Saturday, November 21, 2015

Litany for Closing Our Church Tomorrow

After some introductory prayers, we will pray:
One:    For the church universal, of which this building has been a symbol.
All:     Hear our prayer.
One:    For your words to us in Scripture, in this Bible held by Elder FH, words which
             have been proclaimed and studied and prayed and sung in this congregation.
All:     We thank you, O God, who spoke creation into being, and     
            who speaks still.
One:   For your nourishment of your people through a holy meal, symbolized by this plate  
            and cup carried by Elders DK and BG,  
All:    We thank you, O God, who has offered food and drink to your   
           creatures from the wheat of the field and the fruit of the vine.
One:    For the waters of baptism, through which we are named and claimed as              
             your beloved, symbolized by the font carried by Elder SR.
All:     We thank you, O God, who turns the waters of chaos into the
            waters of blessing.
One:    For the sound of music, through which we express joy and sorrow, and in which
             we find inspiration and hope, symbolized by the hymnal held by Elder DE.
All:     We thank you, O God of song, of poetry, of keyboard and strings, and
            of trumpet and cymbal. 

One:    For sending Jesus Christ, Light of the World, into our congregation and into our
             lives, and for accompanying us on the journey ahead, lighting our way with the  
             candles carried by Elders AE and SA and offered to the congregation as sources of    
             light, signs of the eternal presence of Creator, Son, and Spirit.
All:     We thank you, Lord of Light, who guides us ever onward.

Pilgrimage ~ Sermon (Habakkuk and Luke)

This is the sermon for the service via which we will bring and end to our congregational life tomorrow afternoon:
If your childhood was anything like mine, then perhaps many decades ago you spent some time during this week making Pilgrim pictures, or writing Pilgrim reports.  I can remember a first grade project that involved making houses and a stockade fence out of corrugated cardboard packaging ~ our version of a replica of Plimouth Plantation, the Pilgrim settlement in what was to become the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In grade school, we talked a lot about the Pilgrims, whose first Thanksgiving feast we’ll celebrate this week with turkey and football -- but I don’t recall any discussion of what the term “pilgrim” meant.  I don’t think we ever talked about what a pilgrimage was ~ what sort of journey a pilgrimage might be, or why the completion of a pilgrimage might be an occasion for gratitude.
Today, perhaps, we have a better idea of what pilgrimage entails.  “A journey to a sacred destination,” or so the dictionary tells us.  Any sort of journey at all ~ that’s another definition.  The journey through life, or the journey of faith ~ those are the sorts of pilgrimage we’re thinking about today.
Sometimes it’s easier to understand what a pilgrimage is, or what a pilgrim is, by thinking about what they are not.  A pilgrimage is not a vacation, with a vacation’s focus and fun and sports and sightseeing and relaxing.   A pilgrim is not a tourist, not someone watching from the outside, taking pictures and sampling food and music, but never really engaging with the place or people being visited.

A pilgrim – a pilgrim is what the people of Boulevard Church have become.  A pilgrim is a brave and bold seeker.  A pilgrim is a courageous traveler toward the future.  A pilgrim recognizes when the time has come to let go of the past and allow God to shape a new journey.  And let me tell you, the people of Boulevard have been honed into true descendants of the people who stepped aboard that tiny Mayflower boat in their willingness to look ahead rather than back.

Today, we gather to contemplate the pilgrimage through our lives of faith, the journey that has led us to this place, and is soon to lead us away.  What are the hallmarks of such a journey?
The people we encounter and befriend, surely.  The events, both great and small, through which our identities as pilgrims are forged.  The rituals we create, the music we sing, the food we eat ~ all mark us as a pilgrim people.

A pilgrimage is also marked by events we would not seek of our own volition.  The events which make us who we are, the times which challenge us and call us to rise to occasions we would rather avoid – those are often the unexpected, unwanted, and way too difficult events. 

And here we are, called to look for God and to give thanks for God’s provision and friendship along the way, even when the way seems hazardous and dark and empty.  Even when we find ourselves at those junctures where what we really want is to turn back.

