Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Five- The "Fried" Edition

(The Friday Five source is here- a webring of bloggers to which I belong.)

As I zip around the webring it is quite clear that we are getting BUSY. "Tis the season" when clergy and laypeople alike walk the highwire from Fall programming to Christmas carrying their balancing pole with family/rest on the one side and turkey shelters/advent wreaths on the other.

And so I offer this Friday Five with 5 quick hit questions... and a bonus:

1) Your work day is done and the brain is fried, what do you do?
When my brain is fried, I like to do what my friend Anne would call "cook it out". I usually will go home and bake something or make a large pot of some kind of soup, even if I'm not hungry. I can always freeze it or give it away and the mindless chopping, stirring and tasting uses new sections of my brain. I also am an avid penpaller- so I almost always have letters to write. If I'm too tired to write letters, I will decorate envelopes or write some postcards. Sometimes I do a little internet trolling and just read from Wikipedia article to Wikipedia article.

2) Your work week is done and the brain is fried (for some Friday, others Sunday afternoon), what do you do?
I generally consider my work week from Tuesday to Sunday, with a (sometimes) short Saturday break in there. Monday is my day. I like to sleep in (ooooh, 8 am!!) and then make a "luxurious" work-out decision... But when my brain is fried on Sunday night (and fried it usually is), I come home from Confirmation, brush my husband, kiss my dog and pet my teeth and fall into bed. (Or some combination of those verbs and nouns.)

3) Like most of us, I often keep myself busy even while programs are on the tv. I stop to watch The Office and 30 Rock on Thursday nights. Do you have 'stop everything' tv programming or books or events or projects that are totally 'for you' moments?
I don't have television, though I do enjoy a few DVDs from Netflix. I looooooooove to read, so I'm usually involved in a book. A new book from Tony Horwitz, Celia Rivenbark or J. Maarten Troost will usually find me hiding in the bathtub and turning pages as quickly as I can read them. I also have a couple penpals whose letters I answer almost always on the day I receive them. It's fun to read their letters and equally pleasurable to write back. I haven't had a cross-stitch project that totally absorbed me in a couple years. Usually, it's a book. With me, almost always a book.

4) When was the last time you laughed, really laughed? What was so funny?
This is a hard one for me. Not because I don't like to laugh, but I usually find that people laugh at what I say. It's hard, therefore, to remember when I laughed and laughed at something. My favorite laughter moment of all time is the first time I read (there's that theme again) Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. I had tears pouring down my face. I love that book and it makes me giggle even to think about it. The first time I read it, I was at a sushi restaurant, sitting at the bar. I really should have gone home because I was making such a spectacle of myself, laughing and laughing. The evening culminated in me reading a portion of the book to the sushi chefs and all of us joining in on the chorus of "Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me)". Aaaah, good times!

5) What is a fairly common item that some people are willing to go cheap on, but you are not.
Socks. Not fancy, serviceable- just not cheap.

Bonus: It's become trite but is also true that we often benefit the most when we give. Go ahead, toot your own horn. When was the last time you gave until it felt good?
I got the time of a woman's surgery wrong recently and I appeared at the hospital half an hour before she did... at 5:30 am. Whoops.
Seeing the look on her face when I was there to spend a few minutes and pray with her so early in the morning was great for me. I knew it would help her go into her surgery in a good frame of mind and that's all I needed to not think again, all day, about what time I woke up and drove to the hospital. It's moments like that when I feel closest to the understanding of my call and I feel the most privileged to do what I do.

Beatitudes (The Message-Style)

Eugene Peterson's Message Translation usually can give me something to think about, even if I continue to prefer the NRSV or another translation. In working with Matthew 5 for this coming Sunday (All Saints'), I read Peterson's version of these well-known verses for the first time. As always... there's plenty to consider in here.

Matthew 5

You're Blessed
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.

6"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.

7"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.

8"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.

10"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.

11-12"Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Five- Location, Location, Location

This post is about locations. Tell us about the five favorite places you have lived in your lifetime. What did you like? What kind of place was it? Anything special happen there?

First, I have to think about where I've lived for any amount of time: in North Carolina (Lakeview and Raleigh), in Alaska (Nome and Eagle River), in New York (Manhattan-ish), in Connecticut (New Haven), in Pennsylvania (Philly), and in England (Cambridge). Some of these addresses were of much shorter duration than others.

