the question didn’t really seem like the right one to me.  Couldn’t we answer a more inclusive question?  Why do we need to tell people that they can’t live without Jesus?  And for that matter, why does it have to be about me and my faith?  It seemed extremely egotistical to suggest that the fate of the world depended on something so small and personal as my faith.

But then, I was out one night having a beer with a seminarian I knew and we decided to stop arguing with the question and to try to answer it—just for the heck of it.  I don’t remember what my friend said, but I do remember that I found myself saying, for the first time ever as far as I can recall, that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was essential to my life.  My friend seemed surprised, so I had to keep going.  I said that story expresses something for me about how the power of God is bigger than the power of death.  And that I had seen first hand how easy it is to tear things down, to criticize and mock them.  And yet this story, this strange and supernatural story of resurrection, seems to speak a different language than everything else I hear.  It doesn’t play by the same rules.  It insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is possible to be surprised.  And it makes me feel like hope isn’t something that we have to create for ourselves—hope spring out of life like the tulips—or maybe more like dandilions, impossible to contain or control.

I didn’t even really know that I felt this way until I said it, and then I became self-conscious and aware of how weird I probably sounded.  And my friend and I laughed and changed the subject and went home.  No one wanted to be baptized that night.  No one’s life was changed.  Except maybe mine.  Because I had admitted in public, in a place that wasn’t a church, that the story of Jesus Christ was something I couldn’t live without.  It matters to me personally.

Let me be clear—I didn’t develop my late night ramblings about resurrection into a succinct, 20-second elevator speech.  I didn’t polish it up so I could use it on my church’s marketing material.  Maybe I didn’t even say it again (until now).  I realized that the important thing was not really what I said.  Rather, because I had to say something personal about my faith, I had to let my faith be personal.  I couldn’t just talk about religion in general.  I couldn’t just discuss the activities of my church.  I had to let it come close enough to touch me—and then I had to let someone else come close enough to see that too.

Maybe, in the end, that’s why the content of Paul’s speech isn’t included in this passage from Acts.  What he said didn’t really matter.  He made a personal connection with Lydia, I’m certain, because he told a story that he was personally connected to.  He didn’t pitch anything to her, he didn’t sell anything to her, he just opened his heart to her.

So is it any surprise that in response, she opened her home?  Maybe, in the end, that’s why there’s this theme in the Gospels and in the story of the early church about going over to people’s houses and inviting them to come into your house.  Maybe that is just a way of talking about letting people into your heart.  Letting people come close.  And if that’s what all of this is about, then we start, I think, by letting these stories come close.  Letting Jesus come close.  Letting him in, clearing off the table so he has a place to sit, and inviting him to stay for a while.

5/19/19 - Building the Movement:  Draw the Circle Wide - Acts 11:1-18

Building the Movement:  Draw the Circle Wide

Acts 11:1-18

May 19, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

So as many of you know, I’m new here.  This is just my second Sunday serving as your temporary pastor while Kathy Donley is on sabbatical.  Since I’m still figuring a few things out around here, let me ask:  who in this room belongs to Emmanuel Baptist Church?  Would you raise your hand?  Okay, so how did you know how to answer that question?  Remember, I didn’t ask who is a member of this congregation.  I didn’t ask who serves on the Executive Committee.  I asked who belongs here.  How do you know?  Does it matter to you?

Now, as I understand it, there is an official answer to this question.  Emmanuel Baptist Church is a membership organization.  Some of you have officially joined this church and others of you have not.  As I understand it, the process for joining has changed over the years.  Back in the day, members were required to affirm a congregational covenant.  Judy and Kathy explained to me  when we were planning this service that over time, the congregation began to feel that the covenant was divisive.  Membership in general is not emphasized here as it once was.  You no longer have to join the church to serve on a committee, including the Executive Committee that sets the church’s direction.  This move away from membership has been part of the church’s efforts to be more welcoming, to include new people in decision-making, and to be less “clubby.”

All of this begs the question:  Does membership even matter?  Behind the question of membership is another, deeper one.  Does belonging matter?   Is it part of what you have come here looking for?  Is it part of what you have to offer others?

I think the story we read this morning offers some important insights for this discussion.  The story in its entirety extends over two chapters, and because it includes a vision of a bed sheet filled with animals of all kinds ascending and descending from the sky it can be a little hard to connect with.  On first read, the story seems to be a dietary lesson.  While Jewish law forbade eating certain kinds of animals (such as pigs or lobsters), Peter understands after this vision that he doesn’t have to be bound by those rules anymore. 

But if you read a bit more carefully, you’ll notice that this story isn’t really about WHAT to eat—it doesn’t conclude with an image of Peter enjoying a juicy pulled pork sandwich.  The story is actually about WHO to eat with—and we know this because after Peter has the vision, he goes to the home of some non-Jewish people who have sent for him.  He enters the home and stays with these people and even shares a table with them.  The vision of the bedsheet full of animals is not just a vision of what can be on Peter’s plate—it is a vision of who will be in his community.  (It is a fun imagine of a church, isn’t it?  A bedsheet filled with beasts, reptiles and birds.  Funny that no one has tried to incorporate that imagine into their logo!)

When we make this story all about food, it seems like Peter has to get over something kind of silly, like a child who doesn’t like mayonnaise.  But when we make this story about community, it becomes much more challenging.  And we’re not even talking about community in some kind of loose, civic sense of the term. This is a lesson about the intimate community that happens around your table, in your home.  This isn’t about smiling, waving and being civil—it is about rubbing elbows, passing the salt, hearing someone else chew, telling someone they have spinach stuck between their teeth.

 This is a story about letting people into your house and making room for them at your table.  Which is to say, this is a story about belonging. 

When we talk about the early Christian church as a movement, we imagine an outreach campaign.  We imagine travel to new places, reaching new people, extending the Gospel from the small group of Jews with whom it started until it reached out to the whole world.  But this story pushes back and suggests that belonging, intimacy, table fellowship is at the very heart of what followers of Jesus are called to offer to each other and to the world.  The Christian movement wasn’t just about going out—it was about welcoming in.  It wasn’t just about reaching wide—it was about intimate embrace.

 Is that what it’s still about?  I know this--the world is hungrier than ever for this kind of community.  We can have hundreds of friends on social media but feel lonelier than ever.  This past week I hosted a dinner at Union College where I’m a chaplain that brought together gay and lesbian students with local clergy who serve welcoming churches.  I had no idea if any students would even come, but the room was packed, and each clergy person had a little cluster of students wanting to talk.  There was a young man in my group who explained the reason why he came this way:  “I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background, but I’ve found a great sense of community with the Pride Student group here on campus.  Now that I’m about to graduate, I’ve been thinking about where else I can find real community like this—and I’ve been thinking I should give church a try.” 