Our first reading today, from the almost unheard of prophet Habakkuk, emerges out of just such a time.
I know this passage only because some years ago, during a particularly low period in my own life, a friend shared it with me, saying that it had meant a lot to him during a tough time in his own life.  And I thought of it immediately when I began to consider this day, and how we are struggling to praise God and offer our words of thanksgiving when we are so challenged by the loss of this congregation. 
Habakkuk writes from the midst of a time of total desolation: no blossoms, no fruit, no produce, no food, no flock or herd ~ and yet, he says, “I will rejoice in the Lord.”

I don’t know whether you have ever witnessed such complete devastation. But a lot you may be feeling it today. Why are we having a service of celebration and gratitude? We are losing our faith home.  We are embarking upon a time of disorientation, having to walk into unfamiliar places with no recognizable landmarks.    And we’re supposed to talk about rejoicing?  And exultation?

The Bible – and here’s one of the great things about the Bible, and about our faith as reflected in the Bible – the Bible is counterintuitive on these subjects.  It tells us to respond in exactly the opposite way from that we’re inclined to. 
It’s true that the Bible makes plenty of room for sorrow, and lament, as we talked about in this congregation a couple of weeks ago.  It gives us volumes of words of lament.  But in the end, the Bible says: Rejoice.  Exult. Give thanks. And you will grow in ways you cannot imagine growing, and love in ways you cannot imagine loving.

Your congregation is disbanded?  Your belongings are given away? Your connection to the neighborhood is broken? Your friends are scattered?  Exult in the God of your salvation!

What sort of a text is this, anyway?  What kind of faith tells people that desolation and destruction is not the end?  What sort of faith says that what you see now is not what will always be?
I’ll tell you what the answer is: It’s the faith you see represented by your actions and decisions of the past several months.

It’s the faith that has challenged you to be good and faithful stewards of this beautiful building, honoring it as God’s gift to you and recognizing that, when you could no longer care for it, God was challenging you, not to cling to it as a museum but to respond faithfully by letting it go. 
It’s the faith that has inspired you, even as you were preparing for your own departure, to continue to serve this neighborhood, to continue to open and your doors and provide food and clothing and friendship for our neighbors.

It’s the faith that has supported you as you have continued to be church, worshipping and learning and caring and serving together, even as you were coming to acknowledge that the Spirit was pulling us back from the decline imminent in circumstances too burdensome for us, and leading us to flourish elsewhere.
It’s an Easter faith, a resurrection faith ~ the faith that makes itself known not only through Habakkuk’s courageous words, but through the words and acts of Jesus and his followers.

Our second reading today is the famous resurrection story from the Gospel of Luke, the story of the Road to Emmaus.  And guess what?  It also tells a story of desolation followed by a new story of energy and gratitude. It’s a story featuring dismayed and unhappy people, just like us.  People on a journey, just like us.    

Now, in case you don’t quite recall this famous story, let me bring you up to speed.  It’s Sunday afternoon, the third day after the crucifixion, and two of Jesus’ followers are headed out of town, headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They encounter a stranger in the road – something that often happens in pilgrimage walks, I might add – and while we know that this stranger is Jesus, they don’t.  So they begin to rant and wail, telling this stranger about all the terrible things that have happened, about how mystified and heartbroken they are, about how all their hopes have been dashed.
They sound like us on our bad days.  And even when Jesus, without identifying himself,  tells them his story, tells them all about how his life reveals all that has been laid out for them in scripture, their frustration is not eased.  But their natural hospitality does break though, and they invite him to stop with them for the evening and to done with them.  And it is only then, only in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. It’s in the breaking of the bread that they understand: that in this earthly pilgrimage, despite, or even in the midst of, all of the change and upset and turmoil we experience, the risen Jesus appears, offering sustenance for the journey and hope for the future.  And making it possible for us not merely to go on, but to thrive, to flourish, to fulfill God’s dreams for us, and to respond in gratitude for all that we have been given and all that we are called to become.

Did you ever wonder what happened to those pilgrims on the road to Emmaus? I’ve been wondering about them this week, and – I think, I think that they became us.  I think that we are them.  They ate the bit of bread that Jesus offered them – just as we are about to do – and they were roused from their sorrow, their hearts were set on fire, and they went on their way.  They saw what we are called to see – that what we think is the end is not the end, that death does not have the final word and that sorrow is not our final destination. They went toward – toward Jerusalem, toward what would become the beginnings of the church, toward a future they could not have imagined.