1. Nome, Alaska I moved to Nome just after graduating from college to work for KNOM radio ("Yours for Western Alaska"). I was the deputy news director. I loved living in Nome because it was right on the water (Norton Sound) and it was very small town. I knew people everywhere I went and I could walk almost anywhere I wanted to go. There was always something new to try, learn, experience or complain about. I met my (now) husband in Nome. Living in Nome helped me to come into my own and become the person I felt I really was. I was away from my family and got to establish myself as Julia, with little other connection. Between the personal formation, the tundra exploration, the romantic expansion and so many other things... there's no place like Nome in my heart.

2. Westcott House, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, England I lived in Cambridge for three months in the fall of 2005 when I was an exchange student from Yale Divinity School to the Cambridge Theological Exchange- specifically Westcott House. This was a very hard three months for me because I had expected culture shock (the difference between being American and being in England), but I wasn't prepared for the level of spiritual and liturgical (church-related) culture shock I experienced. Because I knew many Episcopalians, I hadn't really expected the significant difference between Lutherans (ELCA) and the Church of England (Anglo-Catholic). Suddenly I was examining everything I believed in a new and different way. At the time, my experience was painful and frustrating, but then and now I was grateful. Living in Cambridge made me put into words how I felt about my denomination and my country in a way I never had before and might not have... without that experience.

3. Raleigh, NC I lived in Raleigh for two years while I was in college. This was my first "city life" experience. I had a bizarre sort of giddiness the first time I realized the road I was driving on was in the traffic report. (Oh, the things a country girl finds interesting.) Raleigh was my first "grown-up" city and will always have a special place in my heart.

4. Eagle River, AK I live in ER right now and I'm not sure I could move to another Anchorage community. I adore our quiet area and our proximity to so many outdoor activities.

5. Nuka Bay, AK My husband and I own almost 7 acres in Nuka... across the bay from Homer, AK and across the mountains from Seldovia. We hope to build a cabin out there and to live there for some portion of our retirement/sabbatical years. I'm looking forward to this address with all my heart.

I think I might need to follow this up sometime with a post about places I have been or would like to go. When I look at this list, it's representative of places I have lived, but not totally revealing of places that have a hold in my heart.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

To Whom Shall We Go? (Sermon 10/19)

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Once upon a time there were two groups of people. Both groups had a lot of power and they struggled against each other constantly. People got tired of hearing each of them complain about the other because it seemed nothing ever changed.

One group of people was very protective of their country, very interested in national security- if you will. They were also concerned with the lives of the people around them- what people did both in public and in private. This group was considered deeply religious, even though their religious focus sometimes kept them from seeing the forest for the trees.

The second group of people was known for aligning themselves with foreign powers. Their idea of peace came through sacrificing authority to leaders far away. This group was a great supporter of taxation. Even though they weren’t always seen as religious, they developed an interest in religious leaders and issues when it became politically expedient.

I’m sure we all know to which groups I am referring. I am, of course, speaking about the Pharisees and the Herodians. Representatives of these two groups tried to corner Jesus in the gospel passage we read from Matthew today. The Pharisees want Jesus to say paying taxes is lawful. If he does, then they will say he is disloyal to God, seeking to put Caesar above the Creator. The Pharisees are the first group: concerned about their home territory, the lives of people and worshipping God.

The Herodians, then, are the second group. They see Rome as making continued life in Palestine possible. They have been zealous tax collectors. If Jesus says that paying taxes is unlawful, they will know that he opposes Rome and they can denounce him as a traitor to Caesar.

The Pharisees and the Herodians despised each other, but we can see them teaming up here because it is in their interest to trap Jesus. If they appear together, he has to pick the side of one or the other. So they say, “Teacher, we know you are honest and no person seems to be able to influence you. So, let’s hear your opinion… should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Jesus asks them for a coin, which they manage to produce, though it was illegal to have Roman money inside the temple. (That’s why there were moneychangers in the courtyard.) When they show it to him, the coin with the picture of Caesar and the words declaring Caesar, a son of the gods and a high priest… when they show this coin, Jesus, famously, says: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God, the things that are God’s.”

When both parties hear this, they are amazed and they walk away from him. Why was this such an amazing teaching? Is it because Jesus was slippery and confound both groups? Because he could play their game better than they could? Or could it be that he gave an answer to a question they didn’t ask. They asked the wrong question, but he gave the right answer.

Jesus’ words pointed to the reality that both the Pharisees and Herodians knew. Regardless of who is emperor, the level of taxation, the state of the city… they, both Pharisees and Herodians, belong to God. Whatever they have, coins, property, food, clothes… all that they have, all that they are, all that they can be… is God’s.

This is the hinge of history. It’s never about what we can do, to whom we give our taxes, how we vote, or what we accomplish. In the end, we will always come back to the knowledge that God has been at work in our lives and that all we have is because of God.

