Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dry Bones (sermon draft)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of God came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of God; thus says the Holy One to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Holy One: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Holy One: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am God, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Holy One, have spoken and will act,” says our God.

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young ones shall see visions, and your old ones shall dream dreams. Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of God’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved.’

Namaste, my friends—the God in me greets the God in you. Will you pray with me? God of wind and flame, God of clarity and truth, God of wisdom and strength; God our rock; pour out your blessing and grace upon us here—open our hearts and spirits to all the truth you would have us speak and hear. In all your names, amen.

Today’s Pentecost—one of those feasts, or celebrations, that means a lot more to some people than it does to others. It’s true, there are no Pentecost trees or Pentecost egg hunts… But there certainly are Pentecost presents! We’ll get to that in a bit…

The first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel, comes from a time in the history of the people of Israel when they were in exile, defeated. They must have been feeling lost, depressed; indeed, like dry bones in a desert, as if they had no strength, nothing to live for, nothing to offer, useless and empty, something people would look at and turn away from. They felt lost and alone, dry husks of God’s people.

A couple of years ago, I went to General Conference, the every-three-years meeting of all MCCs around the world. That year we met in Scottsdale, Arizona, in July. Yeah, Arizona in July…Heat, and a dry heat! The resort where we were meeting was very aware of the dangers of dehydration, especially for people who weren’t used to the dry heat of the desert. There were pitchers of water literally everywhere—not just in the hallways around the meeting rooms, as you often see at conferences and meetings, but in the open patios and walkways and by the pools and in the seating areas. I understand the staff working outside were required to take a ten-minute break every half hour, to drink water and rest, because of the dry heat. And I listened to the recommendations of the staff, and I drank plenty of water—always had a water bottle with me, always drank a full cup of water or iced tea with my meals, and so on.

The conference was in two parts—a clergy meeting for a couple of days, and then a day of transition before the main conference began. I took that day of transition as a Sabbath, a day of rest. I slept late, went for a walk, and went to read by the pool. It was very hot that day—I don’t remember the temperature, except that it was way more than I was comfortable with! I was hot, but not sweaty—any sweat evaporated right away, the air was so dry; my mouth was parched, again from the dry air. I felt almost as dry as those dry bones of Ezekiel’s! Dry, tired, weak… As soon as I sat down by the pool, one of the staff came over with a pitcher of water for me; and she kept it filled. Nothing in my life has tasted as good as that cool water… it cooled me, it replenished me, it refreshed me. I was renewed, alive, strong again.

Ezekiel’s message to the people of Israel was just as refreshing. In his vision of the bones reconnecting, the tendons and flesh returning, clothed again in skin, and, finally, filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, he is telling them not to despair, that God is with them still and always. They may feel lost in the desert, but God is present with them and will give them new hope and new life—and a new task. Notice that. God doesn’t just renew them—they are renewed for a purpose.
They are to return to Israel and rebuild; they are still God’s people, they still have a gift to bring the world, God is not done with them. They have been revitalized for a reason—the Spirit, the Holy Spirit gave them that new life for a purpose, that strength, so they could be God’s people.

This is what happened to Jesus’ followers on Pentecost also. Our reading from Acts tells us how they were all crowded together in that small room, praying and talking. I can imagine them gathered there, wondering what to do next. They must have felt desolate and lost, like the Israelites, in the desert, dry useless husks. Last week we talked about Jesus’ Ascension—how Jesus had given the disciples a task—to go into all the world and spread the message of God’s love for all people. And we talked about how they had praised God for that, gone to the temple and worshipped. But not everyone had been there—it seems to have been just a few people who were there and witnessed that. The others hadn’t had that experience, and didn’t know what to do now that Jesus was gone again. Remember Jesus had said the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit came on them—and that’s what they were doing. But the ones who hadn’t been there didn’t know what that meant—well, I’m not sure the ones who were there did either. But they were waiting—for something, they didn’t know exactly what, but something, this “power from on high” that was to empower them to go out into all the world to spread this knowledge of God’s love.