His words reminded me of another conversation I had a few weeks ago with a member of a church in Troy where I was doing some consulting.  I asked this person about what lay behind all the time and energy she poured into her previous congregation that had eventually closed.  After some time, she told me about growing up in a family broken apart by her father’s alcoholism.  “I guess I’ve always been yearning to be a part of a real community,” she told me.  “And are you?” I asked, ready to hear great things about the church she had joined a year ago.  “I’ve seen glimpses,” she told me,  “but I’m still yearning.”  When she said this, tears sprang to my eyes because I recognized her yearning as my own.

Friends, the scriptures we read when we gather in this room on Sunday morning are filled with amazing stories of mind-blowing miracles.  God raised Jesus from the dead!  The disciples performed miracles of their own, raising Tabitha from death, speaking in languages they didn’t know, breaking the chains of prisoners. But what did it lead them to do?  They talked with people, went to their houses and sat at their table and ate dinner. 

Is that an anticlimax?  Or is that the greatest miracle of all?  Perhaps the most mind-blowing part of the whole Christian story is the idea that we belong to each other, that we are here for each other.  In Christ, “all things hold together” it says in Colossians.  There is so much in this world that divides us, such strong forces that pull us apart.  How amazing, how powerful it is to have this “ministry of reconciliation” as it says in Second Corinthians.  We proclaim that in truth, we’re not strangers.  We’re not enemies.  We belong to each other.

Of course, it isn’t enough to just say that—we have to live that promise out in our actions, in our lives.  How do we know that we belong?  How do we communicate to others that they belong? 

When the church acts like an institution, it will create a procedure to resolve that question.  Institutions have membership protocols.  They have cards and pins and pledges and ceremonies.  But movements don’t really have time for that.  Movements catch you up and pull you along before you ever had a chance to even decide if you wanted to officially sign on.  So in a movement, we have to certify each other.  We have to make an effort to connect with each other—to look each other in the eye, to touch each other, to go to each other’s houses and to each each other’s food.  Every time we do those things, we tell each other—we belong to each other.

When we were musing about what a “ritual of belonging” might look like at Emmanuel, Kathy and Judy told me that you used to have a tradition of standing together in a circle after communion singing, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”.  At some point, you all stopped doing that because you realized that not everyone knows the words to that song by heart—and not everyone finds it physically comfortable to stand up and sing.  This ritual of belonging had begun to feel like a ritual of exclusion.  But I wonder if we could adapt that practice a bit to make it more inclusive this morning.  Let’s see if we can create a circle that includes a row of chairs that allow some of us to remain seated.  And let’s sing a song the song, “Send Me Jesus” which is call and response—you don’t have to memorize any words!  Let’s make this circle as a way of showing ourselves that this morning, all of us belong here, and that together, we are more than a collection of individuals.  We are an expression of the resurrection promise, the promise that God can make us into more than we ever asked for or imagined.

5/12/19 - Building the Movement: Finding Leaders - Acts 9:36-43

Building the Movement: Finding Leaders

Acts 9:36-43

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff 

May 12, 2019 

 

So as you know, I’m new here.  This is my first official Sunday as your substitute pastor while your actual pastor, Kathy Donley, is on sabbatical.  I’m only going to be here for four months so I really need to get the lay of the land fast.  So, quick question as we start off this morning.  Who here is a leader in this congregation?  Raise your hands, please!  Is that right?  Look around, everyone.  Would you agree?  Are these the authorized leaders—people who have elected leadership positions?  What about the unauthorized leaders?  This question is actually a tricky one, isn’t it?

Here’s another tricky question:  in the story we read this morning from Acts, who is the leader?  Peter is an obvious answer.  Peter is the person who gets called in at a time of crisis.  Peter is the one who has the authority to pray and Peter is the one who has the power to raise Tabitha from the dead.  In fact, this story could even be read as offering proof of Peter’s qualifications to lead the church.  Peter shows that he is Jesus’ successor by exercising the power to resurrect the dead, something that up to this point only Jesus has been able to do.

But what about Tabitha?  She is clearly identified as a disciple—in fact, it is the only time the feminine form of that word is used in the New Testament.  She is clearly someone who the other disciples recognize as important because when she dies the other disciples send word for Peter to “come without delay”.  And what about the group of widows who are gathered around Tabitha’s body when Peter arrives.  Who are these women?  Her friends?  The recipients of her charity?  Or could we even call them her followers?  These women show Peter the “tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made.  Why would they bother to do that?  There is something about the work of Tabitha’s hands that is worthy of admiration.  Perhaps she is exceptionally skilled.  Perhaps she has long been known for her craft because it is sold widely and valued by many. 

There is much in this story that isn’t explained, but that is often how women’s stories are preserved in the historical record.  To hear them, we have to pick up on a few clues and fill in the rest of the story with our imagination.  When it comes to Tabitha, based on a few clues and a lot of imagination, I would suggest that she is another leader of the early Christian movement—a woman who had some measure of power and influence, a woman who had a following.

So if Peter is a leader, and Tabitha is a leader, how did the two relate to each other?  Here’s where our imagination can really run wild, can’t it?  It would be easy to imagine that there would be a rivalry between them.  It would be easy to imagine that when Peter goes to her bedside, he puts on a sorrowful face but inside he is rejoicing, thinking, “Now all these people are going to be on Team Peter!”  But that isn’t what Peter does.  Peter kneels and prays and then turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, get up!”  Tabitha returns to life and in a poignant detail, the text tells us that Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up”. 

This is an important story, friends, an origin story.  This is a story that tells us what the early Christian movement was like.  Peter went to the deathbed of another person who was a recognized leader in the community.  And instead of celebrating the elimination of a possible rival, he made it clear to God and to Tabitha that she was still very much needed.  Peter gave her his hand and helped her up.  “We still need you,” he told her in actions and perhaps in words.  “Let’s do this together.”

It didn’t have to be that way.  Think of all the stories in the Bible that describe a single leader who anoints a single successor.  Think of the kings—Saul to David to Solomon.  Think of the prophets—when Elijah comes to the end of his life on earth, he anoints Elisha as his successor.  These are the stories of the culture that produced these early Christians.  Jesus famously says of Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” a passage that is still used to explain while the Roman Catholic Church is ruled by a single male leader.  But Peter was a leader who extended a hand to another leader.  Just as Tabitha was slipping out the back door of this life, Peter caught her and through the power of God pulled her back.  “Let’s do this together.”

Peter’s actions might have been surprising, but they certainly weren’t unique.  Jesus, after all, called twelve disciples, not one.  And as he traveled around, teaching and healing, he called out other leaders.  “Zaccheus!  I’m going to your house today!” he says to a tax collector who by the end of the meal he shares with Jesus becomes a leader in financial reparations.  Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs in the Geresene region, and then commissions that man to tell the people in his region “the great things the Lord has done for you”.  And as Paul spreads the teachings of Jesus, he doesn’t write to a single leader of a particular church—he writes to the entire community, and sends greetings to multiple leaders in each place.