So, if God is in control… why do we have to do anything? If God’s will is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit, why should we worry about it? Because the kingdom of God is at hand- our hands. God works through us for the good of the world. And we are called to be aware of that work… alert to it… active in it.

You see, God is not up for election. Ever. But when we put anything ahead of God… then we’ve voted. Like the Pharisees, we may think that some details are more important than the larger picture of God’s love for the world. Like the Herodians, we may be willing to offer our souls for the protection of our bodies, our physical safety. Daily, we cast our ballots through things done and left undone… and we forget the One to whom we belong.

And we don’t belong to God in the sense of being God’s possessions or even as creatures of God, whom he now ignores. Isaiah reminds us that God calls us by our name. Even beyond that, God gives us a surname, even before we know who God is. God pursues us and claims us. Through Jesus Christ, the holy Triune God has shared granted us all a last name. We are the people of God. That goes beyond being a Seymour… (other last names).

In a season of constantly being asked about our allegiance, our belonging, our preferences, the gospel passage calls us to remember Whose name we truly have, in Whose group we really belong, Whose mark we have truly received and Whose word we truly believe.

We vote, we pay taxes, we help organizations, we tithe to the church, but in the end… we belong to God. And in the end, belonging to God is not about bumper stickers or ballots, about tithing two percent or ten percent, about church or about state. Belonging to God is about remembering Who has the power- the power to forgive, the power to heal, the power to change and the power to make all things new.

Everyone wants to be on the side that wins. We cannot allow the world to trap us into categories that are too small, like Pharisee or Herodian. Through the living Word of God, we receive faith to believe that our God is the winner, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He has triumphed over princes and principalities, emperors and empires, death and the grave. Nothing can separate us from the love of the God who has given us His own name, through his Son.

While we might be running the race on the winning team, we are not yet to the finish line. When Jesus says, “Render unto God the things that are God’s”- we are challenged. Casting a vote for God, claiming the family name we’ve been given, requires nothing less than everything we have and everything that we are.

God’s everything includes sending the Son into the world that we might believe and have eternal life. God’s everything includes forgiving our shortcomings and offering us a fresh start daily. God’s everything includes sending the Holy Spirit into the world to guide us and all people. God’s everything includes, literally,…everything.

Today’s gospel challenges us to remember just that. That what we think of as going to the government, to the church, or what we keep for ourselves- it all belongs to God. And whether Pharisee or Herodian, whether sick or well, whether rich or poor, whether grieving or rejoicing, whether giving or withholding, we belong to God. We belong to God. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mental Well-Being

Recently, someone brought it to my attention that October is Mental Illness Awareness Month. While I prefer to use the term "mental health", I think the intent is the same nonetheless. Many,many people, around us every day, struggle with mental health issues. They wrestle with depression, they fight suicidal ideation, they give in to inner turmoil, voices and struggles.

Not all mental illness is the publicized image of a homeless person mumbling to himself or a person screaming in a room. From mild depression to disorders of greater magnitude, the likelihood is that each of us will experience some mental struggle in our lives.

What can the faithful do in response? We can respond in three ways: 1) with logic , 2) with compassion and 3) with faith.

We can, logically, encourage and embrace scientific research and investigation into the real causes and solutions to mental illness. We can recognize the legitimacy of psychological disorders and psycho-social illness. We can seek genuine cures and helps- not fades of the moment that may hurt far more than they help. We can educate or support education efforts so that people understand mental health as a organic part of their lives- no different from physical health.

We can, compassionately, seek ways to use our gifts to help those around us whose lives are affected by mental illness. We can sit with a family after a suicide, even in quiet support (which is very different from silent judgment). We can bring food and clothing to homeless shelters and way-houses in our communities, recognizing that some peoples' struggles with mental health render them unable to live life in a way we might recognize. We can forward efforts to end bullying, support legitimate rehab programs and facilities, and refuse to find humorous jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.

Finally, we can, faithfully, pray for our brothers and sisters who struggle with their mental health. We can ask for guidance in the steps above and what we can do that goes beyond those realms. We can make our churches places that people believe they will find help and consolation. We can wrestle with the tension of the world as we wish it would be and the world as it is... and we can meant it when we pray, "Your will be done on earth as in heaven." Then we can dust off our knees and (to paraphrase Rabbi A. J. Heschel) we can pray with our feet, our hands and all else we have.

Chase (Sermon 10/12)

Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

How many of you received a political phone call this week? Did anyone receive more than one call? How do you feel when you get them? Did anyone feel special? Pursued?