And suddenly it swept down upon them—like a wind, or flames, a great rushing—and the Holy Spirit was there amongst them. And they knew the Spirit was there because they could understand each other. Everyone heard their own language spoken, they could understand what was spoken to them, they could perceive God in the words spoken, and thus in each other. What else can the Holy Spirit be but this understanding of each other, this acknowledgement of God in others? That recognition of God in oneself and in one another, the Namaste of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is called the birthday of the church; the day that a group of people in Palestine recognized that they were more than a group of people who were trying to follow the teachings of a wonderful rabbi and prophet—they realized they had been given a message of power and love, and they had been given the ability, shown the way, to carry that message of revitalization, of new life, to the entire world.

They could not do it on their own—that’s why they were there in Jerusalem, waiting for what Jesus Christ had promised them would enable them to do that enormous task.
The physical part was difficult—the travel, finding ways to support oneself while bringing that message—a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear. But it was doable—people did travel, and some people travelled a lot then. But what was much more difficult was the spiritual, the emotional part. How can one person tell another person that God loves them, unconditionally, completely; and that because God loves them so fully, and because God is within them, they too must love the people around them, because those people too, have God within them? How do you convey such a message?

I don’t mean what language, or is a sermon or discussion better. I mean, how can the essence, the meaning of such an enormously important message be made clear and immediate to everyone?

There are two parts to the answer. The first is, again, Namaste. By simply recognizing and acknowledging the divinity in every other person, by understanding that we are, in fact, all connected through God, we cannot help but treat everyone with respect and tolerance and understanding. Jesus said to love our neighbours as ourselves; this is what he meant. Because, in some senses, out neighbours are ourselves. Like the Beatles song says, “I am you and you are me and we are all together.” Or, if you prefer your quotes traditional flavour, John Donne said “No one is an Island, intire of itselfe; every one is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine...” That’s part one.

Part two is the language. Not, again, literally language. I think we can look at the languages as being metaphorical. Those strangers in Jerusalem each heard the language they understood. Jesus’ followers were given the gifts they needed to communicate with those visitors, and to tell them the good news. Later on, they clearly used other gifts—of speech, like Paul and Peter, or understanding, like Dorcas. But they were given gifts, and those gifts clothed those dry bones and lifted the disciples and followers out of the desert, gave them new life and revitalized them to bring that message of God’s love.
Now, to the ouchy part. Here at MCC River City, we’re in a bit of a desert too, aren't we? Income is down, our membership isn’t as high as the Fellowship would like it to be, members are getting tired and burned out… We’re not really sure, to be honest, how long we can live. We have hope—there is always hope in the Spirit, and seeing new faces, energetic faces, always helps. But the fact remains that we sometimes feel like we are dry husks, bones in the desert.

But. . .

The Spirit came down with a mighty rush of wind and flame to those disciples in Jerusalem, just as the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision were visited with the breath of God. They were covered with flesh and sinews and skin and they rose and lived! They took in the gifts of the Spirit and went out to spread the good news—God loves you!

We have gifts, too, church. Each one of us has gifts. God has given us these gifts for a purpose—to use them. I cannot tell you what your gift is—that is between you and God. It may be concrete, such as working with numbers and budgets and finances, or a musical talent. It may be more abstract, the ability to work with children, or to plan and strategize. But it is your gift, and has been given to you for a reason.
The church, our church, this church, has gifts too—as a church. This church has been clothed with the Holy Spirit to do work here in River City. We may feel like dry bones in the desert, lost and alone—but if we allow that Holy Spirit to come upon us, to work within us, both as individuals and as a church, then we will feel such a power, such a strength and renewal as River City has never seen! Open your heart, open your spirit to the incoming of the Spirit, search your soul for the gifts of Spirit which God has given you!

Let the God in each of us welcome the God in each other—every other, not simply in this room but every person—let that Namaste of the Holy Spirit fill us with the reviving flame and wind and water, bring us back to life to love and serve the God in each other!