We, too, in our gratitude for the presence of Jesus among us, strengthened by the meal he shares with us – we, too, are drawn to a future we do not know.  Seeds of hope have been planted among us and, while we may not see their full flowering, we are called to tend them so that they grow and flourish.  We are called to take the gifts we have discovered and honed here at Boulevard and share them on the pilgrim road, where we will sojourn with new travelers to new places. In the words of Oscar Romero, 20th-century prophet to the people of South America: The Kingdom of God
 . . . is beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  . . .  We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”
So: Go forth, dear Boulevard friends. Go forth and rejoice in the Lord, giving thanks for all that your life has been here. Remember your friends, remember our window and banners, remember your worship and your service in this place – remember all of it -- with thanksgiving and love.  But go forth and live into your calling as an Easter people, as a resurrection people, and as Emmaus pilgrims, in gratitude for the road behind, and for the road that opens ahead. Go forth as prophets of a future not your own, and walk straight into the love of God.  Amen.

First and Last and In-Between ~ Sermon (Revelation and John)

Tomorrow morning our congregation worships together for the last time (not counting our afternoon closing service):

We begin as did John, writing the Book of Revelation from the vantage point of old age and long experience: Grace and peace to you, gathered as the people of the God who is and who was and who is to come, the God of first and lasts and in-between, and gathered as the people of Jesus Christ, ruler of all. 
This is a hard day, this last day.  It’s a day on which we ponder first and lasts and in-between time.  We begin with firsts.  I want to invite you to think for a minute about when your life of faith officially began.
For many of you, yours has been officially a Christian life of faith for a long time, since that day you don’t even remember, when you were baptized as an infant.  For others, that life began, or perhaps began again, when you found your way into the church, or back into the church, as an adult.  For others of you here this morning, you may describe your life of faith in some way other than Christian, as a life of connection to something greater than yourself which began in another setting, during another period in time for you. But whenever or however, most of us have early or beginning moments in our spiritual lives, in those arenas in which we find meaning beyond ourselves, early moments, whether we ourselves remember them or not, that we can recount as a stepping-off point on the journey of faith.  The first of many stations along the way.
Today?  Many of us will count today as an ending in the life of faith.  This is, after all, a last day. For some of us, it’s the ending to a brief period in which we were drawn to this congregation, found a place of worship here, and tried sought to work in concert with God and to make a difference to others in the community.  For others, it’s the ending of decades in the Boulevard community.  S, I know, has a storehouse of memories of helping to found this church with her husband, Rev. C;  so does R, as a charter member of the congregation. So do the C sister and brothers who grew up here. 
For all of us, Boulevard marks a chapter in a life of great community and service.  I can’t name all of those whom many of you will remember as saints in the life of this church    I’ve been here for only two of your 65 years  – but I can easily bring to mind people of this period, as well as some of your stories of the past.  I’m thinking of those of you who worked tirelessly, and often physically, to put this building together. I’m thinking of the women who hosted events to raise money for various improvements over the years.  I’m thinking of B and how she has been the face and voice of Grandpa’s, and of D and A and V and Pastor A and so many others who have stood – and run and jumped! – behind the community meals.  I’m thinking of  those of you who discovered deep friendships here.  I’m thinking of the members of session, who over the past two years have stretched and grown to serve in ways they never could have imagined when they say “yes” to that call. I’m thinking of B, who quietly ensures that we have candles and communion, and of his entire family, who provides us with a picnic each year.  I’m thinking of all of you who usher, and provide for coffee hours, and participate in Bible studies, and run the Powerpoint, and come to worship faithfully, Sunday after Sunday.  I’m thinking of all of you who pray with this congregation, here and at home.
And we are all thinking: That chapter is now coming to an end.
But chapter – that’s exactly what is ending.  A chapter only.
Because WE are not the beginning or the ending.  God is – God is the Alpha and the Omega, the Greek letters for first and last. 
We know from the Book of Genesis that God was here at the beginning.  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth . . . “ – that’s what our scripture tells us.  I think we know that we weren’t here – we might be old, but we aren’t 14 billion years old! – but we know from the Bible that God was.  Here.  In the beginning. 
And in the end – the real end – God will be there, too.  The whole Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, assures us of God’s presence at the end as well, when all that we know is changed and created anew.
And in the middle?  Where we are right now, somewhere in the middle of the life of the universe, somewhere in the timeless life of God, somewhere in the midst of the human journey of faith?  God is here, too.
I don’t think it’s too hard to see God this morning.  Look to your right and look to your left.  Do you see God’s image in your neighbor?  (It’s right there, whether you want to admit it or not!)  Look at this beautiful sanctuary – God has been present in all the love and care lavished on building and maintaining it.  Listen to our music – God is always present in the music! 
