Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Do Penguins Have to Do With It? (Sermon)

“Once upon a time a colony of penguins was living in the frozen Antarctic on an iceberg near what we call today Cape Washington. The iceberg had been there for many, many years.  It was surrounded by a sea rich in food. On its surface were huge walls of eternal snow that gave penguins shelter from dreadful winter storms.  As far back as any of the penguins remembered, they had always lived on that iceberg.  ‘This is our home,’ they would tell you . . .  ‘and this will always be our home.’”[1]
I’ve just read to you the opening words of a book entitled Our Iceberg is Melting!  This is a little book to which I was introduced at a ministry conference last fall, and it’s a book that our session read this past spring.  You may have heard some folks referring to “the penguin book” – this is the book we’re talking about.  You may even see some pictures of penguins floating around – because of this book.
Our Iceberg is Melting! is a charming and humorous little fable about a group pf penguins who live on an iceberg which, as a particularly curious penguin named Fred discovers in his wanderings one day, is in danger of breaking apart.  Fred returns to the penguin colony with this bad news, and the penguins launch an effort to figure out what to do next.
Penguins trying to figure out what to do about their melting iceberg bear some surprising similarities to Presbyterians trying to figure out how to transform their congregational life.    Some of the penguins are curious and adventurous, and want to get as much information as they can about new possibilities.  Others are in denial, and insist that the iceberg has always been their home and that they can never change their home.  One penguin in particular is named No-No, because his response to every new idea is, “No no, we can’t do that!” Eventually, the penguins decide to send out some scout penguins, to look around the ocean for other iceberg homes.  And they also get to work on developing new ideas for how they might live in the future.
The penguin book was actually written by a couple of business professors, who wanted to explain, in an easy-to-understand and quite delightful story, how it is that a community faced with a crisis goes about creating deep change. Sound like any community you know?  Sound like any process you knw? In fact, the leadership of this congregation has made great use of the book as we have worked out a framework and structure for meeting our own iceberg challenges.  
I think that perhaps my personal favorite chapter in the book, and the chapter which happens to connect with our epistle reading today, is the chapter in which the teacher of the kindergarten penguin children expresses her dismay about the proposed changes, and then undergoes a compete transformation herself.
As the process the penguins are going to explore begins to unfold, the kindergarten teacher weeps.  “’With all the change,’ she says, ‘the colony may not need a kindergarten. It, it. . . may not need a teacher who is a bit too old to adapt.’”
But the penguin in whom she confides, a friend named Buddy, responds, “No.  The little birds will need to learn even more in a world that will be ever changing.  A kindergarten teacher will be even more important.”
I wonder if some of you might feel much like the kindergarten teacher.  When things change, sometimes they seem to move so fast that perhaps you think, “I am too old to adapt, and perhaps the matters to which I’ve given my time aren’t important to anyone anymore.”
But Buddy is right.  When things change, your gifts and skills are needed more than ever.  Your wisdom, your years of experience on this earth and in the church, are essential to the success of a new future.
Our Scripture passage from Corinthians today reminds us of the value of our many and varying gifts.  The people of Corinth, to whom Paul was writing nearly 2,000 years ago, were something of a cantankerous lot.  Corinth was a busy port city on Greece, a place through which all sorts of people passed and in which all kinds of folks worked, people with all sorts of religious beliefs.  The fledgling church in Corinth was itself a struggling, divided congregation, and Paul’s letters reflect his efforts to counsel them on their many quarrels.
One of debates in Corinth had to do with spiritual gifts.  What are the gifts of the Spirit – these gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, of faith, of healing, of miracles, of prophecy, even of speaking in tongues?  How should they be used, with both humility and effectiveness? How might we respect and encourage the gifts of each, rather than argue over who is going to do what, and how?  Moving from Corinth ro rhw present, what gifts are in evidence here at Boulevard?  And how are those gifts going to be ignited?
And, most importantly, where do these gifts come from?
Let’s start with that last question.
Our gifts come from God.  From God.  It’s important that we remember the source as we investigate how to use our gifts in the future.  Our own gifts did not just spring from thin air, nor are they  something we ourselves created. They come from God, which means that they are treasures given us to develop and hone for God’s purposes.  They are not gifts given to us just for ourselves and for own objectives; they are given to us for the world.