What are we to make of all of this?  To me, it’s clear that the Christian church in its formative years was a movement, not an institution.  Movements build leadership because they want to build power—they want to tap into lots of people’s networks, draw on lots of people’s ideas and experience.  Institutions consolidate leadership because they want to consolidate power.  They want clear chains of command and unifying statements of purpose.  Which brings us to an interesting question:  Is the Christian church today a movement or an institution?  Is Emmanuel Baptist Church a movement or an institution? 

Maybe there’s a question behind those questions.  Would you rather be a part of a movement or an institution?  And that’s not a trick question—everyone in here supports and benefits from institutions like the State of New York or the University of Albany or the Albany Public School District or the Albany Public Library.  The clear succession of leaders within an institution is part of what gives our world stability and order.  It can be very nice to know that someone is in charge—and it isn’t you!  It can be very nice to know that there’s someone to blame when things fall apart—and it isn’t you!

But that’s not how it works in a movement.  Movements need lots of leaders, people who lead in all sorts of different ways.  Movements generate leaders because they make room for people to contribute their ideas and their energy.  You don’t have to get elected to be a movement leader.  You don’t have to be certified to be a movement leader.  You just have to show up and pitch in. 

Friends, without a doubt, the church that we read about in the Book of Acts is a movement, not an institution.  And while that movement went on to form thousands of institutions, it feels to me like the stories that ground the church, the energy that propels it, and the Spirit that leads it are all about the movement.  And when we get caught up in fretting about the institution of the church—its policies and procedures, its buildings and its budgets—that movement energy is still there like an underground river, flowing and fresh and free.

Friends, I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the church I don’t just want to cry at the bedside as something that I love dies.  The story of Jesus has grabbed hold of my heart because it is the story of resurrection—the story of new life that defies the forces of death.  I am a Christian because I want to be a part of a movement propelled by resurrection energy.  But if I join in with that movement, I know I’m going to be called to be more than a loyal citizen.  Joining a movement means being a leader in my own way, contributing my gifts and adding my energy.  And it means recognizing the leaders all around me—reaching out my hand and helping them up and saying, “Let’s do this together.”

Are you with me?  Are you on board?  Let’s start this now—turn to someone next to you, someone behind or in front of you, extend your hand to them just as Peter did to Tabitha.  Say to them, “Let’s do this together!”

 

 

4/28/19 - Never Forgotten At All - Isaiah 65:17-25

Never Forgotten At All

Isaiah 65:17-25

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley

April 28, 2019

There are all kinds of stories from World War II – stories of rampant evil, stories of self- sacrifice, of courage and stories of resilience. One of the good stories is about the liberation of a POW camp in the Philippines. The prisoners were survivors of the Bataan Death March, who had been held in the most brutal conditions for three long years. Many had died during the long forced march.  Others had died of malnutrition and disease in the camp. Some had been executed.  The survivors had about given up hope.

Then one day in January 1945, 121 U.S. Rangers emerged from the jungle.  After a brief skirmish, the camp guards fled and the gates were thrown open. Recounting this story in his book Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides writes:

Slowly, the awareness that this was a jailbreak was beginning to sink in among the rest of the prisoners. They were reacting with a kind of catatonic ecstasy, numb and inarticulate. One prisoner wrapped his arms around the neck of the first Ranger he saw and kissed him on the forehead. All he could he say was "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!" Alvie Robbins found one prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of one of the barracks, tears coursing down his face. "I thought we’d been forgotten," the prisoner said. "No, you’re not forgotten," Robbins said. "We’ve come for you."

With the help of many heroic Philippinos, the liberated prisoners, sick, weak, frail, made their way all the way back to the Allied lines. Finally they saw an American flag set in the turret of a tank. It wasn’t much of a flag, but for the men it was galvanizing. [POW]Ralph Hibbs remembers that his heart stopped. It was the first Stars and Stripes he’d seen since the surrender three years earlier. "We wept openly, and we wept without shame" [1]

They were free. They were home. They weren’t forgotten at all.

We don’t have the same kind of details about the day when the Israelites were liberated.  They had been in exile in Babylon for 50 years. They thought God had surely forgotten them.  They were so far away from their homeland, the place where they believed God dwelt.  Psalm 137, whose “every line is alive with pain” [2],  remembers that time “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”  . . .  “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” 

The long book of Isaiah moves from the failure and destruction of Jerusalem to its redemption and restoration.  Our reading from chapter 65 is the good part, the restoration, the declaration of a second chance, a newness created by God.  It is addressed to those POWS in Babylon who were liberated and allowed to go home.  They were not forgotten at all. 

Going home was what they had yearned for. Only they came home to discovered a city in shambles, a war-ravaged homeland.  Whatever hope they had clung to in exile must surely have been tested by the reality that greeted them in Jerusalem. 

And into that dismal reality, God envisions a future with a new economy where people live securely in the homes they build and enjoy the fruits of the vineyards they tend;   a future of incredible peace where no one and nothing is ever hurt or destroyed.

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard”  God says.  “They shall not bear children for calamity.” 

I wonder how that sounds  to the mothers in Yemen where 85,000 children have died from starvation and preventable disease during the war there in the last 4 years and another 1.8 million under the age of five suffer acute malnutrition.[3]

“They shall not bear children for calamity.”  It seems like a low bar for most of us with privilege, but surely it is the most fervent hope of every parent in Syria and Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador and Flint.

This passage is the lection from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned to Easter Sunday.  Don’t tell the lectionary police that we’re reading it today instead.  I think it is assigned for Easter because the new Jerusalem seems as fantastic, as unbelievable, to the returning exiles as the presence of the Risen Christ does to Jesus’ disciples. The two readings have in common the idea that God is creating anew, beginning again to accomplish the redemption of the world.

Easter was pretty great wasn’t it? Our worship was wonderful, with some new faces among us and beautiful music and more than one spontaneous alleluia, and the preaching wasn’t awful. But life probably returned to normal by Monday. We saw the death toll from the bombings in Sri Lanka and the mass graves there, and the wars being fought around the world went on and the violence  and injustice. .  The idea that no one or nothing was at risk of being hurt or destroyed ever again probably did not even cross our minds. 

Here we are  -- one week after Easter 2019, 2000 years after the first Easter --  and really not much seems to have changed.  I mean the idea that Resurrection makes a new reality for all of creation is great theology, but it seems kind of long on theory and short on practice. As a Christian pastor, that’s surely not what I’m supposed to say. Some might think its another indication that I really need to go on sabbatical. But as a person who also happens to be a Christian pastor, I don’t want to mouth meaningless platitudes that sound like pie-in-the-sky by-and-by. 