First, last, and in between – that’s where God is. 
And you know who else is first, last, and in between – Jesus Christ!
The Bible tells us that Jesus was here at the beginning as well.  Remember how the Gospel of John begins?  Jesus is the Word, and John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.”  That Word was Jesus, with God from the beginning.
And at the last.  Our faith, that faith that we repeat in our creeds, tells us that Jesus will come at the end – which is another beginning: the beginning of the new creation, the creation for which we all long, the creation in which all is made new and there will be no more tears, no more crying. And in the middle – here, now, at Boulevard, where is Jesus? Jesus is here, where we worship together.  Remember? “ Where two or three are gathered, I am there in their midst” – so Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus is here, where we are kind to one another, where we reach out to one another in times of trouble and in times of celebration. From its earliest days as recorded in the Book of Acts, the Christian Church has been a place of bringing our sorrows and our joys to community. 
Jesus is here, where we provide meals and clothing to our neighbors, where we host safety meetings for the neighborhood and when we make it possible for young people to see Selma.  As Jesus himself tells us, again in the Gospel of Matthre: When you feed the hungry and clothe the naked  and care for others, you see me.
Today in the church across the world, we celebrate Jesus as Christ the King.  Sometimes we say that we celebrate the Reign of Christ.  It’s the final Sunday of the church year, the day on which we sum up all that we have heard and learned and sung and prayed: We are people of the Kingdom of God.  Next week we begin a new year with the first Sunday of Advent, but today we pause to recognize all of the possibility inherent in that new creation in which Christ is King.  Ruler of the already-but-not-yet kingdom in which he has come near and called us to follow, but for whose full fruition we wait.
What does this kingdom look like, this kingdom which, Jesus tells Pilate, “is not from this world” and is yet of this world into which he entered, as the Word of God, as a tiny infant, as the Christ who suffers and also as the Christ who defeats death?  What is this truth, the truth that marks the presence of this kingdom? 
These are some of the things which mark this truth, which tell us that the kingdom is near:
The beautiful young woman I saw on the news the other night, who spoke of lying absolutely still on the floor of the concert hall in France so that the terrorists, still shooting, would think she was dead.  She said that as she lay there, she could feel the hall fill with the love being sent into the world by the frightened and the dying. She said she decided that, if she were going to die that night, she wanted to die with love in her heart.  That is truth.  That is the kingdom of God, coming very near indeed.
The older gentleman who came by this week from Rolling Sobriety, one of the AA groups that’s been meeting here, to pick up the equipment and belongings they had stored here.  He struggles to walk, and my guess is that alcoholism has taken its toll on him, but he is dignified and kind, and invests much of himself in keeping that AA group afloat so that men and women have a place to heal.  That is truth.  That is the kingdom of God, coming near right here at Boulevard.
You know other signs of the truth, signs of the movement of God’s kingdom, signs you have seen here, in this church. Close your eyes for a moment and remember them:
That Sunday school teacher whose lessons opened the Bible to you.
The music which lifted your spirits.
That time you sat down with someone and realized that you – YOU – were called to listen and to share the peace of God with a troubled soul.
The friend who brought communion to you when you were homebound, or in the hospital, and said, “This is the bread of life, and this is the cup of salvation.”
That evening when you discovered that the Bible you had never really thought all that much about was speaking directly to you, about your work and your gifts, and telling you that you were given these gifts so that you could touch others and urging you to see that, as you reached out to them, you were brushing against the God of the universe.
All those moments, moments you’ve never even talked about to anyone – those were your moments of truth, those were your moments when the kingdom of God drew ever so close to you. 
Here.  In this in-between time.  God has been here, all along.
And you know what? The church, this church for now and perhaps another church in your future – church is where we learn this, where we learn the language and begin to know the experience of God.  Church is where we learn it – but church is not where we keep it.
Because God – this wild and reckless God of ours – will not be hemmed in by any church building, or by any particular congregation, or by any specific denomination.  And Jesus, the truth of our lives, will not be limited by the institutions we create or by the rules we think are so important.  God is first, last, and in between – God is everywhere – and God is not going to leave you, no matter where you go.  And Jesus – Jesus is the King of the World, Jesus is the One of God who says, “when you belong to truth, you hear my voice – and my voice can be heard everywhere.
This is a great gift my friends, this gift of faith in which we are wrapped by God from first to last and in-between.  We are about to celebrate God’s call to us with a re-affirmation of our baptismal vows, a reaffirmation of one of our own firsts in faith, so that as we go out today, we go out remembering who we are and whose we are.  And we are going to go out in the confidence that God, the Alpha and the Omega, envelops us with love, offers Jesus as our companion, and sends us forth, blessing each of us to be a blessing, to carry God’s grace and peace into the world, wherever we go.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Questions I Am Asking Myself

