Monday, December 16, 2013

“Are You the One?” Advent 3 A (December 15, 2013), MCC Windsor, Rev. Martha Daniels



James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Holy One. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of God is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!  As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Holy One.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.


 Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, you who bring us joy, give us the wisdom and grace to recognise your presence in our lives, and the courage to live as your people, not only at Christmas, but all year. In all your names, amen.

John the Baptiser. Sometimes he reminds me of the family’s eccentric cousin or grandparent or family friend. My extended family had a relative like that—a distant cousin who came every year for Christmas dinner, and brought a gift without fail, but sometimes they were—odd. A pillow in a shade of orange never seen in Nature is the one that stands out in my mind. And yet her heart was in the right place—she wanted to give the host a gift. And of course her gift was accepted with a smile and thanks and enthusiasm—that branch of the family was from Tidewater Virginia, where the art of gracious responses to awkward situations were invented.

I have a sense that John the Baptist’s question had somewhat the same effect on Jesus and his followers. Jesus has been performing miracles all over the place, and here’s John with a pointed question. He seems to be trying to get Jesus back on what he considers the “right track.” John’s heart is in the right place—he is longing for the coming of Messiah, the anointed one—because John thinks Messiah will set everything right, will bring down destruction on the heads of Romans and free Israel, bring in a new realm of justice and righteousness, everyone will repent, and the realm of God will be at hand.

But John doesn’t see Jesus doing any of this—he’s not planning a rebellion, or preaching against the Romans, or even calling for the people to repent. Jesus is just healing and feeding people—that’s not what John had in mind at all.

So he asks this question, which is almost threatening—are you Messiah, or should I proclaim someone else Messiah? In other words, you’re not what I expected, that’s not what Messiah should be doing.

But Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t say “Yes, I am.” He invites John to look at the role of Messiah in another way—not as the avenger, come down to judge the people, to call them to repentance. On the contrary, Jesus acts to show God’s love for people—healing them, feeding them, and caring for them. It’s not what John expected, and so John isn’t sure he likes it.

Do we behave like John? Do we set expectations on God and God’s promises? We want God to do something for us, but we want it in a certain way and time, and when we get it, we complain because it wasn’t done the way we wanted it to be done.

When I was preparing for my internship, I knew just what I wanted and where I wanted to be—and I was. It was a wonderful placement, with a church that had trained many future clergy, and the congregation was very open to experimentation and new ideas, and best of all, my mentor was the pastor. And then suddenly she was appointed elsewhere, to a church in crisis where her skills were desperately needed. I complained to God that I had wanted a good internship, and how would I have that now, with Kay pastoring elsewhere, and a complete stranger coming in as pastor? And yet, Hattie, the newcomer,  proved to be a gift—we were never close, as I was to Kay, and often her example was a negative one, what not to do—but most probably  I would not have seen what “the wrong way” looked like, or understood just why it was wrong if I had worked with Kay as I wanted. Most importantly, I might not have learned how to speak up for a better way. In my discomfort with some of Hattie’s actions, I was forced to look at why I was uncomfortable and how and why I would do things differently. I also have learned from speaking with others since that she actually was supportive in ways I didn’t realise at the time—many interns did not have the opportunities that I had to lead committees and work areas and to implement projects stemming from my classes, such as the memorial garden I created. I did not want to intern with Hattie, but it proved to be rewarding and probably of more use in teaching me what I needed to learn.

What we expect from God and what God sends us are often very different. We think we know what we need and want, and that’s what we demand. When something else shows up, we’re disappointed and insist on a recount, on a return, on refusing it because it’s not what we had imagined.

And yet…. Often what we thought we didn’t want turns out to be wonderful. We think we are looking for certain things in a partner, and then meet someone who doesn’t have any of those things but takes our breath away. We have an ideal job in mind, and take something else, just to get us through for a while—and discover we actually love that “temporary” job. We have an ideal home in mind and insist to our real estate agent that we won’t look at anything else—but he shows us something else and we instantly feel at home.

My friend Lynn was married to a US Army officer, and he was sent to Germany.  Lynn was distraught, terribly upset at the idea of uprooting her then pre-teen and teen-age daughters, leaving her family, going to a place where she didn’t speak the language, and had no idea of what the schools would be like, much less how to keep one of her daughters involved in the gymnastics she loved. I tried to encourage her, telling her about all the travel opportunities, and reminding her that Germany also had medalists in the Olympics, so they must have good trainers and coaches. I shared with her the wonderful experiences I had had there and how every much I enjoyed living in Germany. She was having none of it, sure it would a miserable three years of exile and determined to return to the States for visits as often as possible. They left, reluctantly, one June.  That Christmas, when we spoke again, she had turned completely around. She loved their apartment, the neighbours were great, she was picking up enough German to shop at the local bakery and farmer’s market and butcher, the gymnastics centre in town was better than the one they had left, and they were already planning a trip to Paris for the summer and to Greece for the next winter.  Lynn had found that their years there would be a blessing. When the time came for them to return to Virginia, she was as reluctant to leave Germany as she had been to go!