On Friday night, we showed the movie Icebox, about a child from Honduras held by ICE after he crossed the border outside a legal port of entry.   About 60 people showed up to watch it.  About 20 people stuck around for some conversation afterwards. What I heard in that group and in some one-on-one conversations was a sense of outrage that children are being treated this way, a fear that history is the verge of repeating itself with references to the holocaust, and enormous frustration that the systems which people like us expect to work at our behest are not working at all.  Or more accurately, they are working to undermine everything we thought they were set up to support and protect.

If this 2500-year-old text of Isaiah 65 projects an end to violence and war and exploitation of the poor, it would sure be nice if we could get a glimpse of that happening somewhere by now.  All we can see are traumatized children whose future is being destroyed in front of us and we seem powerless to make it stop.  The beautiful passage, which I have always loved, seems to hold out unrealistic hope.  Now I’m not ready to give up on hope, but I don’t want to be a dupe either. 

And then I remember some things. I remember that the people who responded to Jesus’ earthly ministry were the ones whom everyone else had mostly forgotten or ignored, the ones fresh out of future. I remember that “one of the major themes of the Bible is that when people are in real trouble, when people have pretty much exhausted their own resources and concluded that there is no more hope, that they are forgotten, that’s when God shows up.” [4]

I remember that I occupy a place of privilege and that countless faithful people have continued to bear hope with joy in the midst of real suffering, the likes of which I will probably never know.   Perhaps I can try to learn faith and hope from them. 

Cardinal Landazuri was a priest in Latin America during the 1960’s and 70’s.  He was one of many who took a costly stand against the human rights abuses by military juntas.  He said “To carry the cross is not simply to endure the inevitable hardships of life; it is also to accept the sufferings imposed by the struggle against injustice and oppression.” [5]

To carry the cross is to join the struggle.  Jesus carried the cross. He joined our struggle, accepted our sufferings as his own. The proclamation of Isaiah 65 is the long-term vision of a God who enters human history to dispel the forces of death, wherever they are at work, to bring forth healing and reconciliation. Those of us who choose to follow Jesus become part of that long-term plan, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

There was a war in Nicaragua in 1978-79 in which the Sandinistas overthrew the Samozas.  The history is complicated, but the result was the loss of tens of thousands of lives and widespread homelessness and displaced persons. And yet, in 1979, a conference of Christians there recorded a list of signs of resurrection. They wrote:

Some signs of the [presence of God] in the midst of our struggling people have been and continue to be:

The hunger of the poor and oppressed for justice,

Courage,

The presence of women,

The example of unity,

Hospitality and companionship,

The sense of responsibility with which the people has taken up its task of reconstruction, and . . .

the joy, pregnant with hope, that makes the whole people dream of a better tomorrow for everyone and not just for a few.[6]

Two signs of the presence of God, according to those folks in Nicaragua, are the hunger for justice and courage.  I wonder where you might be seeing those signs around you.

Here’s one I’ve seen: Joshua Rubin is a 67-year-old software developer from Brooklyn.  Last year, he drove his RV 2200 miles from New York to Tornillo, TX to protest a tent city set up to house about 4,000 teens separated from their parents at the border.  He was there for 3 months, missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with his own family.  He kept a daily vigil, usually by himself, holding a sign that read “Free Them” or one in Spanish directed to the teens that said, “We are on your side.”  He documented comings and goings of contractors and workers, and the arrivals and departures of children, often at night, on his Facebook page.  Early on he was able to speak directly with the teens, but then black plastic was added to the fence to block that communication. From mid-October 2018, he simply showed up every day to bear witness and report what he saw to his growing number of Facebook followers.  In January of this year, the camp was closed.  It had always been controversial.  It did not close because of his efforts alone, but he called attention to it and kept doing so. One man, with a hunger for justice and the courage to act alone.   Do we dare to call that a sign of God’s presence?

There is a similar child prison in Homestead Florida built a few miles from the Everglades, on an old Job Corps site, on the edge of an Air Force base, where the children are kept in tents and old buildings that were damaged in previous hurricanes.  I call this a prison because the children are not free to leave. Even though they have not been charged with a crime and have not faced a trial for a crime. They are kept in line with threats of delay in their placement with sponsoring families and threats of deportation.  And when they turn eighteen, on their birthdays, they will be handcuffed and transported to an adult jail.   This is a for-profit prison, operated at taxpayer expense, but members of Congress have been denied entry to it, forbidden to see what goes on inside.   This is one of the most blatant manifestations of systemic evil I can imagine.

But here, even here, perhaps especially here, God is at work.  Inspired by Joshua Rubin’s example, people are showing up from all over the country  to keep vigil in Homestead.[7] They are bearing witness with courage and a hunger for justice.  And here’s the thing – every day, when the children are allowed out of doors, every day they turn and look to find those people who are standing outside the fence, on stepladders so they can be seen.  Every day they look to make sure those people are still there, so the children will know they haven’t been forgotten, not forgotten at all.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission (New York:  Random House, Anchor Books, 2001), p. 278, 317.

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (London: Inter-Varisty Press, 1973), p. 459.

[3] http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/blog/2019/04/11/the-war-in-yemen.3557571

[4] The Rev. John Buchanan in his sermon “Born to Set Thy People Free”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2009/120609.html

[5] Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1984, 2003), p. 115

[6] Gutierrez, p.120.

[7] https://www.facebook.com/groups/339957239906299/about/

4/21/19 - Coming Out Singing - Luke 24:1-12

Coming Out Singing

Luke 24:1-12

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Kathy Donley

April 21, 2019

For much of the year 2010, I was in ongoing conversation with the pastoral search committee, finally arriving here as your pastor in August. Earlier that year, several Emmanuelites went on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic. You arrived shortly after a devastating earthquake shook that island. Upon arrival, some of you continued as planned with your work in the Dominican and some of you went to offer help in Haiti.  That was before my time here, but I expect that when you returned, you shared stories of your experiences, what you had seen and heard and the impact it had had on you.

The stories that were told by the media were heart-breaking.  An estimated 3 million people were affected by the quake, nearly one-third of Haiti’s population. More than 160,000 died.  Morgues were overwhelmed by dead bodies.  In the poorest country in the hemisphere, resources were simply inadequate to meet the need.

In the midst of this, a man named Roger went looking for his wife, Ginette. She worked in a bank, which had completely collapsed.  The building had fallen in on top of itself. For 6 days, Roger kept vigil on that site.  For 6 days, he called her name.  For 6 days, under 30 feet of broken concrete, in total darkness, Ginette heard him and responded “I’m alive. Help me.  I’m alive.  I’m alive.”   Even though Roger never heard her, he convinced an excavator to clear piles of rubble. Finally, he found her, still alive. Then it took hours for professional rescuers to stabilize the rubble and extract her. They carefully lifted her out.  And as her body cleared the opening, she started singing!  Parched and frail, her voice still carried loudly enough to be heard through the TV camera.