I've had a couple of interviews for new calls.  I am a little bit busy and pre-occupied, what with closing a church and all, but life will go on, and I am responding to possible opportunities so that it goes on with me still along.

Consequently, I am being asked a lot of questions.

Tonight, I find myself thinking of questions I want to ask of myself.   Not that I want to answer them in a blog, but I am curious about what the answers might tell me.

What are you reading?

What has been your biggest disappointment in this call that is ending?

What has been your own most significant personal failure?

What most wonderful and moving moment stands out for you?

When did you make a major mistake that, had you done otherwise, the tide might have turned?

What is your favorite tv show these days?

What non-church role have you most enjoyed?

How are you doing without your son in your life?

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  (You get to choose two places.)

Do you actually want to learn to cook?

Hmmmm.  Maybe I will answer them, maybe tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 16: Boldness Rejected

As our time as a congregation draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on our efforts of the past two years. 
We did not get it all right, not at all.  But we tried.  We tried to be bold and imaginative and hopeful.
We approached three congregations in an effort to get some sort of co-operative venture off the ground. 
One never responded to our overtures.  They have since called a new part-time pastor and given themselves two years, so I hear, to "make it," whatever that means.
A second called a new part-time pastor just before they heard from us.  They had been without a pastor for over two years, were able to afford someone half-time, and pronounced themselves "fine." They came to a couple of meetings and then abandoned the process.
The third entered into preliminary merger talks with us over a year ago.  There were some fits and starts, but it seemed that there was also real hope ~ until their abrupt withdrawal from our conversations back in May.  They have a half-time pastor and even fewer people than we do, and are now preparing to close next year.
We had a vision: A new congregation, a new sense of mission to communities with boundless opportunities for ministry.
But fear, and a grasp on the past, and fear, and passivity, and fear, seem to have a hold on our congregations.
No wonder people don't clamor to join us.  They smell the fear in the air.

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 15: One Week to Go

We will hold our final services next Sunday ~ our usual service in the morning and our official closing service in conjunction with the Presbytery in the early afternoon, with a light brunch in between.
There is much to be done this week ~ two sermons to write, last minute plans to pull together, work on building details with the Presbytery committee (the building is going to be managed by a commercial real estate company, whose task is to lease as much of the space as possible), a meeting with said committee, elderly members to meet with, plus other work of my own, plus ~ trying to stay focused and healthy!  The latter is something of a challenge, since my body reacts so quickly to stress. 
This morning I find myself thinking about other big losses in my own life, not only the huge personal ones of mother, brother, and son, but the other institutional ones: both of my boarding schools, places in which I lived in community 24/7 for three years each, are now gone.  The other day, I read an article in which the author remarked that those of us in our sixties are now starting to experience big losses.  Starting? Ha! 
The difference this time is that I am the primary leader to whom everyone has looked for the past two years.  I do think that we have done a good job with this ~ all I have to do to convince myself of that is to look back and imagine what might be the result had we not done what we have ~ and I do believe that we have been attentive to the divine leadership of the Holy Spirit . . . but, once again: people will be separated from one another and the tangible evidence of our relationships will be no more. 
I believe that a morning walk is now in order.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Star is Born ~ Sermon (I Samuel and Mark)

