Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Religious Holidays in Anchorage

You may have read in the Anchorage Daily News about a new policy regarding certain religious holidays and the scheduling of school activities. If not, a link to the article is here.

The new rules do not mean that school will be out on these new holiday inclusions, but that the Anchorage School District will avoid scheduling activities, like sporting events, on these days. The new list includes Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. They are added to a list which includes New Year's, Orthodox Christmas and Easter, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.

The new holidays may be unfamiliar to some:

Passover is a Jewish celebration, in the springtime, that commemorates the events in Egypt that led up to the Exodus. The name of the holiday comes specifically from the fact that the angel of death "passed over" the houses of the Israelites during the plague which killed the eldest sons of the Egyptians. Passover is a holiday of celebration of freedom and an expression of continued hope about the coming of the Messiah.

Rosh Hashanah is a fall Jewish celebration commemorating the New Year. It is a time to wish happiness and health to everyone you know.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, another autumn Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur is marked by a day (or more) of fasting and expressions of regret for wrong-doing in the previous year. It is a time to try to make amends with family and friends and to forge stronger bonds in relationships.

Eid al-Fitr is a late-autumn/early winter (usually) Muslim celebration marking the end of Ramadan. It is time of celebration to end the fasting, rejoicing in a renewed sense of spiritual accomplishment and thanking God for the help and strength of making it through Ramadan.

Eid al-Adha is a Muslim commemoration celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael. For Muslims, Ishmael, the son of Sarah's handmaiden Hagar, is a significant spiritual figure, believed to be a father of their faith. In Islamic tradition, Ishmael was the son Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice. Eid al-Adha celebrates Abraham's faith and God's intercession.

The recognition of these holidays by the Anchorage School District acknowledges the changing face of our city's religious population. Of course, not everyone in the city falls into the categories of the three Abrahamic faith traditions, but they are the most significant in terms of populations numbers.

There will still be people who may have other spiritual observances that will conflict with school activities and they will have decisions to make. The school district is not required to acknowledge any holidays according to religion, but does so to make things easier for the majority of students.

Is this the right thing to do? Some people argue that Christian students would not get the same treatment in a primarily Muslim or Jewish country. However, I believe that is a strong argument for why we should allow such practices here. Religious tolerance does not mean we have to say all spiritual practices are equal or that all roads lead up the same mountain. In the case of Christians, it can and should mean that we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick and make some allowances for other beliefs because it is what Jesus would have us do. When we do it for the least of these, we do it for Him.

Monday, August 20, 2007

If God is for us (Sermon 8/19)

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 11:49-56

Peace and grace to you from God our Father, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit who Moves Us All.

Oh, Jesus.

Why would you say that?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, but rather division!”
My heart sank when I first read those words and in the past couple weeks I read them over and over.
I like the Jesus who heals. The Jesus who tells stories about blessed peacemakers, prodigal sons and found sheep. Maybe even the Jesus who gets a little angry in the temple and tells people what’s what. Scott said sometimes he likes Jesus to stir things up. I do too… when he does it on Scott’s Sunday to preach.
I don’t know what to do with Jesus the divider. I am sure that’s how his disciples felt when Jesus told them this.
The Jewish community in that time was already well divided. The Pharisees who were concerned about the Scriptures. The Sadducees who worried over the rules. The Zealots who were angry about the Roman occupation. Everyone dreamed that the Messiah would come, would free the Jewish people and would unite them all in his leadership.
Instead, here was a humble man from Nazareth… who told the small band of people who were actually following him as the Messiah that he had no plans for unity, but to divide.
Jesus is already worried by this time about being able to complete his ministry before he dies. He’s trying to warn his disciples about what will happen, but his statement reflects his frustration with the situation. This group of fisherman and animal herders knows how to interpret weather signs, seasonal change, but they don’t recognize the signs of a Messiah. But what does this gospel mean for us?

After looking at the gospel for a long time and waiting for clarity that did not seem to come, I moved onto the other New Testament passage. If the gospel confused me, the passage from Hebrews irritated and furthered confounded me.
I do not want to be tortured or have horrible things happen to me in order to obtain a “better resurrection.” In this whole list of named people, there is one totally upstanding person, one righteous prostitute and several less-than-ideal leaders of Israel. I divide them into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Let’s start with the Good: Samuel the prophet: nothing blemishes his record. From the time his mother Hannah gave him to the temple as a very young boy to when he died during the reign of Saul, he was completely honest with people, lead righteously and was such a exemplar to the faith that Saul even committed the forbidden act of going to a fortune-teller just to have Samuel consulted after the prophet had died. Samuel is a clear witness to our faith history.

Then there’s the Bad: Rahab was a prostitute with her house stuck in the walls of the city of Jericho. Though she might have known many men, Rahab knew enough to recognize the two spies who came from Israel to scout out her city. She hid them in her house, so they would not be killed. In turn, they saved her family when the city was destroyed. Maybe her initial resume seemed spotty, but Rahab did the right thing when no one else had a clue- a shining star in the mantle of faith heroes.

Now we have the Ugly: Gideon, a judge over Israel, was so nervous and unsure that God actually was speaking to him that he tested him not once, not twice, but three times. God set fire to food in front of Gideon and twice made a piece of fleece wet, while the ground around it remained dry. Even so, Gideon was still nervous about doing what God asked and sometimes performed his tasks in the middle of the night so people wouldn’t see him. Some brave, faithful leader…

Then Barak, from Judges Chapter 4. Barak was the general of the Israelite army and when Deborah, the judge of Israel (that’s right! A woman judge!), told him to go forth in battle, he squirmed and said he would not go unless she led him. So, she left her job to lead him on his job, but told him because of his reluctance the largest victory in the battle would go to another woman. A woman named Jael killed Sisera, the leader of the opposing army. Ah, Barak… a moment’s indecision and your glory is stolen by a woman.

Samson- there’s a real man for you. No woman is going mess up his destiny… oh, wait. Samson was dedicated by his parents as a Nazarite, which involved a certain kind of lifestyle and certain prohibitions. Samson pretty much broke them all- he married a foreign woman, he drank wine at his wedding, he touched a dead lion and ate honey from its body and he was generally known for his short temper. Then there was the whole Delilah fiasco.

The saddest story is that of Jepthah. He was the head of a group of rogues and the leaders of Israel came and asked him to fight for them against their enemies. Jepthah said he would. He prayed to God to give him victory and promised he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his victorious return. Sadly, Jepthah’s only child, his daughter, came out to meet her father. Despite prohibitions against child sacrifice, Jepthah did as he had sworn to do because God had given him victory.

Finally, there is David. I have mixed feelings about David. His affair with Bathsheba, his killing of her husband, his abandoning of Israel and the Ark when the city was attacked by his sons,… David, David, David…

Some great cloud of witnesses there. So far we have some colorful faith heroes and a divisive Savior and… some broken windows.

It’s hard to know what to say about the vandalism that occurred this week in church. The damage is shocking and upsetting. It is sad that we are to the level of resignation that we utter the phrase at least they did not do x or y. At the least, this is the result of someone who does not have anything else to do. In the worst, this is malicious action. We all have the question “Why”, but I’m sure how many of us actually want to know the answer.

With all of these thoughts turning over and over in my head this week… divisive Savior, broken windows, sketchy faith heroes… I really felt at a loss about what to say this morning.
In desperation, I turned to the calendar that lists the Scripture passages for each week of the church year. In addition to an Old Testament passage, New Testament passage, a Psalm and a Gospel… there is also a theme mentioned. My eyes widened when I saw this week’s theme…
“If God himself be for me…”

If God himself be for me… who can be against me?

That is a word, like in Jeremiah, a word like a fire that burns in your heart
If God be for us… who can be against us?

The Lord says through the prophet, “Am I God nearby and not a God far off?”
God is a God of this moment and of history,
of this place and of all creation,
Of us and of the people who move against us.

Jesus divides not because he is angry or because division is his desire for the world, but it is a result of who He was and is in the world. There are so many people who believe they are the most genuine followers of Christ, but when we believe we have it right… we get it wrong.
The separation within churches today is sad because it has the potential to harm the Gospel. If we were one united church, we would believe that we did it ourselves. In our brokenness, we are able to come together in organizations like AFACT and make changes in a community, changes for good… because we believe it is what Jesus would have us do and because it is what God is doing through us.

At the AFACT meeting this weekend, we saw a display of over thirty headlines from local media outlets from the past 3 years… headlines that talked about the work AFACT is doing in the community… it was nearly an average of a story a month.
That work together unites people even over differences about ordination, communion, baptism, or the Bible. Our divisions unite us because we know we depend on God to strengthen those relationships and to guide our work.

When God is for you, it doesn’t matter what your history is… God can use you.
Listen… for the voice nearby, for the burning in your heart, for the echo in your spirit.
The person who broke into the church is a witness to our faith. We have not abandoned the building. We have not given up hope. We know that God is for us.

It does not mean that God is against those who trouble us, but nothing this world can present can separate us from the love of God. Jesus goes before us as the perfector of our faith, the faith that God gives us to run with grace and patience the race of faith- living our lives.
God goes before us in the cloud of witnesses who built this congregation, witnesses like Dalia and Betty, whose faith in service we celebrate today.

God roots for us as the current witnesses to God’s power in this congregation and community. God is present for us- here at God’s table and with each other.

Martin Luther says the most powerful words, the only words that matter at the table, are the words “For you.” These are words we should carry away from the table. Words we should say when divisions seem to overwhelm us. When we see the broken windows.

The mystic Julian of Norwich said she heard the Savior say to her: “Sin is here, but all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Do you know how we know that?

Because God has said He is nearby and far away. God unites us in our division. God uses the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for his glory and for the good of his creation.
Because if God is for us… things cannot ultimately be anything but well.
So beloved witnesses to God’s love,
Say to yourselves
God is for me… who can be against me?
Say to your neighbor, “God is for you… who can be against you?”
Say it to your other neighbor.
Let us say it together “God is for us… who can be against us?”
These are words of fire, like those from Jeremiah. Let them burn in your heart.
God is for us… who can be against us?
Witness to it in spite of everything. When you go out these doors, past the broken windows… the message to carry to the world is…
God is for us… who can be against us?


Friday, August 17, 2007

Three Ws

When I was in seminary, there always seemed to be plenty to read and write. There were chapters of the Bible to cover for class, language flashcards to peruse, theology books to plow through and a never-ending stream of pages to pound out on a variety of topics. I do not know why I thought that internship would bring a break from this. While I am doing different reading and writing, it always seems like there is so much of it to do. In considering this situation, I came up with the 3 Ws of internship (or pastoral ministry in general).

First, one waits. I feel like I am constantly waiting. Waiting to have a moment to mull over a new idea. Waiting to get to work and see what's waiting there for me. The ultimate wait is for the Spirit to move. I always feel like I am waiting for a BIG sign to tell me: "Here's what to write. Here's what to say. Here's how this sermon/newsletter/card should read." Yet the clock can tick down to the wire and I'm still waiting.

My second "w" is willing. I had a writing teacher once who told my class, "Everybody thinks if they have the perfect desk, the perfect setting, the perfect cup of tea... that the writing will just happen. Words will flow. It doesn't work that way. Writing is work." It certainly is. You have to be willing to sit down and push through your ideas. I have to be willing to write things down and then throw them away or store them for another writing project. One has to be willing to stare at the blank page, whether in a notebook or on a screen, and force one's self to put words down. It is not easy, but if your job involves writing, you must be willing to accept the amount of work involved.

The third "w" is writing. When I've waited long enough (or too long) and have made myself willing to sit down and try, then the writing begins. The started and stopped sentences. Fingers poised over keys. Finally, the tingle of realization that your idea has begun to crystallize. I can't type quickly enough to put the thoughts down. You pause to change a word choice. Consider an image. Suddenly, I find myself trying to write a conclusion: memorable and affirmative. There is still editing to be done; last minute revisions are almost guaranteed. What needs to be written has been written. There is a sense of release. In addition, there is almost a feeling of over-exposure: someone will read this and have their own opinion. You may hear that opinion or you won't. There's no telling how it might affect. But you have written what you needed to write.

I find myself stacked up with writing that needs to be accomplished: forms for school, essays, learning goals, lesson plans, blog entries, cards, newsletter pieces and sermons. There is not always time to think about these three "w"s, but I believe I cycle through them each time. There is more writing involved with this position than I thought there would be. It's pleasurable, though, because I have clear people in mind to whom I am writing: the people of God at Gloria Dei.

Monday, August 6, 2007

For Such a Time as This

When I was a little girl, I loved to read stories out of the Bible. I know that sounds funny, but I did. I progressed beyond my Bible story book and would read things out of my little New King James that my parents gave me when I was four. Among my favorite stories to read was the story of Esther (found just before Job).
I loved the story of the brave girl who was brought before the King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) and was chosen to be the queen. Her cousin Mordecai told her of a plot by the king's right hand man to kill all the Jews, which would include Mordecai and even Esther herself. Esther gathered all her courage and went before the king to tell him about the plot. The story ends up with a happy ending for the Jewish people (celebrated in the springtime holiday of Purim), but the end is unhappy for Haman (the right-hand man) and his compatriots because they are all killed in a very shocking ending to the story.
I was thinking of a verse from Esther today. When Mordecai tells her of the plot to kill the Jews, she reminds him of the danger in going before the king. Mordecai tells her, "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house that you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else, but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for such a time as this."
I do not believe that everything that happens is in God's plan for us. I believe sometimes our choices and the choices of other people influence our lives in ways we did not and could not expect. Yet I do believe God is with us in triumphs and in perils and has given us many gifts to use in varieties of situations.
Esther was kidnapped from her family and put into a harem to be perused by the king. She was chosen to be queen, which probably put her in a place where it was dangerous to acknowledge her faith practices (dietary regulations, prayers, etc). However, in a time of dire need, she was able to use her courage, her gift of rhetoric and her beauty to save her people.
Sometimes in the face of adversity, tragedy or even celebration, it can be difficult to know what to do or how to help. We have to work to trust God to guide us. When we think of our time and talents as God-given, it makes it hard not to use them toward the needs of the world in such a time as this.