Buried alive for 6 days.

Pinned down for 6 days. 

Total darkness for 6 days.

But Ginette came out singing.  And the words of her song were “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.” [1]

I can’t get over this story.  I heard it this month for the first time, and trust me, I was skeptical. But I googled it.  And I found film footage of the event and interviews with Roger and Ginette afterwards. So I believe it, but I am still astounded.

Holding on to that astonishment, maybe I can begin to tap into the wonder that the women must have felt when they reached the tomb that first Easter morning.  The four gospel accounts of the Resurrection differ in many ways, but they all agree that the stone was rolled away.  Mark reports that on the way to the tomb, the women had wondered who would move it for them. Estimates suggest that such a stone might have weighed 500-600 pounds or more, so I expect they did wonder how to get it moved.

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” John Updike describes this tomb stone as “not papier-mâché, but the vast rock of materiality.”[2]  This is a rock of substance, a solid rock with heft and weight.  The vast rock of materiality at the entrance to the tomb marks the line between the dead and the living.

The Rev. Calum MacLeod, minister at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland, suggests that in addition to being literally heavy, the stone carries symbolic weight. He says it symbolizes empire, “the Roman empire which placed the stone there after the empire killed Jesus.  And it is also a symbol of religious oppression for it was the religious authorities, the mainline church of the day, who didn’t like Jesus because he broke the rules: he healed on the Sabbath; he ate with people whom society looked down on.”  And finally, McLeod says, “For the women and the disciples, the stone symbolizes the destruction of the hope and potential that was present in the ministry of Jesus, the one whom they loved. The stone marks the end to healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted and feeding the hungry and caring for the poor and welcoming the outcast.”[3]

Like the thirty feet of rubble that trapped Ginette in Haiti, the vast rock of materiality at the entrance to the tomb marks the line between the dead and the living. It bears down, snuffing out the light of hope, suffocating passion and spirit with the frustration of oppression and injustice and the inescapable weight of the finality of death.  The rock at the entrance to tomb marks the line between the dead and the living . . . until the women discover that it is rolled away.

After 6 days, Roger found Ginette under the rubble, still trapped, but alive. Wonder, joy, relief.  He yelled, he whooped, and ran to get more help. He brought water to her.   His sense of urgency was palpable and people rushed to respond.  

After 3 days, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. And the women went back to deliver the message from the angels that Jesus has risen from the dead.  I think they ran back. I think they were probably beside themselves with wonder and joy and relief and simultaneous belief and disbelief.  The weight of the stone was lifted.  Hope and spirit and life returned. . .

Until they told the men. The men thought this story was nonsense, drivel, trash.  The men laughed at the ridiculousness of it. The Bible translators try to soften it. They say “these words seemed to them an idle tale, or empty talk, or a silly story. But the Greek word that Luke uses is direct and offensive. B.S.  That’s what he says.[4] The women deliver their amazing, urgent, joyful, wondrous news and the men say, “What a load of crap.”

If anyone should have believed them, it should have been these disciples, these who were bonded to Jesus and to each other.  If they won’t believe, who will? I wonder if the women heard the men’s ridicule and felt the weight of that stone all over again. I wonder if, in that moment, the heaviness of despair and injustice and rejection by friends just rolled right over them, threatening to crush their spirits, and suffocate their hope.

Sometimes, I think it is that moment where I spend too much of my life. That moment when the weight of poverty and addiction and sin and suffering bear down to crush life, that moment when the rubble seems to be 30 feet deep and no one has the resources to move it, to clear away the hatefulness, the nationalism, the racism and sexism and all the other brokenness of human power-mongering that keeps us trapped in the tomb. That moment when it seems like empire won and keeps on winning.  That moment when oppression  and injustice threaten to overwhelm hope and love forever.

I live too much of my life in that moment, for someone who knows the truth that that is not the whole story. The disciples’ knee-jerk verdict of B.S. is not their ultimate response. Just because someone might respond with “Fake news” when the truth is told, it does not change the truth’s veracity or its power for those who will believe.

This is what confronts us on Easter – the choice between an idle tale or deepest truth.

The vast rock between life and death has been rolled away.  That is the truth. There are forces that would diminish life and yes, they are real and strong for now, but they have been ultimately defeated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.   Idle tale or deepest truth? We must decide.   

The stone has been rolled away.  We have a choice. We can stay on the tomb side where despair and fear and death reign.  Or we can dwell on this side of resurrection, in wonder, amazement, trust and joy.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, pastor at Riverside Church in New York City in the 1980’s, said, “Even if the resurrection cannot be proved, it can be known, experienced, and it can be trusted. Faith anyhow is not believing without proof; it’s trusting without reservation. The resurrection faith is a willingness—on the basis of all that we have heard, all that we have observed, all that we have thought deeply about and experienced at a level far deeper than the mind ever comprehends—faith is a willingness to risk our life on the conviction that while we human beings kill God’s love we can never keep it dead and buried. Jesus Christ is risen, today, tomorrow, every day.”[5]

Resurrection faith is a willingness to risk our lives on the conviction that we cannot keep God’s love dead and buried.

I don’t know what kept Ginette alive and sane and strong for 6 days in her earthquake tomb. But I think surely it must have been resurrection faith which enabled her to come out singing.  And she was singing “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.”   

I don’t know Ginette’s song, but it brings to mind a folk song by Bob Franke which some of you might know – The Great Storm is Over.  If you don’t know the chorus, I’ll teach it to you.  It’s just two sentences repeated.

Alleluia, the great storm is over.    

Lift up your wings and fly!

I’ll sing the verses.  You join in on the chorus. And if my voice is ragged this morning, you can imagine that I’ve just come out from under 30 feet of rubble.

1. The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night,/ The little small child cried aloud in her fright,/ Hush little baby, a story I'll tell,/ Of a love that has vanquished  the powers of hell.

Chorus:
Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!
Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly!

2. Sweetness in the air and justice on the wind / There’s laughter in the house where the mourners have been/ The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes / The standards of death taken down by surprise.

3. Release for the captives, an end to the wars /  Streams in the desert, new hope for the poor,/ The little lost children will dance as they sing,/  And play with the bears and the lions in spring.

4. Hush little baby, let go of your fear,/ The lord loves his own and your mother is here,/  The child fell asleep as the lantern did burn,/ The mother sang on 'til her bridegroom's return.[6]

After 6 days buried alive, pinned down, in total darkness, she came out singing. Singing “Don’t be afraid.  God is here.”