Praise God for the Holy Spirit, that power that teaches us to love each other, to be present for each other, to recognize the divine in each of us, that all of us are of God and beloved of God—open hearts and spirits to that grace and power and love. Share those gracious gifts given to you—show the God in you to the God in others.
So may it be, Namaste.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Aren't They Lovely?

This is the poster, in a wonderful digitally-cleansed version, of the poster I mentioned a couple of posts ago. It's in the frame shop, costing more than it should, but wow!

Walls and Windows

Will you pray with me? God of today and yesterday and tomorrow, bless us with grace and understanding and hope; give us courage and strength to hear your word, your message for us, not only in these words spoken, but those left unspoken; today and every day. In all your names, amen.
Ascension Sunday—it’s not one of the big holidays of the church, not like Christmas and Easter, or even Pentecost or Ash Wednesday. But there’s a lot we can learn from this story, about how to hear Christ, how to behave in the world, about relationships.
Doesn’t this scene seem a little strange? Christ is leaving the disciples, forever this time—they will never see him in the flesh, in solid reality, again. But he doesn’t seem upset about it, or concerned about this huge task he’s just given them. They don’t seem terribly sad, either. When Christ begins to leave the disciples, he isn’t offering them more advice, or saying, “Oh, one more thing!” He’s not ignoring them, either. And they aren’t weeping and wailing—there’s no grief in this scene. In fact, as he leaves, Christ blesses them! The Scripture says, “While Christ was blessing them, Christ withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
It can be difficult to say goodbye—relationships are a blessing, but when they end, there can be great pain. But you see, that’s the point here. The disciples won’t see Christ in the flesh again—they know that. But they are also very aware that his presence will be with them—they are not abandoned by God. Their wonderful relationship with Jesus Christ has not ended—it has merely changed, and, in fact, for the better. A wonderful miracle-working wise teacher here on earth is life-changing—but a divine presence with you always to teach and lead and comfort—that is an eternity-changing event!
There are many jokes about the women’s community, the lesbian/bisexual women's community, and the tangle of relationships that are often found there. Susie’s ex-girlfriend Flo is now dating Katie, who used to run the coffee shop with Susie; while Katie’s housemate Meg has her eye on Dana, who used to date Jan before she was with Kelly; oh, and Jan was Katie’s boss and Kelly’s best friend. And all of them have dinner together every Friday night! In spite of the re-alignment of relationships, of the shifting of intimacy into friendship and vice versa, they are still close. And really, doesn’t that make more sense—to remain close, supporting each other and caring for each other? Unless there was some real damage done—cheating (whatever that meant in the relationship) or stealing or even abuse—the people in that relationship—I’ll say “we,” because I’ve been there, and I think some of you have too—we knew each other better than we knew anyone else, and were known better. No one else heard our hopes and dreams and fears in the same way; no one else encouraged us as much when we were down, supported us when we were in need—very few others have loved us so much. And so even if that intimate, personal relationship is gone—no longer lovers or partners, friends now—that love, if it was truly love, should still be there. You may argue with me on this, and it is difficult sometimes to make the transition, but if it can happen, these are some of the best relationships a person can have—the friend who was once a lover.
Because it is true that lovers can be easier to find than friends—so when you meet someone who is both, hang on to him or her—even if the love changes, you will always have the friendship.
Even when Christ ascended, the disciples still had a relationship with him. It did not end because he wasn’t with them anymore. It simply changed character from a physical presence to a spiritual one, as our relationships can change. The disciples weren’t mourning and sad at the end of a relationship—they were celebrating Christ’s power and glory, joyful that their relationship had changed—that now they would always have him with them. True, it wouldn’t be in the same way—but in a much better way. It’s not something to mourn, although it does take adjustment—it is something to celebrate.