And how are these gifts ignited? Paul tells us clearly: They are activated by the Spirit.  It’s the Spirit of God who generates all of our ideas, all of our activity. 
Wesley White tells us that “[g]ifts are activated by a common good (a holy spirit moment) that senses a turning tide and shifts gears to a next gift, already present, even as we momentarily shift away from a previous gift. This activation process . . . calls for a gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.”[2]
All right – that was a lot of words. Let’s think about them for a minute.  Gifts are activated by a holy spirit moment – a moment in kairos time.  We’ve talked about that before – about how chronos time is chronological time, the time we measure by our watches, but kairos time is opportune time, special time, time in which something new is emerging.  And this time we’re in, this time of transition and transformation in our church life, is most assuredly kairos time. It’s a time not to be squandered, it’s a special God-time in which gifts are activated for something new.
And, as Wesley White says, in kairos time, a turning time, we shift from previous to next gifts.  Or, at the very least, kairos time shifts the ways in which we use our gifts – if we respond to the “gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.” 
As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts this past week.  And here’s what I’ve concluded, at least at this point, about Boulevard Church gifts:
First,  you all have a great gift of hospitality. It’s evident in those who help in so many ways with worship – preparing and greeting and ushering and serving as liturgists and communion servers and Powerpoint operators coffee hour contributors and hosts.  It’s evident in our community meals and in Grandpa’s, both of them projects in which many of you participate in long hours of preparation and  then in greeting and serving our neighbors.  Hospitality.  A tremendous gift in this congregation.
But here’s a second conclusion I’ve reached: That your gift of hospitality has not even begun to be exercised to its fullest capabilities.  That your gift of hospitality has been awaiting this kairos time to be ignited and expanded by the movement of the Spirit.  That there is so much more potential here than has been unlocked at this point. 
I want to tell you a bit more about the penguin colony as an example.  Remember the kindergarten teacher and her tearful worries that she would be of no use in a new colony? Here’s a bit more from the penguin book:
“The penguin kindergarten teacher responded to the challenge set before her by developing a new curriculum.  She realized that the little penguins needed to learn how to help as their colony made big changes, and so “she gathered her young students together to tell them tales of heroic action to help others under difficult and challenging circumstances.  She found some great stories.  She told them with enthusiasm.  She explained that the colony would be needing heroes to deal with new challenges, and that anyone, including the youngest of them, could help.”  Imagine the enthusiasm of the little penguins, as they began to realize that they were called to be heroes, and to help the grown-up penguins be heroes as well!  Those little students became some of the most effective change agents in the colony!
What do you think of that?  That penguin was one very fine teacher, able to adapt to a new summons, a new call, with tremendous energy and creativity.  If the penguins had not realized that their iceberg was melting, she would have continued with the same old same old for the rest of her life, and never had the opportunity to renew and enlarge upon her considerable gifts.  But faced with the call to move forward in a kairos moment, she rose to the occasion, and brought the little penguins right along with her.
What about you?  Can you meet the challenges of the future like a penguin?  Can you respond to God’s call as the Corinthians did?
What might a new iceberg mean for us? Maybe we host weekly meals instead of monthly meals; maybe we open a food pantry.  Maybe Grandpa’s begins to run special days, such as a filled-backpack day for kids in August, or gift days for new parents.  Maybe we find a way to offer basic health screenings in a non-intimidating environment.  Maybe we welcome the Waterloo arts community to host an energetic day of creativity for all ages on our front lawn?  I promise you, we have not even begun!
We don’t know what the future holds, any more than either the penguins or the Corinthians did.  Perhaps we will start a new congregation in the Beachland building.  Perhaps we will do it here.  Perhaps we will do something altogether unknown at this point.  Whatever happens, there will be big changes, changes whose success depends on our response to the movement of the Spirit -- to the call of the wild, restless Spirit of possibility, that we use our gifts to bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
Do not squander this kairos time, my friends.  Do not fail to recognize the grace of God dancing in our midst.  There are gifts sparkling all over the place. Remember that you are people of the resurrected Christ and of the creative Spirit.  You are people gifted for God’s future!

[1] John Kotter and Helger Rathgeber, Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

[2] Wesley White on the Lectionary., 2007.

Image: "Falkland Islands Penguins 41" by Ben Tubby - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday Morning Musings

It's a little after 7:00 a.m. and I am doing what I usually do on Sunday mornings -- getting ready to leave the house for church.    And thinking about others who are and are not doing the same thing.
For some, the next few hours will be a time of deep, rich engagement with God, through communal music and prayer and scripture and preaching.
For others, the same outward activities will conceal an inner experience of busy-ness and preoccupation, or hassle and nuisance, or turmoil and unrest, or boredom and irritation.
For others, the morning will be a time for social connection, in the hallways before worship and at the coffee hours after.
And for many, many others, whatever is taking place in houses of worship this morning remains completely irrelevant to their conscious lives.
Having been all of those people at various points in my adult life, I find myself now unable to pinpoint what it is that makes the difference. 
I don't believe that God calls some to worship and others, not, so it isn't God. 
I don't believe that the entire responsibility lies with those who lead worship, whether pastors or musicians or liturgists, who on any given day may be more or less well prepared, more or less aware of the movement of the congregation as a whole, more or less attuned to individual nuances in behavior or response. 
And I don't believe that it all falls on the congregation or the individuals who make it up ~ or don't ~  and who bring to worship, or to whatever else they are doing with their morning, whatever it is they have to bring.
I do believe that I should have a better handle on this, though.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Time . . . and the Church

An endless stream of commentary and counsel on the current state of the mainline church crosses my desk and computer screen on a daily basis.  As the pastor of a small church which has been in a freefall decline for the past two decades, I am, naturally, interested in what everyone has to say. 
How to reverse attendance and giving numbers?  What happened to all the young (under 50!) people? How do we become a "missional" church?  Should we add a contemporary service?  Should we add a contemplative service?  Will renting space to another enterprise resolve our financial issues?  Would a different pastor pull them in? 
Yesterday, I enjoyed a long breakfast with a friend who is a few years (five) older than I am, who has lived without one of her children for a few years (seven, for a total of fourteen) longer than I have, and who is ahead of me in the delight category (a new grandchild!) by five months.  If you had to summarize our wide-ranging conversation, you might say that the theme had to do with finding ways to live out this period of life (which I sometimes refer to as the third third) as fully and deeply and even joyously as possible, given what we were handed in the second third.
This morning as I lay in bed for a few minutes after waking up, the word that came to mind was:
A question applicable to both the congregation and the sixty-something person. 
To what do we want to give our limited, precious time?   What is of such great value as to make it worth hours, weeks, months, even years, of our time?
It seems clear that numbers of people who might have been participants in the life of a mainline congregation a generation, definitely two generations ago, no longer believe that what the church has to offer is worthy of their time. 
I wonder: Do we, we who are pastors and leaders and participants in the life of the church, do we ourselves understand what it is that the church has to offer?    Do we understand what it is that we are doing there?  Do we have any inkling of  how to communicate why we are drawn there?
What claim does the church have to our time?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sermon Shorts (Luke)

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I went to one of our favorite events at the Cleveland Film Festival -  showing of short films: eight films of about eight to twenty minutes in a two-hour period. We love to watch the creativity condensed into those short explorations. I

I had been wanting to try something similar in a sermon, and the Emmaus text in combination for our congregation's need for a bit of a breather -- something a little different -- in a season of intensity -- seemed to create an opportune moment:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’  He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’  Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:13-27

Have any of you seen the movie The Way, in which Martin Sheen starred a few years ago?  In The Way, Martin Sheen’s character decides to walk the Camino de Santiago in place of his son, who attempted the walk and was killed in a fall on his first day out.
The Camino de Santiago – the Road of St. James – is a several-hundred mile roadway, or set of alternative roads across Spain, ending at the Cathedral of St. James, named for one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. It’s an ancient path of pilgrimage, followed for hundreds of years and increasingly popular as a spiritual journey for modern-day pilgrims.
When Martin Sheen begins to walk, he knows nothing of the Camino, and no one else on the road.  But as the movie unfolds, he and three other characters begin to travel together, talking, sharing life stories, and challenging each other to be community.  Slowly, the terrible burden of grief his character bears is transformed into a journey of discovery – of himself, and of the son he has lost.
And isn’t that what long walks so often do for us?  A walk is often a means of working things out.  A conversation during a walk is an opportunity to discover others.  Next Saturday, during our church retreat, we will walk – participating in the Lake Shore Ministries Prayer Walk if we are able, or walking here at church if we would find an outdoor walk difficult.  I’ve done many outdoor prayer walks with our neighboring churches, and always find new friendships and learn new things about our neighborhood. And I’ve even done an indoor walk – we were the hosts one month this past winter when the cold and the ice got the best of us, and a few of us walked through our church, looking our at our city and praying from different vantage points.
Our story today begins with a walk – an interesting walk, as the two people walking appear to be heading in the wrong direction—toward Emmaus, and away from Jerusalem.  Like Martin Sheen’s character in The Way, they are grief stricken – in their case, over the crucifixion of Jesus – but they are trying to get away.  They aren’t trying to work things out at all.
And then this stranger shows up and, after they relate the events of Jesus’s death to them, and tell him how their hopes have been dashed and their lives upended, he begins to explain the life and meaning of the messiah to them.  What irony – in trying to avoid working things out, they find themselves walking with the one person who can offer clarity and understanding. 
I urge all of you – take a walk this week. Take a walk and see what happens.  Walk in solitude and ponder your life.  Walk with a friend and have a conversation about a new topic.  Come to the retreat and join the prayer walk.  We, too, are part of this ancient story; we, too, are on the road to Emmaus, so often trying to walk away from that to which we are called.  Try walking toward it, whatever it is this week!
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:28-31
I’ve got another movie for you – Babette’s Feast.

In this movie, a woman new to a town decides to take all of her lottery winnings and create a magnificent feast for her neighbors.  Unknown to them, she is a French chef of some renown, and the meal she creates is, truly, a grand feast.  It’s also a great gift of appreciation, in response to her having been taken in by two sisters in the village.

But the sisters are overly pious women who do not believe that they should indulge in the luxury of this meal. They decide to eat it but not comment on it.  However, another guest gushes his joy in the meal, and in the course of the meal, the other guests find new lives, new loves, and new joy of their own in Babette’s gift to them.

What happens when we break bread together?  I think we saw an example last week, when we gathered for a meal and conversation with the Beachland congregation.  We don’t know what will happen with that situation, but regardless of the outcome, new relationships are forming. 

In Babette’s Feast, the life of an entire village is restored. In communion on Sundays, our lives are restored.  On the journey to Emmaus, the disciples’ eyes are actually opened to Jesus when he breaks bread with them.

And so, I have another suggestion for you this week: Break bread with someone.  Go out and buy a loaf of really good bread – or perhaps you even bake your own – and share it with someone -- break it and ask: How is the goodness of God present to me in the ways in which I am nourished? In my friendships, in my marriage, in my family, in my work?  How does God come become present to me when I share a meal with someone else?

They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

                                                                                                                                ~ Luke 24:32-35
What happens when your heart burns for Jesus?

We Presbyterians don’t like to talk that way, do we?  We are very uncomfortable with dramatic images like burning hearts, and we don’t like to talk about hearts aflame. We are, after all, the “frozen chosen” -- which means that we are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of being on fire for anyone or anything.

But look around and what sorts of things do you see people on fire for?  For those of you who were able to see the movie Selma: wasn’t Martin Luther King on fire for racial justice?  If we think about various causes – other forms of injustice, hunger, homelessness, health care – solutions emerge and take off when someone’s heart burns with a desire to see wrongs righted.

And here’s the thing about hearts on fire: they push us out into the world.   They entice us to care for others.  They motivate us to get moving.  Look at the Emmaus disciples – they turn around and head back to Jersualem, where the action is.  They stop running away and hiding out.  They stop complaining about what’s been lost and they stop looking to the past and to their dashed hopes – they embrace instead an uncertain future. 

They embrace the unknown.

We forget that, I think.  We know how the story works out – Jesus’s followers spread all over their world, and eventually all over the whole world, sharing the good news of the resurrection.  They create worshipping communities, they feed the hungry and care for the sick, and they seek to challenge the powers that be and to transform unjust structures . . .  and to change the world.

We know all that, and so we take it for granted. But the earliest disciples didn’t know what was coming.  They had no idea how the Holy Spirit was planning to move in their lives.    All they knew was that they had seen the risen Jesus, they had walked with him and eaten with him – and their hearts were burning.

What would that mean for you, for us, to live with hearts on fire for Jesus?
Would we risk more?

Would we be bolder and braver?

Would we be less tied to the past, less limited by the present, and more open to the future?

Would we be less jaded, and more filled with wonder?

Think about it.

Is your heart like a cold fireplace, a place where the remains of the past have been swept into a tidy pile in which the promise of the future has died?

Is your heart home to a few coals of hope, to the warmth of possibility, to a spark of creativity here, of innovation there?

Or is your heart on fire?  Could it be on fire?  Will it be on fire?

A heart of risk-taking, bold, courageous, awestruck fire?

What would it take for Jesus to set your heart on fire?


Sunday, April 19, 2015

There's a Woman in the Pulpit: Not Really a Book Review

So, Robin, what did you do today (Saturday)? What does a pastor do with her time?

Well, I started with a long walk, because I wouldn't get another chance today.  And then after I showered and dressed, I spent a little time on plans for our upcoming vacation, because I wasn't going to get another look at those either.  I was going to work on my sermon, but I never got to that.  I'm trying something new tomorrow, and I'm thinking maybe it's not as great an idea as I thought it would be a few weeks ago.  But last Sunday was very intense, and today was about to be equally so, and we all need a breather.  Maybe something a little different will be kind of fun.

And then I went to the church . . .

On a Saturday?

Yeah, I try not to do that.  But this month, three Saturdays in a  row.


At noon, we hosted a community meeting with the police.  We'd like to be more of a presence in our neighborhood, which is a bit of a troubled place -- a few vacant houses, several absentee landlords, and more than several young people who haven't yet found their way into college or work.  Not a good mix.  This will be the third time we've hosted an event for the police to bring folks up-to-date on the current state of the two streets bordering our building.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was consumed with a meeting with the consultant who's helping our church and another consider a possible merger.  He's helped us with two post-worship congregational meetings, and today he debriefed those events with the pastors and congregational leaders and helped us begin to plan next steps.  It was a long (three hours) but ultimately productive meeting.

A long day.

Which concluded with a funeral service for one of our matriarchs and a reception for her family and friends.   She was someone to whom I'd grown close during her many months of medical treatments, and someone with strong opinions about how things should be handled, so I put everything I had into getting her service just right.

And then I came home and opened the mail and took a selfie!  And finished the sermon.

This was a very unusual day, actually.  At least it was for a Saturday.   Three essentially one-time events, all on the same day and all on a weekend.  But they were all the things I do ~ just not usually all on the same day.

I thought we were going to talk about a book?

Right ~ there's a book!  The RevGals have made a book!  A book of short essays depicting the joys and sorrows, the mystifying things and the funny things, about our lives in ministry.  My essays are about how back when I decided to go to seminary I had somehow missed the whole idea that ministry is a form of leadership (and now here I am, leading a church through a major discernment process), and about how I doubted my future as a preacher after catastrophe flattened me during those seminary years (and now here I am, preaching every week).  The book as a whole is about just the sort of things which made up my Saturday.

Do I want to read this book?

If you are a seminary student, Yes!  If you are a new pastor, Yes!  If you are a seasoned pastor, Yes!  If you wonder about the pastoral life, Yes!  (And if your daughter or daughter-in-law or sister or mom or spouse or good friend is a pastor, then for sure: Yes!)

We went to seminary and we studied Greek and Hebrew and scripture and theology and how to make a hospital visit and how to conduct a funeral and how to work with a couple hoping to get married and how to preach a sermon.

And then we became pastors and were asked to host community meetings for struggling neighborhoods and to figure out what to do with diminishing membership rolls and to manage financial crises.   And some of us have done it while raising young families or dealing with personal crises of our own.  And some of us against resistance having to do with our gender or our relationships.  And some of us while wearing clerical collars and red high heels, and others while wearing jeans and sneakers.

Curious?  I think it's a great read, I think you'll feel that you are among friends, and I think you'll see how astonishing and marvelous this call to ministry is.

There's a Woman in the Pulpit is available from the publisher (linked above) as well as from Amazon and B&N, and in Kindle format, of course. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Transformed and Transforming: Sermon for Easter 2 (John and Act)

Look at the change in the Christian community between our two texts this morning!  Look at the transformation that takes place between our story in the Gospel of John and the description in the Book of Acts!  In just a few short years, Jesus’s disciples have been completely transformed, from a frightened and uncertain group hiding from public view into a thriving community of worship and mission.  They experience the Risen Christ, and look where he takes them!      
Let’s look more closely at what our stories have to tell us, beginning with the gospel narrative in which Jesus appears to the disciples a week after his resurrection. And what are the disciples up to?  They’re hiding out!  Frightened, terrified actually, that they will be associated with the man who has been crucified for insurrection against the government.  Lost and bewildered: what are they to do without the leader they have come to depend upon?  Inside, behind locked doors – this does not look like a group with a lot of promise insofar as spreading the word of the resurrection is concerned.
And on their own – they are not.  Of course not. 

But Jesus appears in their midst—twice, as it turns out – and two things happen.  Two encounters, two conversations, in which they are transformed by his resurrected presence.

In the first encounter with Jesus, the disciples rejoice.  Of course they rejoice! Wouldn’t we, too, rejoice in the re-appearance of someone whom we deeply love who has died?  Rejoicing  would be the order of the day.  But there’s more to it than their own rejoicing, because Jesus has a commission for them:
“As the Father has sent me,” he says, “so I send you.
Send.  Pay attention that word, send.  It’s one of the most important words in the Bible.  Jesus sends.

The word in Greek, in the language in which this book was first written, is pempwo; it means to send, to insist that something – in this case, the good news of the resurrection and the unfolding kingdom of God – be carried or sent to others.  In Latin, the language into which it was first translated by the church,  the word is missio – mission, in English.  We might think that a mission is a plan, an idea for getting something done – but at its root, a mission is a sending.

Jesus sends.  Jesus does not say, “Oh, this is excellent  -- stay here, locked up by yourselves inside, and be afraid.  Don’t even try to go anywhere, because it’s too scary and challenging out there.”

No – Jesus does not say that at all.  Jesus says, “I send you!”  Get going.  Be bold! There is a whole world out there waiting for good news – I am sending you out to share it!

But there’s more.  More to these encounters, and more to what we are called to do, and to be. 

You may recall that one of this disciples is absent from this incredible, tremendous meeting.  And you may recall that when he returns and hears what has happened, Thomas says. “I don’t believe it.”  We get that, too, don’t we?  If I walked in here and told you that this morning I had seen someone who had recently died, seen them in the flesh and talked with them, you would not believe me.  “Show me,” says Thomas.  "I'm not going to believe this until I see Jesus for myself, and touch his wounds with my own hands.”

And so Jesus, who never leaves anyone behind – Jesus, who is always gathering people to himself – Jesus, who understands us, and understands our skepticism and our grief and our anger, because he is one of us – Jesus comes back for Thomas.  Jesus makes sure that Thomas has the experience of proof that he needs.
And Thomas?  Thomas’s response is, “My Lord and my God!”  “My Lord and My God!” What sort of response is that?  That’s a worshipful response.  That’s a response of praise and adoration and wonder and awe and humility.   That’s worship.
In this one short story, we have the essence of Christian life in community.  Worship, and mission.

When I was in seminary, we had to take a course called Missiology – the study of mission.  Who knew there was such a thing? (Not me!)  Now, I was not looking forward to this required course.  To me, the word mission was about something like missionaries – about sending people out to the far corners of the world to proclaim the news of Jesus Christ.  And that was not something that held any appeal for me.  As a former world history teacher, I knew a lot about the damage that had been done to cultures across the globe by Christian missionaries who so often though they knew best.  I didn’t think that I wanted to study missiology.

But, to my surprise, I loved that course.  I practically inhaled everything I learned in that course.  Because, as it turns out, mission does not mean setting yourself up as the expert and running roughshod over others in the process.  Mission means being sent – and in Christianity, it means being sent with the good news of the kingdom of God among us.

Our professor had a thesis for his course – a main idea.  And what he told us was this: That the church does a lot of things.  We do education, and spiritual formation, and we care for each other and we feed and clothe the needy, and we visit the sick, and sometimes we remember that we do those things in the name of Jesus and sometimes we don’t.  But his conclusion, his main idea, he told us, was that everything we do – everything – comes down to two main projects: Worship, and Mission. 

We worship, God, and God sends us into the world with the good news.  That’s what all of church -- all of who we are and who we are called to be --  that’s what it all comes down to: Worship, and Mission.  If we aren’t doing worship and mission, then we aren’t church.  If we aren’t transformed, if we don’t hear Jesus saying “I am sending you” and if we don’t follow Thomas in saying, “My Lord and my God!” – then we are not church.  If we are not, like those very first disciples, transformed by the Risen Christ from a huddle of frightened people clinging to one another into a community sent into the world, then we are not church. 

So how do we do this?  We are two little churches gathered here on this fine second Sunday of Easter – and how do we do this?  We are scared, aren’t we? – we are small in numbers, and low on funds, and we might close and we might disperse – we are in a tough spot, and where are we?  We’re inside, talking to each other!  How do we open ourselves up to become people transformed by the Risen Christ among us?  How do we open ourselves up to become transforming people, a community sent to transform our world? 
We start, I think by looking at what happened in the earliest church communities.  In our second reading today, from the Book of Acts, we are offered a glimpse of one of the first of these communities, a flourishing community in which – guess what? – people have been transformed themselves by the Risen Christ and are completely engaged in the transformation of their world.  They share, they care for the needy, and they proclaim the resurrected Christ.   Hiding out in upper rooms has come to an end.  The time for hanging out with only one another for company is long past.  Sharing the good news – witnessing to the resurrection in word and deed – that’s what the first churches are up to.
Now this early community – it sounds a little extreme  to us, doesn’t it? These folks own everything in common – no private property – and they sell their homes and use the proceeds to care for the needy.  A different world!  But let’s not let ourselves be stopped by the radical nature of their particular approach.  Let’s ask, instead, how can we adapt what we learn from them to our own circumstances? 
How can we, like the first churches, become people “of one heart and soul?” 
How can we, with this bold example before us, how can we ourselves, perhaps even as one congregation, become a community of worship and mission with “one heart and soul?”  How can we open our hearts during this sacred time, this time of Easter, of resurrection, of hope, of new life, of new possibilities – how can we open our hearts to the Jesus who walks among us?  How can we be transformed by his risen presence into a transforming people, a people who gather to worship and then welcome the invitation to be sent, to care not only for one another, but to practice kindness and to pursue justice in that big wide world out there?

This, my friends, is an important day for us all.  Today is a time to gather, to talk, to question, and to wonder, together.  It’s a day to pause, inside, to worship, to say in unison, “My Lord and my God,” an to take stock and allow our hearts to be cracked open by the Jesus who is here, stopping with us as we consider the future. 

But it’s also a day to recognize, with great joy, that as followers of the risen Christ, we are sent.    We are people who have been invited to the greatest of missions, the mission Dei, the mission of God.  The mission in which children are encouraged and the hungry are fed and the imprisoned are visited and the sick are attended to. 

Worship, and mission. They’re both right there in Scripture.  Their potential lies among people who are unsure and hesitant, but who recognize Jesus when he walks through the door. Their fulfillment lies among people who respond to the calling to be church, proclaiming the good news and serving the world.

That’s us, my friends: B and B Churches. Called to worship and to mission.  Called to be both transformed and transforming. 


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Unblogger

I haven't blogged regularly in soooooo long.
Most of my life seems to fall into unbloggable categories these days.  The stories belong to other people, or are too sensitive, or simply constitute more than I want to say.   
Consequently, I am out of practice.  And I don't want my writing gears to rust into scrap metal.
I'm going to work on this. As of last month, I've been blogging for ten or eleven years.  That's a long portion of life recorded in bits and pieces of writing published for other people to read. 
I think I might want to hang onto the next decade as well.