On the third day, they went to the tomb at early dawn. The stone was rolled away and the angels said “He is not in the tomb.  He is risen.”

Sisters and brothers, the great storm is over.

Christ is risen.   Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew3w4kaldgs

[2] https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/seven-stanzas-at-easter/

[3] The Rev. Calum MacLeod in his sermon “Roll the Stone Away”  http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2013/033113.html

[4] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching As Testimony (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) p. 119.

[5] William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Preachers, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010), p. 162

[6] Copyright (C) 1982 Telephone Pole Music Pub. Co. (BMI)
Recorded by Bob Franke on One Evening in Chicago, Flying Fish Records DC

 

4/14/19 - When Terror Stalks - written by Rev. Nathan Nettleton, Victoria, Australia

On Palm Sunday, members of Emmanuel heard the sermon "When Terror Stalks" which was written by the Rev.Nathan Nettleton.  Rev. Nettleton is the pastor at the South Yarra Community Baptist Church in Victoria, Australia. With Nathan's permission,  Pastor Kathy shared the sermon he delivered on the weekend that a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  You may read the sermon in its entirety or listen to it delivered with an Aussie accent at this link:  http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/when-terror-stalks/

4/7/19 - Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices - Romans 12:1-12

Finding Your Mystic:  Listening Behind the Voices

Romans 12: 1-12

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

April 7, 2019

 

Poet John Ciardi says that we are what we do with our attention.  We have been reminding ourselves of that for weeks. We are what we do with our attention. What we look at, what we talk about, what we read, what we consume,  what we pay attention to, gets inside of us and becomes a part of us.

There are powerful forces that run through our lives vying for our engagement, our dollars, our participation.  These forces have power to influence our thoughts and behaviors.  They take up residence inside us, and emerge in slogans like “God helps those who help themselves” or “winning is the only thing” or  “you can’t help those people, they’re just like that” or  “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

We are what we do with our attention.  If we give our attention to those who trade in fear, we will likely become fearful.  If we look for what is beautiful, what is hopeful, then beauty and hope will form us.

I was talking with another pastor recently. He told me about a time when he was attending a regional meeting of his denomination. Someone introduced a resolution asking that churches declare themselves weapons-free zones. It was easily defeated. Pretty quickly, my friend realized that he was surrounded by colleagues who were adamantly advocating for their congregations to be able to carry guns to church. He was astounded that so many Christian pastors were in favor of this.  He was also astounded that no one seemed able to recognize any kind of higher value, like their shared faith or the teachings of Jesus,  to which these church people might appeal to resolve this disagreement.  In his estimation, they were thoroughly captive to the violence and fear of the individual rights culture around them, and they couldn’t even recognize it.

So, Paul pleads with the Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  

“Do not be conformed” This is harder than we might think.  We talk about peer pressure as if it is something faced by teenagers, something that adults have learned to resist.  We say that because we are oblivious to the ways conformity shapes us all the time.

One of the things I’m looking forward to on sabbatical is reading. I used to read all the time, all kinds of things. But all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t reading any more.   And then I realized that I had replaced the practice of reading books or journals with the practice of using social media.   I’m not slamming social media.  I actually learn a lot from it and I connect with people I would not otherwise connect with.  Some of the movie clips and stories that you have most appreciated in worship came to me through social media.  But I started using it because I was doing what the culture around me was doing.  I try now to use it with more intention.  

Being intentional, paying attention to the big and small ways that we invest our time and energy  - that is part of what Paul meant when he said “present your bodies a living sacrifice.”

So what are some of those practices that help transform us?

Listening ranks high on the list. Listening in order to understand first and evaluate second. Listening to God, listening to our own bodies, listening to the groaning of creation, listening to those with whom we disagree.

We each do that listening in different ways.  Some of us simply talk with God, because taking the time to find the words for prayer is a way of paying attention.  Some of us journal because written words make order out of chaos.    Some of you have told me that you are making a point to be in worship every Sunday during Lent  -- that’s a formative practice.  More of us show up for worship on the first Sunday of every month than the other Sundays. That suggests to me that you put importance on receiving communion.  Taking a daily walk or a run is another way to set down your work for a while and listen.  Some of you make a point to do that walk with your spouse, so that you can listen to each other.  These are all spiritual practices.

Spiritual practices are not just things we do routinely.  Transformation can happen when the routine is disrupted.  Our minds can be renewed by exposure to things we don’t  know yet, by saying yes when invited to something we’ve never done before, by intentionally going out of our comfort zones and trusting that God goes there with us.

It is the practice of paying careful attention that can help us discern when not to conform to the world around us. As one scholar says, “ Christians are called to be counter-cultural - not in all respects, as though every single aspect of human society and culture were automatically and completely bad, but at least in being prepared to think through each aspect of life. We must be ready to challenge those parts where the present age shouts, or perhaps whispers seductively, that it would be easier and better to do things that way, while the age to come, already begun in Jesus, insists that belonging to the new creation means that we must live this way instead.”[1] 

Dr. King called Christians to be transformed non-conformists.  In a frequently repeated sermon, he said, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty. . . Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.  The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing.  And this very transformation saves him [or her] from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress. . . . This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.”[2]

 

The poet Mary  Oliver, says 

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

/I do know how to pay attention

 

 Sisters and brothers, may we be the kind of people who pay careful attention.

 

 [1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two Chapters 9-16, (London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004) p. 69.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Fortress Press,

https://transformingcenter.org/2016/01/transformed-nonconformist/

3/31/19 - Finding Your Power: Listening for Healing - Mark 5:24-34

Finding Your Power:  Listening for Healing

Mark 5:24-34

March 31, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev Kathy Donley

Albany, New York

 

We don’t know her name, this woman who dares to approach Jesus.  She is a woman in a male-dominated culture. She is a woman, marginalized because of her sex and also because of her disease, her disability.  She is last and least in the social hierarchy and she knows it.  Somehow she has heard of Jesus.  Somehow she has made it to where Jesus is and she says to herself that if she can just touch the fringe of his robe, she will be well.  For 12 years, she has been ill and increasingly alone and somehow on this day, she gets herself to the crowd and she starts to make her way to Jesus. “If I can just touch the fringe . . . If I can just put one finger on it for just a minute.” 

She may have been afraid, but she found the gumption to get out of bed and get to Jesus.  After 12 years of heartbreaking disappointment, she found the courage to let herself hope that it might just be different this time.  And to believe, that she was worthy of being healed.

On Thursday night, I went to church.  I don’t mean I came to this building.  I mean I had a spiritual experience. If anyone was shadowing me on Thursday, they might have said I went to a concert.  That was what it looked like.  But it was a folk music concert.  Folk is the music of my soul, so on Thursday night, I went to church.

It was Carrie Newcomer.  If you’ve been here on a World Communion Sunday in the last few years, you’ve heard her song “Room at the Table”.  One recent November Sunday, we listened to “Sanctuary”.  And I have shared other songs of hers on occasion. 

On Thursday, Carrie’s first song was “Lean in Toward the Light”.  It made me think of Luke.  Fifty years ago, Luke was barred from ordination because he is gay.   That was a serious wounding in his life, but he refused to accept the message that it offered.  He refused to believe he was not worthy, that his life and gifts did not matter.  Instead, he started a ministry for people like himself whom the church had marginalized because of sexual orientation.  For decades, he offered a place of hospitality, of truth-telling, of healing.  Luke lives in California. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve exchanged lots of stories and questions and answers on-line.  He encouraged me when I was a fledgling pastor.   I thought of Luke, because I introduced him to Carrie’s music some years ago. Recently,   he wrote to tell me about this new song “Lean in Toward the Light” and how much it meant to him.  And then, probably because it was a Thursday and today’s sermon was not yet written, I heard the rest of the concert as if every song was about healing, which it kind of was.

When Mark’s story starts, the woman has been slowly losing her life.  In the Hebrew way of thinking, life was in the blood.  This woman has been bleeding for 12 years.  Her life has been slowly draining out of her.  She has been dying by degrees.

As human beings we are generally fearful of death.  We fear it for ourselves and for those we love.    The woman is afraid that her living death is going to be all there is.  Sometimes we die by degrees in another way. We die a little when we keep silent when we should speak up.  We die a little when we tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal, that it didn’t matter that much anyway, when it really did. We lose the abundance of life   

Frogs are going extinct and polar bears are dying and that matters. Children in America think that lock-down drills are just part of going to school and that’s not OK. Three survivors of mass shootings have died by suicide this month. That matters. Border patrol is now containing hundreds of migrants under a bridge, behind razor wire, in El Paso.  Have you seen that?  It is not OK. 

The woman touches Jesus and he knows it.  He looks around for her and in front of everyone, she has to speak up, has to confess.  She is afraid, even trembling, but Jesus stops everything for her.  The whole truth.  Maybe that means her plan to touch him and be cured.  Maybe it means her story, about 12 years of suffering and loneliness.  Whatever her whole truth is, it is important to her healing, because Jesus pays attention to her, treats her as someone worth his time.   Telling our own truth can be part of our healing as well.  Being able to name what has gone wrong, what has wounded us and the ways that we have failed to fix it, that’s important. 

When the healing comes,  Jesus says that her faith is the source . He doesn’t take credit for healing her himself.   He doesn’t give God the credit.  He says that her faith has made her well. 

The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the best interpretation of what the Bible means by faith is our word, "courage." Faith is not about the brain, it's not about knowledge, it's about the heart, it's about where passion lies in your life. "Where your treasure is, there is your heart." Where your heart is, there is your courage.

Carrie Newcomer’s songs have memorable, beautiful lyrics.  It was not surprising to learn that she also writes poetry.  This is one of her poems about everyday courage.  It’s called “Singing in the Kitchen”

         

My mother sang with full abandon

With the kitchen radio

When she was washing dishes.

She liked the old songs,

And she’d swing her hips,

Sashaying as much as a woman can

When elbow-deep in soapy water.

I would sit on the hardwood steps

Filled with pride and wonderment,

Whispering into my dog’s ear,
With sage five-year-old assurance,
“My mother has the voice of an angel.”

As I recall, my dog agreed.

 

Years later,

Standing side by side on Sunday morning,

I was horrified,

In the way only a teenager can be horrified

When her mother is singing

Loudly and confidently,

Completely and consistently

Off key

In church,

In public,

In front of her friends.

 

But now I understand

That my mother was a cautious soul,

Private and intentional,

And so I am grateful

That she taught me how to hold my little sister’s hand

And look both ways before I cross the street.

But I am also thankful

That either she did not know,

Or she did not care,

That her voice was not smooth or perfectly pitched.

She sang anyway,

Because some things just have to be

Exactly what they are,

And a song must be sung

One way or another.[1]

 

Following Jesus takes heart, takes courage.  Telling our truth, laying bare our deepest needs before God takes courage.  Giving ourselves a real opportunity for something different takes courage.   May we have the heart, the courage to be open to the healing and wholeness God has for us.  “Take heart,  be courageous,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world.”  Amen.

 

 

[1] Carrie Newcomer, “Singing in the Kitchen”  in A Permeable Life, Available Light Publishing, 2013, http://www.carrienewcomer.com

3/17/19 - Finding Your Breath: Listening to Our Bodies - Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

Finding Your Breath:  Listening to Our Bodies

Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

March 17, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY, Rev. Kathy Donley

 

One time a mother was waiting for her 8-year-old daughter to come home.  The child was late, and the mother was getting worried.  Finally, the daughter came home and her mother asked where she had been.  The girl said that she had been at her friend’s house and the friend’s doll had broken.  Her mother said, “oh, did you stay to help her fix the doll?”  The girl said, “No, the doll could not be fixed.  I had to stay and help her cry.”

The little girl was wise.  Some things cannot be fixed.  We could tell ourselves “that’s just the way things are” or we could allow that brokenness to call forth from us sadness and grief and lament and tears.

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. Creation is broken. Paul describes creation as groaning, while it waits for transformation. God’s people share in the eager longing for transformation and we share in creation’s groaning.

We groan when we remember the violence at Mother Emmanuel Church and Tree of Life synagogue and now, we are still groaning at the news of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Words have poured out about the 50 people who died, their aspirations, their loved ones, their final actions. Words have poured out from politicians and religious leaders and ordinary people.  So many words, but also a sense that there is little meaningful which can be said. Even when we attempt to pray, there are no words, just anguish.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that when the circumstances of our lives have overwhelmed us, when the spiritual brokenness of creation seems to overtake our physical bodies, then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit.[1]

We are a wordy people. We read words, write words, hear words, speak words all day long.  We almost always think in words. But there are prayers which lie too deep for words.

A woman named Joanna attended an all-day conference on the biosphere in the 1970’s at the invitation of her young adult children.  She said, “although I learned no new facts, the cumulative effect was devastating. People were talking about the arms race and oil spills and the demolition of the rain forests . . . and it broke through to me somewhere in the middle of the afternoon that this could really be curtains for us all.  I saw this fact so clearly that I didn’t know how I could stand it.”

“For the next year, I lived with despair . . . My grief would break through in unexpected onslaughts.  Working at home at my desk, I would suddenly find myself on the floor, curled up in a fetal position and shaking. . .. the sight of an egret landing by the edge of the marsh or the sound of Bach from a nearby piano would unexpectedly pierce my heart, as I wondered how long it would be before that piece of beauty faded forever.” [2]

It is not always our brains that lead us into prayer.  Often the call to prayer comes from a broken-heart or a full one.  Sometimes it comes as the sucker-punch of shock, outrage, despair or even anger that we feel in our bodies before we can name it.  Part of attending to the inner voice, then, means attending to what our bodies are saying. 

As Frederick Buechner said about tears, “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. . .  a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.   They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where. . . you should go to next.”[3]

The prayers that lie too deep for words, the ones that we pray with our bodies are not always sad or angry.  Some of you might remember the movie Chariots of Fire about Eric Lidell, a Scottish runner who won Olympic gold in 1924.  In the movie, he said, “God made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

That was his body prayer. Our spontaneous body prayer might be joy on an Adirondack peak or the rim of the Grand Canyon.  If we are ever privileged to be present at a birth or a death, it might be indescribable awe.  If we pay careful attention, it might happen when we come home at the end of the day and really look at the beloved family member who greets us.    We might have known one kind of wordless prayer at the news from Christchurch and an entirely different kind of response when we saw the images of thousands of young people pouring into the streets of cities all over the world on Friday to demand justice for the planet. If you saw those pictures and your heart lifted or you found yourself cheering them on, that might have been the Holy Spirit in your body telling you how to pray. 

If the idea of wordless prayer is new to you, let me suggest a possible practice you could try. Breath prayer dates back to at least the sixth century.  It begins with words thought in rhythm with inhaling and exhaling.  At first the prayer was “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” during the inhalation and “have mercy on me a sinner” on the exhale.  It was shortened a couple more time and the shortest form is “Jesus, mercy.”  One word as you breathe in and one as you breathe out. That’s a great simple prayer which you can carry around with you.  And I wonder, if after a while, you wouldn’t even need to think of the words. I wonder if simply attending to your breath would bring you to a place of prayer.   I wonder if we might remember that breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek. I wonder if we might begin to think of breathing as drawing in the Holy Spirit, or taking a deep breath as taking a big gulp of the Spirit. 

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] N. Thomas Wright, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 598.

[2] Sherry Anderson and Patricia Hopkins,  The Feminine Face of God, (New York:  Bantam Books, 1991), p. 54.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, New York:  Harper and Row, 1988.

 

3/10/19 - Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces - 1 Kings 19:9-13

Finding Your Cave:  Listening Spaces

I Kings 19:9-13

March 10, 2019, Rev. Kathy Donley

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY

 

Elijah may be one of the wonder-working prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but his humanity is on full display here. He is a fugitive.  He is on the run, fleeing from Queen Jezebel who has promised to kill him. He hasn’t had much to eat in the last month and now he is hiding in a cave. He is exhausted and weak and afraid.

This cave that he has reached offers physical safety and protection. He can hide there. But it is surely no accident that he fled to this particular cave on Mt. Horeb. Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt.Sinai  --  this is holy ground. It is the place where Moses talked with God and received the ten commandments.  Elijah has come to a place known for encounters with God.

If he goes to this particular place hoping that God will show up, he is rewarded.  Two times, God asks what Elijah is doing there and two times, Elijah gives the same answer.

His answer is “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Maybe Elijah is having a pity party.  Maybe he is a bit preoccupied with his own role, thinking that he is the only faithful person left in the world and they’re going to kill him anyway. 

Maybe he is simply answering God’s question as directly and honestly as he can.

God responds by revealing God’s own self in a somewhat surprising way. There is an earthquake, wind and fire – all natural elements that some might associate with God -- but God is not in them. And after that, God is present. . . present in something hard to translate. The phrase is mysterious.  The familiar translation known to many of us from the King James version is” still, small voice.”   Other possibilities include “a soft murmuring sound” “the voice of a light whisper” and the one we heard this morning “the sound of sheer silence”. This time, God is not in the big, loud events but in the sound of sheer silence.  Whatever the Hebrew actually means, the main point may be to contrast God’s presence with the loudness of the earthquake, wind and fire.

Elijah is certain that God is present in the silence.  We know this because he covers his face.  It is an attitude of awe and respect.  No one, he believes, can look at God and live. 

Elijah finds God in the silence. If God is still to be found in silence, that is a hard truth for some of us.  We live in a noisy world.  Our lives are loud.  Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Our culture teaches us to value fullness – we fill up time with activity.  We fill up our space with stuff.  We fill up silence with sound -- music, radio, TV, podcasts, phone calls.  It seems that every gadget comes equipped with beeps or buzzes or bells these days.  How many electronic sounds do we hear in a day – ringing cellphones, text alerts, doorbells, car horns, that signal the microwave makes when it’s done?  If God is in the silence, how would we ever know?

Silence is often perceived, in our culture, as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Noise and sounds, on the other hand, are associated with productivity and busyness.  We are taught to find identity and value in what we produce, so we seek the noise of productivity.   Instead of washing the dishes in silence, we multi-task—washing the dishes and listening to the news.  We could perhaps enjoy a certain kind of silence within a car driving to work, but instead we are productive, we drive and return phone calls, using a hands-free device as required by law, of course. 

Silence is often perceived as an absence, a lack, an emptiness.  Sometimes we think that if we cannot hear God, God is absent.  But perhaps we need to challenge that assumption. There are empty silences, awkward silences, painful silences.  But there are also pregnant silences, right?  There is the silence of an engaged audience where everyone is so caught up in the action on the stage, that as the saying goes, “you could hear a pin drop.” Sometimes, we have known that quality of silence here, as the Spirit moved among us in the midst of worship. 

In the midst of the silence, God again asks Elijah what he is doing there.  And again, Elijah says, “I have been working hard for you and now I’m the only one left and they want to kill me.” This seems to be Elijah’s prayer – we repeat our prayers sometimes, especially when we need God to understand how afraid we are. And this time, God responds in practical ways. God tells Elijah he is not alone.  There are 7,000 others who have kept the faith.    And God gives Elijah a plan of action.  He is to go back to where he was with directions to anoint three people God has chosen. Elijah does go back, back to the conflict, back to the trouble, back to the risk.  This prayerful encounter with God moves him out of his despondency. His sense of purpose is restored and he takes up his mission again.

That almost makes it sound easy.  For most people, a life of prayer, of intentional listening for God is very difficult.  And we should remember that, even for Elijah, this did not happen in a moment.  Forty days and forty nights elapsed while he was running for his life.  Forty days and forty nights before he heard from God.

Forty days and forty nights is pretty close to the timeframe between now and Easter.  It might be enough time for us to learn to cultivate silence, to carve out a place in our noisy world where we can listen for God.  That is our invitation, our discipline this season.   We trust that there is great faithfulness in listening deeply in wonder and silence.  We are what we do with our attention. Silence is pregnant with the presence of God. May we choose to pay attention. Amen.