Now, notice something else here—the disciples are looking in two directions here. They look up to Christ as he is ascending, then back down to the earth, as they return to Jerusalem, back to the Temple. Christ tells them he is going to prepare a place for them in heaven, which draws them upwards. But then the angels ask them, “Why are you looking upwards?” which draws their thoughts back down to earth.
They worship, and wait to get their work orders—we’ll hear about that on Pentecost, next week. But they know there’s work to be done. Almost the last thing Christ had said to them was, ““Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” What a huge task—to all nations! In a world without radio or television, let alone the internet, without the printing press, to take that good news everywhere, to every person on the earth, that must have seemed impossible. But then Christ adds, “I am sending upon you what the Creator promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They’re not going to be doing it alone—they will have power—power from “on high,” that resurrection power of Christ, the Ascension power—the power of love and grace and hope, the power to change lives with Christ’s message of God’s acceptance and love, the lives of ordinary people who are hungry to know that God loves them—them, in spite of what they see as their own failures—addictions, lack of worldly success, broken relationships with family or friends, loneliness, homelessness, whatever they perceive as their failings—none of that matters. That power of love enables the disciples—and us, when the Bible talks about disciples, we are included in that group—to see their friend Christ in every person and reassure them of God’s love for them. Because God is in every one of us, and God loves Godself.
In my seminary, Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, the chapel has one side wall that is almost completely brick—a solid wall almost three stories high, with only a tiny string of windows along the top, filled with stained glass. The opposite wall is almost nothing but clear glass, looking out into the world. When the students and faculty sit there in worship, they are reminded that they are called both to contemplation and worship on the one hand—the high walls of the temple, of prayer and worship—and also into the world to be Christ’s hands, to bring the message of new life, of resurrection, through that clear glass of hope and promise.
We have two tasks—to worship and to serve. We cannot do only one and call ourselves a church. It Is the call of Christ’s church to do both—to worship the Ascending Christ and to take that message of God’s love to all the world.
Changes in relationships can be sad and difficult--relationships are powerful and scary. But they can also be joyful. A friend and his partner, who had been together many years, realised that their relationship was changing, that they could no longer be partners—and they made sure to invite God to be present in that change. They prayed together regularly as they worked through the changes, keeping their bedrock love for each other and for God present in the struggles and in the transformation from partners to friends.
So too, Jesus’ ascension reminds us there is something deeper at work in these of transition, something that not only carries us through the changes but also uses them to transform us and to bless the church, the congregation. Christ is present in all these changes, offering the power of his grace to transform and strengthen.
You have received Christ's blessing--how will you offer it to others? How do you imagine putting the power of Easter, of Christ’s love, to work in your world, our world, today? What is the change God is calling you to bring today?
I heard a pastor describe a congregation in this way: “They’ve heard the good news and are ready to break down the walls of the church and take it out to the world.”
That’s church, my sisters and brothers. That’s answering the call.
Break down those walls--take that message of God's never-ending, inexhaustible resurrection love out into the world.
In the many names of the one God, amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Random musings and catching up...

Bits of this and that...

I've been meaning to write a review of a great book I read, Four Seasons of Ministry, by Bruce Epperly and Katherine Epperly. They compare a pastor's career to the seasons--first church pastors are in the spring, with everything fresh and new; then as a pastor progresses, she moves into summer, when they cultivate the crops, so to speak; then as they move into fall, they harvest the fruits of their labours; in the winter of retirement, they benefit from the work they have done earlier. The writers dont' pay enough attention to the slightly different trajectory of second-career pastors, I think; and in their references to "family, partners and loved ones," they tend to leave out those of us who are single, especially in reference to where pastors get support and how they take their Sabbaths. But those are minor. One of the themes I really appreciated was that of setting patterns of prayer, study, rest, and retreat early on, and how those can fill different needs as you move through your time as pastor. I will try very hard to get that review done and up this week.

Emotionally I'm settling down as well. It was very hard to change my relationship with Strong Heart into friendship; it was the best thing to do, we were not working out as partners--and yet when the relationship was good, it was very good. I will miss those wonderful good parts very much. However, we are finding that we can be friends--our sharing and mutual support around ministry (from sermon prep to dealing with a board to Bible study resources) was always one of the most satisfying parts of our relationship, and that is intact. It just takes time to adjust.

I'm still listening for God's voice in my sense of restlessness. I think I'm hearing a faint call, but I'm not certain. Prayers for discernment, please!

I may have an article published! A journal that focuses on bisexuality is publishing a special issue on bisexuality and spirituality; the editors like my article and want to send it out for review... I've been associated with scholarly publishing, but on the other side--as a reader and as a librarian, so this is a new experience--very interesting!

I've been enjoying a local cafe very much--often spend at least part of a weekend afternoon there. They have organic teas, gluten free cakes and other baked goodies, and generally healthy food. They also have some of the other stuff--espresso to die for, great martinis, and some very interesting grilled cheese combinations (my fav is cheddar and mango chutney).

I met friends there for tea yesterday; Musician and his partner, Artist Doctor. They had a wonderful belated birthday present for me--an advertising poster they had picked up on a trip through Hong Kong (AD works for a university, doing work in Cambodia with free clinics and clean water projects). The poster is for a variety of things, all of them vaguely bug-related--it seems to be for bug powder, a mosquito coil, and so on. But the amazing thing is the illustration--two women, flowers in their hair, elegant earrings dangling, dancing close together, rapturous expressions on their faces. I am SO having that framed!

In the interest of that study thing mentioned in the Four Seasons book, I am embarking on a new project--reading A Course in Miracles. I tried once before, with my best friend, but when we started discussing it, we digressed totally and ended up gossiping instead of dicussing the book. So I am going to try again...

I have started really cooking again. My first attempt was Sag Ghosh, an Indian/Pakistani recipe involving beef, spinach, and curry. My aforementioned best friend often makes it for her Pakistani husband, who calls it "Pakistani comfort food." She got the recipe from his mother, so I think it's pretty authentic! It turned out pretty well--I think I needed more curry and less cayenne; also less spinach. I used less beef than the recipe called for, but the same amount of spinach...a bit overwhelming in the spinach department, let's say!

Busy week ahead--appointments at the clinic, a wedding, and a meeting--all tomorrow; a lunch on Wednesday and another on Thursday, then a mini-conference on Saturday, with a church cookout on Sunday.

I'm trying to read Ann Coulter's book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism; having a difficult time. She makes such sweeping statements, as if all "liberals" (not a term I like) were members of PETA and Greenpeace, or atheists in Christian clothing. It's that old circular definition thing: if you don't fit her definition of a Christian, then you're not really Christian and are fair game. She doesn't seem to want to allow for honest disagreement between groups, or within groups, for that matter. That and her tone of sneering superiority is quite grating. And I'm only about 30 pages into the book!

There, cleaned up those snippets of this and that... Enjoy your weekend, and Happy Mothers Day to the mothers and those who have been like mothers!

On the Journey XIV

Hmm, those Roman numerals are starting to get complicated!

I have finished radiation (as of a week ago) and so am done with cancer treatment!

I'm feeling conflicted, to be honest. On the one hand, I am celebrating the end of chemotherapy and radiation--no more abusing my body in the name of saving it. On the other hand, I'm feeling a bit worried--what do I do now? When I was in treatment, at least I knew I was dong something about the cancer. But that's all done, we've done what we can until and unless it shows up again. I don't know why I got cancer, and therefore I can't do much to prevent it--and might not be able to, even if I did know. So I'm at loose ends.

I'm continuing to heal though--the burns and sore places from radiation are pretty much gone. I still have yucky nails and tingly fingers from the Taxotere. I have my compression sleeve for the lymphedema and it seems to be working. And my hair is growing! I actually had it trimmed last week--cleaned up and evened out. We're waiting for it to grow out a bit more before doing much more with it. It looks like all that grey/white may be from the chemo, as I have a lot of dark roots.

I'll meet with my oncologist on Monday, when I get the plan for the next few months. I already have a three-month follow-up appointment with my radiation oncologist. My first question will be about getting this port out--it will seem more like treatment is over if that's gone.

I'll keep you posted!

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...