I think this experience speaks to two things. One is a willingness to have an open mind, to try new things even though we don’t think they are what we want or are looking for.  John had an image, a picture, of how Messiah should be, and when Jesus didn’t fit that image, he was disappointed and felt that maybe he had been wrong. The other is that even when we don’t receive what we asked for, it is what we need. I would never have learned some of the lessons I needed to know if Kay had been my supervisor. Lynn’s family would not have grown as close as they did in Germany, travelling together and sharing new experiences. And if Jesus had come as the Messiah John wanted him to be, he would have shared John’s fate rather quickly. Instead of an overthrow of an earthly political system, Jesus brought news of a radically different way of living, a new way of interacting with other people and with ourselves, living to help and serve and heal and comfort and feed people around us, to make the world a better place not through violence or imposing our will on others, but through our example and our actions to others.

Jesus made a difference because he showed us how to care for others—not how to dominate them. He reached out to people, all people, not only the educated or the wealthy or even just the people who had a stable place to stand in society. Jesus spent time, a lot of time, with people who were the undesirables of his day—the tax-collectors, the sex workers, the ill—because sickness was seen as a curse from God—the people on margins of society, not the ones in the centre with the power. He spoke to women, to children, to people with physical challenges, and even to people who might be expected to hate him, like the Romans—and he healed and comforted and cared.

Quite a difference from the avenging Messiah that John envisioned—remember the winnowing fork and the fire from last week’s reading? Jesus is having none of it—“That’s not who I am,” he is telling John.

Jesus is not what John expected—and yet Jesus is the one to teach us how to bring about God’s rule—because God’s rule is about a realm where no one is hungry or cast out or scorned or considered “less-than.”

And that is the joy of this Advent Sunday—Jesus, our Teacher, has come to remind us of who we are and whose we are, and what it means to bring about God’s realm—not violent overthrow, not shaming and scolding and threats of eternal punishment—but love, healing, comfort and care.

Jesus was not what John expected—but Jesus was what we needed.

In all God’s names, amen.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Friday Five—Praying for Each Other





The RevGalBlogPals are praying for each other this week on the Friday Five.  I am unused to asking for prayers for myself, but here we go.

Prayer for you: for patience, mostly with myself. I want things to happen immediately after I have decided they should happen, which is not always the best time, of course. And patience with myself when I fall short of what I wanted to accomplish. 

Pray for someone you carry on your heart: For everyone who is in recovery, of whatever kind (domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, etc.), and those who grieve a loss (death, end of a relationship, job loss, etc.) —love and prayers and support.

Offer thanksgiving with you: for a wonderful new space and ministry partners at Emmanuel United Church! 

Ask God’s blessing in your life: for me to remember God’s constant presence with me in all things; that I may be open to Spirit’s leading.

Lift up anything else in your heart: for everyone who struggles at this time of year—with SADD, with grief, with loneliness, with the stress of having a “good” holiday season.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Five—Advent Confidential




My five favourite memories, traditions, etc. around Advent and Christmas…

1. Advent calendars. Over the years, they have varied from the paper ones with a door, picture and Bible verse to chocolate ones (my son’s favourite!), to a wall hanging of a Christmas tree with an ornament to be hung each day until you put the star on top Christmas Eve. It’s the first sign of Christmas to me—at least the first one with any meaning (ads for Christmas specials in late October do NOT count).

2. Calling out Santa Claus. I think my mother invented this one, because I have never met anyone else whose family did this. About a week before Christmas, it was time to start calling out Santa Claus; my sisters and I went into the hall or one of our bedrooms and sang Christmas carols. The front door would open and we would hear Mom welcoming Santa—but we couldn’t go into the living room, we had to keep singing carols. After a bit the front door would open and close again, and Mom would bring us into the living room to find the candy Santa had hidden—small candy canes, chocolate drops (which my family called “hump ups”) and French creams (which I can’t find any more). This was practice for Santa in finding our house. Every night, a couple of candies apiece.  A foretaste of Christmas morning.

3. Advent wreath. When I was young, we would make our own, since we had cedar bushes in the yard. We shaped the curving branches on a round tray, with candles in star-shaped holders, and it sat on our dining room table. We lit one candle more each week at Sunday dinner.  As an adult living in Germany, I made a few and bought a few. The German ones are highly decorated, with ribbons and faux pearl strands and sparkles everywhere.

4. Creche/Nativity/Manager scene.  This went up about the same time as the Christmas tree; I loved hanging the angel on the hook in the stable ceiling, so she (he?) hovered over the manger. We also had one made of spools that one of my older sisters had created. I liked having that one in the bedroom. The two souvenirs I didn’t pick up in Germany were a cuckoo clock and a nativity scene. We used the one that had been in my then-husband’s family for years, mismatched angels and all. That meant more to us than a newly-purchased one, however lovely. My first year of ministry, I gave myself a nativity set; my intention was to add to it each year but that hasn’t happened. I also began collecting small ones. Oh, and Baby Jesus doesn’t appear in the manger until Christmas Eve, and the Wise Guys don’t show up until January 6.

5. Christmas Eve services at my childhood church. I don’t suppose they were any more creative or different 
from a thousand other churches’ services, but every year we would go and see our friends, take Communion, and sing “Silent Night” in the dim light of candles. And I had goose bumps every year.

6—Bonus! Because I have to add this one. Baking Christmas cookies with my sisters. I don’t know if we actually did this every year or if I am just remembering vividly two or three years. The five of us would gather in the kitchen and bake--sugar cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, cream wafers, stocking cookies, candy cane cookies, spritzen, fudge... And one year in particular I remember my sister Faye teaching me and my younger sister "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Christmas cooking and baking are still one of my favourite parts of the season, with carols playing (or being sung) in the background.  



Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twenty Questions? How About 30?



Browsing around on Facebook the other day (a favourite procrastination method), I ran across this. After reading it, I decided, as part of my ongoing work, to answer one question every day. This gives me time to really think about the question, and the answer. It’s only been a couple of days, but I am already finding it rewarding and revealing.


See, these questions Andrea Balt asks aren’t about your weight or how your last relationship ended or whether you really like the work you do for pay or your bucket list. They go deeper than that and ask for some real thought, probing your motivations, your desires, whether your self is expressed in what you do and say. They are about bringing you—the real you, the you are working on becoming, the ideal you—into sharper focus and closer to reality. 

Some of the questions—what do you want to be remembered by, how do you manage your time, and so on—are fairly predictable. But she turns some of the questions into deeper probes—what do you want to accomplish, and why? What sort of person brings you down and who lifts you up? How many of each do you have in your life? What is your manifesto for your life? What feeds your spirit? 

These are the sorts of questions that require thoughtful responses. I find myself turning them over and over in my head as I drive to work, clean, cook, or stand in line at the bank. And then I go home and add to my response. There is always something more to say in response to these questions.

They aren’t all easy to answer, and some of them, if I am honest, will mean rethinking how I live my life, my attitude towards myself and those around me, and the plans I make for the future. Working on these and taking in what my responses mean, and what they imply for what I am doing (or not doing) in my life, will change how I live and act and see others.
 
Take this one, for example, number 26: What physical exercise makes you sweat  like you mean it and enjoy both the process and the afterward feeling? If youre not currently practicing it, can you read more about it, surround yourself with people who practice it, sign up for a class, do whatever will motivate you to practice it?

Andrea isnt simply urging more physical movementshe is asking what movement feels good, is rewarding, for a person, and suggesting that activitywhatever it isas a way to get that movement, that exercise, we all need. Shes not pointing to anything in particularin fact, she uses very few concrete examples, and I appreciate that, because it opens the question up to anything I can imagine. She isnt suggesting yoga, or fly fishing or gardening or rock climbing ot weight training or basketball as the perfect exercise. She is making the important point that if the physical movement is something we enjoy, we will do itand that is what matters. I may feel I need to take a Pilates class, or run every day or learn to play handball, and even try to do it. But if I dont enjoy it, I wont keep it up, I may not do it at all. But by looking at physical exercise more holistically, I can choose something I do enjoywalking, yoga, free weights, canoeingand I am much more likely to do it. When I finish a yoga practice, I may be sore and tiredbut I am also rejuvenated and I have done something for myself that I enjoy that is also good exercise.

Andrea does not offer canned suggestionsshe doesnt offer any at all. She suggests ways to look into your own heart and spirit, and to live out what you find there, in all the areas of life where it may be lacking. That may be work, or personal relationships, or self-carebut she is giving the reader paths into what is most themways to express themselves in their lives, not what others expect or suggest or even insist on.

As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. These 30 questions offer us ways to examine our lives, to see where we are not living our best selves, and ways to do that, for usnot for some mythical typical reader.

I dread some of themthey will show me how far off course I am, I know alreadybut in the end, I think they will offer me ways to return to my best self, to being who I most truly am, how I most truly am, living as fully myself as possible.

I invite you to read the questions, think about themand see if you dont change at least a few things in your life.

Monday, November 04, 2013

“All the Saints of Our Lives" All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2013), MCC WIndsor, Rev. Martha Daniels




Luke 6:20-31
Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the realm of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Human One. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

****

Will you pray with and for me? God who is present at all times and in all places, refresh our hearts and spirits as we remember the friends and family who no longer walk this earth with us, and the ones we never knew in person, but whose stories lift our hearts with hope. Give us the grace to follow their paths with dedication and patience, not forgetting their humanity, but with gratitude for all that they taught us and the example they showed us. In all your names, amen.

Today we’re observing All-Saints, on this, the first Sunday of November. It is a time to remember the ones who came before us, their lives of example and their teachings of hope—the ones we call saints. But this begs the question--how do we define “saint?”  As a perfect person?  Someone who fulfills all those Blesseds and is the opposite of all the Woes? Many of our saints would be hard to live with and had faults. Saints are our role models—their lives are something we can aspire to follow and emulate.

We take this day to remember not only the understood saints—Peter and Francis and Mary—or the ones we hold as saints—Mother Theresa, John Wesley, Maximilian Kolbe—but also those who have been saints in our lives—a grandparent, an aunt, a friend—and who may still be among the living. One of my saints was one of my mentors at MCC-DC. He was an unfailing support in so many ways, with humour and grace and understanding and wisdom. When I was scolded by a congregation member for forgetting to put the plate back on top of the communion cup after communion one Sunday, Dan winked at me and said, “Was Jesus going to escape?” His was a true generosity of spirit—introducing me to people I would want to know in the UFMCC at conferences, making sure I was able to attend all the events he thought I should, giving me books to read and suggesting movies, magazines and even vacation spots. He wasn’t perfect—Dan had his demons to fight and he could be argumentative and provoking. But he believed in me and never let me down. And I was not the only one—I think if you polled the MCC clergy who interned at MCC-DC, you would find that most of them were enriched and blessed by his presence, love and support. And he was involved in so many other ways in the church as well, both at the local and denominational level, not only in training future clergy, but in securing MCC-DC on a sound financial base, offering advice and suggestions to the entire MCC in a thousand ways—unselfishly and with love.

People like Dan are saints not because they were perfect, but because they offer an example of how to live lives of grace and truth. Mother Teresa was heard to complain sometimes; Martin Luther King Jr. was rumoured to have had affairs; Peter denied Christ three times; and Oscar Romero awakened late in his life to the realities of corruption and poverty in El Salvador. But their lives were examples of God’s presence—Mother Teresa’s unselfish service to the untouchables of India, Martin Luther King Jr.’s uncompromising stand for racial justice; Peter’s confession to Christ and work in establishing the church; Oscar Romero’s refusal to back down on demands for justice for the poor, knowing it put his life at risk.

Because we don’t know if we could do the same, we admire the saints who gave their lives in the cause—MLK, killed by an assassin, Oscar Romero, shot as he celebrated Communion, Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake for the daring idea of reformation of the English Church. But most of our saints were not called to that extremity—Francis and Clare died peacefully,, in their beds; so did Dag Hammarskj√∂ld and George Fox, and Karl Barth.

Their sainthood, my friends, is not about how they died, but how they lived. And that is the example they set for us—that is why they are role models, why we love, admire, and respect them.

All of us have saints in our lives, whether we know them personally or not, whether they are still among the living or have gone on before us. We have learned from them, they continue to teach us. They have been our support and have encouraged us, if only by example. 

As we remember our saints today, it is a good time to rededicate ourselves to following their examples, to living lives like theirs, as far as we can; and to honouring them by continuing to work for what they worked for, what they knew to be true.

As I light this candle of memory, I invite you to speak aloud or in your heart, your saints, known to the world or only to you—those who are your examples, your role models, your guides.

(light candle and silence)

Holy One, as we have lit this candle to remind us of the ones we honour, rekindle in us the flame of devotion to those principles and those causes that our saints upheld. Give us grace to follow in their footsteps, that we may be a beacon to those who follow us. Amen.