At the beginning of this year, on Epiphany Sunday, I handed out a star word to each of you.  Do you remember your stars? Mine is still posted on my office door, with its word “Blessedness ” as a guidepost for my year.  Did you post your star where you can see it? Do you know what your star word is?
Back when we received our star words, we were full of hope for the year ahead.  We had completed a successful annual giving campaign, and were making new plans for conversations with another congregations.  When I handed out the stars, I said:
[Your star[ contains a word for you, a word to ponder, to question, to pray with, to laugh over, to wonder about.   This star might serve as your guide for the next year.  What sort of year will it     be for you, as a seeker?  What sort of year for you as an individual, as a family member, as a         community participant, as a worshipper with this congregation?  What might your word suggest          to you, during moments of joy, in the middle of nights of heartache, on ordinary days and on        extraordinary days? Stars have long been understood to be mysterious guides – the       constellations, the specific stars like the North Star, our own sun – guides about which we know                 little, but which with their light and energy point the way for us, and even save us from some    tight spots. 
Our stars were born, out of construction paper and markers, on a cold, but calm, wintery day.  But in celestial life, stars are born in a more complicated and dramatic way.  I’m guessing that the physics and chemistry involved in star formation is a bit beyond most of us, so I’m going to read from a description for kids:
"The] birth places of stars are huge, cold clouds of gas and dust, known as 'nebulas'.
These clouds start to shrink under their own gravity. As the cloud gets smaller, it breaks into       clumps. Each clump eventually becomes so hot and dense that nuclear reactions begin. When              the temperature reaches 10 million degrees Celsius, the clump becomes a new star."[1]
What I think this means is that stars are born out of the imagination of God.  Who else but the Creator of the universe would come up with a plan to mix gasses and dust and gravity and heat into nuclear reactions that would create all those twinkling lights in the sky? 
In God’s imagination, all sorts of births take place.  Our first story today tells the story of the birth of Samuel.
Samuel is one of those OT characters we aren’t entirely sure about.  Who was Samuel, exactly?
Samuel is most well known as an anointer of kings: first Saul, and then David.  In Samuel’s time, 3,000 years ago, the nation of Israel was ruled by judges – by people who served mostly as tribal leaders. They weren’t necessarily judges as we think of judges in our courts today, although they might sometimes preside over disputes and issue decisions.  But, more often, they were thought of as military leaders who, when wars were over, returned to their people to lead them in times of peace as well. 
The people of Israel were not satisfied with their judges.  They looked around and saw that their neighbors had kings – hereditary rulers – and they wanted a king, too.  Samuel, who was a judge himself, was upset about this, but God told Samuel to go ahead and appoint a king, saying that the people were not rejecting Samuel as their judge, but were rejecting God, their real king.  God also told Samuel to warn the people, which he did, that their kings would exploit them, taking their money for the royal treasury and their sons for battle --  but the people still wanted a king, and that’s what they got.
Samuel, the last of the major judges and the anointer of kings, is an important figure in the Bible, because he listened so carefully to God and followed God’s instructions.  And important people in the Bible – the stars of the Bible -- are often the subjects of dramatic birth stories, stories in which difficulties are overcome.
Samuel’s story is first the story of his mother Hannah, who, unlike her husband Elkanah’s other wife, was unable to bear children.  Elkanah was deeply in love with Hannah and didn’t care about her childless state, but Hannah herself was devastated, and prayed and wept to God for a son.  She promised God that if God would give her a son, she in turn would give her son back to God, in service to God.  And God did, in response, give her a son, Samuel, and when Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the temple to present him to God, and left him there to be raised by Eli, the high priest.
This is a story of high drama – jealousy between wives, intense wailing and weeping and prayer, a miraculous conception, and then – the child given up by the mother who had so longed for him.  This is a human version of the story of the creation of a star.  I wonder what Samuel’s star word might have been, had Eli handed him a yellow construction-paper star?
Obedient?  Servant of God?  Leader?  Messenger?  Prophet?  Annointer?
Do any of his words sound like words you might want for yourself?  Or do they sound as if they would be too difficult to fulfill?
Of course, when God invites us to be born anew, as a new star, with a new word, the role is often unexpected and not easy to fulfill. 