Pursue is an interesting word. How many of you feel worried when you hear the word pursue? (Negative connotation) How many of you feel excited or happy when you hear the word? (Positive connotation)

Today’s texts lead us toward thinking about God as our pursuer, which may stir feelings either way depending on how you feel when you think about yourself and God. This time of year in the lectionary cycle, between the end of summer and the season of Advent, the end of the long season of Pentecost, can have some difficult and frustrating texts. Yet, we can easily get caught up in the frightening parts, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, and miss the sections about God’s actions and movements toward us.

Last week, we read about God’s love song for the vineyard. This week, we hear about God’s invitation for all people to His banquet. This is not just a New Testament idea, but one appears in the First Testament as well- this week in Isaiah.

Hear again, the beautiful words of the passage from Isaiah, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all the nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgraces of his people he will take away from all the earth…”

And this passage from Matthew, “The wedding is ready… go…into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

Both of these passages offer glorious description and delicious imagery of the welcome banquet of God to all people in all places. Yet they can be overshadowed by the guest who doesn’t have the robe, the destruction of the city of the ruthless, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. When our minds are overcome by the frightening images, and the stresses of life, we can only more easily think of being chased by judgment, rather than pursued by Love.

The prevalence of that kind of pressure and worry in our lives is what makes the 23rd Psalm one of the most beloved passages in the Bible.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil.
Your rod and your staff comfort me.
You prepare a table before my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I think even saying this psalm together gives us one of the clearest understandings of how the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Even without thinking about the words, when I say this psalm, I feel calmer. Through the uttering of the verses, I begin to absorb the meaning of God’s care for me like a shepherd.

God leads us through pastures and to streams- providing our sustenance, our food and water. God is with us in fear and pain and provides healing for our spirits. God’s rules guide us and His gospel directs us. God’s generosity knows no ends and we have more blessings than we know how to use.

But for God, this is not enough. Though we have all this, we have a feast (a foretaste of the feast to come) and water for washing, we still wander away in our own paths. We, like sheep, go astray.

So God pursues us. In those last lines of the psalm, we usually say, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But God’s grace and mercy aren’t like Mary’s little lamb. The Hebrew word here is better translated as pursue. Surely God’s grace and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.

Grace and mercy are like the servants in the gospel story… finding us wherever we are, pushing us beyond our excuses and steering us constantly back to the feast that waits for us in the Word, in the water and in the wine and bread. We are clothed again and again in righteousness through Christ.

Paul reminds the Philippians, that even in the midst of their struggles, “The Lord is near.” Let’s say that together now, “The Lord is near.” When you hang up from those political phone calls, when the newspaper makes you frustrated, when the money talk makes you worried, when you know you’ve heard it all before: say it again, “The Lord is near.”

The Lord is near- pursuing us with goodness and mercy, clothing us with grace and righteousness. No matter how the world may chase us, the Word of the Lord is sharper, swifter and eternal- pursuing the corners of our hearts and capturing our souls.

Our lessons today tell us that God’s welcome banquet is open for all, a healing and sumptuous feast prepared in true love. God pursues us through His Spirit, in the Word and in the world. Surely, God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all of our days. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Not because of ourselves, but because God will not have it any other way. Amen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What the World needs now

This week marks ten years since Matthew Shepherd was killed in Wyoming for being gay. Not for forcing himself on anyone, for hurting children, for stealing, murdering, or any kind of crime, but for being who he was, other people decided they had the right to kill him.

I've thought a lot about whether or not to post anything regarding this anniversary because I did not want to seem **political**. However, an interview I heard this morning on the radio pushed me over the edge. I listened to an interview with a man who was beaten up this August for being gay.

Why was I worried about seeming to "radical" on my blog? I don't know, since what I am about to endorse should NOT be that shocking.

As a Christian, with my fellow believers in Christ, I am called to this: to love my neighbor as myself.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." Mark 12:28-31

We should be past the spiritual milk stage of needing to focus on "loving ourselves so that we can love our neighbor." We are, plain and simple, called to stand up for the sheer humanity of all people! At the very, very, very least, we are called to stand for the safety of all people.

This isn't about tolerance. This isn't about fairness. This isn't even about sin. This is about the most basic commandments from Jesus Christ. If you love God, you cannot ignore your neighbor.

Our hope is built on nothing less that Jesus' blood and righteousness. For those of us who lean on Jesus' name, we cannot stand by and watch our neighbors fall (or be pushed) into the sinking sand of invisibility, violence and hatred.

Stand up for Jesus. Stand up for the fact that Christ's light shines in all people. Stand up for the fact that God loves and longs for everyone. Stand up and let God's work happen through your hands.