We have another star-birth story today, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark.  This one, however, is first a star-death story.  It’s an end-time story, told by Jesus just before his crucifixion, when he proclaims to at least one disciple that the great stones of the temple, the center of Jewish ceremonial life, will all be knocked down.  And then he goes on to tell James and John and Peter and Andrew, in confusing – and dramatic – terms, what will happen at the end – or at the beginning, which may be the same thing: There will be false prophets, he says, and wars and rumors of wars, and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This,” says Jesus, “is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Now, people sometimes like to look at these predictions of war and famine and earthquakes and say, “The end of the world is near!” – because all of these things are happening right now.  But, honestly, can you think of any time in human history in which all of these things were not happening?  I don’t think that the point is merely to warn of us of the end of the world as a catastrophic event of violence and disaster, which will happen any minute now.  I think the point is to tell us that when the Reign of God finally breaks in to our lives in all of its completeness, it will be so different from what we have experienced that the contrast will astonish – and, I believe – delight us.  What we are experiencing now is: the beginning of the birth pangs.” 
This passage reminds me of a trip our family made just about 31 years ago.  My husband and I took our twin sons, who were three months old, down to Florida to see my grandparents – for what we knew was likely to be a final visit with my grandfather, who was extremely ill.  I was very close to my grandparents – I had grown up next door to them, and since my brother and I had lost our mother when we were small children, our grandparents had huge roles in our lives.  So I was accustomed to long and intimate talks with them.  Down in Florida that year, with my grandfather confined to his bed, I spent a lot of time introducing him and his great-grandsons to one another, and a lot of time talking with my grandmother.  One night, I was telling her about when my sons were born, and she was telling me about the challenges of caring for my grandfather.  She sighed and said, “The passages at the beginning of life and at the end of life are both very hard.” 
I think that that’s what Jesus is getting at here.  Beginnings and endings – both hard, and made all the more so by the fact that they are simultaneous. 
Look back at Samuel’s life, and his mother Hannah’s: what was a joyful beginning for Hannah – the arrival of a longed-for child – was also a heart-rending ending, as she had promised to return that child to God.  What was a hard ending for Samuel – the separation from his parents – was also an exciting beginning – his new life in the temple with the high priest, Eli.
Look at what Jesus says: the end of the temple of coming.  The end of life as you know it, the end of your expectations and plans and rituals – all will be knocked down, just as the huge stones of the temple will be.  But these things are the birth pangs – the signs of new beginnings of a new creation, of the in breaking of the reign of God when all shall be made new, and there will be crying and tears no more.  A new-star sort of life.
What about you and your star-word?  Is a star about to be born?  Are you about to be born again?  Is your star a sign of something completely unexpected?
I freely admit: When I taped my yellow star with the word ”Blessedness” to my door, I did not expect Blessedness to look like the end of this year does.
I expected Blessedness to look like a new church.  New members and friends.   Maybe a children’s Sunday School.  That food pantry Doris dreamed of.  Special events in Grandpa’s.
I did not expect Blessedness to look like closed doors.  Like new members and friends in other congregations.  Like giving away all of our leftover food.  Like giving away almost everything in Grandpa’s.  Like planning final services for the last Sunday of this church year instead of Advent services for the first Sundays of the new church year.
But  . . . these are the birth pangs.  “In our end is our beginning,” as the song says. Hannah had to promise to give up her child to get her child.  Samuel had to lose his family to gain his role as judge and anointer of kings.  The temple had to fall to make way for something even now, 2000 years later, unknown.  Jesus had to die to himself to give life to all.    We have to reach an ending to rise elsewhere.
These are the birth pangs.  Not death pangs, but birth pangs.  In Greek, the language of the gospel for  the phrase ”birth pangs” means “travail” – hard work, involving suffering.  In English, the word “to birth” comes from a Norse word meaning “to bear”: to carry, to support, to move.  Both are true, aren’t they?  This is hard work, but it is the word of carrying and supporting and moving forward.
I intend to carry my star word, “Blessedness,” forward.  I intend to support others in a blessed future.
What about you?  How will you carry your word into the future, into the continuing realization of the kingdom of God?
I pray that you will know blessedness as you lift your star word up and carry it onward.  Amen

Image: Star Formation System.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration.