LIGHTING THE NEIGHBORHOOD
John 1: 1-16; Jan. 5, 2019; Union Congr. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
In the beginning was the Word – and the Word was with God – and the Word was God. I think this may have been the first scripture passage I memorized when I was a child. That it is such a familiar and most beautiful passage of the Bible – may been one of the reasons why I made the decision for it to be read from the Message this morning – to challenge us to hear what is beneath and behind and beyond John’s lofty poetic language and theology.
‘No one has ever seen God’, John writes and perhaps that may be so – and perhaps that idea is helpful for you – and perhaps it isn’t helpful at all. Perhaps that is the very point of this scripture from the gospel of John – that God is so transcendent – so other – so far away – that to still be immersed in the here and now absolutely real baby- being- birthed Christmas story - God taking on flesh – God coming to earth to be with us – God coming as a tiny newborn baby – is almost beyond our believing.
John in his gospel seems to take God far, far away from us in swirled in the mists of God’s mystery – and the miracle of Christmas is that God stepped God’self out of that mystery into a completely new mystery – and that in that process, God stepped directly into the messiness and difficulties of all that it means to be human.
The beauty of Christmas is that it doesn’t allow us to forget that the God who so often feels so distant from our struggles – has become someone so loveable – so embraceable – so tiny and vulnerable – that we cannot stop ourselves from wanting to fall on our knees to admire and touch and coo and cuddle – the brand new newborn milk-smelling baby wrapped in cloths and lying on a bed of hay.
I’ve always appreciated the beauty of these words from the very beginning of John’s gospel and even so they’ve never really felt like meaningful words of comfort and hope. And then I hear the words from Gene Peterson’s Bible Interpretation, The Message, “The word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, ” and I cannot help but wonder if it is possible that I might bump into that ‘living word’ the next time I’m out and about in my neighborhood. The word is right here John reminded us – the word is here and someone has already sighted it – there are most likely postings on Instagram and Facebook already going viral. This is not just a beautiful otherworldly poem – the Word – the in the beginning Word – has become flesh – it’s real – and it’s here – now – in our own neighborhoods.
And not only is it here – it’s lighting up the neighborhood! John tells us the word became life - and the life became light - and the light was for all people.
This image of darkness becoming light reminds me of what it is like in parts of the world like up in the mountains of Guatemala - where whole neighborhoods live defined by the cycles of dark and light provided by the sun – and that before and after the sun rises and sets – it is dark – it is very dark. And it is amazing the ways in which one small candle or lantern can provide so much light – that all the dark places are suddenly not quite so dark.
Out in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a canoe trip the darkness that comes after the sun sets and before the moon rises is almost a tangible presence that you can feel. And yet the moment you click on your headlamp providing a beam of light – that wall of darkness recedes and merely become a soft yielding thing.
When Peterson in the Message says the word become flesh – and the word became light – and it moved into the neighborhood – these are the images that come alive to me. A darkened neighborhood – each individual house completely dark – and one by one – a single light comes on – house by house receiving the light – until the whole neighborhood is filled with the light.
We are a people spoiled by light pollution – many of us don’t even know what it is to be in complete darkness. There is always some light – the streetlight that shines all night – penetrating my upstairs windows unless I pull the blinds to keep it out – and even then, it peeps through the cracks. The outside ‘security’ lights that never allow it to be completely dark. And inside even when the blinds are drawn keeping out the outside light – there are the glowing red dots of all our devices – microwave, computers, cell phones - each alight or doing so at our movement.
And when we are so used to these lights on all the time – the sheer majesty and wonder described by John – of the light entering our world and changing it forever – seems perhaps not quite so amazing and wonderful as it may have been for a people who truly – physically walked in darkness - as well as all those of us who metaphorically walk in darkness.
Just imagine if God truly moved into the neighborhood turning on the lights of love and compassion from one household to another – from one place of business to another. Wouldn’t this be amazing!
I know there are people that are so impressed with the omniscience of God - that God knows everything all the time – and this is what is most important to them about God. But what I find the most wonderful part of this text is that it teaches us something different about God and God’s love. And the thing that is so impressive is not that God is so far away but that God is right here – right now – and God is bringing God’s unconditional love and compassion right into the neighborhood – right next door! I love the image of watching lights come on in each house – or each street lamps coming on – and I imagine that each of these lights are the light John talks about that grew from the Word – the Word that comes directly from God – that is God – and that each of these lights coming on – penetrating the darkness -is the very same light of the world named by John – moving into our lives – changing our very being.
DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
Matthew 2: 13-15, Dec. 29, 2019; Union Cong. Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
‘Now after the wisemen had left’…. How odd that today’s gospel tells a story that makes a leap ahead. We hear of the magi’s departure from their visit with the Holy family - before we hear of their arrival. We won’t hear the whole story of the wise ones traveling – following the star – arriving with gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense until Epiphany on January 6.
Chronologically the story goes like this: 1) Jesus is born, 2) the wise men arrive bringing gifts, and 3)the holy family flees to Egypt. However by putting todays text ahead - we get the story of the flight to Egypt before the wise men have even paid a visit. It’s a good thing we already know the story – from years and years of hearing it – or if it was new this year – we’ve already heard the whole story twice: early in Advent with our paper bag Nativity we told the whole story including the arrival of the wise people – and again on Christmas Eve, we tell the whole story in lessons and carols – and thus we are set up for the next part of the story – which is that fearing for the life of their baby, Mary and Joseph flee with Jesus to Egypt.
So, why does our church calendar do this out of order thing? It’s true that there are other times in the church year we are also discomforted to find our stories being told out of chronological order. Perhaps the truth is that God’s story is not chronological – and no matter how hard we try to make it that way – it simply isn’t so. Perhaps it is the church’s way – using the lectionary cycle of scripture texts - of jarring us – making us say, ‘hey – what’s going on’? And perhaps, causing us to hear the story in a way we’ve not heard before.
With the birth of Jesus, God entrusts God’s self to humans. God becomes one of us and lives among us so we perhaps can finally understand some truths about God. God comes when we are not ready. Just look at the words of the Advent hymn “Keep Awake, Be Always Ready” based on the gospel story reminding us that God will come when we aren’t paying attention. God does not show up when we have the house cleaned top to bottom, spic and span, cobwebs removed, Christmas decorations all up, beautiful music filling the house, clean fluffy towels in the bathroom, trays of cookies baked with love ready for guests…..
The Christmas story was never a story of a freshly painted nursery, neat piles of fresh diapers …. God comes to us as we are – ready or not. The world does not get ready for the birth of Jesus – no matter how many years we practice our annual Advent preparations! The Christmas story is a story that reveals a truth about Jesus and God. It reminds us that the divine life is vulnerable, fragile, and needs to be tended carefully and protected. Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is reality – nothing sentimental or romanticized.
Before we can celebrate the Ephiphany – the coming of the light into the world – the arrival of the magi – and the recognition that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us--- – before all that we must first remember and acknowledge the bleak underbelly of our world. That’s what reordering the story does for us. It reminds us that Herod is real, not only in Jesus’ time but in ours as well. I don’t know if the slaughter of the innocents happened the way Matthew described it – because Matthew is the only one that describes it – but I know it is a true story because it has been lived out in every age throughout history – and even right now is being lived out in our own country in deplorable ways. The Herods of the world – and there are always Herods -power hungry – mean bullys – seeking to destroy life – life that is sacred and holy.
There are Herod’s in the news every day. You may not see the name Herod – but you can recognize him. He’s hard to miss. Sometimes he’s in our families and relationships. Sometimes he’s in our own words – sometimes Herod isn’t even a he. Sometimes Herod is our indifference – our complacency – that lets us ignore or pretend the hatred and injustice isn’t all around us. Herod is that which prevents our compassion. Herod is our busyness and distractions we use to explain why we can’t stand up to injustice today. Herod is our inhumanity that allows this wonderful creation which God called good, to be destroyed and used for human greed. Herod is our politics when it is narrow, self-serving, discriminatory, misogynist, and exclusive. Our world and sometimes our lives are full of Herods.
The world of Herod is the world of the nightmare dreamed by the wise men as they slept after the eventful day of finally finding the infant Jesus.
The world of Herod is a world rife with injustice, power abused, exclusion, and determining the value of people based on their country of origin, their gender, their sexuality, their social location. The world of Herod is a nightmare. You wake up shaking at the enormity of such depravity.
But God is the dream of something so much more – the dream of a world where everyone is free – where people are not judged on where they come from – but valued and loved for who they are simply because they too are children of God. God’s dream is bigger and more far-reaching than anything we can ask for or imagine. And always, always, humans and Herods have sought to diminish or reinvent God’s dream.
Today’s gospel will not let us deny Herod’s existence. The world of Herod is the world into which Jesus is born. The world of Herod is the world into which Jesus puts our lives back together because it is the world in which Jesus reveals that God is with us and for us.
Herod’s corruption is not the final reality. Darkness will not prevail. The light of the world has come to overcome the darkness. That means, however that each or us, just like Joseph has both the opportunity and responsibility to guard the divine life and protect all that is holy and sacred. The divine life is not only about Jesus it’s about all of us. It’s about God with us - in our lives and our relationships. It’s about people we know and people we’ve never met. It’s about the ways we know the sacred in trees and rivers and stones. It’s about the infinite ways the divine life is entrusted to all of us.
Where in your life do you find holiness? What is sacred? What are the ways God is entrusting God’s self to you? Please don’t reply with soft mushy vague answers - give me names. Give me places and times. Give me events. It’s not that I want to attempt to limit how and when and why God’s presence can be known to you – it’s that I want you to name the ways and times and places that you find God embodied – flesh and blood – with us – with you. God comes to us in tangible ways. Call them by name. Picture their faces. Picture the places. Return to the faces and places. Widen your view. Go into your dreams and nightmares too – to see God at work in the best and worst of our experiences.
Don’t let yourself be too limited by Herod. The wise men had a dream – a nightmare – showing them the cruelty and hatred of Herod – and they went home a different way – bypassing Herod’s palace where they were to report finding the infant Jesus.
Joseph too had a dream – a nightmare – showing the cruelty and hatred of Herod – planning to kill every infant just to make sure the infant Jesus was put to death. Joseph and Mary and their son planned to leave their country and escape to Egypt. They chose to become refugees because they simply could not stay where they were. They knew the trip to Egypt and that once they arrived in Egypt was no assurance of safety. Egypt was full of corruption and danger – but it was not Judea.
Matthew’s story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus escaping to Egypt reminds us that we too have choices and decisions to make about resisting the Herods who surround us. We could do nothing – and allow God- with-us to die – or we can resist, we can cultivate deep friendships, we can build community – especially with people who don’t look like us or live like us, we can walk gently on this earth – caring and giving back more than we take, we can cultivate a life of prayer – acting out that prayer in every moment of our everyday lives, we can actively love all people, we can love all of creation, and bring that love alive – because in the end – holiness – the sacred - God-with-us – is always the beginning. That is our dream – because it is God’s dream.
The Condensed Version
Matthew 1: 18-25; Dec. 22, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
This is the Christmas story according to Matthew. No searching for a place to stay and hearing over and over, “No room!” No shepherds. Only one angel and certainly no heavenly host. No animals.
The gospel of Matthew gives us the condensed version of the Christmas story. If you want the whole beautiful story –you’ll have to go to the gospel of Luke – and that’s not what we get to hear in this year’s lectionary cycle. It’s Matthew’s turn and Matthew has quite different reasons than Luke for telling the story the way he does.
And yet, it is also Matthew who gives us a continuation of the story told in Luke – the part we often add as though it is a part of Luke’s story. It’s what happens after the birth of Jesus: only Matthew tells of the wise men travelling from the East following a star bringing gifts of gold and myrhh and frankincense.
It is Matthew who gives us the back story of Joseph. Joseph, about whom we learn nothing in the more familiar and seemingly complete story in Luke, except that he was engaged to Mary. Joseph seems almost peripheral to this family when we read the story from Luke. But Matthew begins his whole story by setting the stage for the importance – the necessity of Joseph. Thus Matthew starts his book in chapter one by laying out the family tree of Jesus Christ.
Here it is: Abraham had Isaac – Isaac had Jacob – Jacob had Judah and his brothers – Judah had Perez and Zerah (their mother was Tamar) – Perez had Hezron – Hezron had Aram - ……… Salmon had Boaz (his mother was Rehab) – Boaz had Obed (his mother was Ruth) – Obed had Jesse – Jesse had David – and David became king.
David had Solomon – Solomon had Rehoboam - …… and on and on
Amon had Josiah – Josiah had Jehoiachin and his brothers and then the people were taken into the Babylonian exile.
When the Babylonian exile ended, Joiachin had Shealtiel …. and on and on …. Eleazar had Matthan – Matthan had Jacob – Jacob had Joseph (Mary’s husband – the Mary who gave birth to Jesus – the Jesus who was called Christ.)
There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David.
And another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile
And yet another fourteen from the Babylonian exile to Christ. Three sets of fourteen.
And then, Matthew continues: The birth of Jesus took place like this. Short and sweet. Just the facts. But oh what facts does Matthew think are important?
Matthew writes his gospel in a time of great uncertainty for early Christians. It was a time of terrible persecution under Roman rule. And just like their faith ancestors hanging on the words of the prophet Isaiah – the people wanted – desperately needed - a savior. It was a dark time. Believers felt they had nowhere to turn. How could they be sure that Jesus was the savior for whom they had been waiting.
And that brings us back to Joseph and his role in this story. Joseph - who found out that his betrothed Mary is pregnant – and it isn’t his child. The child, Mary tells him is from the Holy Spirit. When Joseph finds out, he plans to break his engagement with her. He is a good man, a kind man. He doesn’t want to disgrace her – or worse subject her to the censure of her people – shunning, even possibly putting her to death, so he plans to do it quietly. And then, Joseph has a dream telling him not to do that – but to take Mary as his wife, and when the child is born, to name him Jesus – which means ‘to save’.
Joseph is necessary to this story as told by Matthew. It is not Mary who traces her lineage back to David and all the way back to Abraham - it is Joseph. This baby to be born needs Joseph to be his father in order to provide the lineage fortold by the prophets.
The Christmas story is both a beautiful story – even in Matthew’s abbreviated form – and it is a story that brings up a lot of questions.
It is a story that if we think at all about it we cannot help but have a lot of disbelief – for both non-believers and we progressive Christians who are taught that it is good to ask questions of our faith.
An unwed mother pregnant by the Holy Spirit? A father – who is not the biological father – yet is the one that provides the ancestral line for the legitimacy to fulfill the words of the prophets. How can you help but have questions?
I think perhaps the only really helpful question may be: ‘What does this tell us about God?’ Sometimes as I ponder the unbelievable nature of this story that is so central to our Christian faith – I wonder about Mary and how she come to be pregnant? With everything we know about that process – I know I have thoughts about how that might have come about. And Joseph who at least at first didn’t believe what Mary told him about the baby being fathered by the Holy Spirit – well really – who would? And Joseph who wasn’t going to marry her until the dream angel intervened and changed his mind.
I have a lot of questions about this Christmas story. Over the years, I’ve been asked many times if it would shake or even destroy my faith if I were to learn that Mary’s pregnancy really came about in some other way. Certainly you can imagine some of those possibilities. And no – no, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t change anything for me about this chosen Jesus - the teacher of parables, the breaker of boundaries and rules, the healer of the many deemed unworthy by society, the over-turner of the powers and principalities – the disdainer of the status quo. It wouldn’t change any of that.
Because – this is a story about God doing what God does. And God works in strange and unimaginable ways. God never chooses the expected ones – the seemingly deserving ones – the rich and powerful ones – the ones who follow all the rules. Over and over, God chooses the imperfect – the ones who don’t quite fit in – the ones who break the rules – the outliers. God chooses the young woman from nowhere – the young woman who is hardly to be believed about how she came to be pregnant. God chooses this young woman to be the mother of the savior of the world. It doesn’t really matter to me how she came to be pregnant – just that God chose her – and God chose her baby.
And God chose a man – an ordinary humble carpenter who happens to trace his family line back to kings and patriarchs - to be the father of this child. God chose to become flesh – become human – become Emmanuel – God with us – through these two people.
What an amazing story. Even in this abbreviated version. Think of the possibilities for amazement and incredulity when we add a host of heavenly angels, scads of shepherds, and reluctant inkeepers.
This Christmas may you question and wonder. May you ponder all these things on your heart as did Mary. May you be as faithful and willing and kind as Joseph. May you sing with angels and fall to your knees as shepherds and magi. May Christmas come to life within you as you too become part of the story.
Preparing and Waiting
Isaiah 11: 1-10; December 15, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I am no good at waiting. In doctor’s offices, after a meeting, for someone to arrive with deliveries………… I am no good at it - this waiting. As I was thinking about what it might mean to be waiting on this third Sunday in Advent, it seems worth exploring what it means to wait – and understand better why I - and I’m guessing many of you – are no good at it. Our scripture text for today from the prophet Isaiah is all about some future time – a time for which we are waiting and anticipating.
Henri Nouwen in an Advent reflection suggests that we can only wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. Waiting, says Nouwen, is never a movement from nothing to something, but a movement from something to something more. Mary the mother of Jesus, her cousin Elizabeth pregnant with the child who will grow to become the John the Baptist – the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus; Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah – all lived with a promise. The Israelite people hearing from the prophet Isaiah of an almost unbelievable new world of unbelievable peace and harmony and balance – a new promise. It was these promises that nurtured them, fed them and enabled them to stay where they were – and wait. By their waiting, the promises could gradually unfold and realize itself within them and through them.
But, I say, we don’t live in that world. And our world is not based on waiting – just the opposite, in fact – our world is based on now – on being first – on getting ahead – on being proactive. I admit it. I have trouble waiting because (and I don’t even like admitting this) I like to have more control than waiting gives me. To wait is to admit that we are not in control. To wait is to admit that we are not the giver, but the receiver.
Now that I’ve gotten that declaration out of the way, let’s talk more specifically about waiting. The season of Advent began the first of December, and today we begin our third week of this annual time when we are encouraged to slow down, anticipate, reflect, ponder, take stock, and yes wait. A few years ago, at this time of year, I recall admitting my problems with waiting – and suggesting a few techniques to help us all with our waiting challenges – not that any of you have these same control concerns as I. The suggestion I remember best was from something I was reading and describes an exercise in giving up control at this time of year. The suggestion: whenever you go shopping in these days and weeks before Christmas, get in the longest check-out line Have any of you tried it?
I don’t like to shop – even for groceries – and when I do, I am seldom in a great hurry - but I think that the idea is to get us to stop focusing on what ISN’T and to focus on WHAT IS. To stop wasting our time worrying about how much time is going by and our need to get through the line quickly – so that we can move on to something else – more shopping or decorating or entertaining or ……… as quickly as possible – INSTEAD of focusing on the moment. If, however, you choose the longest line in the checkout purposely – you might find yourself chatting with another shopper in that line. You might even cheer up someone else’s day as well as your own. You might have a meaningful conversation with a family member who is with you – have some quality time as you wait in line.
You might take stock of the items in your cart and given time to evaluate what you’ve selected, you might make other choices. You might spend the time in meditation. You might read a book. You might knit or crochet. This would require some advance planning to bring it along – but intention is what we are going for here anyway so that would be a plus.
You might balance your checkbook – clear your old emails from your cell phone – read your Kindle or Nook – do some online shopping ……. The possibilities are endless – once you decide that waiting is not just ‘Wasting Time’.
One of the books that has given me help in waiting is by Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh: “The Miracle of Mindfulness: an introduction to the Practice of Meditation.” This whole little book, like much of Hanh’s other work is about mindfulness –essentially what waiting requires of us. Essentially what Advent requires of us. Hanh tells a story of how one can make everyday – or even – perhaps especially unpleasant tasks - exercises in mindfulness.
“Washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the season of retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing.
Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards.”
“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly, why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact is that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.
I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.”
“…I have a close friend named Jim Forest. … Last winter Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.””
“If while we’re washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.
If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking our tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.””
This Advent, I invite you, to wash the dishes to wash the dishes. To read the Christmas story in scripture to read the Christmas story in scripture. To stand in the longest line to stand in the longest line. To read to your children to read to your children. To talk to your neighbor to talk to your neighbor. To celebrate with family to celebrate with family. To wait during advent to wait during Advent.
HOLDING IT ALL TOGETHER
Colossians 1: 11-20; Nov. 24, 2019; Stewardship Dedication/Thanksgiving
Union Cong. United Church of Christ; Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Well, here we are – the last Sunday of our Stewardship Financial campaign – and the last Sunday in our church year before we usher in a brand new church year next week with the beginning of Advent.
Today is a day of gratitude – of thanksgiving - a time to count our blessings – to recognize how we have been gifted – and in response - to bring forth our own gifts - as we acknowledge the abundance in which God immerses us.
In today’s scripture, Paul exhorts the folks of the new church in Colossae that a life of gratitude –though he doesn’t use those exact words – is a life of finding God already at work in whatever – whatever situation – you find yourself. There didn’t seem to be much that was going right for those early church folks and they had been losing their sense of gratitude and thus their sense of courage and strength to endure the hardship and persecution of an unjust world. Paul reminds them that their strength lies in not holding tightly to their hurts – but in placing their trust and guidance in the God who came to heal all the brokenness of the world and to make us whole again. This God is the one that holds it all together – so that we don’t need to.
Over this past week, I have sympathized with those falling apart Colossians. Several times, I have wondered if and how I will be able to hold it all together – to keep all the balls I’ve been given in the air. Will I be able to take care of everything that needs to be done – with at least some semblance of doing a good- enough job? Am I able to make plans – have ideas – help grow a vision – and then take the steps needed to move into that vision – that goal. You know how this goes – because I also know that many of you have been or are in this same juggling act – with life, with work, with family…
The church folk in Colossae were having trouble holding it all together. Unlike many of the other early churches made up of mostly Jewish folk, this church was mostly Gentiles who had embraced the new faith of Jesus of Nazareth. They hadn’t come from homes immersed in the teachings of God, and now that the newness of church life has worn off, they are having a really hard time figuring out what it is that gives them purpose and direction. How do they keep on keeping on?
And Paul sends them a letter – well really a song. It‘s a hymn of praise to the God who is and was and ever will be - eerily similar to the first chapter of the gospel of John. ‘In the beginning, was the word – and the word was with God – and the word was God – …..in him was life – and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. ‘
Paul is not quite as good a songwriter as John but the sentiment is the same. Your hope – your direction – your trust – is in God – known through the life and teaching of Jesus. It isn’t you who needs to be holding on – but God who will do the holding for us – holding us together – giving us reason to praise …
And that brings me right back around to gratitude – an idea that sounds so simple but clearly - based on how few folks seem to do this well - in practice seems to be anything but. Well, how hard is it, you might say, to say thank you – and mean it? Actually, it’s fairly difficult for many of us. And perhaps too easy for others of us – our thanks so offhand – so shallow that the recipient of the thanks – doesn’t feel as though it’s genuine.
Gratitude isn’t about duty. It isn’t about reciprocity – you do this for me and I, in turn, must do something of equal value for you. It isn’t about debt. I owe you or you owe me. Gratitude is a recognition that everything – everything - is a gift.
Embracing a life of gratefulness – can be life-changing. When we immerse ourselves in this kind of gratitude we become more resilient – more able to withstand the really hard knocks of life. It can make us more compassionate – less judgmental of our neighbors.
Gratitude can make us more aware of the sacredness of all of life and makes us more committed to justice for everyone and everything.
Gratitude is a central theme in the Bible, and it is also central to all great ethical systems and religions. Giving thanks is probably the one shared practice of both religious and non-religious people.
On this last Sunday of our Stewardship Financial campaign, this Thanksgiving Sunday, as we come to the time of dedicating our financial pledges for another year, we also celebrate the importance of gratitude. We recall all of the gifts in our lives – and we respond with a heartfelt gratitude.
But wait – you may be saying. My life this year – this month – this week – has hardly been filled with gifts. It’s been hard – really hard. It’s been a time of difficultly – of things going wrong. It’s been a time when the plans we’d carefully made have been tossed aside – because something new has come up – something we didn’t ask for or want. It’s been a time when the world we knew and liked – doesn’t seem to exist anymore – and a world of meanness and evil and hardship seems to be taking over. It’s been a time when it seems we’ve had more bad news than anyone should have – lost job, terrible medical news, death, bad reports, bad news, problems with children, teens or aging parents, lost hope, lost future ….
How are we to live and respond in gratitude when it seems as though there is far more to be ungrateful about than grateful? When it feels safer to circle the wagons, tighten the budget, store away for ourselves just- in- case, build a stronger, bigger wall…
Gratitude is recognition that everything is a gift – good gifts and less than good gifts. Gratitude is our response – what we do with those gifts. Will we see them as limiting – or will we see them as opportunity?
It is true that at its simplest level, gratitude is about feeling. Feeling thankful is a natural response to certain circumstances - a good medical report, good school report, a gorgeous sunny day, a safe birth of a healthy baby, a new good job - or any number of life’s surprises or events.
It’s fairly easy to feel grateful for the return of a lost pet. It’s more difficult to feel grateful for an unwanted birthday gift from a clueless relative. It’s really difficult when the doctor’s report is that yes, it’s cancer.
And yet cultivating a life of gratitude is so much more than utility. You give me something I like – and I will respond with thanksgiving. A life of gratitude continues to find gratefulness – even when on the surface – there may seem little to be grateful for.
This year, our Trustees have determined that the budget they will create and present at the January Congregational meeting will not be a Leap-Of-Faith budget such as we have created for the past several years – hoping that somehow – that leap of faith would be met with the dollars necessary to meet it. This year the budget will be based solely on the pledges you make. No wishful thinking. No ‘well they gave this in the past and so even though they didn’t pledge this year, we can probably count on that’, no hoping for a special big gift to come in later ...
I must admit that I’m not feeling particularly grateful knowing that this may mean some big changes for us as a church - knowing that we may have to make some hard decisions – about what to fund and what not to fund. And to be clear, I’m really talking about staff and our building and grounds. And yet – and yet – if we as church are immersed in gratitude – whatever happens – will be a gift for us. Perhaps it will be an amazing surprise financially positive gift. Perhaps it will be a gift that leads us in a new direction we may never have chosen without such a push. Perhaps it will be a gift that opens doors and windows to new possibility. Perhaps it will be a gift that someone who has been living in scarcity has now embraced living in gratitude and abundance and is responding in kind. Perhaps it will be a gift that moves us from practicing complaint and doom and gloom to practicing thanks.
We are the people of God. We are God’s beloved community - the body of Christ in this world. How much more gifted can we be? May we choose in this brand new church year to live immersed in gratitude – for whatever lies ahead.
SINGING FOR OUR LIVES: STEWARDSHIP MUSIC SUNDAY
Nov. 17, 2019, Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
‘Singing for our Lives’ is the title of a song by Holly Near. Written in 1979, Holly Near’s song addressed our need for music to express our deepest sadness, our grief, our passion, our celebration of diversity and our tenderness for one another.
Today as we celebrate our second Sunday in our fall Stewardship financial campaign – truly we are ‘singing for our lives.’
So many years ago, the David the Psalmist recognized knew that in addition to prophesy and prose - music – the Psalms – songs – were the only way to truly express the depths of praise and gratitude and thanksgiving toward the Creator of Everything.
Throughout history, theologians, musicians, scientists, writers, teachers, and everyday people have known this truth. Nietzsche “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Plato, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Billy Joel, “I think music itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by.” Leo Tolstoy, “Music is the shorthand of emotion.” Jane Austin, “Without music, life would be a blank to me.” Maya Angelou, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
Celebration, justice-making, wings to the mind, healing, emotion, refuge. Music is all that and more. In this stewardship season, as we intentionally name the ways God gifts us and the ways we cannot help but respond with gratitude and tend and extend those gifts - may our delight in and yes, our need for music be one of the vital gifts we celebrate.
As stated by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. ‘We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.’ Let the music-making commence – and the dreaming of dreams continue to be who and what we are as church.
Hold Fast, Stand Firm
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; November 10, 2019; Stewardship Invitation
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Tuesday morning, I went with Gigi to the U of M Fairview Clinic in Maple Grove – down to the basement to the Cancer Center. It was the first of Gigi’s Chemotherapy treatments to slow down or kill the cancer invading her colon and other organs nearby. Though Gigi had read through her Cancer ring binder religiously, we really didn’t know quite what to expect. It was a little creepy taking the elevator down to the lower level at 7:00 in the morning. But then everything changed. “Gigi, did you get any sleep last night?” “And Robin, did you sleep last night?” We were immediately put in a context of caring and compassion. After Gigi’s labs, we were led to a corner room with two huge windows looking outside –mostly gray outdoors but still a welcome sight knowing we would be in that space for five hours – long enough for prep work, the infusion, and hooking up the home infusion bag.
While we sat in the waiting room earlier waiting for Gigi to be called, Gigi contacted her brothers and sisters-in-law to let them know what was happening – now that we finally had a plan and some action. And I wrote a Facebook post with a photo of the Cancer Center sign – asking all our friends and family to pray, send good thoughts and energy and hold Gigi – and us – in their care and love.
Throughout the next five hours – the responses poured in. Gigi puts on a brave face for the public – but in private she worries and cries. What will this cancer mean for the plans we’ve made? What will this mean for work that needs to be accomplished? What paperwork needs to be in place? How will we juggle all that we do – and still provide the care and time Gigi will need to receive this poison into her system every two weeks – and yet – be the hopeful, positive presence we need to be as church staff?
The FB responses continued to pour in. ‘Oh, my – I’m sending Prayers.’ ‘Oh I didn’t know, sending so many prayers.’ ‘You are so strong Gigi, you and Robin can get through anything.’ ‘Sending prayers.’ ‘Sending love.’ ‘Holding you in the light.’
We laughed. We cried. We kept shaking our heads in wonderment about how truly blessed and supported – and yes loved – we are. It was overwhelming, humbling and made all the difference in this crazy, uncertain time.
Gigi and I are both used to being the ones taking care of others. We are for the most part, incredibly self-sufficient – we seldom ask for help – or in fact – seldom ask or even hire others to do the things we think we can do ourselves. So to be in a place and time of not having any idea of what lies ahead – of how to plan for what’s ahead – is way out of our comfort zone. Needing to rely on the grace and generosity and compassion of others – does not come easily..
However, this is not intended to be a story about me – about us – but rather about how connected we all really are – or can be – when we simply call on those connections.
Many of us in this church have given large portions of our lives over to the work of justice-making - Immigrant justice, black lives matter, homeless youth, feeding the hungry, save the Boundary Waters, no Line 3 Pipeline, stop Climate Change – and so much more. All these things that are for others more than they are for us. Doing this kind of justice work can be wearing. It is easy to lose heart – to lose perspective. It’s easy to begin believing that if the change we want to see happen is to happen – then we - need to make it happen – now. And it almost never works like that. One day we are so sure change for the better is just ahead – and the next day – we know that perhaps things may never change - certainly not in our lifetime. And if we stay caught in that up and down – hopeful and hopeless – roller coaster – it is easy to grow weary – to start looking for an escape – not for further engagement. Our feet sink or slip. Our hands let loose, and let go. It‘s easy for us to let ourselves believe that no one else really cares – that we are really on our own.
We forget all about our connections with one another and our connection with God – and we forget to rely on and call on and draw the energy generated by those connections.
In today’s text from this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes words of both challenge and encouragement – to hold fast, stand firm. These early church folk had been initially enthusiastic – they had lots of energy for carrying on the work of justice-making begun and taught by Jesus – but now they are tired. Nothing is really changing – in fact, it is getting worse. They are being persecuted, hated and reviled, and Jesus who promised to come back – has not. They have decided that their best course of action is to just do nothing – just wait and see – just wait for Jesus - or someone else to come and save the day. And Paul, the one who has previously encouraged them not to do anything too far out of the ordinary as they wait for Jesus – now chides them on their inaction – on their despairing hopelessness – their “why is this happening to us?” attitude.
Paul tells them “It may be a long wait, folks.” ‘So you need to hold fast, to stand firm in what you have been taught by your faith. Don’t decide that because change for the better isn’t happening fast enough to suit you, that you should stop believing, stop acting, stop working for everything Jesus worked for. Now is the time to dig in for the long haul – to lift up God’s vision of a future with peace and justice for all of creation. Look to that vision and get back to work. Sure it’s slow work – and often it sure does seem like 6 steps forward and 3 back or maybe even 7 back. Nobody said it was going to be easy – or fast. What you did learn though, was that God would always be with you – leading you, guiding you, holding you - when it’s all just too hard. God would send good people your way, to teach you, lead you, and comfort you – just as you are sent to the places and times where you are most needed.
And really, friends, isn’t that what church should be all about? When we are tired and discouraged – sad and uncertain – we can count on someone else to give us a hand, send us a cheering, supportive card or text, have another idea or direction to try for perhaps a better pathway forward – or just sit or stand with us – just be with us.
I hope that is what this church, Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ is for you. I know it is for me – as well as the wider church I also claim as my church family. I know that the majority of the overwhelming outpouring of messages sent to Gigi and me around the beginning of her Chemo treatment were from church friends – and that meant so much. Because partly I know that all these friends – church friends and other friends - are messengers from God. When I talk about us being the hands and feet, the hearts and minds of Christ – or God – in this world – that’s what I mean. God isn’t only a mysterious, unknowable Other – God is right here – right now – in the love and care and yes even in the challenge of all of you – my friends.
On Tuesday morning – and still today – both Gigi and I felt absolutely immersed in the unconditional, steadfast love of God – because of our wider church family.
As we begin another year – another annual Stewardship Financial Campaign – I am inviting you – encouraging you – challenging you perhaps – to remember how important our church connections are. Sometimes, it is true, when life is not quite as challenging and we are quite sure we can handle it all on our own, we forget how vital those connections are, but when the bottom falls out of your reliable world – it is those connections that hold you together - they make all the difference.
As Judy Halgren put it recently, “The holding and supporting by family and friends, in our times of stress, is a powerful thing. “
Our church family is a powerful thing. I think it’s why we care so much when bad things happen in our church family - and it’s also why it feels so good when we are the recipient of the prayers and support. We truly are all Created for Connection. We are made to be in relationship. It is true that our world seems to be changing so fast – and so often not for the better – just like in Paul’s time – we can’t keep up and we want to step back. But – and – you and I – we are the church – we are the people of the Still – Speaking, unconditionally loving God. On that assurance, we can hold fast. We can stand firm.
THE OTHER SIDE OF BLESSED
Luke 6: 20-31; Nov. 3, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
If there is any part of the Gospel that is almost universally known in our culture, it is probably the Beatitudes. Many people who never attend church, know, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers….” The Beatitudes we generally know are the ones found in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, rather than the blessings and woes we hear today from the gospel of Luke.
Matthew’s Beatitudes are also more popular than Luke’s because they are more comforting that Luke’s which also contain a list of woes. There is nothing of metaphor or parable today in these blessings and woes written down by Luke. Luke does not simply name the blessing, “Blessed are you who are poor – you who are hungry – Blessed are you who weep – blessed are you when people hate you – revile you – defame you. But also – woe to you that are rich, to you that are full now, to you who are laughing now – to you for whom all speak well of you.
And then - turn the other cheek, give your coat away, pray for those who curse you, give to those who beg from you – and finally – (the golden rule) - do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Today is ALL SAINTS Sunday – a day we celebrate with thanksgiving and remembering those who have died – those who are the saints of the church – as well as those of us still living – striving to live the saintly God-centered life. Luke’s gospel for All Saints lays out the characteristics for what it means to be among the blessed – the ‘saints’ - right alongside the characteristics of the lost ones – the ones for whom the cry of ‘woe’ rings out.
This text reminds us of the importance of remembering and celebrating the blessings of the church’s story as well as a call to mind of the dangers on the other side of blessedness. And that call is both challenging and difficult.
Luke’s gospel is sometimes called the Universal gospel – because in this gospel, Jesus’ audience is not just those persecuted early Christians to whom Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew – but by Luke’s time (written later than Matthew), the church has grown – there are gentiles – non-Jews among the believers. In this early church audience - there are Pharisees and tax collectors - there are women and children – there are those who still need to hear that being poor or downtrodden or persecuted will not be a permanent state – that God is already and will continue to bless them. And there are those that need to hear the woes – that being rich in itself is not a blessing – and unless the riches are shared with the needy – there is no blessing.
You might recall last week’s scripture lesson – just before this one in the gospel of Luke – the story of the Pharisee and tax collector – both praying on the temple courtyard. The Pharisee recalling his blessedness – thank God, I’m not like those ones – and the Tax Collector recognizing his woes – dear God, forgive me a miserable sinner.
Today’s text of Jesus’ teaching clearly follows that line of thinking. And the ones hearing Jesus words – are both/and - the Pharisee and Tax Collector – not one of the other – people of privilege and power or the ones always oppressed and stricken down. Both stand in need of praying and both will receive a measure of blessings and woes.
Just because one is rich does not mean they may not also be in mourning. Just because one is poor does not mean they may not be laughing. Or vice versa. Those who follow Jesus are not either/or – they – we are always both/and.
To be a follower of Jesus is always to be in line for blessings - because to be blessed is to have a relationship with God. The curse – or woe – is when that relationship is broken – and most likely broken not because of God – but because the person who thinks they don’t need God. The rich person can certainly take care of themselves financially. The laughing person can enjoy life without thinking too much about God. It is self-sufficiency that traps us - the idea that we can do it all alone – that we have done it alone.
Luke’s Jesus knows that the poor and hungry, the sad and scorned are blessed because God has a special concern for them. It’s not about romanticizing or spiritualizing poverty – it is that Jesus knows that poverty and wealth are much more than economic. The poor are blessed – and God is on their side because they are forced by their circumstances to rely solely on the mercy of God. Blessedness means not only that God has particular concern for one, but that one relies on God.
And finally – rather than getting stuck in searching for yourself among the blessings and woes – the crux of this text comes at the very end – as Jesus sums up what is really important to hear. I like the way it is phrased in the Message:
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior. Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. “
The golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Stop counting up your blessings and woes. Start thinking more about others than yourself. That’s the best way to be in relationship. That’s the way community if formed. That’s the way we all stay connected. Blessings and woes are always part of the same coin – they are not opposites. And they are all going on at the same time.
On this All Saints Sunday, we cherish the memory of those who have gone before us in faith. We know that many were everyday saints who struggled –as we do – to hear this passage as good news. And we know of others – renowned saints who lived the gospel in spectacular ways. Their stories inspire us and convict us to claim the blessings and avoid the woes in our own lives.
Luke 18: 80-14; Oct. 27, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Pharisees and tax collectors have become biblical stereotypes to us. You know, those Pharisees: self-righteous, rule-bound, trying-to-stump-Jesus with technicalities, lacking in compassion and insight. Indeed the word Pharisee for us has almost become synonymous with hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
And then there’s the Tax Collector in this story – the repentant, meek, simple, humble – wait a minute – that’s not the biblical tax collectors we know and love to hate. Far from being humble or simple, the tax collectors of Jesus’ day were seen as collaborators with the hated Roman government. They were recognized as - and at least sometime were – unscrupulous, dishonest, money-skimmers, traitors, working for the enemy.
At first reading, this seems to be a simple story that encourages humility and condemns spiritual pride – and yet – it is a parable – so already we know that there’s much more to it than that.
Every Sunday – or nearly every Sunday – in the midst of our service - we pray together a prayer of confession whose content falls somewhere between the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We name times and ways in which we’ve fallen short of the hopes and dreams and expectations God has for us. We also pray for forgiveness and new direction and guidance as we repent.
Many church folx don’t like the prayer of confession. “Why can’t we pray a nicer morning prayer? I don’t like reading statements about things I didn’t do – particularly bad things - as though I did. It feels like groveling and I don’t like it.” So why do we do it? Well, one reason is that I think it’s important. And why? Well partly, at least, for the same reasons Jesus told this parable in the gospel of Luke we heard today.
There are dangers in religiosity. Perhaps those in Jesus time knew that better than we do today – or perhaps not. There is danger in our own belief in the rightness of our faith beliefs. “As people of faith…..” we like to say. Sometimes in a – at least a bit of – self-righteous manner – we like setting ourselves apart from those who we think are not as much ‘people of faith’ as we are.
Jesus warns against the prayers we offer naming our own greatness – our own wonderfulness – instead of giving our thanks to God.
But, we might say – isn’t the Pharisee doing that? Giving thanks to God – he even uses those words – “God I thank you I’m not like those bad ones..” There’s a lot of pride in those words.
And the Tax Collector – seems to me to be equally problematic – “God be merciful to me a sinner! … he almost seems proud of being a sinner.
There are fifteen separate verses in the book of Proverbs – the book in the Bible focusing on wise living – that name pride as being separated from God. (29: 23) Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor. (27:2) Let someone else praise you and not your own mouth; an outsider and not your own lips. (26: 12) Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There if more hope for a fool than for them. (21: 4) Haughty eyes and a proud heart – the unplowed fields of the wicked – produce sin. (18: 12) Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
It doesn’t seem to matter from whence ones pride is derived – whether it is deserved or earned – it is the act of being prideful – that is problematic - whenever pride gives the credit to anyone or anything other than God.
What about this prayer? “Thank you God for my faithful presence doing your work of justice and peacemaking. I don’t thank you for those on the other side who drive by shouting threats at me while I protest. Thank you that I am better than that. We are better than that. We would never…… “ I think Jesus might have some critique.
We are complicated people, aren’t we? The characters in Jesus’ story are complicated – they perform against type. The true Pharisee would have wondered about – the presence of a tax collector in the temple, would have mulled over the prohibitions against usery – the illegal practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest, would have struggled with God’s mandate to love the neighbor. The true Pharisee would have had no need – in fact would not have been – praying alone out in the courtyard of the temple – as he would have been leading prayers within the temple – his rightful place.
The true tax collector would never have been in the temple, would have been fully occupied working in collusion with the Roman government collecting inflated taxes to fill his own pockets and feed his own family - all the while dodging his angry neighbors.
Jesus reminds us that we are – none of us – simple, uncomplicated, one-dimensional people. We are both – at the same time - hypocritical Pharisees and humble tax collectors – we are both people of faith and people puffed with pride. Some of us think more and better of ourselves than we ought – and some of us don’t think enough of or well enough of ourselves. Some of us feel justified by God and some of us feel indicted. Some of us are humbled and some exalted. And on any given day or any given moment – the roles switch. What doesn’t change is God’s love and mercy and grace for us no matter who we are.
NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED
Luke 18: 1-8; Oct. 20, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
By the time the gospel of Luke was written, people were starting to feel discouraged. Jesus had not returned as they had been led to believe and they were disheartened. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny minority – a special interest group - in a great big powerful empire. They were anxious, exhausted, discouraged, and wanting to get back to the way things were.
Jesus, once again provides the reminder to these followers not to be discouraged – not to lose heart – and he does it by telling a story. As usual he uses as his main character one from the fringes of society – to show how even such a discounted, seemingly unimportant person as characterized by this widow – can be so close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern.
This woman in this story is a widow – and that meant something at least somewhat different than it does today. As a widow, she had nothing - no power, no voice, no authority. And yet – she acts outside the bounds of her lack of status - finding her voice – finding her power – finding her special place in the heart of God. The judge refused to hear her complaint, refused to grant her the justice she demanded. He refused. He told her she was out of line. He told her she had no right to ask or demand. He perhaps even gave her an explanation of why she had no case. He warned her. Nevertheless, she persisted.
As I read this teaching story from Jesus, I cannot help but be reminded of what became a rallying cry for women as on the floor of the senate, Elizabeth Warren, was stopped from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King about attorney general Jeff Sessions. Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell said of Warren “she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Whatever you think about any of these people, the language and this contemporary situation is so parallel to that of Jesus’ silenced widow and the uncaring powerful judge and the enduring power of persistence.
I’m also reminded of so many – particularly women – Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Sally Ride, Princess Leia, The Annoying Widow ….. women who dealt with obstacles at every turn in their work – in their lives – and whose power – resided in their persistence – in their annoying persistence. In the face of authority, power, privilege – nevertheless - they persisted.
Alice Walker said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
The thing about resisting is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Reclaiming negative words is one way – that may be empowering to you – taking the words used against you and making them your own. And sometimes you need to make up your own words – take your own power as you continue the struggle for justice. Some resist by stopping others – forcibly making these unconcerned others notice. The only wrong way is to let yourself be numbed – paralyzed – to adapt to the injustice – or even let yourself come to believe the injustice is the right way – and the resisted thing is the wrong way.
Today’s bible story isn’t really about the persistent widow or the corrupt judge. It’s a parable. It’s a story about God and how God responds to us. It’s also about our persistence in calling on God – and in waiting for and trusting in God’s response and presence. If that arrogant, corrupt judge finally responded to the persistence of the widow – how much more likely is God to respond to our persistence - to our refusal to give up – to not lose heart …..
So often I hear back from many of you in this congregation – many of you who over and over have needed to overcome one more obstacle – roadblock - major medical and health concerns for self and family – death – job loss – change – injustices of many kinds – sex, race, gender, ethnicity, ability – and I’ve also heard many of you express how important prayer – both yours and all those others praying for you – has been in your process. Granted not all of these obstacles are technically about injustice – but many of them are or border on injustices of availability of health care, of accessibility, of economics ….
I recently was in conversation with one of you and we were talking about how complicated and difficult it is to keep moving forward in the face of such obstacles – and both of us expressed a wondering “how does someone who is not a person of faith get through this? For us – it is our faith – however weak it may be at times – how shaky - but it is the only thing we have – to persevere.
Jesus wanted his followers to do more than prayer on Sundays – or prayer as habit or requirement. Jesus wanted more – much more –from his followers. Jesus wanted persistence. He wanted our prayer life to shape us. All of our prayer – including our outrage – including our questioning – including our doubting – including our sadness and anger – all of that – reminding us over an over who we are and to whom we look for guidance and direction and hope and comfort. It is our prayer life – our persistence in the face of a world that so easily gets in the way, leading us astray. It is our prayer life that helps us align and re-align ourselves with the intention of God.
The issue in today’s parable is not the nagging – that simply being annoying – and asking – begging - over and over again until God finally gives in - is the way to get God to do what we want and think we need. It’s not like we are a little kid tugging and begging,
‘mommy – mommy, mommy, mommy – I want ….’ The issue here is justice – it’s not using God to get what one wants – but calling on God to move us toward the peace-with-justice world God wants
There are some things you can count on. You can count on God to come down on the side of justice. You can count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. You can count on God to hear those who have nowhere else to turn. You can count on God not always to grant your requests, but always to hear, the persistent prayers of your heart.
What the persistent widow knows is that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless. That is the time you need to get back up, put on your coat and hat, pick up your sign and head back out once again to protest the injustices that will not let your heart go. The process keeps you engaged in what matters the most to you – and that is what keeps you from losing heart. And it is also what keeps your heart chasing after God’s heart.
Jeremiah 29: 1; 4-7; Oct. 13, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
This morning we have dedicated six young people as Confirmands in our church. We and they have made promises about being on a journey together – about exploring and growing in relationships and caring. We’ve promised to be in conversations with one another – to talk about the really hard issues of today – about good and evil – about what it means to love and share one’s life with another.
Confirmation is not something to take lightly – it’s not just a sweet ritual marking the beginning of another year for our youth. It’s a commitment – a promise – a covenant – to be in this time together.
Our scripture text for this morning comes from the ancient book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah: who spoke on behalf of God to the Jewish people six hundred years ago – those people who struggled with many questions. They had questions about good and evil. Questions about what it means to be in relationship with one another and with God. Questions about power and authority. Questions much the same as the questions many of us are asking in our country today. Why is this happening? Who is to blame? What does this mean for us?
And Jeremiah spoke in his time, not to the devastated rural folks who lost everything – but to those wealthier ones – the ones deported and now living in relative comfort in another country. Granted they were not in their own home country, everything was unfamiliar and many had many complaints. Many were waiting until things returned to normal and they could go back home. For the most part these exiles were not living in abject poverty or in physical discomfort. They were not going hungry or living in fear of terrorist abuse.
It is to this people – this privileged – but exiled - people – living out of their comfort zone – to whom Jeremiah speaks language of hope – about how they are to go on.
He tells them their lives will go on – wherever they are – even in this strange and inhospitable land – surrounded by people of many religions not their own. Even in this land, Jeremiah tells them, they are to build houses, plant gardens, raise families, and flourish.
There are plenty of us today just like in Jeremiahs day who have strong opinions about where to lay the blame – where to point the finger – for the mess we are in. Jeremiah reminds this people that is a dead end street. Now is the time to plan a new and better future – to build houses – perhaps better than before. To plant gardens. To sow seeds. To plant fruit trees in this new land that won’t even bear fruit for many years. Create a new normal – a new future. Stop trying to go back to something that perhaps never even existed except in your imagination. This is where you are now. This is where you live now. So live. Make the changes you need to make. Move forward – plan forward.
Our world right now doesn’t look like what many of us want it to look like. We like to say, ‘this isn’t who we are.’ And we want to place blame. Because blaming takes us out of the equation. If we can name and blame who is responsible for the problem – then clearly it is not us. Planting hope - is the opposite of blaming – it is active making a difference now. Planting hope is not some sweet, accepting of the unacceptable – it is about actively working to bring shalom – peace with justice into wherever you may be. It is about flourishing and growing and creating a new future – a future with hope – with God’s help – in this new time.
Dedicating Confirmands is always a time of fresh hope. We wonder, what do each of these youth bring into our church – now that they are not children anymore but youth with ideas and dreams and hopes that will sometimes push and challenge our current ideas and dreams and hopes. What changes will they bring to this body? Will we try hard to make them fit who we think we are – or will be encourage them to question us and change us?
Sometimes it is too scary, too uncertain, or too disruptive to think too much about the future – because it is true – tomorrow isn’t promised. Sometimes like those ancient Israelites exiles, we get so carried away with our grief or sadness or anger, or our emptiness or self-righteousness or fear of things being different than what we previously understood – that we are immobilized – and can only lash out in frustration or caustic mean- spiritedness. Sometimes our fear is huge – like what it going on in our country today – and sometimes it is small – like what new ideas will these six youth bring to us.
Sometimes we will decide to just wait – to wait and see – sit tight – do nothing – engage in no conversations or discussions - and wait till things get back to the way they were. If we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it, then we will do nothing.
And then along comes some pesky prophet – yanking us back onto the faith journey. That journey is always what God intends for you. You are not to sit back and wait it out. You are to get busy right now – building and growing – planting seeds and cultivating new ground. You are to begin right now – today – this moment – building a new future – discerning and praying – living fully – right now – living fully into God’s dream for all of God’s creation.
1 Corinthians 14: 26-33; October 6, 2019; Union Congregational UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Today is Homecoming Sunday and World Communion Sunday – AND – Our Ministry and Mission Fair. It is a day we celebrate connections – both our intimate/ close connections and our global/ expansive connections.
Yesterday was the University of Minnesota Homecoming. I talked with the Rosdahl family last week about how the U of M band celebrates homecoming – it’s a complicated thing about paddles and getting them signed. But it made me thing that really it’s about making connections – about building relationships. And that’s what we are all about today.
Homecoming and World Communion Sunday are about remembering who we are and telling our stories. And the ways our stories change over time –about who we are and who is a part of our ever changing extended family. And that really is what our Ministry Mission Fair is about too – sharing our ever changing stories about who we are.
For our reflection today, I’m inviting you to be a part of reflecting with me on who we are and who is part of our extended family. Our theme for this year is “Created for Connection: One Body, Many Members.” At the end of each pew is a clipboard with a piece of paper and a pen. On the top of the paper are the words: “We are Created for Connection with our” and there are many lines each ending with the word “Neighbor.” Who are the neighbors with whom we are created to be in connection? Please add your suggestions and when you are done, bring your clipboard up to me.
WE ARE CREATED FOR CONNECTION WITH OUR …
Homeless, lonely and elderly, disabled, Second Harvest, Immigrant, Farming, Old, Sibling, All the members who aren’t here today, Across the street who stepped forward when I was ill, Immigrant, my street, my church, Sherburne County, homeless, wider church, elderly, animal, young, older, friendly, fellow teachers, Southern Poverty Law, our dear friends of old, our animal neighbors, workplace cube, the people of Central America, the children of the world, all ethnicities, nature and yearn for its protection, American, Eagle Scout, hocky, school, isolated senior, Sean Miller, misinformed, Fon Du Lac Reservation, homeless, imprisoned, immigrant, hungry, Willmar and Monticello, Our adopted grandparent family, teacher, the world, up the hill, people at home with memory loss, with our neighbors at Rivers of Hope, with our neighbors at Sherburne Jail, single parents needing help, children needing help and protection, next door, Otsego, Angie work neighbor, running, locker, office, pew, those that think politically differently, forgotten, outcast, oppressed, shunned, and ignored, families with children with disabilities, my school, friendly, lonely, wild animal, addicted, disabled, celebrating NEIGHBORS.
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15; Sept. 29, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Today’s text from the Older Testament book of Jeremiah while it might not sound much like it - is a story of hope. Hope that comes after disaster – hope that comes after hopelessness.
It’s been a roller coaster for the people of Jerusalem – things going from bad to worse to a new normal better. But now, things have changed - times have changed – and Jeremiah has changed from confronting and challenging to words of hope and comfort – though these words may scarcely seem comforting. Ten years earlier, Babylon disciplined Israel by destroying farms and villages and cities and carrying off many of people. But now, Israel has normalized its new life and become overly confident again even though they are city under military rule. The people are trapped inside the city – unable to get out to tend their farms and fields.
And it is while this is happening that Jeremiah – under house arrest - has a confusing dream. Jeremiah receives word that his cousin Hanamel will be coming to him to offer to sell to Jeremiah a piece of family land. Jeremiah recognizes this dream message as a sign of hope from God.
So where is the hope? Babylon is poised to completely take over Israel. Military rule is in place. There is major economic depression. Material property has no value. Silver and gold are worthless because there is nothing to buy. All commercial enterprise has collapsed. The real estate market has plummeted. Housing values have dropped to nothing as Babylon moves into the city. Forclosures everywhere. Land is worthless. Jeremiah knows it. Hanamel knows it. Baruch the scribe who writes down the title transfer knows it. Everyone knows it. And yet, Jeremiah purchases a piece of land that has less value than the scroll it is written on. All seems hopeless – and yet Jeremiah pays the silver and buys the farm. And secures the promise and hope of a future.
“The reason I never give up hope,” writes Ann LaMott “is because everything is so basically hopeless.”
“Hopelessness underscores everything” Lamott continues, “the deep sadness and fear at the center of life, the holes in the heart of our families, the animal confusion within us …. But when you do give us hope, a lot can happen. When it’s not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens like one of those fluted Japanese blossoms, flimsy and spastic, bright and warm. This almost always seems to happen in community.”
Lamott is not celebrating bleakness. She is saying that if we can detach ourselves from the consequences of our actions and concentrate instead on the value, the rightness, the truth, of the actions themselves, we can gain the strength to do what needs to be done.
I find Lamott’s observation so helpful as it speaks to the same trust that led Jeremiah to buy the land. He buys the land - because it is hopeless – and in that hopelessness – he places all his trust in God.
“Hope,” Vaclav Havel states, “is the not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Being liberated from results, giving up the need for specific outcomes, doing what feels right rather than effective is what is important. There is a Buddhist teaching that hopelessness is not the opposite of hope - fear is. Hope and fear are inseparable partners. Any time we hope for a certain outcome and work to make it happen – we introduce fear. Fear of failing, fear of loss. Hopelessness is free of fear – and thus liberating.
Greta Thunberg tried hard to get her peers to join her is speaking out against climate change. When she failed – and failed – and failed – one day, she made a sign and sat outside the Swedish parliament alone. And - she wrote and tweeted – and reporters came – and her solo protest went viral. One year later, millions of youth the world over, walked out of classrooms striking and demanding that world leaders address global warming and climate change.
One year ago, a few of us from this congregation plus a few other community members gathered in our church’s community room to discuss how we might address the injustice of ICE taking place at the Sherburne County jail.
On that day, we didn’t come up with any specific directions and actions – but at the end of the meeting, I said that one thing I felt like I could make a commitment to doing was to show up on Wednesday – every Wednesday - at the Sherburne County courthouse in silent protest. And I extended the invitation to anyone else that wanted to join me. There were many weeks when only two or three of us gathered along that frontage road. I started bringing my dog Hazel with me just in case on that day I would be alone. And just two weeks ago, over 50 concerned people from all over Minnesota gathered on Wednesday afternoon with signs protesting ICE presence in Minnesota and our country.
Sometimes it seems that world problems are so huge that person cannot make a difference – and it is always one person that begins to make a difference.
Almost 145 years ago, one person had an idea and gathered others and this church was officially begun.
About 25 years ago one person thought this church needed a handbell choir and now this church has a wonderful handbell choir adding to its musical diversity.
About 10 years ago one person believed it was time for this church to become an Open and Affirming church and in 2012 that affirmation was officially celebrated.
About 8 years ago one person believed it was time to do something to address youth homelessness in Elk River and Open Doors For Youth was conceived.
Over the years – right here at Union Congregational Church United Church of Christ – it is always one person who has a vision – a dream – and mobilizes many persons – to make real positive change – moving us ever toward God’s vision of justice for all of creation.
To Jeremiah’s people living as refugees in their own country – their dreams dead - God tells Jeremiah, “houses and fields and vineyard shall again be bought in this land.”
New life springs up in surprising and amazing ways. Even as we grieve our losses and struggle to rebuild the rubble of destruction of much of what gives life value – new life and new hopes arise.
Texts like this one from Jeremiah give us hope by reminding us that God calls us to live our lives in trust. No matter what empire – what materialism – what hatred or prejudice – what militarism or sexism – or racism – or fear – may threaten us – our hope is in trusting God.
Jeremiah reminds us that as people of faith – even shaky at best faith – that ultimately it is not about where we find our hope – it is about the way we live out our hope.
The question is, how do we remain solidly firmly grounded – acting as people of faith – acting as good church – acting as the body of Christ in the world – bringing peace and justice and compassion and love and radical hospitality and hope – when we ourselves are so afraid of failing – of falling – when it sometimes seems as though everyone and everything is conspiring against us?
Thomas Merton was right: “We are consoled and strengthened by being hopeless together. We don’t need specific outcomes.” says Merton, “ We need each other.”
That is what it means to be church. To seek and find the voices of collaboration – to find our allies - as we resist the world’s seeking to fracture and divide and polarize. We need to find and gather around us the voices that speak out publicly in faith and other voices that speak to the hope of redemption in unpromising places and times – no matter how bad things may appear at the moment.
We need to be what God calls each of us and all of us to be. Jeremiah reminds us that no matter what happens – if we speak and act and live into our trust – rather than focus on our distrust – life begins again – real life begins again – out of the chaos.
Luke 16: 1-13; Sept. 22, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Today’s story is another parable. A reminder about parables: A parable’s strength as a teaching tool is first that it connects the absolute ordinariness of everyday life with the incredible extraordinariness of God. And second, that the meaning may be very different depending on who is hearing.
This is complicated parable that seems to reward dishonesty. It’s a hard one for preachers and good Christians because instead of a satisfying ending of deserved consequences, the scoundrel triumphs.
And not only that but he is praised for being ingenious. We sigh in disbelief that the bad manager does not get the punishment he deserves. The lesson is lost.
Parables about money – about resources – are tricky. And today’s story is one of the trickiest because if you don’t dig deeper, remembering your learning about the nature of parables, it is easy to believe that it teaches something incongruent to the fairness that we usually hear from Jesus.
I think Jesus is talking to two different audiences. In the parable, it seems he is talking to the disciples – but he is also surrounded by tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees who are also certainly hearing Jesus’ story.
For every listener, honest or dishonest - this is a parable about money, about doing the right thing with it, and getting a second chance to do the right thing, when you may not have done so the first time. In other words, if you were dishonest the first time – like the manager in the story - you have a second chance to do good. If you messed up before, now you have more information – you know better – and you can use what you’ve gained to do good this time. Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to be dishonest - he’s talking through them to those ones also listening who are already dishonest. And he’s telling those ones that they have another chance to put things – maybe not completely right – but at least more right – and then when they do that - they need to keep doing right.
Jesus is not commending the manager’s actions, but rather the manager’s figuring out that the way to put things right financially is by building relationships. Jesus’ warns that it is impossible to serve both God and the bank. One cannot follow the money – honest or dishonest – and follow God. This parable gives us much to think about especially given all that is happening in our country today. Where and how is money being used - and if it is being used to accomplish good – are the means to making that money worthy? Does a ‘good’ end justify the means? How are our relationships shaped by class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality – all of which are in turn shaped by money – or lack of? How does this parable address these questions? As a person of faith we need to be wrestling with these questions – and not accepting easy answers.
Who do you think Jesus would be talking to today? Who are the dishonest ones he would challenge to stop following the money and instead follow the direction that leads to justice of people’s lives and relationships? In this parable, Jesus offers a rule of care and concern even for people who have actively exploited other people. Jesus does not teach retributive justice – an eye for an eye. He teaches second chances – third chances – as many chances as it takes to make the change to do good. As Christian believers are we willing and able to offer that same kind of compassion? And - are we willing to forgive injustices done to us and move on?
In our country, we live in a form of capitalism that offers less and less moral vision. We live with daily messages of get rich or get out – do whatever it takes to get rich – if you are rich you can get away with anything. And Jesus reminds us that is not the way. We are to follow his lead – to speak up to systems and people that deny and subjugate others – to remind people and systems of their power and their privilege and their responsibility to all of God’s creation. All money is not dishonest and even dishonest money can be made honest again when people change directions.
Serving God and following Christ means that loving people and loving creation – both lived out in justice for all - is always the bottom line.
THE EARTH SHALL MOURN
Jeremiah 4: 11-12; 23-28; September 15, 2019
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Our national United Church of Christ has designated this Sunday, September 15, as Just Peace Sunday in recognition of our need to raise awareness about the threat of global warming and climate change. Youth in our country have filed a lawsuit against the United States government for its failure to address climate change and for preventing them from having a hopeful future. This coming Friday, September 20, a Global Climate Strike is scheduled. The hope is that millions of people around the globe will walk out of work, out of school, out of complacency, declare their frustration and that world leaders will act. This Global Climate Strike on the 20th will coincide with the beginning of a United Nations meeting on climate during which young activist Greta Thunberg will address world leaders.
Our scripture text today from the prophet Jeremiah is a lament for earth. At the very center of Jeremiah’s understanding of God is his understanding of creation and land as central. For Jeremiah, the faith story is a land story. God created the earth – in all its complexity and simplicity. God’s wisdom ensured an order – a balance –a harmony for the world stretching the heavens overhead with the stars in place and the depth of the seas below the land.
And that central creation is under attack. This passage from Jeremiah is his warning to his community using images of devastation and destruction. And part of Jeremiah’s judgment is that there are someones and somethings – that are deniers – that present an alternate version of what is going on. And that someone or something isn’t even having a momentary twitch at the limits and the boundaries God has set. According to Jeremiah, the purveyer of that alternate view either believes God does not see, God does not care, or is so secure in the rightness of their own decisions, actions and judgments because they have convinced themselves that God has ordained it to be so.
Jeremiah calls strike – on the out of control power that is threatening and destroying a safe and viable and fruitful place for human habitation.
Prophets throughout history knew that the world could not remain as it was. They knew that humans would change it – institutionalize it – get greedy – get ruthless. As prophets in our own age, we are being asked to develop new future visions – from the perspective of God’s love and justice. Jeremiah reminds us “Do you see what is happening?” “ No?” “Then, look harder!”
Prophets take away our ability to not see – to turn away - to be colorblind, to be barnblind, unaware, complicit, numb. Prophets reveal or uncover what is taking place – so we mere mortals cannot pretend it’s not. Prophets ensure that we can no longer deny what is right before our eyes and ears.
In early July this summer, Diane Narr and I along with eight other United Church of Christ folks from Minnesota traveled to Guatemala to get to the root of the immigration crisis in the U.S. Hopefully we would get some answers to the often asked questions about why so many people from central America are leaving their homes and families to come to the United States. On our trip, we would be traveling to cities and rural villages to hear stories from local people, and see with our own eyes what is causing such an upsurge in migration.
We arrived in Guatemala City where on its easy to learn about the horrific background about Guatemala. Plaques and memorials mark historic sites commemorating deadly events going back hundreds of years and. And all of these events include meddling and manipulation and horror from outside rich countries like the one we live in. In 1954, a U.S. backed coup destroyed the in – place democratic government of Guatemala and put in place corrupt new leadership that would benefit the elite and the U.S. In the 1970’s and 80’s was the cold war with the United States supporting the corrupt government it preferred – which supported U.S greed and goals. This was a brutal and vicious era as the U.S tried to overthrow the governments in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. With full U.S. support, over 200,000 people were killed and over 50,000 more simply disappeared. Those disappeared are only recently being excavated and buried allowing closure for families.
Millions of Guatemalans fled their country going to Costa Rica, U.S. and Mexico. The same parties that were in power in the 70’s and 80’s are once again back in power and Guatemala today is extremely racist particularly against Mayan and African peoples. Exploitation and corruption undelays business. And in all this, Guatemala is basically a pawn, a tiny place in global terms on unbelievably rich land nearly all of which is used by multinational corporations to grow crops completely for export – with none of the profits remaining in Guatemala. There is extraordinary repression and violence. Workers are forced to for these companies for low wages – and at the same time – the companies continue to force often by violence, people off their ancestral lands so the companies can take over the rich in resources lands. If you are poor, you cannot go to the courts because they are corrupt and you will lose. The corruption is deep, with countries like the U.S. and Canada infiltrating all branches of government and supporting leaders who comply with them.
We listened and asked questions of sustainable farmers, community organizers, Franciscan monks and sisters, elders and youth, sons of the murdered, living victims and families of the massacres, forensic anthropologists, human rights activists and defenders, educators, and museum curators.
We heard stories of outrage and grief and devastation. We heard stories of resistance and hope. We heard stories of some who for their own safety have left their birth countries to claim asylum in Canada and can no longer ever come back to the places where their families still live. We saw firsthand the acres upon acres covered in strips of plastic mulch as far as the eye could see being farmed for Chiquita, Dole, Cargill. We saw thousands of acres of land taken from the Mayan people and replanted from their original native crops to African Palm to produce palm oil for export. We saw the destruction and devastation of thousands of acres of formerly beautiful mountains with ugly nickel and gold mines owned by Canadian companies with all profits going out of the country.
So what you might wonder does what we saw and heard and learned have to do with the immigration crisis at the U.S. border?
The underlying cause of forced migration – when individuals and families cannot for a variety of reasons remain in their own countries – is directly related to the interference of the United States government and military, Canada and the EU, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, along with a long list of multi-national companies which exist with nearly no interference - maintaining full economic, political, and military relations with the repressive, corrupt, and exploitive regimes in power in Honduras and Guatemala. These internationals directly enable and benefit from the very reason why millions are forced to flee their countries year after year. People are fleeing repression, ongoing generalized violence, corruption and impunity that is widespread in these countries. They are fleeing the extreme exploitation and the violence that accompanies the need for workers in the construction of mines and hydro-electric dams; in the fields for the production of bananas, pineapples, sugarcane, African palm, and coffee, and They also flee the extreme exploitation and violence that happens when the mines and hydro-electric dams; the for export production of bananas, pineapples, sugarcane, African palm, and coffee, tourism and sweatshop garment factories. They are also fleeing the corruption and violence of organized crime – including drug-trafficking – all of which have infiltrated all branches of governments, militaries, and institutions of these countries. This is how the global economy operates: it is profitable for companies, investors and consumers, and impoverishing and life-threatening for the workers and evicted.
There will be no end to this vicious cycle until serious political and economic reforms and changes are brought about inside Honduras and Guatemala and in the policies and actions of their international enablers and partners.
Why are all ‘these’ people at our borders? Why are some of ‘these’ people in our detention centers and jails – including our own local Sherburne County jail? Not because they are ‘illegal’. Because no human is illegal. But because of a global economy we all support – that continues the exploitation and violence against countries that on their own cannot stand up against the bullies that over and over use power and might to push them down and force them out. And then punish them again when they come to our borders seeking sanctuary.
Jeremiah railed against the bullies of his day – the governments that supported extortion, violence and oppression. Jesus railed against these same issues in his day. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr railed against these same concerns in his day. We must continue in our day to call out and name the hatred being promoted as public safety.
We must recognize and be willing to name our own complicity and the complicity of our government from which we all benefit in promulgating the violence and oppression of peoples and countries. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is what it means to live our faith. This is what love in action looks like.
Immigration justice, racial justice, justice for women, justice for differing ablilities, LGBTQIA justice, environmental justice, climate justice – all of these are intrinsically connected. Even though Jeremiah would never have had all these terms – he understood that without this central core of justice permeating everything – that we are lost.
But not yet. We may be wandering, but we are not yet lost. We can change our future because with God all things are possible. Even this. Even all of this.
Philemon 1-21; Sept. 8, 2019; RALLY SUNDAY
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ; Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
We are rallying today. Rally means a couple of different things in baseball - is a term in baseball which refers to the batting team recording several hits in a single inning that result in more than one run – or – it is when that is not happening – the team is trailing and the fans turn their baseball caps inside out or backwards or sideways, in anticipation of a possible batting rally by their team. It is usually accompanied by music.
Today we are the church rallying. Rally Sunday marks the beginning of our church/school year – the time when Sunday’s Cool begins, the Handbell choir, Sr. Choir and Choristers all begin rehearsing to provide music for Sunday worship. Summer is – mostly - over and we are moving into the fullness of our church year. And yet, the fall weather is still – mostly - beautiful, the autumn colors are only just beginning, there are still a few more weekends to go for a hike, put the boat on the lake, paddle a canoe or kayak on the river, or catch up on your gardening. We aren’t quite ready to let go of summer and settle into fall and winter.
And thus the Rallying – we’ve definitely begun: Families are signing their children up for another exciting year of Sunday’s Cool, the Choristers have begun practicing with their new interim director, Karen, the Sr. Choir is on board to begin rehearsing this Wednesday to sing next week, and the Handbell choir has already shown their rallying readiness. And yet, we aren’t fully there yet are we? We’ve only just begun. We have plans and dreams and hopes about how the year will go – but we are just getting started.
Today’s scripture reading may likely be one that few of you are familiar with. Philemon is rather an obscure book of the Bible. Only one chapter long – today’s text is the entirety of the book – which is a letter from Paul.
Paul, who earlier had visited the Asia Minor city of Colossae (the letter to the Colossians) and helped to form the house church in Collosae is now under a kind of house arrest in Rome –or possibly Ephesus. A young man named Onesimus who seems to hero worship Paul has run away from Colossae and come to find out how he can be helpful to Paul in his imprisonment. Paul has nurtured Onesimus’s fledgling Christian faith and they have developed a very close bond – much like a father and son – or perhaps mentor and mentee. However, Onesimus is a slave – a runaway slave. His owner is Philemon – thus - Paul’s letter to Philemon.
While Onesimus is legally still bound to Philemon, and Paul recognizes that bond, Paul does not address that right away. He begins by praising Philemon for being such a good Christian – so much love – so much faith. And Paul appeals to this Christian love as he appeals to him to take Onesimus back – and not only to take him back but to not punish him for running away. Paul entreat Philemon to recognize Onesimus as a brother in faith – a fellow Christian – rather than a slave and slave owner. Paul thanks and praises Philemon even before requesting his to do something else.
Is Paul simply being manipulative? He knows Philemon has every legal right to punish his runaway slave – yet Paul praises Philemon for his kindness and generosity – even before he is asked to step his kindness and generosity up a notch.
We don’t know how this story ends. We don’t know if Philemon was convince by Paul’s words and welcomed Onesimus back with no retribution. But we do know that Paul is absolutely sure that in Christ – in God – there are no boundaries. There are no slaves or free. In Christian community all are welcome – all are included – all are loved. In Christ there is no special status – there is no divisiveness or polarization. There is no setting up this one as of less value than that one. Onesimus the slave has equal value to Philemon the wealthy slave-owner in the midst of Christian community. And Paul calls on and names that radical, extravagant welcome.
It is certainly true that Paul did not seem to feel the need to abolish the institution of slavery itself – he did not try to convince Philemon to free Onesimus. But you need to remember that Paul believed that the return of Jesus was going to happen very soon. There would be no real need to change some of those unjust social structures because in the kingdom of God – because he was so solid in his belief that in the body of Christ – this fledgling new Christian church - all are welcome, loved, all have equal value. And for Paul, when Jesus returns – he will bring about the Kingdom of God and then all of that will come about in full reality.
Paul could have very well chided Philemon for owning a slave. He could have handled returning Onesimu to Philemon is very different ways – or perhaps not returned him at all. Paul is like the parent who reminds their child every morning “you are smart. You are brave. You are loving. You are kind. You are welcoming. You are courageous. You are loved.” Instead of “Don’t get into trouble today – don’t smart off to your teachers – get your homework done – what is wrong with you? – shame on you!”
Paul knows that reminding someone of how Christ-like they are – is far more likely to make them Christ-like. Reminding someone of how unworthy, how much trouble, how unlovable, someone is, is also likely to teach them that is true – and becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.
The kingdom of God is filled with real people – real – Christ-like –Paul–like - people. Real people who become unconditionally loving – welcoming of everyone – bold in speaking truth tenderly – courageous in seeking justice for everyone – empowering of others – loving and kind. Real people just like you – in fact actually you.
Our church theme for the year is Creating Connections and our Liturgical Arts team has created a tree with our handprint leaves to symbolize our growing into this interconnected reality. The colors symbolize the diversity of who we are. And yet we are all connected – all needed on this tree of life.
You are welcome here. No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life’s journey. You are welcome here along with everyone – everyone – else. That is the grace of God. That is what we are rallying to bring about in all it’s fullness.
At the Table
Luke 14: 1; 7-14; Sept. 1, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev Robin Raudabaugh
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book – and the movie that followed it – Eat, Pray, Love, is the true story of a woman on a personal quest that takes her on a journey to Italy, India and Bali where she eats, prays, and loves. Her spiritual journey begins perhaps appropriately not with strict disciplined practices, but with eating – plates of pasta with sauces – sensual and spiritual all at the same time. Because isn’t physical hunger a good image for spiritual hunger?
Preacher, Fred Craddock made this an even deeper connection between the physical and the spiritual as he commented on the importance of bread in the gospel of Luke. The entire book of Luke focuses on the connection, the parallels between hunger and injustice. Eating – the most human and most necessary of activities – and all that we associate with eating are intertwined with our spiritual lives. It should be no surprise that meals and food are so significant in the Bible – both as actual activities but also as metaphor and parable.
In the gospel of Luke there there are more mealtime scenes than in all three of the other gospels together. The eating happens along roadsides, at family gatherings, in an upper room, in the homes of despised tax collectors, or even the home of a respected religious leader as in today’s story.
Jesus has been invited to eat at the home a Pharisee. If that seems unusual, it really shouldn’t. Because while we know of the constant conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, these are more like the conflict within families. Jesus and the Pharisees were not enemies. On the contrary, Jesus was taught by Pharisees and is more like them than any other religious group of his day. And yet, we know that Jesus is regularly displeasing the Pharisees by his constant questioning of what and how they do their work – and in fact his ignoring the rules they are enforcing.
And at this dinner party, hosted by a religious leader, Jesus is not a particularly gracious guest.
It’s not his house – or his rules – but he makes comments on the way the other guests choose where they will sit. He also dares to give instruction to the host as to who should and who should not be invited to dinner.
I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing most of us would not like this – at all. Who is this guest to tell us how to host and invite to our own home? How rude! How inappropriate!
Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful – are they the bad guys here? Actually the Pharisees were the good guys of their day. They never missed a religious meeting, they attended worship regularly, they studied the scriptures, the tithed, and they set a high moral standard for their communities. Today, they would be considered faithful, reliable church members. On the other hand, the people Jesus lifts up as the ones who should be invited to dinner – the poor, the crippled and lame and blind – the ones who cannot return the favor – perhaps can’t even send a thank you - are the vey ones least likely to be invited into the homes of respectable people. Today we might have different designation for those on the margins – immigrants, people of color, homeless, transgender …..
It’s important to remember that this is not just a story – a story in which Jesus gives some good advice – and in the process reminds all of us just how unworthy we are whatever side of the table we find ourselves on. This is a parable – that is a story with multiple layers of meaning. A story that tells us something about the kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t really just talking about a dinner party – but about God’s great dinner party – and how we are all invited to that table – no matter who we are – no matter what we can or cannot bring – no matter where we are on our journey of life …..
Jesus’ parable gives us a blueprint for putting the table at the center of our worship life.
And further it gives us clear language to remind us that the invitation to the table is not to be just for us and our best friends – but for anyone who wants to come, anyone who wanders in, anyone we can bring in from anywhere to join in all that is available at this table.
And further, Jesus reminds, this has nothing – nothing to do with reciprocity. The invitation has nothing to do with receiving an invitation in return. It has nothing to do with who can invite us back or even who will send a thank you note.
This is what the reign of God looks like. A table of infinite size to which absolutely everyone is invited to attend. No one needs to bring anything but themselves. Everyone only needs to come with a hunger for justice and a thirst for peace. Everything else will be provided. It is extravagant, radical hospitality that is offered at this table.
And what does that extravagance look like? More than you can ask for or ever imagine. Think of the very best banquet you can imagine – and it’s better than that – a hundred – thousand times better.
This parable is all about hospitality – the act of providing for guests. Jesus directs us to recognize the hospitality we provide for one another as mirroring the hospitality God provides for us. Hospitality takes us out of simply enjoying something for ourselves – into offering ourselves for others.
Early in the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, the main character seems to realize that she cannot seem to extend herself to be present for others. She hungers to be a blessing to others as well as count her own blessings.
In our communion liturgy, as together we share in the bread and the juice – I remind you that as you share bread together – you become the body of Christ – it is in you. And as you share from the cup of blessing – you become the blessing – the blessing is in you – and you take that blessing wherever you go to whomever you meet.
Luke 13: 10-17; August 25, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
The woman was so twisted and bent over with arthritis – or osteoporosis – or a spirit? that she couldn’t even look up. She couldn’t even see the one who called her over and declared her free from what ailed her.
She hadn’t asked for healing. And no one else has asked on her behalf for Jesus to heal her. She had been crippled for years and she seems to have grown accustomed to or at least resigned to her affliction. Almost no one remembers her real name, they just knows her as that poor crippled woman. They ignore her. For eighteen years she has had to look down – had to twist her whole body to see what is right alongside her. She is used to this and so is everyone who knows her or even knows of her. They don’t even question it. So when Jesus chooses to heal her – on the Sabbath – the leader of the synagogue is furious – because clearly this is no urgent emergency!
There are rules about honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy. There are rules about refraining from any non-essential work on the Sabbath. It is the responsibility of the synagogue leaders to enforce and maintain these rules. It is true that they do get to evaluate and interpret and make distinctions between what constitutes essential and non-essential. But for the most part, the safest course is to insist on the rule – no exceptions.
Jesus elicits rage because the Pharisees control the Sabbath by enforcing rules that have been reinterpreted and reinvented to make them cumbersome and extremely difficult for common folk to keep. ‘Remember the Sabbath’ – originally a religious observance meant to remember and honor and celebrate the liberation of God’s people from the oppression and control of Egypt’s Pharoah – has become an onerous chore of do’s and don’ts.
The bent over woman in today’s story is a clear reflection of that earlier story of those beaten down slaves so broken, they couldn’t even look up to ask for their own freedom.
Rules are tricky things. Laws are perhaps even more complicated. Both are originally created for specific reasons. Are there times when it is ok to break a rule – break a law – and when is it not? Are there times when laws and rules should be reevaluated and re-labeled – a time when they are recognized as unjust and should be discarded – or abolished – or broken – and new laws of freedom with justice for all be created in their place?
This text is probably not about bad Pharisees – though that is certainly an easy blaming place to go. It’s comfortable for Christians to find fault with those religious leaders who were constantly attempting to find fault with that progressive, liberal, rabble-rousing Jesus. And yet, isn’t it true that such finger pointing – such blaming – shifts the onus for repairs to the one(s) being faulted. The one pointing the finger has done their job – pointing out who and what is the problem - and nothing more is required of them. I think Jesus knew this. I think Jesus knew that the central learning from this story was not how bad those Pharisees were – or even how bad that ‘don’t work on the Sabbath’ law had become. Jesus was once again teaching by example something far more important about the kingdom of God. He was showing a tiny piece of what the world would look like when the kingdom of God comes into its full reality.
The kingdom of God is the time and place where no one and no thing is broken – where no one is oppressed – and no one oppresses - where everyone is free to be all they can be and no one will keep anyone from becoming all they can be.
Jesus healed a broken woman – a woman who didn’t ask for healing – didn’t have an acute life-threatening illness requiring immediate healing attention. The authorities were furious. They completely ignored the joy of the healed woman. They had completely ignored her even before Jesus called her over and healed her. She and her condition were invisible to them. They were so focused on maintaining a rule that they completely lost sight of the reason why the rule even existed. In their interest in upholding a law, they lost sight of God’s beloved humanity.
Jesus wasn’t suggesting that honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy wasn’t important - actually, exactly the opposite. However, honoring the Sabbath by maintaining a law that holds God’s beloved people down so oppressed that they cannot even look up – does no honor to anyone – especially God.
Honoring the Sabbath, Jesus was pointing out – might be noticing for the first time, this woman for whom brokenness has become so normalized that she doesn’t even think to ask for or expect anything else. Honoring the Sabbath might be recognizing that this kind of brokenness is not what God wants for God’s children. And when this kind of eye-opening awareness happens – whenever it happens - that is truly honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy.
In our world, our country and yes, even in our county we’ve been hearing a lot about the law – about what and who is legal and what and who is illegal. We hear many iterations and interpretations about which people and groups of people are legal – honoring the law – and which people and groups of people are illegal – breaking the law.
According to the Pharisees, Jesus – our Jesus – was illegal – he broke the law. And not just once, but over and over. And we also know that the Pharisees – the religious authorities who feared Jesus’ reinventing the law - began colluding with the corrupt political government to detain, jail and kill Jesus.
This is not merely a story in the Bible. It remains in our time as a question of praxis – that back and forth interaction of practice and reflection – the way our lives of faith and everything else including our politics intersect. When is it time to break a law? How does one discern that a law is a bad law? What should the process be? Should the law be changed – adapted? Should the law be abolished? Should the law be ignored and overridden? On that day in that meeting place, Jesus had an answer – the law – as it had been reinterpreted and enforced - should be ignored and overridden.
Laws are not ends in themselves. Laws are created for a purpose. If there is justice and due process in the creation of a law, the law is likely to be a good law – standing the test of time. If a law is created or interpreted to benefit only the ones who create or interpret the law it is likely not to be a good law for all of God’s people and creation.
When Jesus asked the rhetorical questions about Sabbath honoring, and the religious leaders were made to look bad, the crowd – the congregation – cheered. They were delighted with the shaming of the leaders. I can just hear them chanting, “healing, healing, healing.” That surely wasn’t Jesus purpose. Jesus knew the story and the learning was as much for the congregation as the leaders.
What we don’t get to hear with today’s story is what comes immediately after this text in Luke’s gospel. Jesus turns to the crowd – the cheering, derisive crowd - to reinforce the learning they’ve just experienced about what God’s realm is like. “What other image can I give you to explain what God’s kingdom will be like?” What kind of story can I use that you might understand? I could use the image of a mustard seed – or maybe even an acorn – a quite small seed – and yet when you plant it – it grows into a mighty oak with huge branches – providing habitat and resources for many creatures. God’s kingdom is like that: amazing and wondrous – miraculous even – with a place and enough for everyone.
Jesus broke rules. He ignored laws. He healed on the Sabbath. He harvested grain and encouraged his followers to harvest grain to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus knew the importance of rules and laws – and he also knew when those rules and laws were being twisted to oppressive purposes – and when they needed to be broken.
In the reign of God, the world will be repaired. When Jesus is present – or when the body of Christ is present - the repairs begin to happen – things begin to be made right again. There will no longer be conflict between what is good for one and what is good for all.
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
Luke 12: 49-56; August 18, 2019; Union Congr. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
How do we reconcile the Jesus many of us grew up learning about – the gentle, peaceful purveyor of love and compassion with these angry, hurtful, passionate words about division and disruption: “do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so – I’ve come to disrupt and confront….”
In today’s continuing text in our series of stories and parables from the twelfth chapter of the gospel of Luke – from the rich fool building bigger barns to the watchful servants trying to stay awake to this harsh text we hear this morning – Jesus attempts to teach deep lessons about anxiety, scarcity and where to place one’s ultimate trust.
Just a few verses before today’s text, Peter, the disciple who speaks for all the others who still don’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about, asks Jesus, “Teacher, are you telling these parables for us or for everyone?” And that’s when Jesus seems to get really frustrated and lays into them…. Did you think I came to share warm fuzzies with you – did you think I came to say ‘let’s all just get along’ – ‘let’s all just love, love, love, one another’ ????
Jesus is frustrated that talking about bringing peace – is just that – talking. And he knows that talking and teaching and learning – is just the beginning. Bringing peace involves action – it’s gritty and dirty and hard – and will inevitably bring divisions – before it eventually repairs and heals the breach. It will cause relationships to fracture before it heals.
“The hardest thing in the world,” writes Goethe, “is to act in accordance with your thinking.” We, along with those early disciples, struggle with living lives in accordance with our thinking – with what we profess we believe.
When Jesus warns about the coming peace, it is easy for us to want to let this peace remain a comfortable mystery. And yet, what Jesus was calling out was people speaking words of peace and justice – yet turning a blind eye to the injustice surrounding them. He was warning them about accommodating themselves to the oppression and making normative the ever escalating layers of injustice in which they lived.
A few weeks ago, in a letter in the local paper, Bob Hassett, one of our members, used the illustration of a frog placed in a container of cold water being heated. As the water got hotter and hotter, the frog, an amphibian, allowed itself to adapt – until instead of jumping out of the water to save its life – it died.
Jesus warns the disciples about adapting to the oppressive, abusive culture being put on them by their government. He warns them about allowing the division and polarizing to become normative. He reminds them that he didn’t come to support this but to oppose it – and in his opposing the injustice – in his disruption and confrontation of those who support and maintain this government – families will find themselves fracturing as they take opposite sides of who and what they support – and even the weather will be a sign of the climate change that is coming.
As we hear today’s scripture, it is important not to take it out of context, but to keep a bigger picture of who and what Jesus taught and stood for. The very beginning of Luke’s gospel proclaims that Jesus will ‘guide our feet in the way of peace.’ (1:79) How is it then that we have this chapter near the end of Luke, that seems to be anything but the joyful, peaceful, ‘all is calm, all is bright,’ of a tiny baby born in Bethlehem as angels sing and shepherd kneel?
Churches have over the centuries used Jesus’ message of peacemaking as a way of promoting repentance and reconciliation as a healing balm for fractured communities and shattered lives. So it is hard to hear and make sense of the teaching in today’s text that seems to promote nearly opposite outcomes of alienation and division.
Throughout Christian history, these words from Luke’s gospel have often been used as a justification for a just- war theory when nations clash. Others have used it to describe the division that occurs within families – or between believers and non-believers. Still others suggest it is better understood as a symbolic interpretation in which family conflict can be used to describe rational thought overcoming sin.
Perhaps there is something to any and all of these suggestions about this scripture. Certainly it is not an easy one to get our heads and hearts around. It’s not one we want to hear at all if we are Christians that subscribe to the “I don’t want to go to church to hear about all the hardship in the world – I go to church to feel good.”
I don’t know about you – but I know that the deeper I immerse myself in scripture - and I do mean including the New Testament with the stories of Jesus – the more I wonder where we Christians ever got the idea that scripture and church is about feeling warm and fuzzy – and comfortable. There is so little of Jesus’ words and teaching that simply pats us on the back – and lets us off the hook – of doing something – everything - to bring the peace we desire into reality.
Jesus wasn’t always gentle and kind – we have stories of Jesus anger – of Jesus yelling and throwing over tables in the temple. Jesus often didn’t try hard to make his words tactful – so that no one – would be offended or have their feelings hurt. Jesus often reminded his followers – in blunt, brusque, nearly offensive language what was expected of them. ‘Couldn’t you have stayed awake?” “Unless you repent – you will perish.” “For everyone to who much has been given, much will be required.” … and so many more. Over the centuries, Christians have turned many of these harsh phrases into platitudes – but they are not and never have been easy words. They are demanding, expecting, requiring words.
It is important that we not take this particular text out of context. It is not Jesus’ purpose to turn children and their parents against each other. It is not Jesus’ intent to cause disruption merely for the sake of disruption. However, Jesus knows that when we are working to bring about changes toward equity – mutuality – equality – justice for all –– divisions and fractures are very, very likely to occur.
He knows that whenever one plants the seeds of change – in order for those seeds to germinate and grow – what is required is not simply sunshine and water and good soil – but that the seed must rupture and break open, losing itself – to become a new plant.
An ever expanding group of folks gather each week in front of the Sherburne County Jail to protest the ICE detention and incarceration of immigrants.
Long- time friends in this city and county and church are finding themselves on different sides of this concern - the policy of for profit jails making money from jailing people based on ethnicity and skin color.
People are struggling over which businesses and companies they can and should support with their purchases based on who and what policies and principles those businesses support. It is not simply about the product one desires – it becomes about what the business’s money supports. It’s about the environmental practices the business supports – or doesn’t support. It’s about the gender equality the business supports or doesn’t support. It’s about the human justice the business supports or doesn’t support. And it’s easy to try to shift the very real concern – making it about liking or not liking the person who owns the business – particularly in a small town – but really it’s about supporting or opposing the practices and policies of the business. It’s hard to separate those – but important.
And even so – decisions to boycott or avoid certain businesses or company’s based on their business practices – almost always – will cause fractured relationships as well. Boycotting a bakery that refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding - particularly in a small town – will inevitably lead to fractures between the supportive family and the refusing baker and their family. Protesting jail expansion and supporting immigration justice will inevitably lead to fractures between those who support one side or another. In larger businesses – it is easier to forget the human element. When one chooses not to buy tools at Home Depot or craft supplies at Hobby Lobby – it feels less about a fractured family division.
Jesus knew that doing the work of doing justice is not easy – it will be divisive – it will fracture families and communities. Tearing down oppressive, unjust systems will also always tear down the human relationship systems that have been built up within them that keep them functioning.
When divisions begin – under the impulse of a God of justice – the gospel of the ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ has begun to break in among us. And peace – with justice – begins to be possible.
Luke 12: 32-40; August 11, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Have you ever tried to stay awake over an extended period of time? I remember the days of Youth overnight retreats – as an adult chaperone. The youth didn’t seem to have difficulty staying awake long past their normal going to bed times – but oh, we adults – we tried drinking coffee or cola, playing card games – question games – anything to keep from dozing off.
Staying alert when all your body wants to do is check out is difficult – perhaps almost impossible. A speaker drones on and on – perhaps the words are even interesting – but you only got five hours of sleep the night before – and your eyes simply cannot stay open – your mind shuts down – your head drops -
It is not without reason that duty watches are assigned in shifts, that ‘red’ alerts are issued judiciously, that storm alarms are only used in severe cases – no one can stay alert indefinitely. The body simply ceases to notice, to hear, to be aware.
Too much unremitting attention can also be counterproductive. Scientists, mathematicians, artists, authors, composers, even ministers know that breakthroughs most often come just after they have taken a break from the idea J
So when Jesus exhorts his listeners to ‘always be ready’, to ‘stay on guard,’ he already knows that they won’t be able to do so. He already knows they will fall asleep, their attention will wander, they will check out. After all, he does begin speaking by assuring them not to be afraid, because regardless of how aware they are they simply cannot be on watch all the time.
‘Expect the unexpected,’ is a hard way to live. It is anxiety producing, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always aware that if things are going well now, it’s likely that something will change – and perhaps not for the better.
Jesus must have known this. And certainly Jesus is not asking those who follow him to be more anxious.
Just last week, in the passage before this one, Jesus told a story about a landowner with a bountiful harvest deciding that in order to reduce anxiety about the future, he would store away all that food just in case. And Jesus reminds the disciples – it doesn’t work like that. Storing up is not what gives true security.
We are a people though aren’t we who want to reduce our anxiety? We know tht the self- help section in most bookstores is often one of the largest. Decluttering our homes and our minds and in fact all of our lives is touted as the newest best answer to happiness and joy.
There is nothing about always being ready, about expecting the unexpected, that is easy in our impatient world. We value our busyness. We brag about the crazy schedules of our children and ourselves that keep our day planners full and our lives frantic.
We live in a world rooted in anxiety and fear about the future. And in light of the most recent mass shootings, this anxiety and fear has taken on new levels of reality. Is it even safe to be in places where large numbers of people gather? Is anywhere safe? Be awake, expect the unexpected, be ready……
And yet, ‘do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s pleasure to give you the kingdom of God.’ Lack of fear and lack of anxiety are the products of giving trust over to God.
Presumably Jesus tells his disciples to let go of their possessions for exactly the same reason he tells the story of the rich man and his wanting to build bigger barns . The resources the disciples want to hold on to are becoming dangerous distractions – these possessions have begun that seductive work of owning rather than being owned – they are distracting the disciples from keeping their vigil – being ready for the kingdom of God.
Being rich toward God is not primarily about donating large sums of money to the church or anywhere else. Building moth and rust proof purses and buildings are not merely solid business practices.
Jesus call his followers to an orientation – an understanding of the whole of life as an abundant gift from a generous loving God. And as a received gift – it can and should be passed on and given away to others with abandon and joy.
When one’s hands and fingers are tightly clenched, neither receiving or sharing can be accomplished. Being rich toward God requires a generosity of spirit that helps open our minds to recognize the always present generosity of God. This generosity is always present, but often overlooked when we remain focused on our anxiety or fear.
Being always- ready or being asleep are not our only alternatives. We can focus on our anticipation, our watchful waiting, in ways that are neither checked- out nor obsessive. We can cultivate – learn to cultivate – a peripheral vision – that will allow us to recognize the difference between being the lookout and being on the lookout. Rather than being taken by surprise – we can position ourselves to be surprised. Rather than wondering when the other shoe will drop, we can teach ourselves to live with the joy of wonder.
It is a discipline to teach ourselves to do this - to learn – when and where and how we might allow for a breakthrough. We can practice setting up the conditions to let such a breakthrough occur.
In our church life – we call this kind of learn – faith practices. Those things we learn and practice so that they become a part of our everyday lives allowing us to always be ready – for wonder. Allowing us to stay awake – for revelation. Allowing us to expect the unexpected good – the hope – that so much of the world simply doesn’t or cannot or will not see.
Thoughts and prayers, then, are not simply things we sit and say or think or even tweet or text. They are practices we cultivate throughout our lives. Practices that lead to actions, practices that lead us into the very places, to the very people and situations that need our presence to turn things upside down. Thoughts and prayers then, are not empty – they can change our hearts – our minds - so that we can and will in turn change others hearts.
The unexpected may be recognizing that perhaps real thoughts and prayers – are the best place to start. But they are only the start. Wake up. Get ready.
Luke 12: 13-21; Aug. 4, 2019; Union Congr. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
George Carlin, the late comedian known more for his crassness and profanity than his spiritual insights, was also a brilliant social satirist. In one monologue, Carlin addresses the obsessive accumulation of modern society and material things – and the anxiety such accumulation and possession, both of which are the cause and the result.
‘You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses… Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. That’s what life is all about, trying to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.
A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.’
The parable we heard today from the gospel of Luke speaks directly to the subject of stuff – our accumulation of stuff – and our need to build building to store and keep and protect all that stuff.
If you have ever played the ‘what would you do if you won the lottery?’ game, you can relate to the story of the rich farmer told by Luke. The farmer was already rich – the Message interpretation says he was also greedy. How do we know that – or think we know that – well he had barns full of the harvest from previous years – and now in the abundance of the current year’s harvest, he worries about what to do with it – his anxiety is mounting – all this stuff – and then that anxiety has an answer – I know, I’ll build bigger barns to store it all away – to save it – to protect it – to keep it all for me.
That sounds reasonable – maybe. If you were to play the game – if you won $100,000 what would you do with it. I’d buy a new car, a new house, a new boat. I’d buy my child a new car, new house, new boat.
Not everyone has that immediate response to sudden good fortune. In the movie Dolores, about Dolores Juarez was one of the co-founders of the United Farm Workers Union. Dolores lived in (chosen) poverty and worked tirelessly and endlessly for justice for field-workers. In an interview by a male reporter, she was asked if she ever missed buying things for herself - and what she would do if someone gave her a bunch of money to spend just on herself. Her immediate response was that she would give it to the Farm Workers Union. And when the reporter protested that that wouldn’t be for herself – she disagreed saying that was the most important thing to her – justice for those workers.
Saving for a rainy day – making a good investment – storing up for a time of scarcity all seem like logical, reasonable things to do, and yet, God says, “You Fool.”
The problem is – who is it all for? The rich farmer doesn’t seem to be an evil man who has cheated or stolen wealth from anyone else. He seems to be a pretty good farmer, making solid decisions that lead to good harvests – yes? The problem is that when his harvest wagons and current barns are already filled to bursting – more than he can possibly use himself – he doesn’t run into the village to call out his good fortune and invite everyone there to celebrate with him, to get a share. His immediate response is to keep it all for himself – to store it up for later. He has no plan for sharing is abundance – let along even recognize the need of those who may be less fortunate than himself. Eleven times he uses the pronoun for I or My and never once Our or Their.
Jesus doesn’t tell this story because he thinks no one should have material things or wealth. It’s so much deeper than that. It’s about the seductive power of possessions. It’s about the ways in which owning things quickly shifts and those things begin to own us. It’s about how quickly we begin thinking we need a bigger garage to house our extra car, a bigger house to contain our new furniture, a bigger storage space to store our seasonal stuff – our extra stuff.
Jesus talks about what it might mean to be rich toward God rather than rich toward stuff. “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
George Carlin continues his monologue about the ironic humor in all our possessions:
‘So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.’
The issue in our parable is not really about stuff at all. It’s about anxiety and discernment. We have a fear of scarcity – that we might not have enough. We think that by building bigger barns, getting a bigger house, renting a Storage space will provide us with the security that will allow our souls to relax. Today, there is a storage industry, an anxiety industry, and a decluttering industry all aimed toward making it possible for us to not worry about our stuff so we can relax, eat, drink and be merry.
The rich farmer’s space and time problem becomes moot as God informs him that tonight his life is over and he won’t be keeping all his stuff. No gentle let down, no euphemisms, just, “You Fool!”
We can immediately see how well thought out but misguided the rich farmer’s logic is. And we laugh that he ever though he could use so much – could keep it forever. We laugh – and realize we must also laugh at ourselves – pockets, purses, houses, and storage units – there is no end to it all. The idiocy of accumulating and storing up so much stuff. Maybe life isn’t about trying to find a place for all your stuff. Maybe life isn’t even about trying to have less stuff. Maybe life is about being rich toward God and that is about finding places and people and situations where one’s stuff can be put to use for the greater good of all of God’s beloved creation. Maybe the alternative to accumulating and then worrying about your stuff – is sharing from your abundance – investing it in others.
Maybe Carlin’s suggested alternative to storing stuff – you could just walk around all the time isn’t so crazy. You could notice sunrises and sunsets, the lilies in the field, the song of birds singing, the beauty and abundance of all of God’s creation.
CHRISTMAS IN JULY
Luke 2: 1-20; July 28, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
If we had never heard the Christmas story before, it would surprise and amaze us. I’m guessing that for most of us while we love hearing the beautiful story, it doesn’t surprise or amaze us anymore. We love it because we’ve heard it so many times and because of all the images and feelings and senses it invokes. Christmas, when it comes in December, is so much about planning and preparation, decorating and singing seasonal songs beginning right after Halloween.
There is so much getting ready, so much holiday baking and holiday parties, Christmas concerts and Christmas movies – and Christmas shopping! And of course church – the annual four weeks of Advent getting ready – slowly – oh so slowly – every year we are reminded of the importance of waiting – and waiting – and waiting - until finally, it is Christmas Eve worship with beautiful bible lessons and carols leading to the crescendo of Silent Night and candle lighting!
Christmas in July though – is summertime silliness – opening gifts on the beach or the front lawn – or perhaps in the cool of air conditioning turned way down. Christmas in July is celebrating out of season. It simply doesn’t feel the same as Christmas in December. And perhaps that’s the point if we decide to celebrate Christmas in July.
We don’t really know when the actual birth of Jesus Christ was. Long ago, scholars and sages selected December 25 as the day. The birth of Jesus – Christmas- was never as important to early Christians as the death and resurrection of Jesus – Easter. It was only years after the beginnings of Christianity that those early Christ-followers began wondering and speculating on how the birth of Jesus came to be.
You will notice in your Bible, that the gospel of Mark has no birth story at all, the gospel of Matthew has a very abbreviated one, and it isn’t until the later written gospel of Luke that we get the beautiful story we are most familiar with that you heard read today.
The apostle Paul who wrote his letters – the epistles of the New Testament – earlier than any of the gospels, never mentions Jesus’ birth or early life at all. For the first three centuries of Christianity’s experience, Jesus Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all. The most significant holidays were Epiphany which celebrated the arrival of the Magi Jan 6, and Easter with a complicated determinate for a spring date, which celebrated Jesus’ resurrection.
The first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honoring Jesus’ birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from 336 A.D.
Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25? Probably not. In fact, the details of the story, if they are accurate, suggest a different time of year. The presence of shepherds in their fields suggest that it was during the spring or summertime – a time when the lambing was over and sheep were taken to the hills to graze.
When church officials settled on December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ at the end of the third century, they most likely wanted the date chosen to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn the Roman god of agriculture and Mithra, the Persian god of light. That way it became easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion as the two religions blurred in their merging.
The celebration of Christmas spread throughout the western world over the next several centuries but many Christians continued to view Ephiphany and Easter as more important. Some including the Puritans (our UCC spiritual ancestors) of colonial New England even banned the observance of Christmas because they viewed its traditions of offering gifts and decorating trees as too closely linked to paganism.
In the early days of the United States, Christmas was considered a British custom and because of the divide with England, it fell out of style following the American Revolution. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday.
It is interesting to know the history of this holiday that many Christians proclaim as the most important Holy day of all, was never even particularly important at all in the beginnings of Christianity. The Holy days (holidays) we nearly forget these days, were far more important.
Christmas in July – aside from its history – reminds us to be surprised. Hearing the familiar story reminds us – in our warm sanctuary – how amazing and wondrous and surprising this story really is. That God chose to try one more way to connect with humanity – to help humans find their way to holiness – God chose to become one of them – to become incarnate – to become one tiny baby – born to a young human girl – a baby that was to be called Emmanuel – God with us – to remind – to jolt us out of our comfort and complacency – that we might know that God is with us.
The story doesn’t depend on the date. The story depends on God. On a God that declares nothing is impossible – that anything is possible. On a God that tells us over and over that God is making all things new. And that we are to join God in all that wonder and possibility and newness.
Joyous Christmas – everyone – even in July.
WORD AND WORK
Luke 10: 38-42; July 21, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
When Jesus decided to drop in on his friends, Mary and Martha, Martha’s first thought was what could she get together in a hurry to feed unplanned guests. Martha clearly understood the concept of radical hospitality. And Martha expected her sister Mary to help with food prep and getting the house cleaned.
And when Mary plopped down on the rug at Jesus’ feet leaving Martha to do all the serving and cleaning up, Martha wants Jesus to intervene and tell Mary to help her. Mary was in no hurry to provide hospitality. She didn’t seem to care if the house was a mess or there was nothing but water for their guest. And Jesus didn’t seem to care either, telling Martha to stop worrying and let Mary do what she chose to do – which was immerse herself in learning at Jesus’ feet.
I don’t know which of these sisters you identify with, but most of us decide we are one or the other. And it’s not necessarily about serving food or cleaning house. It might be about committee work – have you ever suggested that it sure would be nice if someone else would step up for a change? It might be about any kind of work – who shows up for spring and fall clean up days, who shows up to serve the funeral lunch, who shows up to hold a protest sign, who is willing to teach the children, wash the coffee cups, prune the shrub s…… Martha is willing and if we think like Martha – we have most likely done some or all of those tasks I’ve listed.
And while we are working – because I’m a lot of Martha – what are the Mary’s doing? Bible studies. Praying – including being on the prayer chain. Calling or sending a card to a lonely friend or stranger. Reading a non-fiction book. Attending worship. Showing up and plopping down to immerse in learning.
This scripture has so often been interpreted as comparing Mary and Martha and affirming Mary’s choice and discounting Martha’s choice and yet, that is not at all what it is about. Jesus knows the world needs both Mary’s and Martha’s and that most often they not found in the same person.
Jesus tells Martha that she needs to do what she is called to do and stop blaming Mary and let her do what she is called to do. Neither one should find fault or lay blame on what the other is or is not doing.
Martha might say “My work is my prayer.” Mary might reply, “My prayer is quiet contemplative time with God.” Martha’s experience their faith in serving others, in doing, in being active. Marys experience their faith in contemplation, quiet time with God, learning ever more about relationship with God.
Over the last several days, traveling across Guatemala, meeting people, hearing stories, sharing hospitality, I’ve personally experienced both Mary’s and Martha’s and both are so vital. The life of contemplation and immersion and the active life of change-making.
I’d like to share several stories of people we met and their stories. It would be easy to believe that everyone working to end injustice in the world is a Martha – so busy bustling about – making plans and preparations – setting up meetings and making sure everyone has what they need. And yet along with every successful Martha is a Mary – bringing a wealth of wisdom, quietly, emotionally sharing a simple story, listening to others telling their stories, praying in a traditional circle.
We each of us have the ability to be both Mary and Martha even though we may mostly take one role or another.
For the most part on my Guatemalan trip we were Mary’s - riding our van from here to there over winding and rough roads, plopping down in a hotel bedroom, a courtyard, a farmers teaching room – so we might not miss any part of the stories shared, the sadness, the anger, the resignation, the hope. Most of the ten of us Minnesota UCC folks on this trip to Guatemala would most likely see ourselves in our everyday lives as Martha’s thought – not Mary’s. We are the doers – the workers and yet on this trip, our role was to listen, to sit on hard wood chairs, concrete slabs, or wooden stumps and immerse ourselves in all that was being taught. It wasn’t easy. It made me understand why mission trips are so popular. You get to do stuff on a mission trip. You get to hammer and nail, pour concrete, plant, make food, clean and paint. You don’t spend much time sitting and listening and reflecting.
Our trip leader Graham was a good example of a combination Mary and Martha – his head filled with pages of data – that he never needed a book or recording to draw upon sharing with us – names and dates – stories of people and places – court dates and historical dates – teaching and guiding and challenging – leading and letting others question.
Franciscan monk, Frere Armando at the “God with us” parish, a team of 8 friars supporting migrants fleeing Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico. A Mary teaching and praying, so immersed in the lessons of Jesus there was nothing else he could do other than provide a place for those fleeing to sleep, a glass of water, shelter, and prayer.
Sabe - a Martha – a young woman who decided her faith called her to accompany a group of fleeing people to Mexico. She organized food, water, and a vehicle which only took them so far and from that point, they walked. It was a very long arduous walk she said – and risky with danger and extortion every step along the way.
Rosario – a Mary - an independent investigator working with the Franciscan network - teaching history, new words, an immersion into the lives of displaced people being forced to migrate. Teaching us about goats and coyotes – people not animals. About for- export - only agriculture. About a country that invests nothing in its own people.
Felix – who accepted asylum in Canada after being forced to flee Honduras - needing to see his mother on her 100th birthday - willing to risk coming back to Guatemala with all its difficulties to arrange a border visit. Felix – Mary.
Erica – a Ph.D. student worker for Fundacion De Antropologia Forense de Guatemala – digging up mass graves from war crimes. Erica told us ‘ there is nothing more important than truth-telling’. People need to know what happened here in the very recent past and what is still happening today.
The exhumation of mass graves all over Guatemala is helping families whose loved ones have disappeared. Investigation, Archaeology, creating ritual for families. Mary
Don Christobal – Martha. Creator of an organic, sustainable agriculture teaching farm in Rabinal. Purveyor of the dignity of Mayan heritage, providing a place where kids can go – a place to open up their minds – to learn about their heritage - in the context of the agriculture begun by their ancestors.
Carla, Freddie, Kayle all students at the campo. Mary’s for now soaking up information, learning at the feet of one who can teach and show by example.
Alfredo – a former nurse, now a farmer. A visionary with such a bright light in his eye and heart of how to re-create community and build relationships while creating an interconnected organic, sustainable farming system where every part is essential and has purpose. Martha.
Maria – a fearless Martha – leading the resistance against Mines and Multi-National corporations taking over indigenous lands, destroying villages and massacring anyone that stands in the way. Maria, learning to speak out – speak up – finding people inside and outside the country who can help – with lawsuits – with support – to listen.
The cooks who prepared the squash tamale meal at Alfredo’s, the amaranth meal at Mother Earth Gardens in Rabinal, the spaghetti meal at Angelica’s home in Elestor. All Martha’s working in the background to make sure the hospitality of food and place supports the learning and teaching going on.
Mary and Martha – it’s not a contest. There is no one better role. Both are necessary and need one another. Some of us serve both roles. Some of us don’t. Just yesterday, I mentioned I was preaching on this text today and the question asked jokingly was what did I think would happen if Mary got stuck in the kitchen. I said, I thought Mary would most likely do just fine there even though it might not be her preferred role, or most likely she would recruit a team of Martha’s who would love to do the kitchen work so she could get back out to teaching and learning and dialoguing in theology and the praxis of life – which they would not want to do.
Jesus reminds Martha not to blame Mary for what Martha thinks she should be doing. Mary has chosen to follow her call which is learning more about God. We each are called – there is to be no blaming for anyone else not doing what you are called to do. Each of us is to follow our own call. May you do so – to the glory of God.
PICKING UP THE MANTLE: When All Are Welcome Here Isn’t Enough
2 Kings 2: 1-2; 6-14 June 30, 2019, Union Cong. UCC Elk River
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Elijah the prophet is old – he’s ready to die – to pass over – to ascend to heaven. His disciple – his mentee – Elisha must be ready to take over where Elijah will leave off – and Elisha doesn’t feel ready. When Elijah asks Elisha what final thing he can leave for Elisha, Elisha responds, “Leave me a double share of your Spirit.” And so --when Elijah ascends into heaven – dropping his mantle as he goes – Elisha picks it up and filled with a double share of spirit, begins his own ministry.
Today, as we come to the end of PRIDE month, we celebrate here at UNION UCC our own Open and Affirming status – our own pride in stating that all are welcome here – ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey’, we say, ‘you are welcome here.’
And I think we mean that. But does everyone who comes here, know that welcome, feel that welcome? The subtitle of my sermon today is ‘When All Are Welcome Isn’t Enough’. How could that be possible, how could it not be enough?
We sing ‘No matter who, no matter what, you are welcome here.’ However, it is possible that you may not be comfortable here. If you believe that gay people are an abomination, or even just believe that they are OK but don’t belong in leadership in the church, you will not feel quite comfortable here. If you believe immigrants are ruining the country – taking jobs, bringing crime and drugs with them, you probably won’t feel comfortable here at Union UCC. If you dislike hearing that Black Lives Matter or Trans Lives matter, you might desire to leave in the middle of worship here.
We are not all comfortable. And that is not a bad thing. Comfort feels good but discomfort is good too. Today as we celebrate our PRIDE Sunday, this is a reminder that we cannot be all things to all people. It is a reminder that discomfort is not the same as disenfranchisement. Being offended is not the same as being oppressed.
I say this because there are many folks in the world and in our Elk River community who will take offense to the fact that a Christian church supports Gay people and even calls a Lesbian pastor and flies a rainbow flag on the front lawn, that a Christian church supports and welcome Immigrants and is proud to stand up and say no to the expansion of the Sherburne County jail to detain and house even more immigrants, that a Christian church supports our Muslim neighbors and is proud to display a blessed Ramadan sign on our church lawn. They are offended and they say, this is appalling and it’s not even Christian. They say it’s offensive.
And I say, it’s okay that they are offended. Because being offended is not the same as being oppressed!
Progressive Christians are often worried and remain inactive for fear of offending others. I hear it fairly often in this church – this church that prides itself on our openness and welcome. I’ve heard folks worry about flying the rainbow flag - especially during funerals, during the Bazaar, really any day. We worry about offending others because in a variety of ways, many of us have been mistreated ourselves and name-called by others, and we don’t want to do that to anyone else. And that is good.
But when we stand up for goodness and justice and equality for all, people will be offended. People will claim that our resistance, our protesting is oppressing them – is standing in their way to be who they are. They will claim that my gay marriage is damaging to their straight marriage. They will claim that immigrants coming into this country damages their right to jobs and housing and freedom. They will claim that our rainbow flag or Ramadan posters are an offense to their line of vision.
Equality is offensive to those who are used to never having to share with others who live differently from them.
For this reason, the struggle for LGBTQIA rights has been sterilized, particularly within the progressive church –yes even our church.
We did the work, we studied and struggled, we wrote a statement of who we are, what we believe and we became an Open and Affirming Church. Been there, done that. All are welcome here. Right?
But it’s not that simple. It doesn’t feel as welcoming as you might think it is. Folks will say, I don’t understand why we need to put stuff out there on the lawn, as soon as you come in you will know we are ONA.
We don’t want to be known as the gay church, do we? Surely that will chase away the good straight families that want our progressive thinking.
Until every one of you is willing to wear a rainbow shirt, or put a rainbow sticker on your car, or a rainbow flag on your lawn, or wear a rainbow hat, or carry a rainbow umbrella, march in a PRIDE parade, or wear a proud ally button, a straight but not narrow – until every one of you is willing to proudly explain and proclaim what Open and Affirming means to you and how we as a church are proud to proclaim welcome and affirmation to any of our LGBTQIA family, it is not quite true that all are welcome here. Until we are willing to understand the need for inclusive language – not only male and female language – not only brother and sister language - not only male God-language in our liturgy, in our hymns, in our anthems, in our Sunday’s Cool, in our meetings and groups – it will not feel radically welcome here. Until we are willing to explore what it means to name our own personal pronouns and celebrate other’s personal pronouns – he, his, him, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs – it will not feel radically welcome here.
Elijah spoke a radical word in his day of who and what and how the God he knew wanted justice for all of God’s people. Elijah offended those in power. They were offended and they sought to detain and arrest and put him to death. When Elijah’s death was imminent, his protégé Elisha could have taken a different path, a safer path - but Elisha knew his task was to pick up the mantle of Elijah and not only continue Elijah’s justice work. but to take it to the next level.
Every year as we come to the month of June and celebrate PRIDE and our church’s Open and Affirming status, we not only celebrate this thing we did on April 29, 2012, of becoming the 39th Open and Affirming congregation in the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ – but - one more time, we are picking up the mantle of all those who have gone before us. We are recommitting ourselves to what is ahead of us – what is next for us to do. Not only what is the next big thing – but how do we – how will we accomplish the next steps in becoming ever more Open and Affirming? How will we examine the ways we welcome and provide hospitality to one another – to be ever more welcoming and hospitable – no matter who you are? How do we provide language that is welcoming? How do we provide restroom facilities that are welcoming – no matter who we are? How will we become ever more immersed in our faith – yes – how will we study and learn and truly live what it means to be a follower of Jesus – a Christian – in this world?
Jesus didn’t seem to worry much about offending people – what he worried about was that not all people were included. He worried and worked to make sure everyone had water and food and a welcome to the table. He worked to topple the structures of power and oppression and to help those without power to rise up. He told rich people to give up their wealth so all could have enough. He called some people hypocrites and called everyone to justice for everyone. To be a person of faith is to follow Jesus’ example. And we are called to be people of faith.
As long as LGBTQIA youth are attempting suicide at alarming rates, it is a faith imperative that we provide a place for them to be proud of their sexuality and gender identity.
As long as immigrants are being detained for no other reason than the country they come from, it is a faith imperative that we provide a welcome, safety, and fight for their freedom.
As long black youth must be taught to keep their hands out of their pockets when in a convenience store, it is a faith imperative that we help those youth be proud of their black skin.
As long as transgender women of color are the most likely victims of a violent attack, it is a faith imperative that we help make them proud of their identity and the color of their skin.
It is not imperative that we understand completely. Sitting in our comfortable cocoons of privilege and stating words of love and welcome when they are brave enough to come inside to join us – is not enough. It never was enough - it was a start – it was a good start – but it is not enough. The time is now to pick up the mantle of all those who came before - those who resisted – those who were beaten and arrested – those who died – to fight for equality and justice and an end to oppression. We are called to be visible. We are called to wear our hearts on our sleeves. We are called to be present on the margins. We are called to live boldly and proudly our faith. If we don’t, then who will? If not now, tell me when.
Where is God?
I Kings 19: 1-15a; June 23; 2019;
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
….’ And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’
This passage from the Old Testament first book of Kings challenges us to think in new ways about God – who and what God is - and where and how God is to be found.
Elijah – one of the early prophets - has been trying to tell God’s truth to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and they don’t like what they hear because it finds so much fault with their leadership and lifestyle – so Elijah is hiding out in the wilderness wishing he could just die. Elijah doesn’t much like the path he’s on – speaking truth to power – speaking for justice in the face of injustice – because it puts his life just a bit too far out on the line for comfort. But God has different ideas. God calls to Elijah, ‘what are you doing here?’ Elijah responds with an aggrieved answer about all he has done - to which God’s answer is to send him out to the mountain to watch and wait for God. And God never comes. God never comes?
Where is God when we feel needy? Elijah certainly expected that God would be there when he went searching – in the wind, the earthquake, the fire – but God seemed to have left the room. Nothing. Only when the storm had passed – when all was silent – did Elijah seem to recognize the presence of God.
We hear this story of Elijah seeking God’s presence – and I wonder if perhaps we mistakenly come to believe that only when we are absolutely silent can we find God – and that’s not it. It’s not about whether God is in fire and wind and storms or silence. Because in other stories, God is certainly found in all those places and times. It’s about finding God in the least expected places and least expected times. It’s about recognizing that God looks and feels and acts differently from what you expect God to be. It’s something like that song, Looking for love in all the wrong places – only that with God – there really are no wrong places.
There’s an old story (there are many versions of this story) about a shipwrecked man who prays to God to save him. A boat approaches but the man tells it to go away because God will save him. The boat leaves. A second boat arrives, and the man sends it away, saying God will save him. Eventually the man dies of exposure. When he gets to heaven, he complains to God for not saving him when he prayed. God tells the man he sent two different boats to save him, but the man sent them away.
God almost never appears to us in the ways we most likely expect – or even want. If we truly want God’s presence, we need to remain open to God’s communication vehicles rather than our own preconceived expectations – and need for control.
In recent times it seems that people mostly only ask the question, ‘Where is God?’ when they have eliminated all their own options for making sense of whatever is going on. In December 2012, a troubled teenager shot twenty six people, some teachers, but mostly small children, at Sandy Hook elementary School in Newark, Connecticut. The horror of this event shocked the world. In the days that followed, there were questions on the radio, television, the internet, newspapers – how could this have happened? And what can be done to prevent it happening again? Among these questions also, was another question, “Where was God at Sandy Hook?”
Some people claimed God was in heaven, waiting to welcome the victims with open arms. Some even said that God needed more little angels. Some declared that God was a judging God and such violence was retribution and a blood sacrifice for national sin. Some opined that God had directed the heroic acts of teachers who saved their students – or of police who arrived on the scene. And some insisted God had nothing to do with it because God does not intervene in human affairs – or God does not exist at all.
These same questions – Where was God? were asked at Columbine, Parkland, First Baptist Church, Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the World Trade Center, and thousands more that you’ve never even heard named.
Where was God? is asked at the too – early death of our child – our neighbor’s child – the child at the border – the child on the beach. Where was God when all this was happening? Why did God let this happen? Why would God let this happen?
Where is God arises from the rubble of the World Trade Center, from tsunami ravaged villages in Thailand and Indonesia, from New Orleans and Guatemala, from African villages as numbers of dead mount from Ebola and AIDs, from the victims of sex trafficking and slavery and detained immigrants, from flooding and tornadoes and unseasonal storms due to climate change.
‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years due to circumstances so dire that many wonder whether we have been left to fend for ourselves. Hope seems almost unattainable. Fear is both cheap and plentiful and the product being peddled by those looking for power and control.
Where is God? Elijah despaired. Elijah had dedicated his life to God - and yet when he needed God’s presence most – he could not seem to find it.
Many people in our country have decided that due to all these horrendous events – God simply does not exist. The loving, compassionate God we want to believe in would never let these sorts of events occur without intervening. These people believe that humans are on their own. There is no God – or if there ever was a God – that God has given up on us. And others – and I count myself and many of us among these others, suggest a much different possibility – that God is with us. The answer to the question, ‘Where is God? Is that God is with us.
It is true that it is a wildly radical idea to believe and act as though God is with us – including the victims of terrorism, of natural disasters, of oppression and war - those who mourn and doubt and even despair. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from prison during the Nazi holocaust said, “Only a suffering God can help.’ Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel referred to God as the God of pathos – a God who loves the world profoundly, feels all the pain and agony and despair, feels with creation, and participates fully in its life.
What this means of course is that God is not only with us when tragedy strikes, but in the midst of joy – when we often forget to ask ‘Where is God?’ and even in the midst of the most mundane, ordinary times when we forget to ask ‘Where is God?’ God is both distant majesty and wonder – awesome and mysterious - God of the sunset and thunder – and God of the most intimate and personal moments – God of a new born infant or a beating heart.
The question, ‘Where is God?’ means not only answering with specific places and times, events and geographies – but asking a second question, ‘How does God’s presence guide and direct our lives and actions in the world?’
Where is God? God is here. And here. And there. And there. And way over there. How shall we act upon that? Well, that is up to us. And that is also one of the reasons we come to church – to share our stories and our doubts and fears – and hear other stories of hope and possibility and wonder. And we name that hope God.
Gathered and Scattered
Acts 2: 1-4; June 9,2019; Pentecost Sunday
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
By Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
There they all were, confused, frustrated, frightened, direction-less in that stagnant time following Jesus’ death. They were all there – all of his most devoted followers – minus Judas – gathered together in one big room – attempting to make sense of the radically changed world in which they now resided. What next? What ought they to be doing? Should they be scared – concerned for their safety – for their family’s safety? After all many of them had been with Jesus during the most controversial of acts – gathering food on the Sabbath, healing lepers, eating with outcasts, talking - well not just talking - but demonstrating insubordination, protest, and resistance to and against political and religious authorities, even assuming a kingship. And that last horrendous week when they skulked in the shadows, just following and watching…… that horrible end play out …..
And blaming – oh the blaming – there must have been blaming and fault-finding going on. ‘If only Jesus hadn’t pushed the limits so far.’ ‘If he hadn’t made those people in the wider church so angry with him.’ ‘If he hadn’t broken quite so many rules.’ ‘And that Mary, if Mary hadn’t encouraged him so blatantly.’ ‘Or Jairus, if only he hadn’t brought his dead daughter for Jesus to heal.’ ‘And – if Mary and Martha hadn’t brought Jesus to wake up their dead brother Lazarus – who for had been dead for days!’ ‘All those lepers and blind people, all those who Jesus just had to heal.’ ‘Or, what about that day by the sea, if everyone had just brought a brown bag lunch instead of showing up with no food – then all those miracles wouldn’t have been needed – if – if – if ………if it hadn’t been for that one or this one ….or this act or that …….we wouldn’t be in this mess.
And then – right in the midst of the confusion - the roaring of wind – thunder – lightning bolts flashing – and then no rain – but fire – tongues of fire dancing and arcing over their heads – bouncing off the walls like a laser light show – fire everywhere – enveloping but not consuming each person there. Holy fire like that experienced by Moses when he found the burning bush. Fire – that stopped short the complaining and fault-finding – the blaming and whining – the wondering. Holy fire – connecting fire – uniting fire – solidifying fire – – uniting all the fragmentation and separation – all the disconnection and division - into unity.
Flames of the Holy Spirit – engulfing and filling to overflowing each person in that room – creating such a unity – that each one began to speak in a different language – and amazingly – each could understand the other!
It was, of course, the Jewish festival of Pentecost and the streets outside that room were packed with festival-goers. When the pyrotechnics began, those outside began peering in to see what was going on – drawn by the noise, the smell of sulfur, the flashing of flames still dancing about. The ones gawking in at the windows were critical – jeering that those babbling and shouting inside had obviously partied a little too much and too long – were clearly filled with festival wine – and that was the reason for so much crying and moaning and speaking of gibberish.
But those who were in the room knew the truth. In that first rush of the wind, that first flash of flames, they recognized the truth that Jesus had left with them, that through the Spirit, they were united – comforted – filled with the Holy Spirit – and they were one.
In the years following the coming of the Spirit, the apostle Paul in a multitude of letters to the early churches of Christ’s believers reminded these new congregations over and over, exactly what this kind of unity means. Paul reminded the new churches what Jesus’ parting prayer for unity, ‘that they may all be one,’ was all about. “Don’t say, ‘I belong to Paul, or I follow Apollos (another leader)” he told them. Tell them you follow Christ. Tell them you are of Christ. And, don’t allow yourselves to be divided. Be of one mind, one accord; and in that unity remember that each one of you is important. Remember that each one of you is a necessary part of the body of Christ. Each of you has been given gifts, gifts that the Spirit continues to give – gifts of speaking, preaching, prophesy, teaching, interpreting….
Back in the fall of 2004, the United Church of Christ kicked off a nation-wide television advertising campaign to promote United Church of Christ identity. Some of you have seen those ads – the bouncer, we are the church, the ejector seat… And all of the ads reiterated the central core identity of the United Church of Christ – “Jesus didn’t turn anyone away, and neither do we.” Wherever you are on life’s journey, we invite you to be united with us – to journey with us – wherever it may lead.
In 1957 the United Church of Christ was created from the joining together of two denominations – already joined not too many years previously from four - to become one new denomination. This brand new denomination took as its motto, Jesus’ words from John’s gospel, recognizing them as essential and central to its core identity –“that they may all be one.” [See the binding of the UCC Hymnal]
“That they may all be one – so that the world might believe.” Jesus offered these words as a prayer to his followers that they might be unified – might be one – so that anyone who was not already one of them would see them and be so attracted by such unity that he or she would want to become one with them.
Unfortunately, this kind of unity is often not what the world sees when they see we Christians. What they so often see is our divisions – our taking sides – religious right and religious left – conservative and liberal – open and affirming or not. They see that we are often excluding and judging rather than including and welcoming. More often than not we accent our disunity – our fragmentation and division – rather than our unity and love – our oneness in Christ.
And perhaps, even more unfortunately, it is even true that within an individual congregation, even a congregation as warm and compassionate as this one – it is surely true that not everyone who comes here feels welcomed. It is almost certainly true that not everyone who comes here feels a valued part of this community. Not everyone feels as though the gifts they have are wanted or needed or celebrated. Not everyone feels united and some may even decide that there are opposing sides right within our midst. Us and them.
And for whatever reasons we set up these sides – intentional or unintentional - when we do, we are not one. We are not living into the imperative that Jesus prayed for we who would follow him – the proclaiming of radical hospitality and liberation for all – that they may all be one.
What a blessing it is that in this congregation we have such a diversity of gifts – bakers and readers, teachers and musicians, artists and administrators, listeners and activists, pray-ers and bulletin passers. Some with great obvious skills to share and others willing to help but often scared to death about having enough skill or knowing enough to do the right thing.
What a blessing that within this great multitude of volunteers, we have such an abundance of gifts – and yet one unified goal – maintaining and growing in spirit and vitality, building up the body of Christ – this beloved community that is Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.
This diversity of gifts is a microcosm of the Pentecost church, and it offers us a renewed vision for our church today. Every time we gather together – unified as the body of Christ, we are touched once again by the flame of the spirit. Once again we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – and we celebrate once again the gifts we have each been given – and we recognize that each gift is absolutely necessary for the unity of THIS body – and in this way we fulfill Jesus’ prayer for us – that we may all be one – one in Christ – one in God.
As we celebrate the diversity of the many gifts given by the Spirit – we recognize once again that we are a part of a diverse world, part of a diverse creation, part of a diverse congregation. We each think differently – we each have different hobbies and interests. We vote differently, we learn differently, we explain things to one another differently. We come from different economic backgrounds and different cultural backgrounds. We have different theological understandings and even different interpretations of those understandings. We have different ways of being in the world. And yet – as Christians and as part of the United Church of Christ and as Union Congregational church, United Church of Christ, we proclaim and do our best to live as though we are unified in belonging in and to Christ.
Such unity is not about discounting differences – it is about honoring and celebrating and accepting those differences as the gifts each one of us has been given. It is not about being colorblind or difference blind – it is about having our eyes wide open – our hearts and senses wide open – and being fully aware of the ways in which we are different - and then – affirming wholeheartedly that these differences are absolutely necessary to the church that lives fully in the world as the living, breathing, acting, body of Christ. That is what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Over and over, the Spirit gathers us and makes us one. And then, over and over, the Spirit scatters us to take the good news into all the world. Gathering and scattering – over and over. Take a deep breath - breathe in the Spirit – you are ready – you have all you need …
Acts 16: 16-34; June 2, 2019; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
The adventures of the apostles continue in this layered story of exorcism and outrage, a mob scene and courtroom drama, liberation and celebration and Paul at the center of the action – with God very, very busy at work everywhere.
Last week we told some of the story of Lydia, the woman of status and means who in joy at her newfound faith brought her whole household to be baptized. As they stayed longer at her home, Paul and Silas must have been feeling pretty good at how things were going.
In the days and weeks following Lydia’s conversion, Paul and Silas continued seeking out the places of prayer to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. And in these forays, Paul kept encountering another woman. This one much different from Lydia. While Lydia was a woman of position and possessions, with her own household and business to run, this woman, really a young girl was a street person, a slave girl, owned by others, and also kept captive by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers.
This unnamed slave girl was a ‘mantic,’ one who was believed to be able to predict the future. This ability made her valuable to her owners. Like so many young girls, she is being used by those who have figured out a way to make money with her.
In today’s story, this young woman was not making much money for her owners, as she called out announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries. It seems she wouldn’t stop what certainly must have felt like heckling to Paul, who is trying to preach his own news. Healing slave girls is not on Paul’s agenda, and yet he finds her so distracting, even though her words are truth. Is Paul moved by compassion or annoyance just to shut her up – either way – he turns and heals her.
Many scholars have cited this point in the story as the wonder of God’s healing power to heal the body and free the person. And yet, I wonder, what happens to her now? Isn’t she still a slave? And now she has no value as a psychic money earner? What happens to her now? Is she truly free? What will her life be like now? Will she just be turned over to a more mundane task where she will be treated even worse that she has been so far?
We hear nothing of Paul moving to help her – to invite her to join his group. And isn’t she still just as bound by the system of slavery as she was by the spirit that held her captive, or the humans that hold her captive? Paul’s failure to challenge the system of slavery haunts me.
And I wonder if perhaps, it haunted Paul also. That day, he did nothing to provide a new life for that girl – but later – as Paul continued his travels and letter writing to the new churches he began – he comes back to this justice concern. To the Galatians (3:28) There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There are many ways we humans are captive to forces seeming more powerful than we are. There are powers that keep us bound, old prejudices, systemic injustices that we don’t even see but certainly benefit from, a need for security and safety, fear that makes us strangers and enemies of one another, resentments that keep us apart – perhaps we don’t call these demons or even spirits but they are powerful and we do need to be set free from them.
As the story continues, the girl is left behind – to an uncertain future – as the men who own her – go after Paul and his companions. The trumped-up court scene that follows has little to do with justice – or even the exorcism. These men don’t even try to recover the money they’ve lost, they don’t want justice, they want revenge. They want these trouble makers punished. This might serve as a reminder to protesters and whistleblowers in every age – that disturbing the peace (however unjust that peace is) is not condoned by those holding power.
We can’t know the heart and mind of Paul when he drives the spirit from the girl, but we do learn of the price he and Silas pay. After the crowd turns on them, the authorities order them flogged and thrown into the deepest, darkest, innermost part of the prison when their feet are chained in stocks.
And yet, they do not despair. Despair is exactly the opposite of what they do. They don’t do the Paul thing either – create a new strategic plan. They do the God things – and they begin to worship God – singing hymns, praying and creating a community with the other prisoners. And more excitement when an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the prison, breaking open the walls and the very chains that hold the prisoners captive. They could run free if they chose.
We don’t know why they don’t run, but they don’t. Instead, the jailer realizing his life is saved because the prisoners didn’t escape – saves his life in a deeper way by falling on his knees and requesting that Paul baptize him as a new believer on the spot.
Here’s another place I wonder – what happened to that jailer after Paul left? Did he find a group – a church – to continue growing in his newfound faith? did he revert to his former practices or lack of them? Perhaps all we get to know is our own stories – what happened to us when we first professed our belief? What happens to those we know who comes to our place to profess their belief and be baptized?
Everyone in this story needs to be freed – the slave girl (from the possession of a spirit, from slavery, from being of too little importance to even be named) – the men who used her (possessed by greed) – the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power – or perhaps for public peace), the jailer (a victim in his own way – possessed by fear of failure), and Paul and Silas too – who need to be freed from their own narrow minded way of thinking.
What powers keep us bound? Put yourself in the place of each of these characters in this story – what possesses you? - what keeps you from whole-heartedly – whole bodily – accepting and living into God’s call in your life – God’s great big call – and God’s smaller calls along the way?
How can we hear the stories of these beginnings of the earliest Christian church without thinking about the ways God continues to work in and through the layers in this world – bringing new freedom, new life, new possibilities, new understandings, new directions, newness in every moment.
We don’t just read or listen to stories like this however, we are part of the ongoing story. How does our story demonstrate God at work with and through us? As we gather together after worship for our Annual Church Life Meeting, and as you read through the reports of highlights of the last year for the various Ministry Teams and other groups of the church, where do you see God’s presence and guidance? As you read through each group’s goals – where do you see a discerning and searching for the guidance and direction God continually offers?
We live in a world that continues to be chained in so many ways, continues to be held captive, and yet is still hungry for the good news. May our work and our play and our very lives continue to bring that good news.
"VISIONS AND DREAMS"
Acts 16: 9-15; May 26, 2019; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Visions are strange things. We often think of paranormal activity. In churches when we talk about visions or visioning, it’s likely we mean strategic planning – brainstorming, getting everyone’s input and creating a plan for three or five or more years into the future. When we think about God’s vision, it’s often easier for us to think about it in this same way – because it is more manageable, understandable, and we remain in control. We do like manageable and understandable and controllable. We’d rather find God’s vision for us in easy to follow steps: Pray, acknowledge and thank God for working in our congregation, discern God’s vision for us by calling a consultant, and so on.
In biblical stories including this one in Acts, visions from God are the norm, not the exception. Beginning with Adam and Eve, and on through the scriptures, God is shown to be actively engaged with and in human affairs calling us to attention and transformation. It is true that the transformation is often difficult and painful, especially when the recipient wants to go a different way that that of God’s vision. Think of Jonah running way from God’s vision to go to Nineveh – being swallowed by a whale where he has forty days to rethink following the vision. Think of Jacob using a rock for a pillow, dreaming God’s dream and waking up lame. Certainly difficult and painful.
And just a few weeks ago, we heard again the story of Saul the zealot persecuting new Christians, when shazaam, he was blasted off his high horse into the dirt, blinded and finally revived, transformed into Paul, zealot FOR Christianity.
Today, this same Paul, has had a vision. A vision to leave his planned travel itinerary and take a detour to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called him there to proclaim the good news.
One of the reasons we may like logical, strategic planning steps to find and name God’s vision is because it gives us or reinforces the idea that God is predictable and controllable. And that is never true. When God does visit us, however, we are always, undeniably changed.
Our lives will never be quite the same again. True, we may take many detours of our own volition, and yet, the change – the transformation caused by God never completely disappears.
Paul, clearly had a strategic plan. That’s the kind of guy he was – a logical, goal-oriented planner. To go to Macedonia was way out of the way, but that is where his vision from God called him to go, so off he set. And yet, Paul is still a strategic planner, so perhaps it is while he is on the boat that he puts into place his plan for Macedonia: to go to Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia, where surely he will find important men with whom to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
When they get to Philippi they remain in the city for some days. We aren’t told what they do in that time but it we also aren’t told any stories of sharing the good news with anyone during those days. Was there no one in Philippi receptive to the news Paul and his companions brought? Visiting with devout Jews in a new city was always Paul’s strategic plan for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When they hear that some people meet on the Sabbath outside the city gate down by the river to pray, they must have been excited to finally get to meet the man of Macedonia mentioned in Paul’s vision. But surprise, surprise, God’s vision takes a different course. There is no man of Macedonia. Instead there is a group of women gathered there to pray. Paul and his companions sat down to talk anyway – perhaps to get directions to where men are gathered to pray – and then another surprise – instead of a man, they meet a woman named Lydia.
Lydia is no ordinary woman. She is a woman of means. A woman who owns her own business, and the business is no typical woman’s work. Lydia, is a dealer of purple cloth.
She is the CEO of a fabric business that included many workers because there are many layers to her business – gathering the shells to make the purple dye, purchasing or making the fabric, dying the fabric, and selling the fabric – or finished garments – to people of importance and means – because this is expensive fabric.
Lydia is not associated with a man – she’s not a wife who helps with the business – she is the head of her household – the owner of her own business. She does not depend on a man to confer her status. She is financially independent and also manages a large household. And Lydia is Paul’s first convert in Macedonia.
What do we learn about God in this story? We learn that Lydia worships God and that God has opened her heart to listen to this new story eagerly. We learn that God uses a stranger, a foreigner, to bring this good news to her. Because it is not only Paul who has had a vision - Lydia too has received a vision, a vision of God’s good news, a vision that moves her to want her whole household to share.
Lydia has been in control of her whole life and now is willingly choosing to be a humble servant of God. Lydia is still Lydia – she is still a prominent seller – still in charge of her household – otherwise she could not require them all to be baptized along with her – she is still the owner of her property and business – but now – she is a new person in Christ. And this new person begs Paul and his companions to stay for a while at her house because she wants to know more, to hear more about this God whose good news has changed her life.
It seems that relationships spanning diversity are important to God. The book of Acts which tells the stories of the early church is intentional about highlighting these diverse connections. People with distinctly different backgrounds like Paul and Lydia, are brought together by God’s vision in the book of Acts. Those once separated by barriers of language and geography and gender and social position are brought together.
Last Saturday evening, over two hundred folks from a diversity of backgrounds - people of various faith traditions, UCC, Methodist, Baptist, Native American, Catholic – and people of no current faith traditions – responded to an invitation from members of the Ja’afari Islamic center to share in an Ramadan Iftar dinner. The purpose of the evening which always falls somewhere during the month of Ramadan is for those not of the Muslim faith to share in conversation and community to learn more about the Islamic faith and customs. Visitors are told there are no questions that are off limits – you can ask just about anything – about the practices of prayer – what do words mean? Why are men and women separated? What is the purpose of the little clay circle? About dress for women – why the hijab? About Ramadan fasting – who does and does not fast? About the food – what is this – or that?
Our God is a surprising God. A God we so often attempt to create in our own human image – making God into whatever we are – making God so much smaller and less encompassing than God really is – instead of recognizing that the reverse is true – that we are created in God’s image – and God is so much bigger – so much more that we can even imagine … so much more connected, more communal, more diverse, more relational, spanning all of the boundaries and borders, the walls and fences, the geography and customs, we let – and yes encourage to divide us. God always has a bigger vision. May your eyes and ears, your hearts and minds be open to that vision for you….. for us….
And may our lives be changed …. Forever …
“Filled With Zeal”
Acts 9: 1-6, (7-20); May 5, 2019
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Many of us know the story of Saul, zealous persecutor of the early church, who one day on the road to Damascus, was knocked to the ground, blinded by a bright light, addressed by the risen Christ himself, and eventually got up, shook his head, took the new name of Paul and became one of the most passionate of apostles.
Was Saul’s experience a conversion or a call from God? In either case, most of us ordinary Christians go through our whole lives without ever literally being knocked off our feet and blinded by light in our conversion or call experiences. We often go from day to day, sometimes searching, sometimes avoiding, sometimes convinced, sometimes doubting, but rarely experiencing such dramatic revelations that change the course of our lives, let alone the life of the whole church, as the experience of Saul did.
…………And where did Saul go with all of this? He went to get baptized and share communion and to spend the rest of his life in the company of others who followed the way of Jesus. He began to write and write and write. He was filled with the Spirit that opened his eyes. He became a passionate advocate of a new kind of community and a new way of being. And this new community now included – with Paul’s tireless efforts – the most unlikely people. Perhaps the most dramatic sign of Paul’s conversion was his passionate commitment to sharing the good news with gentiles – those outside the Jewish faith. Part of Paul’s conversion was his eye-opening new understanding of the big picture.
Saul learned that the Christian life was not just an individualistic or isolated undertaking – but dependent on the wisdom, discernment and faithfulness of other members of the community. Paul’s life work became that of building up churches rather than simply focusing on converting individuals.
Call and conversion. Rather than defined as negative – turning your back on the past – it becomes a positive – turning to face the future. Whether or not your faith experience is accompanied by a shazaam lightning show and a literal knocking us off our high horse into the dirt, we receive the same call that Saul did on that dusty road to Damascus. To turn our lives toward God’s future.
The Monday after Easter, this year, April 22 was Earth Day, the annual celebration of our amazing blue and green planet. Every year, Earth day sets aside one day in the year to experience a call to action on behalf of this amazing world our loving Creator entrusted to our love and care. It is one day to contemplate the ways in which the actions and inactions of each one of us affect the whole of our planet.
Episcopalian priest, the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, named a Climate Hero by Yes! Magazine, says, “The first thing for somebody in a congregation to understand is that every one of their behaviors affects another person: the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the coffee they drink, the energy they use. Once you’ve got that awareness, you’ll put in energy-efficient appliances, you’ll walk instead of driving, and you won’t create so much waste. (and) greening the individual church, synagogue or mosque is our first goal. … The congregation serves as an example to the people in the pews.”
Good people of Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, are we still hearing the call to become zealots? For Christ – and - for creation?
?? years ago, this congregation completed a time of study and discernement and submitted a statement describing our ‘green church’ actions to the Mn. Conference Annual Meeting. From that day forward, we have been (as the title of the designation changed) a Green Church, and Earthwise church, and an Environmenal Justice church. We continue to participate in a variety of actions such as purchasing fair trade coffee to serve whenever we provide hospitality, using ‘real’ dishes that can be washed and reused at our meals and coffee hour, completely switching to more energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Reducing office paper usage by using paperless technology more and printing less. Reusing one time use materials, recycling carefully, and having a reducing mindset. Kitchen decisions – energy efficiency – sustainability? SC practices?
This church had a call – or perhaps a conversion experience – and made some major changes and commitments in and to its corporate life together.
But like Saul, who even after he became Paul continued to be zealous, stubborn and blind, we too, perhaps still continue to be zealous stubborn and blind – about some of the (wrong?) things. Yes – we made some commitment with really good intentions. Many of them we kept and some of them we may have let slip a little. Just a few ‘disposable’ dishes now and then – just a few napkins that are not compostable – just a few extra copies of this or that because we’ve not made other plans to be intentionally using less. A little less concern about who grows and produces the food products we purchase, what are the justice practices of the businesses we support, and are we continuing to reduce the amount of waste we generate? I know some days – I just don’t want to think about these concerns – I’m tired and have so much to do – and I just want to use and do ….
And – yet just as God was not done with Paul even after the scales fell from his eyes and he stopped his persecution of Christians, God is not done with us. God is never done with us. Our culture of consuming and accumulating calls regularly for us to remain blind to the destruction and degradation of the world around us, calls us to passively ignore threats to the land and water and air of our world, calls us to both active and passive persecution of our world. God, however, calls from a different direction - calls us to breathe life and invitation – calls us to live with eyes wide open to the possibility of change, to live radical lives of audacious action. God calls us to be change-makers.
As we move fully into the season of spring and Eastertide – living as resurrection people – people celebrating the new life God promises - what will our new or expanded commitments to Creation be in the year(s) ahead? Because we are definitely not done. How might we live more fully into the commitments we’ve already made? How might we continue to seek to integrate justice for our environment into every part of our ministry and mission?
Most of you are involved in a ministry team or group of this church. What practices and commitments is your team making? What new practices will you take on? Yesterday, many of us created goals for the next year for our boards and committees. Where do the goals we set reflect our advocacy of environmental justice?
LIVING AS WITNESSES
Acts 5: 27-32; Confirmation Sunday, April 28, 2019
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
On this second Sunday of Easter, as we celebrate with Addisyn, Avery and Bryan as they affirm their baptisms through the ritual of Confirmation, this is also a perfect Sunday to be reminded about what it means to be witnesses in faith.
It’s easy to be delighted that another class of young people have chosen to come to this point in their lives that they have written and shared with us their affirmations about what they believe and how they are choosing to live in this world based on that belief. It’s easy to believe that this day is all about the confirmands. And sorry, Bryan and Avery and Addison, but it’s not just about you today – it is about everyone gathered here. Today is about the way we are witnesses to one another and to all the world in which we live.
According to the Webster’s dictionary, a witness is: ‘One who saw or can give a firsthand account to, one who observes and attests to.’
The whole point of taking on and living a life of faith is so that the tenants – the chosen beliefs of that faith – permeate one’s being – one becomes the faith they profess.
For example if one of our confirmands – or any one of you – states the belief as did Addisyn – ‘that God will be with me through the good and the bad in life’ – then bearing witness to that stated faith is to live one’s life as if that were absolutely true. When good things in life occur, you will want to thank God for such joy. And when the bad or hard things in life occur – as they will – you will call on God’s presence to comfort and sustain you – and you will recognize the presence of God in a myriad of ways accomplishing this.
Bearing witness involves observing - noticing what is going on around you. How is God present in the caring of a neighbor bringing a meal to you when you come home from the hospital?
In the comfort of a cat purring on your lap or a beloved dog at your feet? In the warmth of the sunshine – or rain - on your face? In a cup of hot cocoa warming your hands on a cold day – or the smell of gingerbread filling your senses with nostalgia? Bearing witness as observing is learning to recognize the presence of God all around you – all the time – with all of your senses.
Bearing witness also involves seeing and giving a firsthand account. Jesus’ disciples had followed and lived with Jesus. They saw and experience firsthand miracles of healing and feeding people. They saw and experienced firsthand the love and compassion Jesus had for people that others shunned and hated. They saw and experienced firsthand the vision Jesus had of a world where the poor are blessed and cared for and where everyone is welcome and included.
Confirmands – as you each continue growing and developing what you believe - as you grow one more year older and figure out what things you will believe in and what things you will not believe in – you will also be bearing witness to many things in this world. You will see and have experiences that your growing faith will cause you to celebrate and affirm and support and perhaps get involved in –and you will see things that your faith – your belief – will cause you to protest – to stand up and speak out against.
This is what it is to be a person of faith – to bear witness to the statements of belief you create. Those words about God and Jesus, about the Bible and church, about the way you live in the world – are not merely words – they are a declaration of how you choose to live in this world. Those words and the declarations behind them have everything to do with the way you choose friends – the way you are a friend – the way you treat others - the way you purchase clothing, food, things – the way you care for the earth – for creation.
They are not just words you write to graduate from your three years of Confirmation class. They are words to guide your way as you continue to explore and think about how and why and what you choose to do with your life. The kind of words you choose and the statements you write will most likely change as you grow. The ideas you are developing now, may change radically – or they may simply expand and develop as you grow older.
You may have a major conversion experience like the apostle Paul who changed from being a Christ hater to the most zealous lover and promoter of Christ. Or you may just add bits and pieces to explain further how and why you think and believe and live the way you do.
Every year as we near Confirmation Sunday, I think we really ought to have everyone in the congregation write an annual CREDO – or statement of belief. Where are you now? What is your relationship with God – Jesus – the Holy Spirit? What do you believe about church – the Bible? Has your belief changed? What difference does your faith make in how you live your life?
Whether we do it formally or not, making a regular examination of who we are and what we believe is important. It is much like the reminder we have every time we baptize a baby or new believer in the church. We are reminded to remember our own baptisms - to remember the promises that were made for us or that we made for ourselves.
Remembering is what we do as church. We remember the stories of our faith ancestors – not so we can do exactly as they did – but to be reminded of what it means to be people of God – people who don’t have all the answers – but how we can be people figuring it out along the way.
We are each of us witnesses – to the joy of this day. We are witnesses to declarations made by Avery, Bryan and Addisyn – just as they are witnesses to all of us. And all of us are witnesses to the loving, saving acts of God in this world.
Every time we baptize, every time we confirm, every time we add new members into the body of the church, every time we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we remember and renew our promises to be witnesses. We promise to love and support, to resist evil and oppression, to participate, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We make these promises over and over – and once again – we make some of them today. It is what we do. It is who we are. We are each of us – witnesses.
RESURRECTION & FINDING YOUR OWN VOICE
John 20: 1-18; EASTER Sunday, April 21, 2019; Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
In John’s gospel version of the Easter story, three characters dominate the story. Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb early because she is so heartbroken she doesn’t know anywhere else to be. Mary finds the tomb with its stone rolled away and knows immediately something must be wrong. So Mary runs to tell the ones who were the closest to Jesus – Simon Peter and John – believing perhaps that as the two closest to Jesus – they might know why the stone is rolled away.
She tells them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have taken him.” Of course, they don’t believe her – they saw the body place in the tomb – the dead body. But still… and so they race off to the tomb to see for themselves. John looks in and sees – no body, only the linen wrappings. Peter goes into the tomb and sees not only the wrappings but the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head all neatly rolled up by itself. And then John came into the tomb – saw what Peter saw – and immediately without really understanding what he was – or wasn’t seeing - believed that Jesus had risen from the dead as he said he would do. Peter wasn’t so sure.
In this church – and in many churches today - are all of these characters – Peter, John and Mary Magdalene.
John – the other disciple – the beloved disciple – the one Jesus loved – as if Jesus didn’t love them all – who sees no body – who sees a carefully wrapped head cloth – and – shazaam – believes everything! You have most likely known some of people like John: the ones who - with no real evidence to believe that the boy who has messed up over and over – who painted graffiti on the walls of the Sunday’s cool rooms and vandalized some of the sound equipment in the sanctuary – these John’s will insist – even when others with experience - know for sure that such a kid will never amount to anything.
These John’s insist that this boy – this young man, surely is headed for a brilliant career as either an artist or a sound engineer. They see possibilities everywhere. A backyard driveway at the church that causes flooding every year that most likely must be removed to remedy the water seepage – Surely this is a possibility for children’s playground - a wildflower prairie - a shady summer picnic area. An un-rentable parsonage that perhaps the next pastor doesn’t want to live in could be – what? - a shelter for homeless youth - homeless families – immigrants needing sanctuary? – perhaps an office space for a nonprofit? With people like John - anything – even the most unbelievable – the most unlikely – is possible.
And then there’s Peter. The one Jesus renamed ‘Rock’. Peter who vowed up and down to be Jesus most steadfast disciple – Peter who earlier had even climbed out of the boat in the middle of the lake because he wanted so badly to believe that he too could walk on water – wanted to believe so strongly - that he even managed to take a few steps before he needed rescuing from Jesus.
Peter, whose mixed emotions around Jesus’ arrest kept him from stepping up proudly to identify himself as one of Jesus’ followers. Peter’s reaction to Mary’s news of a missing body – running to see - might seem just a bit odd since ever since the trial earlier in the week, Peter has been running away from Jesus – hiding – vehemently insisting that he didn’t even know Jesus.
I wonder if perhaps we may have misunderstood Peter. Perhaps Peter might have somehow known that it would be better not to die with Jesus - because - later – he would be needed – later he would need to be a leader in continuing Jesus’ message when Jesus himself no longer could carry that message. Peter, a man of mixed emotions – named for centuries ‘the denier’, may have really been Peter the one willing to have his good name tarnished in order to serve a greater good.
And this same Peter, now jumped up and raced John to the tomb to see for himself what Mary was talking about. Could it actually be possible that the very thing Jesus had said must happen – would happen – had happened? Could it be possible that this woman’s story – unbelievable as the story was – could be real? He had to see for himself.
Perhaps Peter hadn’t needed to deny that he was a follower – perhaps he could have stood up proudly proclaiming who and what he stood for. Been the rock Jesus had named him.
Many of us like Peter live with this complex of emotions. We question to the point of inaction, or we doubt until we doubt ourselves into believing something isn’t worth standing up for. We convince ourselves that nothing good will happen to the point of making sure it won’t. We tell ourselves death is death – even when we’ve heard over and over that with God all things are possible – and we may even have, like Peter, seen some pretty amazing miracles with our own eyes! Like Peter, we live in a web of conflicting feelings and actions.
And then there’s Mary Magdalene who remains at the tomb after her male companions have gone back home. Mary is grief stricken – yet she cannot stay away from the last place she saw Jesus’ body. Mary, the one who continues to love unconditionally - heartbroken over all that has happened, yet unwilling to give up or let go. Mary isn’t here expecting anything. She came that morning because there was no other place to be this close even after death to this man she loved so deeply. She came to mourn in the best way she knows this loss of life. She was not expecting a missing body. And now that the other disciples have come to see for themselves and left – she is left alone with her grief, so overcome, she can hardly think or see clearly. She sees a body missing and two angels and doesn’t even seem to recognize their otherworldly origins. In the garden, she sees Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener. Mary doesn’t recognize the person, but, when he says her name, “Mary”, she immediately recognizes the voice – perhaps even remembers the story that Jesus had told about the way sheep always know their shepherd’s voice – and Mary knows exactly now what Jesus meant – because she does recognize that voice – through and through – she knows Jesus’ voice – even when he doesn’t look like himself. And then, she wanted to hold on and hold on and never again let him go. And then Jesus tells her she must let him go – and then he commissions her to be the one to tell the good news – “go and tell the others”.
Mary will be the one to go and tell what she has seen. “I have seen the risen Christ!” This scandalous, radical message that will change the world. The message of good news that will shatter forever the world’s expectations about life and death and what God does.
Resurrection stories are really commission stories, aren’t they? They send believers out into the world to tell everyone, that with God, death in not the end – that death always leads to new life. If Mary had not gone and announced this radical truth – this amazing good news - no one would ever know what had happened, and Easter would just be an annual reunion story with tears and hugs all around as we retell the story of what could have been but sadly was cut short.
However, Mary has found her voice. Mary lets go of all she has known previously about holding on – to a familiar loved body, holding on – to a “I’m only a woman, who am I to speak” – holding on – to a belief that death is always final – death is always the end. Mary tells a truth about life and death – that with God, life and death are a circle – not linear – death is not the end – death is always the beginning of something brand new. Mary speaks, tells this good news - and in her speaking – we too can find our own voices.
Something Brand New
Isaiah 43: 16-21; Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
April 7, 2019 Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Isaiah is the prophet of comfort. Right from the opening verses of Chapter 40 we hear, “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”
Isaiah speaks words of love and compassion to a people in dire need of such a word from God. The exiled Hebrew people have lost hope and are in despair of the world ever being a better place, a situation that in retrospect is a timeless one, isn’t it? Not exactly because we understand fully the experience of exile, but because we all have some experience with the shadow of past tragedies, when the ghosts of past loss, shame, and grief seem to bury us, preventing us from seeing anything but darkness and despair. Broken relationships, sudden deaths, bad decisions, desecrated lands, cruelties of others, and cruelties of our own – all of these stymie our ability to move out of the fog into a new hope-filled future.
And, even more, they raise for us the most serious of theological questions – Where is God? Why isn’t God intervening? Why isn’t God doing anything to fix this situation? Why isn’t God doing anything to help me? Why isn’t God punishing them? We doubt the promises of God - unconditional love, forgiveness and new life.
Isaiah’s words must have been a ray of hope and light in a paralyzing situation. Isaiah reminded a lost people that God is still the same God who had saved these people in the past, God had provided safety when nothing was safe, food when no food was to be found, clean water when every source was dry or fouled.
Isaiah reminds us all the way to today, that God is faithful, God is steadfast, God is present with us, God forgives us when we turn away, God welcomes us back over and over, and loves us unconditionally. It is people that do not do these things – people that don’t forgive, people that turn away, people that judge one another, people that exclude and hurt and oppress and are greedy.
It is people who attribute these characteristics to God – who decide that if a war is lost, it must be a punishment from God - that if a terrible storm destroys a land and a people – it must be God passing judgement. People who decide that if a person dies from AIDS it must be God condemning them.
Isaiah reminds us again that God is steadfast and faithful and present and love.
Isaiah reminds us in rich, evocative language – poetic language – using the power of memory – looking back through the immediate situation of exile to recall the mighty saving deeds of God in the history of God’s people – so that we might once again stir up a belief in the power of God at work in creating a hope-filled future – something brand new.
This poem from Isaiah might have been written for us today. How many times have I heard many of you expressing hopelessness in the face of the state of our country and our world today? How many times have I heard your hopeless despairing that hate and greed and meanness carry the day – and will continue to carry the future? What could it mean for us if we were to believe in and follow a God – or ‘act as if’ if we cannot help but doubt - who specializes in making a pathway through whatever barriers or obstacles stand in the way of the freedom of any part of God’s beloved creation?
And further, Isaiah reminds listeners – Don’t get stuck in what happened in the past – stop going over and over what is already done – don’t let it own you! – don’t let it keep you from getting so bogged down, you won’t be open to the brand new thing God is already doing.
Yes – do remember God’s presence in the past, all the times God performed mighty acts to save you. You may even remember all the times you blamed God for punishing you when it was you who forgot about God. But don’t stay there. Now is the time to look ahead – to act your way – to live your way – into the new future God is even now planning and doing.
Most pastors have heard more than one time the phrase that has been dubbed The Seven Last Words of the Church, ‘We’ve never done it that way before .’
These words remind us how often we fail to perceive the brand new thing God is doing in every right now. Are we really so comfortable in our present that we fail to perceive the new God is doing right in our midst? Be aware of the difference between remembering a God who leads into freedom - and a clinging to past practices that continue to enslave us and others.
God is even right now, providing a pathway through whatever wilderness in which we find ourselves. God is even now, providing water to flow clean and pure through our lives. And these pathways – this clearing away of obstacles that separate and divide and exclude – are not for people only – they are for all of God’s beloved creation – even the stones and trees. These rivers are not only for the use of people – they are for all creation – even bottom feeders and snails. They are to be shared – cared for - used wisely – so they continue to be a part of the brand new future God imagines and brings forth for all creation.
A NEW CUISINE
Joshua 5: 9-12; March 31, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Visit any brick and mortar bookstore and you will quickly notice that one of the largest sections is the cookbook section. Titles ranging from The Bread Bakers Apprentice to The Sioux Chefs’ Indigenous Kitchen, from The Art of Eating to Consider the Oyster, from The Barbeque Bible to A Week in the Zone. Food is not simply a necessity for us. It is an art form, a lifestyle, an adventure.
Food provides fuel for our bodies true, but it also connects us with other sources of power and meaning in our lives. Perhaps this is why food is so often associated with major significant occasions in our lives: a birth, a baptism, a death, a wedding, an anniversary, a graduation, any holiday. These times are often marked by special meals with specific dishes, specific flavors or ethnicities, with flavors and aromas that stir up and linger across the years: Grandmother’s special cabbage rolls, Uncle Joe’s barbeque, Aunt Viola’s kolaches ….
We often recalibrate our lives by remembering and sharing certain meals and foods. Extended family members make long treks to gather for Thanksgiving or Christmas or summer reunions, where sharing important food and expressing our gratitude for our connections is central – however distant or even perhaps strained those connections might be. When we lose this time of sharing meals with one another – we lose touch with one another – and in a way, we lose a big part of life.
Today’s Bible passage from Joshua marks a significant turning point in the life journey for the Israelite people. Moses who has led them for years is dead. Joshua is now in charge. The people have been traveling – wandering – in the desert wilderness – for forty years in a land they don’t possess – and now they are on the very threshold of the land promised them by God. These forty years have not been an easy time.
You may recall the stories of Moses leading these people – who at first were enthusiastic and excited, anticipating a life of freedom from the bondage of slavery in Egypt – but as the years wore on, became tired and disenchanted – and they complained – and as food became first scarce and then absent – they complained – and the only thing they had to eat was the manna that fell from the sky each morning and disappeared by evening. And while at first they were delighted to have food again – it quickly become boring and predictable – and not at all special – and again they complained. Does it sound a little like anyone you might know? ‘Not spaghetti again????’ ‘ Didn’t we just have pizza?’
All of the men, the warriors that had traveled with the Exodus from Egypt were now dead. Not one of the people born on this journey to Canaan had memories of living in one place – or even several places. They only knew journey. They only had the stories told them of life in Egypt. All they knew was travel hardship and tribulation and meager and boring food.
Their parents and grandparents had certainly known other stories about food. Those bricks and structures they were forced to build for Pharoah in Egypt were for food storage buildings – for these hoarding cities – attempting to store all the excess crops, keeping all the food for themselves. The economic system instituted by God in the wilderness could hardly have contrasted more. When people complained of hunger, God rained manna from heaven. “Those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” This is the epitome of food justice. Everyone had enough. There could be no hoarding because manna disappeared at the end of each day. Manna taught people how to enjoy food without using it a commodity. Manna promoted food justice simply because it appeared and disappeared. The people who ate manna, had learned these ethics and they took the lessons learned into the Promised land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’
Crossing over into the Promised Land is a momentous moment –a point of celebration – a time which must be celebrated with ritual and remembrance – and surprise, surprise - there will also be special food! The Israelite’s celebration of Passover – the ritual of words and food - remembering how God had passed over - sparing their families from Pharaoh’s killing of boy children so they would not outnumber the Egyptians. Passover included special foods that for many years the travelers would have been unable to prepare as their only food was manna. But now – no more manna! Now, Passover, truly would celebrate the excape from Egypt and the entry into the Promised land of Canaan.
As they enter the promised land, the options of foods assure a banquet! No longer must they rely on manna – grateful as they were for it - now they can eat from the variety and bounty of this new land.
On the very day of crossing into the new – there are exciting new foods – a brand new cuisine! Parched grain, vegetables, and fruits – the produce of the land – tasting like a whole new way of life.
And maybe now that manna is no longer necessary – these people will begin to remember it fondly – and while it can never be replicated exactly – after all it was a gift from God that fell each day from heaven and disappeared each night – perhaps for many years as these families gathered to celebrate in remembrance and thanksgiving they served a dish that looked and tasted a lot like the off-white, bland manna.
And yet along with the taste memories, there are also memories of the rules and restrictions that governed manna, and taught new lessons to be carried forward about the moral imperatives of food justice. Just as the manna belonged to God and came as a gift to the people, so too the acreage in this new land would also belong to God and come to the people as a loan. They could neither own it nor lose it forever. Fairness was to be the new law of the land. Equitable food distribution would become a basic right because these new farmers remembered manna and now through voluntary self-control would adopt the practice of leaving gleanings for the poor and the immigrants. Food rules would also restrict labor. The Sabbath was reestablished as a time of rest – for the people and for the land. Jubilee, a rest for the land on the Seventh year was begun.
Entering the land. On that momentous day, the menu for all of life changed forever. It was a new time, a new stage in life, a new flavor, a new local cuisine. And yet the message of the food remained familiar. Because always, food is more than fuel for the body. Food is memory. Food is connection. Food is family. Food is life. Food is promise. Food is justice. Food reminds us of where food comes from – and of the one who is the Great Giver of all food.
During Lent we reflect on Jesus’ life and ministry as he too journeyed through wilderness on his way to Jerusalem. We hear the stories and remember how often on this journey, Jesus made time to eat and share food and drink with those he met along the way. Banquets and dinners, weddings and funerals and street food.
Jesus shares in the special or simple foods prepared. A fatted calf, a sumptuous groaning banquet table, grains of wheat chewed along a roadside, or a few fish and loaves of bread shared among a hungry crowd - God seems to delight in connecting the wonder of a bounteous feast or a simple meal to the wonder of God’s grace and goodness in our lives.
‘Stay close to the ground’ is a phrase sometimes given as healthy eating advice. The idea is that eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it – is not likely to be processed food – and thus is almost assuredly more healthy. The further you get from the ground - the land - the lower the nutritional value the food has. The spiritual advice from today’s passage in Joshua may be similar, “stay close to the food.” Savor, remember, be renewed, refreshed, and nourished by the ways in which God provides for and sustains us, both physically and spiritually.
By keeping our connections with the food of the land and all the lessons immersed in that food, we keep our connection with the God who gives us all that we need to live.
Isaiah 55: 1-9; March 24, 2019; Union congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Prophets not only speak truth to power, they are wordsmiths – poets. Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah is really a poem that in a few short verses gives us the heart of the Biblical message. God loves us, no matter what. God reaches out to us even in the hardest times. God makes promises to us that are the things we yearn for in our deepest souls. It includes the very basics of what we want/need in life – home is where we are always welcome, there is a feast when we are hungry, fresh clean water when we are thirsty, and a community that embraces us as we long for meaning in our lives. And best of all – there is no cost – we cannot or need not earn it - we needn’t deserve it – and everyone, not just us - is invited and welcomed.
This poem from Isaiah comes from what is called the Book of Comfort, addressed to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon almost six hundred years before Jesus. We know that prophet speak sternly to people when they need it, but they also can speak compassionately and tenderly to convey God’s great unconditional love and mercy. Of all the prophets, Isaiah is the most poetic in his compassion and love for God’s people. Isaiah knows the people are hungry from a message of hope. He knows they are thirsty for a message that promises an end to captivity and a return to their homes. He knows how to stir the people’s hearts and minds to remember that they are the people of God; they are the ones chosen and called by God. Isaiah reminds them of King David and the time when Israel was a great and glorious realm worshiping God.
Isaiah is like a mom, calling her children in from their play to supper. ‘Come and get it’ she calls and they stop their play and run for home. Not because its a command or a punishment – but because it’s good news. Isaiah’s people in exile would have been thrilled to hear that their hunger and thirst were to be fed.
When we get settled into our ‘comfortable’ routines, distracted with all sorts of busyness, losing touch with our deepest selves, when our spirits are starving, thirsting, and homesick, when we can’t even name those feelings on our own, Isaiah continues to call us to “Come and get it!”.
I’m reminded of my years as a Community Supported Agriculture farmer with teams of farm interns on my small sustainable farm. ‘Make sure to fill your water bottle.” “Don’t wait till you are thirsty to drink.” “You are thirsty whether you feel it or not.”
Isaiah does the same thing – don’t wait till you a sick from dehydration – drink deeply and never thirst again. Drink – the life giving water God offers.
Exile is a strange place. It’s not a choice, exile was imposed on those ancient Jews displaced to Babylon, yet many of them assimilated into this new culture, finding a relatively comfortable existence as they adopted the values and ways of the empire. Many ceased to think of themselves as exiles. Most of us today don’t think of ourselves as exiles either. However like a full water bottle reminding us that we may not realize that we are thirsty, the prophet wakes us up with a call to ‘come and get it’, come back to God and the source of what will really satisfy our souls.
In church we give thanks for all good gifts and struggle to discern and articulate alternatives to the powers – the systems – the practices – that deny those gifts to any part of God’s creation. We know too, that we can consume spiritual junk food just as much as junk food for our bodies - and we need to learn to say no, not my food. That kind of bread, reminds Isaiah, always comes with a price.
Lent is a time for us to adjust our sights so that at least we understand what it is that we should – or actually do - hunger and thirst for in our deepest being – justice, mercy, peace, healing, acceptance, love.
It is a spiritual discipline not just in Lent but in every season to remember those who hunger, those who thirst – those for whom water may be present but undrinkable – those who have no home that welcomes them. As the Body of Christ – the beloved community – we must re-member to gather in the members of the body – back together – at this baptismal font - at this table – as well as reaching out to other tables, other homes, other places where hungry and thirsty exiles are longing for community and a place to put down roots.
May this Lent once again be a time for seeking God’s presence, for finding the ways in which God is still speaking and acting in our lives.
God is Present Here
Luke 13: 31-35; March 17, 2019; Union Cong. Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Prophets don’t predict the future. They don’t name what comes next. They look at the world as it is, and through their God-infused imagination, they see it transformed.
Luke’s Jesus is a prophet. His very first sermon in Luke, chapter 4, looks at the world that is, and promises a new God-centered future - a future of reversals of fortune and deliverance from oppression. Jesus shows us a difficult to understand – even more difficult to believe - yet hope-filled world of unjust judges who finally heed the call of justice (the persistent widow), of runaway sons who finally find their way home and fathers who always joyously run to welcome them (the Prodigal son)– of the outcast, hated, despised Samaritan who offers compassion and care to the afflicted (the good Samaritan). Jesus, more than any prophet before him promises a world turned upside down and reset right side up.
Luke’s Jesus certainly offers hope in a world where justice seems in short supply. And yet, Jesus’ words do not offer us a shazaam – God will fix it - immediate - world of righteousness.
The prophet’s job is not an easy one - most who have taken on this job – been called to this job - may often have times wish it were not theirs. Speaking truth to power is not an easy task. It is not popular. It doesn’t make loads of friends. Most of us, at least much of the time in our lives, like to surround ourselves with people like us or who for the most part agree with our biases. It is hard to understand the complicated and difficult path that the prophet takes up. And yet, it is ours to try to understand as the Bible is filled with prophets naming these hard truths.
The prophet’s job is to tell hard truths much of the population doesn’t want to hear. It is much more pleasant to hear words of happiness and joy and comfort – than it is to hear words calling us to action – to change – to a shift in perspective. Prophets are more often maligned, ignored, and denied than greeted with applause and affirmation.
Why do we reject prophets? Because they speak hard truths. They name truths that we are most of us busy hiding from.
Prophets name what is going on – they seldom prevaricate – they don’t cover the truth with platitudes. They don’t let you off the hook. They name and claim and we don’t want to hear it because to do so will expect us to change something about ourselves we don’t want to change.
Along with everything else that Jesus was – he was through and through a prophet. This is what he did. It is who he is. To be a Christian is to recognize that Jesus came not to make people of privilege and power more comfortable and settled in their positions but to name the oppression and injustice that allows privilege and power to perpetuate. And you should also recognize that this privilege and power in our day – just as it was for Jesus – is both religious and political. For Jesus there is no way to set oneself apart from the religious institution or the political empire.
Prophecy is not ever meant to comfort the comfortable – but to comfort the afflicted. Prophesy – including Jesus’ prophecy – is meant to call out the comfortable - the ones with privilege and power. (And I almost hate to say it, but it is true that we are part of this group of privilege and power.) Prophecy almost always makes the ones being called out uncomfortable. It is often dangerous. Sometimes life threatening.
Getting Herod’s attention was not exactly a desirable thing for Jesus. Herod’s cruelty was notorious : from the killing of the innocents – killing every newborn just to ensure the death of one – to the arrest, detaining and beheading of John the Baptist. Being on Herod’s radar was a sure recipe for suffering and possible torture and death.
In this week’s text, when Jesus hears that Herod is looking for him because he wants to kill him, Jesus doesn’t immediately look for where he might go to hide, he answers back. He doesn’t ask questions, he retorts, he literally speaks truth to power. Jesus hears from the Pharisees – who are certainly no friends of Jesus – that Herod has his sights on Jesus to shut down the ‘good news’ Jesus is bringing to the afflicted and oppressed. Herod knows that Jesus’ words are hope-filled and empowering for those who have been under the thumb and heel of the political and religious leadership for so long.
Herod knows too that these radical sounding words from Jesus are dangerous to the ones wanting to hold onto their political and religious power. From Herod and the Pharisee’s perspective, these words and actions must be shut down!
Jesus has known the danger of his ministry all along. How could he not know it? The Pharisees have been dogging him and turning up everywhere, prodding, questioning, finding fault with nearly every good thing Jesus is doing – because they believe it undermines the religion they have so carefully put in place to maintain the power and authority they crave. And there’s the Roman government and King Herod so fearful of losing even an iota of his power – constantly snuffing out any that would question it. Using his power at every level of government to hold on to and grow his autonomous greedy power.
But Jesus’ good news knows no boundaries. Governments are not his authority. Temples are not the center of his faith. Jesus’ prophecy names what both Herod and the Pharisees are up to. “Go tell that fox …” Herod is a sly, sneaky, hateful fox – and the fox has been let into the hen house. When Jesus retorts to the tattletale Pharisees, ‘Go tell’, he is naming out loud the unholy alliance the Jewish leaders have forged with the government.
‘I’m busy’, Jesus tells them. ‘I have no time to be running away and hiding. I have healing and teaching and miracles to be about. I have work to do – and you are making in nearly impossible for that work to continue. You have made the holy city of Jerusalem a travesty – a city that not only doesn’t welcome the ones who bring the voice and vision of God – but who stamps out and puts to death those prophets of God.’
God – suffused imagination. That’s what Jesus is. That’s what the prophet brings: God-suffuse imagination – creating and bringing into being a God-centered new world order of peace with justice for all of creation.
The prophet says – God is present here!. God is present and at work in this place. A new world order is ready to come about.. What if - imagine if violence and death were not the order of the day? What if - imagine if compassion and not selfishness and greed were alive and well? What if we could see ourselves as God sees us?
What if we could see and love our neighbors and strangers as God sees them. How do you find your own God-infused imagination?
In the very act of speaking truth to power, prophecy comes to life in our midst – as we become the body of Christ in the world – as we become the hands and heart – the mind and feet of God – serving neighbors and strangers, helping the oppressed go free – feeding the hungry - going to the most desolate an desperate places to discover that God is also, already there too.
Like a mother hen gathering her chicks – a compassionate Jesus longs to gather all God’s children in comfort and security. If you have even known a hen with chicks you may know that this is both a wonderful image and a frightening one. A mother hen is a fierce protector – of her own – and a fiercer aggressor against anything that might hurt her own.
Our world is not kind to people who upset the status quo. When injustice is named – and we are not on the side of justice we don’t like it. When actions demand or model justice – the push back is almost always violent. (think the violence that ensued in the 1960’s Woolworth diner sit in when African American youth sat down at a lunch counter and were refused service.) (Think more recent Black Lives Matter events around our country and right here in MN). We are quick to find fault, to reject, seek to silence, and even kill the ones who speak and act out. Because their words are dangerous to the holding on to power and privilege.
However history shows us that even such violent rejections do not get the last word. Even as prophets are silenced, put to death, their words of hope and dreams of justice live on and one. Even as their lives are stopped, their last words are not condemnation but hope – even for we of power - the reconciliation that God offers – God’s yearning that we will turn back – find our way back – to God’s embrace.
In words of Theodore Parker, made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. “
During these forty days of Lent we are reminded of our regular need for repentence – the Greek word for it is metanoia. Meta – meaning change. Noia meaning mind. Change of mind. Or perhaps change of heart. Change of life.
What change of heart, change of life is God calling you to in this time? What does your God –suffused imagination see ahead for you?
OUR NEED FOR WILDERNESS
Luke 4: 1-13; Mar.10, 2019; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
It’s Lent again and the beginning of a new church season is a good time to take stock of where we are – in our personal lives – in our biblical reflections – in our relationship with God. Already this calendar year, we’ve come along a challenging road through Epiphany – the AHA time of recognizing God on the loose all around us – through the voice of prophets speaking often harsh words and perhaps even more difficult actions required. We were led from the Baptism of Jesus directly into Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing and generally upsetting the powerful. We have celebrated light coming into the world.
Lent is a very different kind of season than Epiphany. Lent begins on a more somber, more quietly reflective note. Jesus’ trip into the wilderness - a difficult time - makes it easy to be reminded of some of the traditional practices of Lent like fasting, giving things up, and lots of time in prayer.
We are told that Jesus spent 40 days – and 40 night in the wilderness –– and perhaps the nights were even harder than the days. And Jesus was along all this time – except for the visit by the devil. There were no other witnesses. The words we have describing Jesus’ experience comes to us by those writing about Jesus life many years after his death. They must have assumed that this time in the wilderness must have been an incredibly difficult struggle – one that would have sorely tested Jesus.
I sometimes wonder about that interpretations. And perhaps that is because I have such a deep and abiding sense of love and appreciation for the time I get to spend in the wilderness – the Boundary Waters Wilderness, the boreal forest, time at the Bailey Nature Preserve, at the Sherburne Refuge…. .
I wonder if perhaps Jesus’ 40 days in wilderness could be more closely described in terms of a vision quest or an outward bound trip. Difficult certainly – probably the most difficult experience ever - struggle even perhaps – time of being tested - and yet absolutely a chosen time to take stock of one’s life – to determine who really you are – to accept guidance for the path that lies ahead.
The testing Jesus encountered – the devil – commentators and movie makers have described as evil personified. And yet I wonder if perhaps it could be that the most difficult struggle for Jesus – wasn’t the devil itself - but was the real struggle described by Luke that seductive voice inside himself – no pointy horns or fire and brimstone – but that seductive inside voice offering choices - good stuff – food, power, status – you don’t really need to do this … The devil’s voice appears as a running commentary of the kind of ideas Jesus might have had in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and similar to ideas many of us most likely regularly have running through our heads.
The tests Jesus encountered in his wilderness time are meant to mirror or remind listeners of our own wilderness time. They reminded those followers of Jesus’ time of hearing about when their ancestors were faced with horrific trials and tribulations as they made their way from bondage in Egypt to wandering for years to find the land promised them by God. These ancestors certainly faced many trials – and there were also surely the trials of ideas running through minds – ideas about comfort – ideas about hunger – ideas about good enough – ideas about leadership …..
We don’t often remove ourselves from the cacophony around us or our electronics or the overload of messages and meetings and things to do and places to be or the overload of stuff with which we surround ourselves – all of which provide insulation and a thick soundproof wall between us and God. These things are our security –or we think they are – our possessions, our place, our prestige.
Lent gives us a kind of an Outward Bound for the Soul. It’s your choice, you don’t have to sign up for it but if you do, you have to completely give up on the illusion that you are totally in control of your life. You must place yourself in the hands of strangers who expect you to do crazy, foolhardy things like climb sheer rock walls with nothing but your fingers or toes, or back down a precipice with nothing more than a rope around your waist. But none of these are the real test, because though these activities may seem crazy, while doing them you have strong ropes and harnesses and people on the other end of the ropes and water in a cooler and lunch or breakfast waiting.
The real test is when you go solo. When you are out on your own all by yourself in the middle of the wilderness nowhere and you are alone for the next twenty four hours. That is when you find out who you are – what you really fear – and what you are really capable of. Some people sing all night long – some fall immediately to sleep – some dream amazing and wonderful and unfamiliar dreams – some scream and cry – some pray …
But everyone who does this must spend twenty-four hours relying on themselves – yes – but also giving in to something bigger than themselves.
To enter the wilderness is to leave behind the comforts of home. Many of us that love and even say we need our wilderness time – say this is one of the reasons we do need wilderness. Wild places take us even for a few moments out of our easy comfortable life. We must be far more intentional about every moment of our time in the wilderness. And the longer we are in the wilderness, the more intentional we must become. We become more observant, more aware. We have more time to think – even though the tasks of just living are much more complicated and time consuming than similar tasks at home. Getting water may involve chipping a hole through 2-3 feet of ice with a forty pound chisel - if it’s winter - or paddling your canoe into the middle of the lake to dip a bucket before running it through a water filter if it’s summer. In the wilderness what is important shifts from everyday lives. Wilderness times helps put our lives back into perspective. Wilderness is not time or place where God is not – but rather it is God’s home – and God is everywhere and every time.
To enter the wilderness of Lent is to leave behind the things we think we cannot do without - our addictions – our idols – our comforts – our discomforts – our baggage of all kinds. This Lent, I encourage you to begin an Outward Bound of the Soul – a vision quest – a simple wilderness time.
What do you want/need to be more intentional about? What or how might you become more fully the person God intended you to be? How will you get closer to the sacred, the holy, to God?
If this involves giving some things us – I encourage you to do that. If it involves taking something new on – I encourage you to do that. If it involves actual wilderness time – to get yourself ready – I encourage you to make that happen.
It is true that if you do choose to do something new during these forty days of Lent – your mind – that voice inside you - will try to convince you that it isn’t really necessary to give up or take on the new practices you have decided upon. That little voice will tell you that nothing will really change whether you do or not. The voice may try to scare you by telling you that if you make this change you won’t really be ‘you’ any more – surely you don’t want that.
That voice is not the voice of reason – it is the voice of the tempter – the devil – the voice inside us – name it what you will – the voice that tryies harder and harder to get all your attention. The voice that keeps sneaking in, whispering, yelling occasionally – reminding you that if God really loves you – unconditionally – exactly you we are - why then would God want you to be different? Why would God make us want chocolate or wine or to be angry, or love food or want to go shopping or have many pairs of shoes or gadgets or … If God REALLY loves us as we are – we ought to be able to do anything we want – this is a dumb exercise anyway….”
If you don’t know where that voice comes from – now or any other time of the year - reread the story from the gospel of Luke – it’s in your bulletin – the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Then tell that voice – that tempting voice – that devil if you prefer to give it that name – to leave you alone – and you choose once again what it is that you will do. And it is entirely possible that by the grace of God this will become the new you.
Why do we need wilderness – metaphorical and real? We need time away from our everyday lives to be intentional. To make decisions about what is important and what is not. To once again run smack into the Holy.
ASH WEDNESDAY REFLECTION
Luke 9: 3; Isaiah 58: 1-12 Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Jesus had gathered the twelve disciples early in his ministry. He taught them by both words and example to prepare them to carry on the ministry of healing and teaching he had begun. When finally, he felt they were ready to begin to spread the Good News throughout the countryside, his final instructions were:
Take nothing with you for your journey: no staff, no bag, no bread or money, not even an extra tunic. Luke 9: 3
This is quite remarkable advice about what to take on a journey: “Take nothing with you.” How can this possibly be good advice? Isn’t there another saying, “Fail to plan – plan to fail?” What does Jesus mean – take nothing? Take nothing, so that the stuff doesn’t get in the way. Take nothing so that you must rely on the kindness of strangers. What would this kind of ‘take nothing’ journey be like? How might we taken this advice with us as we once again set off on our 40 day Lenten journeys this year?
I encourage you this Lent to participate in any of our church’s Lenten offerings – Sunday Lectionary Bible Study, Monday evening reading the Poetry of Mary Oliver or a self-led daily devotional ‘Take Nothing with You’. Or you could choose another Lenten discipline – The 40 prayer square fiber arts challenge, the getting rid of 40 bags of stuff from your life, 40 days of no Facebook, 40 days of intentional walking, 40 days of…..
The forty days of Lent – contrary to much of tradition – should not focus on what you are giving up – but rather focus on getting ever closer to God. Focus on turning back if you have turned away – of realigning your life along God’s – of becoming ever more God-like in your daily routine. If you spend your time focusing on what you are giving up – the hardship or difficulty of it – what you cannot do – you won’t have much time or energy to focus on what you will do – that will get you closer to God.
In our scripture text from the prophet Isaiah we read tonight as a responsive litany – Isaiah reminds us of the hypocrisy of humility. That talking about – telling everyone - what we are giving up – getting credit for how much we are sacrificing – how hard it is – does nothing to get us closer to God.
Lent is a time – an intentional time – to take stock of our lives – whether we are 14 or 40 or 84 or any age around or in between. Taking stock means examining how we spend our time, how we spend our money (or money spent on us), how we participate in relationships and the lives of others, how we care for our bodies – how we eat – how we view the world - how we do absolutely everything …. all in light of becoming more closely aligned with the Holy.
Isaiah also reminds us that taking stock also involves examining the ways in which we each – and together – help to loose the chains of injustice – clothe the naked – feed the hungry. How do we do these things? Reading scripture that reminds us to do them isn’t the same as doing. What are the ways you/we feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Loose the chains of injustice?
The Jewish people have a word for this. Tikkun Olam which means repairing the world. This idea rooted in Jewish literature recognizes that the world is broken – and that humans continue to break the world – and the work of people of faith is to repair the broken places. Continually – to work at repairing broken places – one place – one person – one situation – at a time.
This Lent I do encourage you to fast – to fast from injustice –to fast from impatience – to fast from too much of what you don’t need – to fast from anything that takes you away from God. And as you fast – you will realize that each time you choose to give up one thing – it means you automatically take on another behavior. You give up a food – and you take on hunger – at least for a while. Each choice you give up that takes you away from God lets you move closer to God. And when you do this, you become one of the repairers. You become one of the restorers of streets to live on – of diverse healthy relationships and communities – of God’s beloved community.
Welcome to Lent
LOVING THE UNLOVABLE
Luke 6: 27-38; February 24, 2019; Union Congregational UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Special thanks to T. Denise Anderson, minister in the Presbyterian Church USA for articulating these ideas on this text that I so resonated with - and why I felt so uncomfortable with more ‘traditional’ unpackings of this text.
This week’s lectionary reading is definitely on my least favorite list. It’s one of those texts that I would add to the “Texts of Terror” list. And the reason is that this text is so often used as a weapon. So often it has been used to justify ongoing and systemic oppression.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ famous sermon – called the Sermon on the Plain – Jesus admonishes those who have come to hear him –‘ to do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you. Offer the other cheek to the person who strikes you on the face. If someone takes something from you, don’t ask for them to return it.’
This sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It sounds like a good churchy way to live. It sounds like MN Nice.
But what if you have been on the victim side of these words for days, weeks, years, generations? Christians have often encouraged people to be silent about their pain, silent about their abuse, accepting of their oppression. And the Bible is used as their justification. I have heard numerous stories relayed to me of clergy encouraging battered wives and girlfriends not only to remain in the relationships in which they are being battered – but to turn the other cheek. Too many of these stories show how these biblical texts have been used – and are used - to silence the victimized so that others are not made uncomfortable our inconvenienced by these persons’ difficult stories and lives. Even more insidious, are the ways people use Jesus’ words to encourage vulnerable people to stay in abusive environments and relationships. My own mother was told by our pastor that she must remain in an abusive relationship. And It isn’t only clergy that encourage this kind of behavior. It is family and friends. We say,” you need to try harder. Don’t’ make him mad. What did you do to cause this?” In this way, we lead people to their own devastation and do so in the name of Christ.
It is a complicated thing that as ministers and people of faith who work so hard to cultivate racial justice in the church, we receive pushback. Folks want to know about forgiveness and who we need to forgive or ask forgiveness from, and how far into the past must we go? I’ve heard many well-meaning folks express upset and even anger at being named as responsible for slavery in our country. I’ve heard these same people resist the need to ask forgiveness. “ But I wasn’t even there - here. My family wasn’t there. It was a long time ago” Their perspective is that the most appropriate Christian thing to do is to forget the past –to move on - or justify it by finding something redeeming about it – glorifying the abuse – the hurt - and then move forward into the present – the ‘better’ present. The thinking seems to be that if that thing is not present today – or at least not the way it was back then – that it happened long ago and the best thing we can do is forget it and move on. It is easier to let the persons affected continue to struggle and live generation to generation in pain than to give up one’s own ignorance or negligence or avoidance in order to feel secure in the rightness of the world.
This misuse of this text – this blaming the victim – ignoring the victim – expecting the victim to be nice – to turn the other cheek - presents one of the biggest threats to the church truly embracing its call to justice and genuine compassion and love for all God’s children.
This text also bothers me because it is so challenging. It expects a lot from me. I don’t want to have to feel so responsible for giving more of myself to people who are already taking so much. I don’t want to be expected to just take the slap on the cheek without at least yelling back or defending myself. I don’t want to loan things out and never get them back and just be ok with that. It goes against human nature. It isn’t fair.
This text also seems to ask so much more from the abused – from the victim – than the abuser – the victimizer. I don’t like that. But, it also reminds me that being victimized does not strip me – or any victim - of all my power.
Even when I am the victim, when I am on the receiving end of someone’s bad behavior, I can control my own response. I still have agency. This text challenges me as to how I will use that agency in those situations. It reminds me of the saying “You can’t change anyone else, you can only change yourself. “
And -- it may also be true that sometimes I am the problem – I’m the one delivering the slap, borrowing and not returning. I’m the one who must put myself at the mercy of the one I am making– or have made a victim and how they will use their own agency. Sometimes I am the person Jesus is talking about – speaking against, not the one to whom he is talking - supporting.
I am – and I believe we all are – people with intersecting areas of both privilege and marginalization. I am a lesbian woman in a patriarchal heterosexual culture. I am also white. I am educated. I have a good job. I live in a culture that privileges all three. At any time, I can experience my life from either end of the power imbalance. And that is part of what is so difficult about this text – discerning and knowing at any moment – who I am in them.
Aren’t we all somewhere at this crossroads – where the intersecting of our privilege and our marginalization connect. Some of us may tip the balance more on the side of privilege and some more on the side of marginalization.
As progressive Christians in the Reformed tradition, it is so important that we recognize our place in this complicated intersection. Sometimes we are ones getting slapped and taken advantage of, and sometimes we are the ones slapping, we are the opportunist taking advantage of vulnerable people.
The truth is that we are always both/and - and that realization bothers us – a lot. It is an affront to the way we perceive ourselves – the way we view ourselves in the world. We want to always be the good ones, the ones whose very lives make the world a better place – until we realize that just by who we are – we are often not the good ones. That is really hard.
This text should make you uncomfortable! But not just so you can feel bad about yourself - feel guilty - and further lower your self-esteem – but so that you are aware of where you fit.
And depending on where you fit at any given time or in any given situation, will determine your need to listen more – or speak up and out more. Give more – or get more. To forgive more – to be forgiven more.
This should never be a text used to remind victims to shut up, hunker down, be overly careful what we say lest we make someone powerful angry, to hide, to pass, to be more feminine, to be whiter, to speak in certain dialects and not others, to dress certain ways. This also should not be the test that justifies those expectations. Those uses for this text are misguided. They do not follow the examples set by the Jesus who breaks boundaries, speaks for those silenced, stands up for the oppressed, loves everyone – the loveable and the unlovable.
This is a text we should love to hate – because it calls us to account. It reminds us that this word cannot be taken literally – at face value. There’s a lot more to it than that. There are layers to hear depending on who we are. We must not use these words to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus’ was all about. When he opened the scroll in the temple and read the words from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free – to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” he named a different reality.
We are to love the unlovable. We are to speak up and speak out and call the slappers to account. Even when they are us.
Building and Planting
Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Luke 4: 21-24; February 10, 2019
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Early in my preparation for ministry, asked to choose a metaphor that might best define my ministry, I chose ‘Pathfinder.’ Leaving the well- trodden highways to create one’s own trail resonated with me. Making one’s own path where no path existed, seemed to describe the ways my ministry integrated such unlikely components as agriculture, natural and wild places, justice for the oppressed – human and non-human, creativity, wonder, a propensity for questioning and never quite being comfortable with what is, and always seeking the new thing God is doing.
I drew on a catalog description of the Old Town Pathfinder Canoe as ‘exploring unknown territories’, and ‘quickly responsive.’ I also described my ministry as prophetic –closely identifying with the prophet Jeremiah. Prophetic, defined as becoming a voice for the Holy – regardless of personal cost. Prophetic – called by God to speak words and carry out actions demanded by God. Prophetic – often not popular or comforting to the recipients of the words. Prophetic – challenging, upsetting, telling a truth that many do not want to hear.
As I read today’s words from Jeremiah – these descriptions of prophetic pathfinder still resonate with my understanding of how and why I minister. The prophet – the pathfinder –seeking ways not yet charted - is a challenging one. Jeremiah struggled constantly with his call, his unpopularity. Jesus, too, early in his ministry, reflected ruefully, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their hometown.”
Early in Jesus’ ministry, almost everyone was excited to hear something new and different. Even the religious leaders, were amazed at how articulate and charismatic this carpenter’s son was. They were proud of their hometown boy, until his word and actions began directly challenging things they held so dear. When Jesus began to question the status quo leaving no doubt in their minds that he was tearing down their understandings – who is in and who is out, who matters and who doesn’t - what matters and what doesn’t – who is unclean and who is pure – they do not want to hear it. And when Jesus begins telling them that the kingdom of God is coming and it looks almost nothing like their present community of divisions, polarity, disparity, and injustice. And when he tells them that God’s kingdom includes everyone – that God loves everyone - that God invites everyone to the same feast at the same table – well, they don’t like that at all! And when Jesus begins showing and telling that lepers and prostitutes will sit side by side with tax collectors and Pharisees – and children and women will be as welcome as men – he quickly went from being favored son to reviled stranger. They drove him from their community and began their plans to kill him.
Jesus was a prophet in a long line of prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Zechariah, Hosea, Malachi…. prophets who spoke boldly, passionately, almost always un-popularly for the Holy One. Jesus, just as all those prophets who came before him, knew his role was not to comfort - though he did comfort some. His role was not to accommodate – to help everyone just get along. His role was not to help the Israelites in Rome learn to compromise – to become better adjusted and less neurotic in relation to the oppressive Roman dictatorial rule – though perhaps some did.
Jesus’ role was to be prophetic – to declare that God was doing a new thing. It was to bring good news – which was bad news for some. It was to turn the world as it was known upside down – and usher in the realm of the unconditionally loving, unconditionally welcoming God. Jesus’ role – as was Jeremiah’s years earlier - was to question and challenge and upset people. It was to afflict the comfortable – and comfort the afflicted. It was to pluck up and pull down the unjust structures of the culture, to overthrow the rich, to build a new world, and plant seeds of hope and promise. And Jesus, as did all those prophets before him – recognized that being a prophet would never win him many popularity contests.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that prophetic voices are heard and enacted in the midst of community, that prophetic voices persist and protest the status quo, not simply to change the world, but to ensure that the world will not change them.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Walter Brueggemann, Wendell Berry, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the thousands of others with far more ordinary and unknown names – names like yours and mine – are in every time called to be the prophetic voices of God – in the streets and churches – in schools and county jails – on farms and in parking lots – in places of disaster and places of need – in garbage dumps and office buildings. Preaching and teaching – shouting and chanting and passionately beseeching – quietly working – silently serving meals to the hungry and homeless, sorting and offering clothing to the wet and cold, bandaging wounds both physical and those harder to see, cleaning and painting and bolding speaking and enacting truth about so many things that many do not want to hear – or see.
Prophetic voices and prophetic action are called for – not only to change humanity – but to keep humanity from changing us.
Over the last two weeks, a group of about fifty members and friends of the Mn. Conference United Church of Christ, responded to the prophetical call to be and do ministry at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. Next week you will hear reflections from some of our Union members who participated. Sometimes, questions have been voiced about the need to travel all the way to Mississippi for a mission trip when clearly there is so much need right here at home.
Those questioners miss an important point. No – not that it’s much warmer in Mississippi than Minnesota – though that is certainly true. But, it is the getting away from one’s home territory – out of one’s comfort zone – into a space and a culture that is not necessarily un-comfortable – but certainly eye-opening and different. This different pushes the participant to let go of trying to accommodate understanding and expectations from their lives onto this different culture and situation. It encourages them to take on a beginners mind and eye, to allow a brand new understanding to enter your life. To hear the prophets and pathfinders of that place live and tell their stories and allow your life to be changed forever.
The prophetic word is often not what many of us want to hear – perhaps especially when we come to church. The pastoral word may be more to our liking – tender, comforting, assuring us over and over, that no matter who we are or what we’ve done or not done, we can be assured of God’s love. And yet – as people of privilege –as we are - we need to hear the prophetic voice challenging us, upsetting us, afflicting us. And, just like many of Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s listeners, we won’t like it.
Jeremiah and Jesus – prophets – pathfinders. Unpopular voices –that many – still- don’t want to hear. A little too challenging and abrasive at times - often forgets to be tactful and instead is just loudly, passionate - that cares so deeply about the bigger picture of God’s realm that it seems to forget the smaller picture of happy family.
In our desire for avoiding conflict, making peace at any cost, we forget that our faith calls us to another path – a path that uses conflict to call us to something bigger – something closer to God - a brand new better thing. We forget that we are not called to accommodate to the culture – the empire – but to forge our own way – to pluck up and pull down – to once again begin building and planting a brand new world.
Luke 4: 14-24; February 3, 2019; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
written by Rev. Robin Raudabaugh, presented by Marylyn Bowman
Jesus has come home to his own congregation, the one where he was raised, where he first learned the stories of faith, the one where everybody knows him and he knows everybody. Nazareth was a small town – a very small town. The entire village was just a bit larger than this entire congregation. This is Jesus’ community of faith, the Jewish community in which he learned the laws and love of God from his ancestors.
And now, Jesus has come back to his hometown church to speak to his people. These people who had known him from birth seemed surprised at how articulate he was – what a good reader he had become. But some were also less than impressed. They wondered how this boy they had known all his life, could be the one to bring such profound words of proclamation to them. Surely on some level, the words he spoke from the prophet Isaiah, must have at least initially stirred some feelings of hope and warmed their hearts. And then almost immediately the language of doubt and ‘who is he to preach to us’ and ‘why should we believe his words of hope and promise?’
Jesus is not reading and promising a brand new word on this day, quite the opposite. He is calling up the voice of the prophets of old – words that go all the way back in his tradition to the very beginning. Jesus is serving as a really fine, well-prepared liturgist on this day.
Renita Weems, preacher and teacher, laments that so often the way folks in the pews in churches hear scripture read today is very rarely done in a manner that moves them to listen. While many of us take for granted an ability to read, it is also true, there is reading and then there is READING.
The Bible is story and prayer, poetry and parable, all of which have the ability to touch us deeply – or all of which have the power to put us to sleep or make us itch to check out our FB posts till its over. There is more, however to Weem’s critique than just improving one’s read-aloud skills, or becoming more dramatic, or even fixing up the sound system. Weems challenges us to read the scripture as a transformational experience, not something rote, not to entertain us, not to be gotten through to get to the hopefully more entertaining sermon. In the United Church of Christ, we would agree with Weems about the power of scripture – that there is a very real power of a Still-Speaking God to impart an ever new message to us through the reading of these ancient texts.
Jesus unrolled the scroll (opened the Bible) and read words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God had chosen me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when God will save all God’s people.”
And then Jesus rolled up the scroll – and spoke words to the effect - “This is what I am all about. This is what I believe. This is what my life is all about. This I affirm. Today in your presence, I confirm my birth - where the angels sang and shepherds quaked and wise men brought magnificent gifts – I confirm my baptism at the Jordan when the heavens opened and God called me beloved and blessed. This is who I am.”
Liturgist and Confirmands alike, take note. I have heard members of this congregation affirming the value of our liturgists – the poignant introductions and well prepared ‘reading’ of the scripture. People are moved – people sit up and listen and hear in a new way a very old text – people hear a new direction – a new message.
And confirmands. Each spring, when we come to time when youth we have dedicated and supported, affirmed and loved – stand before this community of faith – our hometown youth - and read their own Statements of Faith – their own Affirmations about what is important to them in the Christian faith – many of us are moved to tears, are incredibly proud, and marvel at the mature, thoughtful, profound faith spoken so simply and eloquently by each of these youth. Every year!
All of which brings us back to who Jesus is. When we hear the scripture text read with passion and love, it is almost impossible not to see Jesus’ life between the lines. When you hear our youth speak simply or eloquently about what matters to them, you cannot help but hear through those words – the importance and the passing of faith – through the generations.
When Jesus finished reading, everyone was impressed – at first – everyone marveled. And then – they were not – as soon as Jesus began taking the words from the sacred scrolls as his own – as the words defining his own life – then, the church leaders and religious educators were far less happy. “Who does he think he is?’ “Isn’t he just a carpenter’s son?” “Isn’t he Joe’s boy?”
Who are any of us to say anything? Who are we to read and emphasize some words over others? Who are we to read with authority? Who are we to proclaim what it is that God wants us – calls us to do? Who are we to discern what God wants us to be? Who are we to say who God is – or isn’t? Who are we to say who Jesus Christ is – or isn’t? Who are we to decide what the church is – or isn’t? Who are we to decide who belongs and who doesn’t?
I wonder if anyone has ever asked you, “What does your church believe?” I’m guessing many of you have been asked that question in a variety of ways.
What is your response? Unfortunately it is true that many of us in progressive – liberal – open-minded churches often respond by answering in terms of what we do not believe.
We might say, “We are not close-minded – we are open to everyone – no matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey.” “We are not like the literalists or fundamentalists who take scripture literally.” “We are not like the churches who won’t ordain women or gays and lesbians.” “We are not like the churches that …..”
Ok – so what does our church believe? What do we affirm? What is this church all about? When we add new members to our community, or when we ask youth to Affirm their Baptisms through the Rite of Confirmation –we are asking that they join us in this community of faith – that they affirm the core values – not just of any version of God or Jesus Christ – but the process and practice of interpretation and the questioning and coming to new understandings of faith of this particular congregation and this particular denomination.
What do we believe? In this place - we believe that people can believe many different things – we believe that there isn’t just one way to believe – that there are many pathways to God – that we are all on a journey - that everyone has the right to his or her own ideas about faith – that diversity is a good thing – that when in doubt, we plan to err on the side of inclusion.
One of the things that impressed Jesus’ listeners was that he spoke plainly. He put his beliefs and teaching out there and then proceeded to live his whole life teaching and modeling and living by example: Bringing good news to the poor. Proclaiming liberty to captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Setting the oppressed free. Resisting the empire. Overturning boundaries.
Bringing good news to everyone – everywhere - is what I am – who I am - Jesus said – and then he got right out in the messy midst of it all – out on the sharp, slippery margins … of faithful life….
It is possible to be open-minded and still know what you believe. It is possible to be accepting of other people’s ideas yet still articulate your own. It is possible to rejoice in the many diverse paths to God and still invite your neighbor to come to church with you or have friends of other faiths or no faith. It is important to speak your own truth. It is important to speak it, to write it , to live it, to affirm it, to let it change you, to reaffirm it – over and over and over – until it is habit – until it become part of your DNA - until it is who and what you are. The Spirit of God is upon you.
Sunday, January 27th, 2019 - John G. Olson
With Robin gone today, it is my privilege to speak to you in her place. She has honored me with her trust and I am grateful. I am not a theologian or an expert of any sort when it comes to religious texts, so please bear with me as I try my best to speak from the heart and to attempt to share my interpretations of today’s scripture.
I’ve tried hard to understand what Paul was saying in his writings. If I miss the mark, I apologize. Also, if I sound preachy or sanctimonious, forgive me. I also must admit that in a couple places I have borrowed from some working ministers who have commented on these passages previously. Special thanks to the Reverends Brian Peterson, Karoline Lewis, and James Boyce.
I taught English for many years in the Elk River School District as we as St. Cloud State University. For most of those years, I taught creative writing in some form. One thing I enjoyed was asking my students to write short stories. Many of them had already made efforts to do this at some point. All kids write or create stories, often in their heads, so it was common for them to start writing and let the chips fall where they may. If there was one thing that they often left out, it was conflict. They commonly created a protagonist who had no serious personal issues. These main characters were often rich, successful, moral or physically attractive. These characters routinely cruised through life, curing cancer, winning the Stanley Cup, becoming high priced fashion models, or whatever other aspirations they had. Nothing stopped them. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get those opportunities.
When we read our preparatory literature, we often analyzed not just who the characters were or what their roles were, but, also, what they were made of. I guess the lesson was, “Nobody’s Perfect.” But that’s fine. Because despite their flaws, these characters, were interesting productive, and significant.
This brings us to the issues and mandates laid down by Paul. In First Corinthians, Paula has come to believe that the people of Corinth are in disarray. He feels they have become separated from what God would want them to be, and he criticizes them for what he sees as fragmentation in the Corinthian church. And so, of course, his letters offer them solutions. I have to admit there is a lot in Paul that I would take issue with. His views on women in the church, sexuality, his inflexibility and judgment based on his own interpretations of doctrines, often seem quite cruel to me. But all that is for another time.
Today, I would like to address what is said in the scripture for today. To begin with, we have a classic metaphor. That of the interrelatedness of all members of the human body. In the author’s view, every part is absolutely essential, in no way diminished by its seemingly overt appearance. In other words, each needs the other. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” Nor the “head to the feet.” Nothing is superior. Nothing is inferior. As a matter of fact, something as seemingly innocuous as our big toe can have a great impact on our day to day existence. It affects the way we stand, lean, shift, or walk. Those who lose this member, often need significant therapy. And, yet, we seldom think much about it on a day to day basis. Years ago, a member of the Minnesota Vikings seriously sprained his toe in a game and was finished for the remainder of the season. Imagine, for a moment, what changes one would have to endure to be with any part of our body (surgery, modern dance, NFL placekicker).
I could go on, but we are not here to get an anatomy lesson. Nor am I even remotely capable of giving you one. I could easily set back medicine centuries. Like most metaphors, this is about a different issue. It has to do with us as humans and our connection to one another and to the direction of our faith. This is about the way we look at ourselves in the overall society in which we live. This is about the way we compare ourselves to others and view them from a perspective that we have created for ourselves.
Ultimately, this is about “unity” versus “uniformity.” Since these are both generally positive terms, where do they come into conflict? The problem is when uniformity means that we aspire to an artificial standard, one we base on our views of others and our world. Uniformity is setting a situation that is “right” (in quotation marks). The danger, of course, is that we must ask “What is right?” and then we search for the answer to that question. The danger is that our acceptance of what is right may be self-centered or, at best, selfish. What is right depends so much on our own upbringings, our own experiences, our own positions. This can cause us to aspire to please the wealthy, the rulers, and the elite. This can lead to arbitrary judgments based on black or white, Asian or Hispanic or First Nation, straight or gay, single or married, citizen or undocumented, rich or poor, young or old, or the homeless, or the mentally ill. And on and on. White Supremacists probably feel that they are “right.” Those that perpetrated the Holocaust probably thought they were “right.” Those that drove out the Native populations in our early history probably thought they were “right.” Those who see a single solution to issue on our borders, probably think they are “right.”
What is needed is incredibly challenging. It would mean setting aside those factors where we use “uniformity” as our mantra. What we need to aspire to is unity. Like Paul’s description of the body, every part must be factored in; every wart, every weakness, every strength must be embraced. Let go of judgment, competition, and expectation. Stop measuring worth against the standards of other’s societal perceptions. And like we treat our bodies, when the “weak” parts become an issue, try to recognize them in all their glory and handle them with special care. Because to not do so drags us down.
Let’s take a look at our current situation. I believe we are in a very dark time. It’s really hard to find much positive in our world. I’m sad to say that many of those issues that I mentioned relating to uniformity have become the gospel of our time. Some of our politicians have decided to base their most serious decisions on a lowest common denominator: playing into the hands of dictators, racists, and attacking those who are helpless. We speak of the horrors of war and slavery and genocide with disdain, but often when those are the outcomes of our decision making, many slip into the shadows, afraid to address power. To make the body whole, there must be another way. Because the ultimate result is going to be a very sick body, one that ceases to function, that becomes vulnerable to more and more disease. Complacency has been at the center of much of the horror history has endured. Some have embraced incongruities, irregularities, and inconsistencies, which leads to harsh judgments and, hence, ignores the need to look at people and societies in totality. We must recognize that we are more than the sum of our parts.
Paul said that by these types of action we are turning our backs on the One who died for us. Our individuality is a great gift. I’m not for a moment saying we should forsake that and not be proud. However, we need to see beyond ourselves and embrace the great possibilities we have and use them for the benefit of all. We are at a crossroads right now. I’ve been on this earth for over 70 years, and at no time have I felt us so vulnerable. I don’t mean to make this message political, but it is imperative that we continue to monitor our pulses, to see what is healthy for all, and to work with our brothers and sisters to find unity. It would seem to me that as a church, we can work toward this same goal. We can put aside competitiveness and rivalry, and when we are tempted to judge someone or something by a narrow standard, we need to try hard to view ourselves, our friends, our families, and even those who offend us with a wide-angle lens. This is not easy because the world is not easy right now. There is so much pain. I fall victim to judgments on a day to day basis. I really need to watch less TV. But in our quieter moments, it is good and healthy to try seeing the amazing gifts we have and embrace them, even with all the hatred, fear, and destructiveness that surrounds us.
The loving body of this church depends on each of us to make it healthy and whole. So when our story is written, we can say that what we did made a difference. Certainly, we are not perfect, but we are able to rise above the bumps and bruises and make the world a better place because we are in it.
Matthew 2: 1-12; January 6, 2019
Union Congregational United Church of Christ; Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Today, January 6, we’ve arrived at the twelfth day of Christmas – 12 drummers drumming - from the song which does, by the way, count those twelve days beginning on Christmas day rather than ending on Christmas day. The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the magi to Jesus’ birthplace.
Why did these wise travelers arrive so long after the big day? Why were they the last ones to arrive at this earth-shattering birth? With all their calculations and resources, it seems as though they could have timed it closer. In all of their traveling over hill and across plains, were they really aware of the importance of arriving on time? I sometimes wonder if perhaps it was who they were – wise ones – sages, kings - some named them – persons of authority and privilege – persons able to devote time to study and learning – persons able to set off on camels (not cheaper donkeys) - and purchase provisions for the journey – and precious, expensive gifts Could it be, I wonder, that those ones that arrived first - the meek and lowly – those shepherds – outside of polite society - immediately, urgently, had a much clearer sense of what this baby Messiah might mean to them and the world – because it would certainly make a difference for people like them?
On that first Christmas day, Mary, Joseph and the baby were surrounded by livestock, by shepherds and most likely angels hovering overhead – the meek, the mild, the mysterious. And the rest of us –if we don’t fit those three categories – are like the magi - taking our time getting to Emmanuel. We are the better prepared - one more class to better educate ourselves – to be better prepared.
Surely we must shop for appropriate clothes for the journey – for good transportation – for food – perhaps make reservations in cities along the way to make sure we get adequate rest as we make the long journey. Or perhaps we have things to take care of first – get our house cleaning done – put our affairs in order – before we drop everything to ‘go see this thing which has been made known to us.’
Most of act as if there is plenty of time. We, like the magi – take our time , take the long way – the wrong way – perhaps clouds have obscured the guiding star. We look for love in all the wrong places – refuse to ask directions – because we are the ones who have prepared properly - and then ask directions from all the wrong people – seek answers from the wrong places – assume that the answers we seek are to be found with those holding the power - the Herods – instead of asking the people on the street – or in the fields - the lowly ones who already knew.
We too arrive with inappropriate gifts and try to make up for our delay - but – we do finally arrive – and in spite of all our delay – all our seeming lack of urgency – when we finally get there – we have an Epiphany! - we can’t help ourselves – we too drop to our knees - our eyes are opened – our hearts break – a great AHA engulfs us –and our lives are forever changed.
If we are not startled at least a little bit – every single year - changed to our very cores by this God With Us birth – if and when we do finally get here – or if we have rushed to get here early this year – when we come and see for ourselves - and if we have no epiphany – no AHA - then all this – (church, faith, belief, religion) means nothing – and it is just a hollow empty thing we church people do each year.
Every year – we retell this story – we reenact the NOW and NOT YET waiting and expectation of Advent – we celebrate the WOW of Christmas – the AHA of Epiphany. And each year we are changed – sometimes a little – sometimes a lot – as we imagine and dream how the world ‘could’ be – and always, always in those dreams we receive a holy warning that now, because of what we know, we must find another way home.
This story of the magi is only found in the gospel of Matthew. It is not in the beautiful, much longer birth story in Luke. Matthew teaches us that the ‘why’ of the magi is just as important as the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of the magi. Years after Jesus’ death, Matthew wants his audience to understand that the good news of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace – is for everyone. These visitors – these wise ones –from far away - are just as welcome at the birthplace – as the meek and mild and mysterious – shepherds and angels. Not more welcome – but equally welcome.
We learn that the Christ child that drew shepherds and magi to his birthplace grows to be the adult Christ who will draw stinky fishermen, Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, sleazy tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, rich young rulers, ostracized lepers, the blind, the lame, the crippled, men and women and children – believers and doubters - all.
God sent a tiny baby – a baby who grows up to overturn assumptions, break established boundaries, and radically resist the ones holding and abusing power. It is so often – contrary to our assumptions – the smallest things - like a newborn baby – like a child or teen finding a voice - that will terrify the arrogant and power-hungry – and will bring them down in the end.
God’s grace goes far beyond any boundary or border or obstacle, and God’s grace can move each of us to help break down those boundaries, and obstacles and borders .
We learn that with the birth of Emmanuel – God-with-us – a great light dawned – a light that continues to grow and draw all people to live illuminated - enlightened lives. That’s what Epiphany is all about. We hear the beautiful words, the promises from the prophet Isaiah that light is breaking forth for all of us – and we remember what it is like to spend our days in darkness. And then we hear again the call to live into and become radiant with the light. That is the dream God gives us. That is the different way home we are directed to take – the way we will evade and disrupt the evil doings of the current day Herods who rule our world .
On this Epiphany Sunday we are reminded that we are people called to dream of another way – another path – to get us out of the ruts – or the smooth places into which we’ve settled – and go a different way.
As you find your different way – taking a new way home after worship – or every day forward - may your life be changed as you seek out and take the road less traveled – the path that leads to truer – God-given – directions – for yourself – your family – and this church.
Zephaniah 3: 14-20; December 16, 2018;
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I don’t know how it came about that we church folk came to believe that the time of Advent time in our churches is filled with joy and laughter and hope. Because it simply isn’t. All you need do is read the lectionary texts selected for this season of the church year – to gain a very different perspective – a perspective that certainly more closely mirrors the world into which Jesus was born – and more closely mirrors the world that years earlier begged and beseeched God to send a savior to fix the mess humans were making of the world. Far from ‘hap, happiest time of the year’, Advent is all about recognizing and naming the hardships of life so that we can also recognize the presence and promise of God. And today’s text from the prophet Zephaniah is no different. It’s not an easy, joyful read.
Eugene Peterson in his introduction to the book of Zephaniah in the Message, begins by telling us something about human nature, ‘We humans keep looking for a religion that will give us access to God without having to bother with people. We want to go to God for comfort and inspiration when we’re fed up with the men and women and children around us. We want God to give us an edge in the dog-eat-dog competition of daily life.
Peterson names an important idea - because the basis of a solid spiritual life is rooted in the relationship between people and God, it is fairly easy to get the idea that my spiritual life is something between me and God – only between me and God. It’s a private thing to be nurtured by what fits me most. We might live out this spiritual life by praying and singing and comforting and worshiping with like minded friends or we might be alone contemplating a glorious sunset.
The problem with this way of thinking is that if we think this way for very long, we might assume that the way we treat people – particularly those not like us – or that we don’t like – of who don’t like us – has nothing to do with God.
And that’s when prophets like Zephaniah step in and interrupt us, insisting that everything we do or think or feel has to do with God. Every person we meet has to do with God. We live in a vast world of interconnectedness, and the connections have consequences, either in things or people – and all the consequences come together in God. The biblical phrase for when all the consequences come together – the day of reckoning - is Judgement Day.
During this season of Advent, we have been hearing the voices of the prophets – Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Isaiah, and next week Micah. Prophets are the voice of Advent. Prophets say what no one wants to hear, what no one wants to believe. Prophets name hard truths. Prophets point people in directions they don’t want to be pointed. Prophets speak for God when others believe God is silent or perhaps saying something different. Prophets point out the presence of God when others have concluded that God has left the room! Prophets speak harsh words – yet they also speak words of hope and promise. They feel and speak to us of God’s compassion. They name God’s anger with us - and God’s joy in us. They dream God’s dreams and God’s wake up calls. They hope God’s hopes and put those hopes into language we might be likely to understand. They live God’s will even when such a life seems almost impossible. Prophets sing God’s song – and often interrupt – the harmonious melody – with a dissonant tune that changes everything we think we know.
Zephaniah calls people to lament and repent. He speaks to Jerusalem that has become complacent and corrupt. People have become numbed to the daily barrage of oppression and injustice. Zephaniah interrupts this numbed population by calling for a rejoicing. He calls the people to rejoicing over a future that has not yet happened. He says, the day of corruption and fake news will be supplanted with a day of gladness and good news.
Zephaniah’s voice to a numbed people can remind us of the need for urgency in the face of injustice. Calling Jerusalem ‘Sewer City’ – soiled, defiled, oppressing city, he calls out Jerusalem as the city that won’t take advice – won’t accept correction – won’t trust God.
And yet – for this very city – Zephaniah also proclaims that God will not forsake – that God has a plan for restoration – that once again – God is making a promise to God’s beloved people – that there will be a future to sing about – there will be a time when disaster will be removed – when the outcasts will be gathered – when shame will be turned to praise – when fortunes will be restored – when the people will rejoice. This is the promise God makes.
If God can restore the fortunes of a nation pushed down by the powers of their world and dragged into slavery – then most certainly God can banish our own fears and challenges. Our world today is most definitely not the worst the world has ever seen.
The universality of Zephaniah’s prophetic promise is that God makes the promise of restoration and hope not just for Jerusalem – not just for Bethlehem – not just for us – not just for we privileged ones – not just for we in ‘God Bless America’ - United States – but for everyone – everyone - in the whole wide world. In the new realm promised by God which is to be ruled by the Prince of Peace – the Messiah of justice – oppressors will be dealt with because there will be no oppressors and no oppressed. In the new realm promised by God all the lame and outcast will be restored. There will be no in group – and no one will be pushed out, left out - dismissed or erased. There will be no favored nations and unfavored nations – there will be no such thing as s*%t h@#e nations. There will be no scattered nations and no refugees – there will be no exclusion of immigrants and refugees - for all of God’s people will be brought home and home will be wherever God’s people are gathered to be with God.
These words from the prophet Zephaniah, great grandson of Hezekiah, speaking for God in the year before the destruction by the Babylonians, 586 BC are words to take seriously today. They are certainly words of chastisement and calling to account – and yes –they are also words that promise that a new day – a new time – a new vision of peace with justice for the world - is always possible – is always promised with God. And especially in this advent time – we need to hear these words.
As we stand and pray in solidarity with our family members around the world – we recognize that God’s promise is for everyone, everywhere - Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, France, Ohio, California, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Elk River, Big Lake, Monticello, Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, St. Andrews Catholic Church ……. everyone – everywhere - the promise of restoration - is for everyone –
God’s good news for all people reminds us that the way of power is to be power shared by all, not power held by a few to hold over and control the many. God’s good news for all people reminds us that the promise of restoration is the promise for right relationships –relationships that are mutual – relationships of equality and equity – there will be no more oppressor and oppressed.
God’s good news reminds us that yes, God’s people will be praised through all the world - and that praise is based on who we are as God’s beloved children - and not on our own strength or might or personal merit. When this is who we are – then – then – we will be celebrated throughout the land and praised – and there will be rejoicing in all the world. This is the hope. This is the promise.
PREPARE THE WAY
Malachi 3: 14-16; Luke 3: 1-6; 2nd Sunday in Advent; Dec. 9, 2018
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
The book of the prophet Malachi is a little tiny book that deals with a great big crisis. The name Malachi means ‘messenger’ and Malachi’s role as prophet is bringing a message – and not a very popular one at that – to the Hebrew people who were returning to their homeland – their devastated land – from the regions of the Persian Empire after the fall of Babylon. And to what were they returning? Devastation – destruction – years after the fall the rebuilding was still far from completion. In addition there were many disputes about exactly what should be rebuilt and how.
The entire book of Malachi is all hard questions about a life of faith and the priorities of rebuilding a community that has fallen apart. Malachi asks twenty two questions in just fifty five verses. And they aren’t easy questions. They are questions about who we are and how we are to live. You ask, But how do we return to God? You ask, How have we robbed you? You ask, When did we ever do that? You ask, where is the God of justice? You ask, who will be pure and blameless on the day of God’s coming?
The message of Malachi is clear “Be careful what you ask for!” Malachi warns the Hebrews returning to their former homes that when they have been demanding a day of retributive justice – and - it might not turn out quite the way they are hoping for . When people think that whatever bad is happening is always someone else’s fault - these ones are sure to find out something different. Malachi warn these fault finders – not so fast with your calls for judgment! Look at your own life!
Malachi knows that pointing the finger always include more pointing back at oneself.
This is a harsh text as we move into our second week of Advent. For any of you looking for the happiness and joy of getting ready for Christmas – mmmmm – I have to say it, ‘not so much’. We would be far more likely to find comfort in the rebuking words of John the Baptizer centuries later found in the Newer Testament book of Luke. John calls people of faith to repentance – to turn around – to let go of the negative directions on has chosen - to turn back to God – to the God who is remaking the world as we know it – leveling mountains – lifting up valleys – taking the curves out of crooked roadways. John seems appealing compared to Malachi. No wonder we seldom hear from Malachi!
Malachi’s people had long been living in occupied territory. And now they were moving back - or moving forward into brand new lives – lives that would look and feel substantially different than what they had been living – lives filled with unanswered questions.
I admit it, I’ve been struggling this year with Advent. I have just wanted to just submerge myself into my at least somewhat comfortable getting ready, waiting, anticipating, nesting, decorating, planning, resting – preparing for ‘the birth of the Christ child once again.’
And the Malachi’s and John the Baptizer’s of the Bible and in this world around me keep getting in the way. They keep shoving justice language into the nice, sweet, comfort-able, joy filled texts. They disrupt my preparations. They disrupt me. They make me uncomfortable and fill me with a sense of dissonance. I want my nice Advent back!
But really - what are we preparing for??? I’m quite sure the baby of Middle Eastern descent – most likely to have dark skin – most likely will be a baby of parents who don’t quite fit within the status quo of those in power – a baby who came to topple those structures of power - a baby with parents who would have to flee their own country because of political intrigue and manipulations of the powerful. A baby who would grow to be a man not welcomed by many of his own people. A baby who would grow to preach and teach and model a radical message of extravagant welcome and inclusion for everyone!
No wonder it feels a bit uncomfortable – it’s just a bit too close to what is happening once again in our world – in our country. It’s difficult not to see parallels …….
Those women and children, families joining the caravan of thousands making their way from Honduras to Guatemala, El Salvador to Mexico, to the border of the United States – part of the caravan we hear so much about – I wonder if they might not be very similar to the ones who were fleeing Bethlehem – that little family – Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus fleeing almost sure death at the hands of the powerful – fleeing to find a safe place to raise a family. I can easily see Mary’s face, Joseph’s stooped shoulders, Jesus little body wrapped and strapped to Mary – part of that caravan.
This Advent season, I simply am not able to separate the events being orchestrated in our world with the events of that first Christmas story. I know that other years I have pondered what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph – but this year – I have so many pictures to remind me what it looks like –even with my eyes closed I cannot shut them out - and I cannot pretend that the ways in which the powerful dehumanize and use their power to eliminate and erase the ones without that power – the least of these – is something we people of faith must recognize and resist and seek to transform.
King Herod demonized Jesus’ family – and turned them into outlaws – turned them into criminals simply by being who they were. We see and hear the same thing all around us. And sometimes we even accept that it must be true – if people with authority say it often enough – it must be true.
This has been going on for a long long time. It is what was going on in the world that Malachi addressed – it was going on in the world that John the Baptizer addressed - the need for justice – justice that is not for just us – but justice for everyone and everything.
This is what we are to prepare for in our Advent. I’m really sorry I cannot give you a nicer, sweeter, happier story; because while there is sweetness – for the most part - it is difficult and complicated and just plain hard. It is uncomfortable – and it gets harder and more uncomfortable as we struggle to find our place in the justice making - as we find our prophetic voices – as we search for and find our willingness to say –“My faith compels me to say, ‘you are welcome here – in my heart – in my home – in my world – anywhere you would like.’”
This Advent – I encourage you – to give yourself time and permission to feel the dissonance – and I also warn you – you most likely won’t like it - and then – I’d like you to take time to figure out what part you are going to play in this ever new story of God coming to earth – of God coming to us – to help bring about the peace with justice that God envisions for all of creation – not just for some – but for everyone!
This is Just the Beginning
Mark 13: 1-8; Nov. 18, 2018; Union Congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
When the disciples and Jesus gather around the temple in Jerusalem, the disciples are awestruck! In the massive monument, the disciples see permanence. “What large stones – what large buildings!” I’m reminded of the first time, we drove with my rural raised toddler grandson into the twin cities. “ Wama – lookit the bbbig bbbuildings!!!”
That’s the disciples – “Jesus – lookit the big buildings!!!!” And Jesus, instead of being excited along with them, bursts their bubble. It’s all gonna come down. Not a single stone you see before will be left standing. Stones will roll. And not only that, but the world will be at war, nations will jostle for power, and every ruler will claim to be the savior of the world! There will be floods, earthquakes and famines. This is just the beginning, says Jesus.
Yikes! Today’s lectionary text hits just a bit too close to home, doesn’t it? These words could be written for today – all of us admiring the great skyscrapers and massive buildings housing our political and religious institutions – monuments to what people value – monuments to protect treasure – and there is Jesus – party pooper – warning about placing our security and trust in these buildings – these structures and institutions. Buildings are temporary. Buildings don’t last forever. Building let us down. Things fall apart, even those things crafted of brick and stone, steel and precious materials. Buildings fail. We fail. And yet – and yet – Jesus reassures us - even that kind of failure – that imploded, crashing down kind of failure - can be crafted into a greater, more lasting work of God.
That doesn’t feel much like comfort, when it’s our sacred spaces that are slated for demolition and destruction. Towering buildings are not supposed to topple, and crumble to ground zero. Oceans are not supposed to leap out of their seabeds creating surges destroying all in their path miles inward. The ground is not supposed to buckle and shake. The sky is not supposed to form funnel clouds destroying towns.
One small fire is not supposed to rage out of control destroying all of Paradise. These things are not part of our safety and security plan. And yet, many of you watched the World Trade Towers come down, many of you have seen a tsunami flood through a nation, many of you have experienced an earthquake, or suffered in the wake of a tornado, seen massive forest fires burning to the ground thousands of acres. You know these things are not supposed to happen, but you also know they do happen.
And every time these things happen – a profound sense of loss follows. Lost loved ones, lost homes, lost property, but most of all lost innocence. Never again can you trust that these kinds of things will never happen – to you! A fundamental belief about safety and security upon which you build your life has toppled and forever forward you will wonder what is truly trustworthy.
What is truly trustworthy? Jesus reminds us it is not buildings. It is not those things constructed – it is not walls or shelters or institutions. What is trustworthy?
It is all the things God loves. It is mutual relationships. It is caring community. It is love. It is the caring of one person to another. It is the caring of all for all of creation. It is walking lightly on the earth to keep and protect it for generations to come. It is taking only what we need, rather than from greed. It is looking to Jesus the Christ for how to live. It is looking to God for who we are and whose we are. It is recognizing that we live an absolutely gifted experience – and responding to such gifts by giving in gratitude and generosity in turn.
Each year at this time in the life of every church I have served or attended, folks are asked to examine their lives and determine how and with what they will support the church. The words and language are different in different churches, in different times, for different reasons – but the practice is similar.
Sometimes we are challenged to give – because the church is in dire straits – we are far behind where we ought to be – need to be…. “We need you – to step up – to do your part.”
Sometimes we are invited to give – because it just what we should do. We find a church we like – that meets our needs – that gives us a place to feel comfortable – and we all need to give to keep the church doing what it does.
Sometimes we are guided to give – because we learn that is how we grow in faith – by increasing the way to and the level at which we respond to all the gifts we have been given by a generous Creator.
Sometimes we are shamed into giving. Sometimes we are guilted into giving. Sometimes we are loved into giving. Sometimes we are excited into giving. Sometimes we give because it’s our duty. Sometimes we give because we can. Sometimes we give because we support the work that is being done. Sometimes we give because it’s expected. Sometimes we give grudgingly. Sometimes joyously. Sometimes with excitement. Sometimes with resignation.
There are many, many reasons to give. There are many emotions around giving. Some think talking about giving is a personal matter and shouldn’t be discussed in public. Some think it should be all over social media. My hope for you is that you give to this church because you want to give – that such giving feels good to you. That it makes you feel a part of something so much bigger than yourself. That giving reminds you of all you are grateful for in your life – the big and the tiny reasons.
Yes, absolutely your gifts do support this church building and grounds – the roof, the floors, the boiler, the doors, the kitchen sink and stoves , the Sunday’s Cool rooms, the angel window …………. The snow plowing, heating, cleaning supplies…………….
And your gifts do support the salaries of our church staff – pastor, faith formation director, office administrator, choir directors, musicians, custodians ….
And your gifts do support the stuff of the church – paper, staples, dishwashing cleaner, phone and internet bills…..
And yet, those things are not really what you are giving to support. Those are the tangible, physical manifestations, but what you are really supporting by your giving is the mission and ministry that happens with this group of people and all those connected to this people, in this time and place.
And while a building and supplies and staff and more supplies and stuff – all enhance that mission and ministry – they – none of them alone - are vital to that ministry. But YOU are. YOU – each one of you sharing your gifts are necessary and needed for the ministry and mission of this church right now. Without YOU we couldn’t /wouldn’t do and be what we do to live out God’s call and we wouldn’t be WHO God calls us to be in this moment of time. It is true that if and when any of you were to leave – this faith community would continue – but it would not be exactly the same. And if someone new were to join us in this ministry and mission – we would continue – but not exactly the same.
Jesus reminded those who believed all would be lost if and when the temp came toppling and crumbling to the ground – that all was not lost – it was only a brand new beginning. And he reminded his followers that such new beginnings are not necessarily easy – they are like giving birth – incredibly difficult – and yet almost always filled with incredible joy!
And that’s where we are – this is only the beginning. We are not who we were yesterday – or last year – or twenty years ago. I firmly believe that God has great plans for us here at Union Congregational Church United Church of Christ! I believe that God is calling us to great and wonderful things – to amazing things – to sometimes really scary things – sometimes exhilarating things – sometimes really comforting things – sometimes really difficult things. But – this is only the beginning. This is why we dare to place our hope in the God of new beginnings – the God who is steadfast, ever faithful – and loves us through everything and every time unconditionally.
I hope that you are excited to support with your finances, with your gifts and skills and abilities, with your time and energy, with all that you are - whatever new thing God has in mind for us – because, my friends, this is ….. only the beginning. And in this moment of time, we are, each of us, all of us, acting in faith. Thank God!
Colossians 3: 12-16; Nov. 11, 2018; Union Cong. Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
In this week following one more year of elections, one more year of completely over-the-top political ads, one more year of hoping against hope for positive change - a Sunday simply full of music, with a minimum of words seems absolutely the best thing we can do. A Sunday to rest and rejuvenate and redirect – with music.
Our scripture from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church of the Colossians not only reminds us of the importance of keeping music in our hearts and in our worship but of those other characteristics with which we who follow Christ must clothe ourselves: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to bear with one another – and no that’s not bear as in fearsome grizzly or polar bear or angry mother black bear – It’s bear – as in put up with – being willing to listen to – to endure patiently – to tolerate – to experience – the another. And above everything else, Paul reminds, put on love – love which holds everything else together in perfect harmony.
Perfect harmony. When I shared this sermon title with Sam and Gigi at our staff meeting last week, I heard a couple groans as each of them wondered about the ability of our choirs to achieve the Perfect Harmony this title suggested.
Perfect harmony – whether it be our choirs – or our gathered body – does not mean quite the perfection we might think is implied – but rather the reminder that when everything we do is clothed in love, compassion and forgiveness – we will and do achieve perfect harmony.
That’s what church life is all about – achieving that sort of perfect harmony – with all the diversity – all the different skills and abilities – or lack thereof - with which we each come – with all the voices and personalities – all joining together – listening to one another – really hearing one another – respecting one another – whether we agree or not – compromising with one another – standing up for our own views with one another – listening attentively to another’s views - achieving consensus with one another – being passionate and compassionate with one another - that is what perfect harmony really looks like. With gratitude, then, let us continue to sing to God in celebration.
YOUR PEOPLE WILL BE MY PEOPLE AND YOUR GOD MY GOD
Ruth 1: 1-18; Nov. 4, 2018; Union Congregational Church UCC
Stewardship Invitation Sunday
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
By nature, I would not describe myself as a political person. I am not energized by the political process – even in a healthy political year. Like some who enjoy listening to endless speculation and examination and processing of political debates and political races, I do not. Even when this process seems sane, there is not much about it I enjoy – though I do try to stay informed and aware.
And yet, what about my life – any life - is not political? From my background and continuing passion for small scale sustainable farming and land use to the way I buy and eat my food, clothing, and the materials to build my home, to my sexual identity, to my involvement in immigration issues – these are all political. And they are all faith-based as well. While it may be possible to pretend that politics don’t affect us –in this political year – that is becoming harder and harder the closer the issues get to our homes – our families – our friends – our neighbors. Everything we do is affected by the decisions of politics in our world and the politics of our country also affect every aspect of our lives – whether we acknowledge it or not.
Faith and politics are inseparable – and always have been. You cannot read the Bible and fail to see the constant interaction of politics and faith. And I wonder, too if we think we can easily separate our faith and politics then how strong or important is our faith? It is true that church – the institution – and state – the institution – are separate and should be – but our faith – our religion, and our politics – what we stand for politically – cannot be separated. We should no more go to the voting booth setting our religious convictions aside than come to church setting our political convictions aside. And thank God, our national UCC Church officials have made it clear that we are not expected to and in fact are expected to address the concerns of our day – on our streets and in the voting booth – and in our pulpits.
It would be inappropriate however for me to stand here in this pulpit and tell you who to vote for - and it would be equally inappropriate for me not to remind you how important living your faith, acting in this moment and every moment in faith, and voting your faith is. Your faith should and must guide your daily decisions – or it isn’t much of a faith.
Our scripture today is the first chapter of the story of Ruth. It is through and through a political story. It is a story of a faith-filled response to a political issue. Who one marries – where one lives – what happens when the marriage is over – how geography affects family systems – do these concerns sound at all familiar? The story of Ruth reminds us that it is our faith that guides our decisions – even when those decisions go against public policy – even when those decisions go against what we’ve been taught from religious authorities – even when those decisions go against our family’s values.
The fact that this book is included in our Bible is in itself scandalous. Our heroine, Ruth is not a Hebrew, but a Moabite widow who was once married to a Hebrew. In our polarized world and a polarized church, Ruth teaches us of possibilities that can be imagined when we think beyond the walls that might divide and define and confine us.
Ruth is a foreign wife – now a widow. She lives in a time when there are strong voices trying to expel unwelcome foreigners . Voice of power railed against these unwelcome aliens – as polluting society.
It is a testimony to those who selected the books which would make up our Bible that this book was selected to balance those other books speaking for purification. That a Moabite widow could be an agent for God’s radical possibility in a world set on exclusion reminds us of what can happen when ‘walled worlds’ collapse. It reminds us of the space between what humans are set on dividing and what God is set on uniting.
In a world suspicious of immigrants, legal or otherwise, this is a story about forced migration.
Naomi and Elimilech cross into Gentile territory not because they are religious radicals – they travel to Moab from Bethlehem because they are starving. Throughout the Hebrew scripture, there is a strong bias against anything good coming out of Moab, and yet here we have Ruth, intentionally leaving her native land and people to accompany Naomi back to Naomi’s home. Ruth, now becomes the immigrant, leaving her country, and in the process becoming a strong, female advocate for all the prejudice such an action will entail.
The book of Ruth begins with two women, connected by family bonds that have been broken – and now these two women, mother-in-law and daughter-in- law – are creating new kind of family. Naomi and Ruth have no idea how they will be received as they travel back to Bethlehem. For a Moabite (Ruth) to set foot in Bethlehem would set off all of the cultural, social, and religious detectors of the time. Leaving Moab, Ruth would face not only a language barrier, a food barrier, a social etiquette barrier, and a religious practice barrier, and she would also face the constant reminders that she was not ‘one of us.’
This is not a story to be romanticized. It is a sobering reminder of the consequences of breaking human-made law. And it is a strong reminder of how God can work across and despite the most entrenched human-created positions and established exclusive boundaries to bring new life and hope.
This first Sunday in November – is our welcome to another year of remembering why you are a part of this church –this community of faith – and why and how you will help support it – financially and with your participation in a variety of ways. These next few weeks in November is our annual stewardship ‘pledge campaign’ in which we remind you that you have been entrusted with precious gifts from God – gifts of life, of skills, of abilities, of opportunities, of resources, of possibilities. And that you live in this world that seeks in so many ways to limit life, and the ability to use one’s skills and abilities, to limit opportunity for so many based on skin color, country of origin, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation – anything that sets one person apart from those who would building walls to exclude.
The God we proclaim – the God of unconditional, unwavering love – calls us to another standard – one of tearing down walls – of creating new definitions of family – of welcoming strangers and aliens – of celebrating diversity in all it’s forms and incarnations. And that is who we are here at Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. It is why we maintain our building, why we pay our staff, why we support our programs and activities. It is why we exist. To discern who we are and what God is calling us to be – in our time.
Welcome to another year of Stewardship – of living fully into each moment of your life – and acting in faithful response to each moment – with all the joys and costs that might bring.
God is in the Neighborhood
Revelations21: 1-6a; October 28, 2018; Union Congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I recently read that Halloween is now the second most popular, most celebrated Holiday, with only Christmas more celebrated. Halloween is a contraction of the words Hallows Evening also known as All Hallow’s Eve or All Saint’s Eve. It is celebrated in a number of countries on October 31 which is the night before the Christian High Holy Day of All Saints – the day dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed. The day, now also dedicated to remembering the saints who have not yet died but who from this side join together as a great cloud of faithful witnesses with those who have passed over to the other side.
In early times the celebration of All Saints was one of the main Holy Days in the Christian church – a time of prayer, fasting and keeping vigil. So when did the importance of All Saints give way to the rise of the more secular holiday of Halloween? Halloween – the night before All Saints dates all the way back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhian (pronounce sow-in). The Celts who lived 2000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. Samhain was their New Year’s eve with all its revelry and partying, wearing costumes and lighting bonfires.
It was in the 18th Century when Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and soon the Christian church blended and supplanted some of the older traditions of the pagan celebration of Samhain. All Hallows Eve later morphed into Halloween which evolved into a day of carving pumpkins into Jack-O- Lanterns, donning costumes, and eating sweet treats. Ghoulish traditions have almost always been a part of All Hallows Eve – with graveyard RIP décor, zombies and mummies, dripping blood and body parts, costumes and fire.
The parallel Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, begins October 31 and ends November 2. It is celebrated throughout Mexico and by people of Mexican heritage – or not – elsewhere.
The multi Day of the Dead holiday focuses on the gathering of family and friends to pray for and remember family members who have died, and to help support their ongoing spiritual journey. Altars created both in the home and at the graveyards celebrate and remember the dead. Traditional dishes and foods, sugar skulls, bread skulls, streets paved with marigold flower petals, all commemorate for Day of the Dead.
The movie Coco tells a wonderful story of Dia de los Muertos, reminding us of how the sometimes seemingly ghoulish traditions reinforce family connections and memory.
So back to our biblical text. Why is this passage from the book of Revelation in our Bible typically the lectionary text for this day of remembrance and celebration. It could be that the ghoulish and creepy nature which parallels much of our Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations, but that isn’t really it. As downright weird and scary as this book of the Revelation of John is, it was meant to be a letter of consolation and hope for a people suffering under severe persecution and distress. It was meant to remind people that even death is not final. If you take the time – or the fortitude – to read the entire book/letter of Revelation you may seriously question how these images and language and visions could possibly offer hope and consolation.
It’s important to remember that this is Apocalyptic writing. It’s meant to describe what will take place when this world – this broken world – falls apart – what is on the other side. This letter from John was meant to be hopeful, meant to offer consolation and comfort. It may be harder for us to read this letter and imagine how these ghoulish images of seemingly deranged or starvation or drug induced hallucinations could be comforting: dragons and great beasts, powerful, frightening angels, many- colored creepy horses, doors and thrones dripping in jewels and rainbows – and lots of blood, and fire and swords.
And yet, though this book nearly didn’t make it into the writings selected to make up our Bible – it did make the cut – and so it is important that we try to understand at least a little bit why.
Particularly because this book – more than any other in our Bible – has been used to justify all manner of horrific things – revolution and counter revolution, anti- Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, anti- People of Color, anti- people with disabilities, anti- LGBTQ, anti- anyone not me, violence, exclusivism, nationalism…. This book has long been the happy hunting ground for bigots and fanatics. And it still is today.
Following a wonderful discussion at last Monday’s Bible study of this scripture, it seems to me inappropriate to take the
easiest option and just lift this little bit of text we heard today out of the full context of the book of Revelation. It’s not a bad bit of scripture – some nice parts even. But oh the rest of the book that comes before this part! So why is this the text selected by those who make these decisions for churches, chosen for our day of celebration and remembrance of the Saints gone before and still with us?
Face it, the book of Revelation is horrible to read – and so are documentaries and movies and books about Nazi Germany, about the Crusades, about horrific wars and conflicts real and imagined. The images of orcs coming to life in Lord of the Rings movies are the stuff of nightmares – not solace. So too the science fiction and fantasy movies and books imagining what the time after this time might look like. When this world is no more – if this world is no more - what might what comes after be like? And depending on whether one is a person of faith - or not –that time might look and feel quite different.
John experienced his revelation of God while he was exiled and persecuted on the Isle of Patmos off Greece. Whatever it was that created these images in his mind isn’t really the point – the point is where God is throughout John’s writing. And God is in the neighborhood. God, unlike Elvis has not left the building. God is present and available and seeking and knocking and searching out God’s beloved people. And through every door and on every throne and behind every beast or scroll, John sees God reveling God’s self to God’s people reminding them that God has not abandoned them even if people in powerful positions have.
‘See, I am making all things new.’ John reminds those in the midst of persecution that this is what God does – make all things new – in every moment in every time – God takes what there is going on – forms and reforms it and makes things new – creates and re-creates a bold new creation in every moment. Even in the midst of the worst imaginable political or religious scandals and regimes and wars and conflicts – God is in the neighborhood - blowing down the streets, entering upper rooms and basements – blowing through windows – holding, loving unconditionally, compassionately, lifting up, giving strength, giving courage and guidance, giving hope where none seems to be.
When you read this letter, you notice that among the beasts and dragons, the ghoulish images and impossible beings occasionally stretch – and a thin place appears – and in that thin place – there is God. That is the comfort and consolation. Death isn’t final – it’s simply a threshold to another place and time. And God transcends time and place. No matter what side of life or death we are on – God is in that neighborhood doing all the things that God does. Bringing about peace with justice. Loving unconditionally. Including everyone. Making a home for everyone. Welcoming extravagantly. Preparing a table where strangers and enemies become friends. That is our hope. That is our promise.
Psalm 22: 1-15; October 14, 2018; Union Congr. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Psalm 22 is perhaps the most haunting, grief-stricken, devastating Psalm of all the Psalms. It begins with the cry echoed through the centuries, even Jesus in his time of despair from the cross, shouting to God his sense of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15: 34) Even Jesus cried, “Why Me?”
And yet, as you read this psalm again, you notice it is something of a verbal tennis match – God, where are you? O God, you are the best. - I’m lower than low. I’m unworthy of you. You kept me safe right from my birth. - Trouble is near. My bones are melting. I cry all night. Where are you? - How could you let this happen to me?
It might be easy to assume that the writer is ready to give up on God – is seriously questioning God’s presence in their life. And yet, how does one call on a God in which one does not believe. It’s like the oft quoted wondering, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”
Psalm 22 becomes a dialogue between the horrors of the presence and the recognition of deliverance of the past.
Almost as soon as the Psalmist despairs in God’s absence, they remember times when God was as present as one’s own breath, when God was a trusted saving presence.
Personal suffering so often has the potential to cause the sufferer to withdraw into despair and self- pity and feelings that no one cares. “Why me?” is so often asked, wondering what we did to cause such suffering to happen to us. We pull away from God – from the Holy – from other people and allow ourselves to be tangled in a net of fear and anger at what we perceive as the unfair, unjust set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. The world becomes a place filled with evil and we turn more and more inward in attempts to self-protect.
And sometimes suffering can also have exactly the opposite effect. Our suffering can draw us into a heightened awareness and connection with the suffering of others. A mother grieving over the death of her child can have a deeper connection to all other mothers who have ever lost a child. Mothers or families of children who have been kidnapped and/or killed often become the fiercest advocates of all other children’s safety and security. Tragedy doesn’t always lead to asking “Why me?” It can just as often lead to “What now God – how do I go on?”
The Jacob Wetterling Foundation in St. Joseph Mn. and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in Minneapolis were founded by family and friends of Jacob Wetterling to educate and assist families and communities to address and prevent the exploitation of children. Jacob Wetterling, age eleven, from central Minnesota, was abducted and killed. It is a story steeped in tragedy and sorrow. “We are in deep grief.” said Jacob’s family. “We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way.” The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Now twenty-seven years later, their choice continues to change the world . https://m.facebook.come/jacobwetterlingresourcecenter
When a few members of this congregation first heard about Armando Sanchez Ibarra, a young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient who was apprehended due to a raised voice argument with his mother. No charges were filed. Armando was released, and as he was leaving the court house, he was snatched by ICE (immigration and Customs Enforcement) and began a hellish months long journey through the jail system of Immigrant incarceration. Hearing Armando’s story and meeting Armando, led to seeking out information about the Sherburne County Jail – a for- profit jail and their current contract with ICE as well as finding out the disturbing information about their bid to substantially increase the number of those jailed by expanding the number of beds and space to fill its facility with immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America. Armando’s story led to folks in this congregation to seek partners of other local congregations and organizations to hold a fundraiser for Armando’s family who were struggling with staggering legal bills.
Stories similar to Armando’s led this congregation to join with other faith leaders in forming Sanctuary & Resistance Interfaith Elk River to hold weekly vigils/ protests outside the Sherburne County Jail and become more informed to educatate others to address Immigration reform and stop the jailing of brown skinned immigrants.
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakinstan, one girl spokeout. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. In October, 2012, when she was fifteen, Malala was shot in the head while riding the bus home from school. Few expected her to survive. Instead Malala’s heroic recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from the remote hills of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, Malala emerged as a global symbol of peaceful protest. A year later, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. (I Am Malala: the Girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, 2013. Blurb from back of book. )
When Stacey Actheroff’s 91 year old aunt was tragically murdered in 2009, Stacy responded by buying a bicycle ice cream cart. Until about three years ago, Stacey had a conventional business. Now, during the school year Stacey teaches homeless children, and in the summer better known as Mrs. Delicious, she delivers ice cream to her neighborhood.
“I’m a person of faith” Stacey says, “and what do you do when terrible things to you?” One day a man named Steve walked up to her ice cream cart. “He said, I don’t want any ice cream – I just want you to give it away. ” He paid ahead for three people – and other customers started doing the same thing – paying ahead in honor of loved ones.
“People want to know that goodness is prevailing over evil – and they want to be a part of that.” says Stacey. (HeartThreads on Face Book, October 9, 2018)
On February 14, 2018 a gunman entered Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen students and staff members and injuring nineteen others. Parkland survivors led by Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg have engaged a vocal and visible campaign promoting first sensible gun reform, and moving on to voter registration among young people, and encouraging an engagement of the political system to make real change.
As long as there are humans there will most likely be persecution and despair, overwhelming grief and sorrow. And it is in these times, when we can be assured that God is at work in the world – God’s presence is active in the hearts and minds and actions of people who say things like, ‘you just have to find where the light is…..” and then proceed to seek out the light even in the midst of the darkest darkness. People like Patti Wetterling. People like Stacey Actheroff. People like Malala Yousafzai – people like you.
That’s what it means to call on God – to call on the Holy – for people of faith. Calling on God is finding – remembering – recalling – where to find the light. Isaiah the prophet reminded us that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” That is the light we find – the light that allows us to remember God’s presence and protection in former times – and to call on God now - to protect and care for and hold. When there seems to be no other hope, when all seems lost, God – the Holy, Mysterious Other – may be our only refuge. And yet, it is that same God that calls us to be God’s hands and feet, God’s heart and mind, God’s very soul of compassion and care in this world. God calls us – as people of faith - to be light for one another – to hold the light for another who cannot hold it for themselves – and to allow another to hold it for us when we cannot.
CONSORTING WITH HYPOCRITES
Psalm 26, 2018; October 7, 2018; World Communion Sunday
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Last Sunday, at the beginning of the service, when I announced that my preaching would not be addressing the events of the week – the Supreme court hearings and testimony – I’m quite sure I heard a collective sigh of relief. It has been an intense time this last year, preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I must admit that I too was relieved last week that I had chosen this Sunday before the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi to celebrate the Blessing of the Animals which allowed me to preach a kinder and more tender sermon than many I’ve written lately.
This week, if we are looking to the Biblical lectionary text to comfort us and offer us respite from the messy world around us – that’s not so likely to happen.
Our text today from the Psalms- that book in the Bible you’ve most likely been taught was a book of poetry –many of them set to music – many written by David – the shepherd boy who became king. And we also most likely learned that the Psalms were beautiful and comforting - think the 23rd Psalm – ‘God is my shepherd, I shall not want’. Many are comforting – and many are more disconcerting and uncomfortable than tender and comforting.
It’s possible that there might be times when Psalm 26 could sound different to us than it seems to today. The words of this psalm paint a portrait of someone that seems to be strikingly self-assured. Arrogant even. Superior even. Entitled even. When or if we pray this psalm at face value – it is difficult not to enter into the arrogance, entitlement, self-righteousness. Calling on God to judge another, to vindicate oneself draws a fine line between those who genuinely suffer from false testimony against their integrity and those who are deluded into believing they live in integrity, righteousness and steadfastness when they do not.
Because of this fine line - this is a dangerous text! This Psalm text assumes that those who claim this text for themselves live a virtuous life within the context of the wider world. There is something unabashed - even praiseworthy - about claiming – publicly claiming – before God and everyone – one’s integrity, one’s innocence, one’s faithfulness.
Perhaps on a different day – in a different week – with a different set of political circumstances flooding our country in the midst of highly controversial Supreme court confirmation hearings - we might be able to hear and pray this psalm differently – but today – these words should give us pause – should take us aback – should cause us to question – and perhaps even say – NO!
Just a few years ago, as this congregation was struggling with internal crises – as tempers flared, voices were raised in anger and justification and judgment - following one church council meeting a small group of members furiously suggested that the ‘Be the Church’ banner (you can see a copy of the banner on the back of your bulletin) that was proudly displayed on the church front lawn – should come down! “How can we say we are that church – that people – when we act like this?” was the comment. We are hypocrites.
Aren’t we all? Hypocrites. And if we are totally honest with ourselves isn’t it true that really – much of the time –we church folk are hypocrites – saying we believe one thing and then doing or acting in a way very different? Or saying we believe one thing and then never doing that which is needed to bring that belief into reality. Isn’t church life really one of regularly ‘consorting with hypocrites?’
When we read this psalm literally, “I don’t sit with the worthless, not do I consort with hypocrites, I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.” I wonder if we truly were to live by those words if our lives might not be lonely indeed.
And didn’t Jesus come to do exactly these things – to sit with and even eat with those ones the rest of the world called worthless – the disabled, the people of color, the women, the children, the diseased, the people of other races and ethnicities? Didn’t Jesus invite himself into the homes of the rich and powerful - taxcollectors and Pharisees? Didn’t Jesus sit right next to the wicked – sharing bread and wine?
How can we preach the value of isolation and non-engagement when Jesus made is clear that it is these very things - connection and inclusion - that would bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.
In the Christian faith, to name oneself as innocent and others as vile – as liars – is to have an acute misconception of the kind of world Jesus proclaimed – a world where the last become first and the first become the servants of all. Jesus proclaimed a world where the definitions of sin are not meant to exclude anyone from the grace and unconditional love of God – but are to be portals which open to allow sinners (those wicked ones, those hypocrites, those evildoers) to repent and turn back to the grace and unconditional love offered so that those who have fallen might be reclaimed by the God of justice and love.
The very nature of the Bible – is that it offers messages that unsettle us and shake us out of our doldrums – our complacency - and reawakens us to the obligations that come with living as the beloved community of God – living in beloved community with other beloveds of God.
I would remind you that this passage is less likely to be a statement of self- assurance and arrogance and entitlement – and more likely to be a statement of desire – of direction. This is who I want to be. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I want what I say I believe, what I do, and how I live my life - to be in accord. I don’t want to be an evildoer, surrounding myself with other evildoers. I want to resist the ways of evil and injustice as best I am able – with the help of God. And I want my life of resisting evil to be an example for others. I don’t want to sit with the wicked – I don’t want to be wicked. I want to be kind and tender, compassionate and fair.
Going back to those Union UCC folks I mentioned earlier who though we should remove our ‘Be the Church’ banner because of our hypocrisy.
We didn’t fly that banner because of how self-righteous and faithful we ARE – that banner was to remind ourselves who we want to be – who we are becoming – what we return to being when we come back after falling away.
‘Test my heart O God.’ I want to walk in faithfulness with you. I need your help when I stray. I need your help when I get caught up in judgment and critique – in my own rightness – and fail to see the ways I’ve neglected to listen, neglected to hear and validate someone else’s story, the ways I neglected to change my life so that the systems of the world that perpetuate injustice prevail.
‘Try me God.’ I’m trying to follow in the ways Jesus taught. The ways of including instead of excluding. The ways of loving without conditions. The ways of breaking down barriers. The ways of listening with ears that truly hear.
Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and poet reflected on his own struggle to be faithful to God. In his book Thoughts in Solitude, Merton wrote: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” [Feasting on the Word, Thomas Merton quote, year B, volume 4, p130 ]
At the heart of Psalm 26, is the desire to please God, and that in itself is pleasing to God. If our hearts are in the right place, God knows.
Ideally the church is the place we come to experience forgiveness, hope and new life. Church should be the place we come with our broken lives or lives merely frayed or raveling around the edges and know that no one else around us is living a perfect life either. We do not come to church to judge our thoughts and deeds against the rest of the gathered community. We come – all of us seeking God’s mercy and trying our best to accept and live into God’s unconditional love for all of God’s creation.
All God’s Critters
Psalm 148, September 30, 2018; Union Congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
On October 4, people all over the world will be celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of animals, Saint Francis of Assisi. And as is customary in remembrance of St. Francis and his love for all animals, we with many others will be offering a Blessing of the Animals both today both during worship (with photos and digital images) and after worship with our live companion animals.
St. Francis of Assisi because of his great love for all God’s critters, has become known as the patron saint of animals, and thus gives us a reason to celebrate the lives of animals as they intersect with the lives of we humans.
In my second year of seminary at our fall opening retreat which always began with a skit by faculty and students, the skit involved a DOG as GOD. ‘After all’, the skit proclaimed, ‘GOD is just DOG spelled backward.’ I’m sure there were some new seminarians who must have thought: ‘Describing God as a dog? Sacrilegious!!’ Yet for me, and I’m sure many others, there is much to be said about recognizing characteristics of our beloved dog animal companions to remind us of the God we profess.
Unconditional love. Love that loves even immediately after a scolding. Love that loves even when it isn’t returned. Love that isn’t deserved. Love that will travel great time and distance to track down a loved one.
My dog Hazel is a rescue dog. We don’t really know what her early life was like, just that she was one of several pets that lived a chaotic life on a northern Minnesota/Dakota? reservation with a person that we believe loved and cared for his critters when all was well, but went on rampages when it was not. Hazel and the other pets that shared this home bore the brunt of such inconsistent love and care. Hazel is terrified of gun shots, thunder and fireworks. She self comforts by crawling under the sofa. She worries and craves my attention.
Part of this is simply her breed – she is an Australian Cattle Dog – and part of this is her need for constant reassurance that she is loved by me. She licks me any chance she can sneak in – even though she knows I don’t like it – and that worries her a bit too- but she licks me anyway – the backs of my knees, my legs, my hands for reassurance – and to calm her anxiety. Hazel would rather be with me than almost any other place – and most times this feels wonderful and other times – like when I’m in the bathroom - I just want to be alone
Hazel is GOD spelled backward and forward. She reminds me of the God that simply will not leave me alone – does not leave me alone – even when I think I want to be left alone. She reminds me of the God that regularly reassures me that God loves me – even when I clearly don’t deserve it – even when I have ignored God – even when I have neglected God – even when I am finding fault with God – and those God loves. This God won’t leave me alone – and tracks me down when I try to leave. This God greets me exuberantly first thing every morning – as if it the first ever morning – even when I’m not ready for such energy and excitement. This God loves me unconditionally. Regularly bumps the back of my knees reminding me of a holy nudging presence. Regularly slurps my body reminding me that God has marked me and worries about me getting too far away from God.
Cats have quite a different God presence. Cats are so often aloof – only offering you their presence on their terms. Less of the God I need – but oh – when they do choose you – when Mica or Chert jumps up to cuddle in my lap – stretching star paws on my leg, my chin - I know I am chosen – I am special – I am loved.
Or horses – those beautiful, majestic animals. All of the horses Gigi and I currently have are horses thrown away by someone else – rescued by us from a kill pen - that place where horses that no one wants anymore end up - prior to being sold to Canada or Mexico as meat. Horses that through no fault of their own, have fallen through the cracks and become extraneous discards - unwanted. Until someone like me wants them. My horses constantly remind me of God’s presence. My horses center me, ground me, give me a sense of balance in this precarious world. My horses remind that it is a precarious, dangerous world, not to be taken lightly.
One of the things I realized early on as I began working with rescue horses – these horses that have often learned bad habits – as they’ve figured out ways to survive and live in difficult situations – is the empathic nature of horses. If I am upset or angry or carrying negative energy – the horse immediately picks up on it. If I am to accomplish anything with my horses – I need to let go of that negativity – that fear – that irritation – before anything positive can occur. Doesn’t that sound a lot like prayer? We enter into the presence of the Holy. Let go – confess – the less than positive behavior – the grudges – the anger – the irritation - we are carrying – then move into new positive ways and directions of being.
My horse Echo, a gorgeous tricolor paint horse, came to us with a recently healed horribly injured rear hoof – it had been cut through from the base of the hoof all the way through the top of the hoof into what would be the ankle of the horse. It is healed though still carries a lot of scar tissue and needs regular farrier (that’s horse pedicure) care. Echo, who seemed to have had some good early training, had, in her time after she was discarded, learned not to trust people, and to find ways to actively keep people away. She wouldn’t let us catch her. In early days it might take one half hour or more to catch her – two years later, she still occasionally walks away before she remembers that she likes what happens after being caught. She would try to bite when we’d reach around her face to halter or brush her. She would kick out at us when she’d decide she didn’t want to do what was being asked. These days Echo has become a different horse – a horse that has learned to trust. Gaining her trust over the past two years as more and more she gives us her love and willingness to try to do the things I ask of her – is such an amazing thing. Letting her ears be rubbed – or stretching out her head and groaning allowing deep, deep scratches under her neck. It is nothing short of sacred - this willingness to do the very thing that she had learned would only hurt her. To trust me enough to try even the thing she had learned to distrust. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that kind of trust given to you. It is pure grace.
And like grace, all you can do is receive it – and become a better person because of it.
I could add a thousand stories of the ways in which the critters with which I have shared my life teach me the ways of the Holy. A little Jersey cow named Hannah Half Pint giving birth the week before Christmas with a calf I named Herald – as in Hark the Herald Angels Sing – poignantly bringing to life part of the Christmas birth story that happened in a barn. Hatching baby chicks in my incubator during holy week teaching me something brand new about resurrection. A little black hen named Sister Oatmeal with her five fluffy chicks reminding me why Jesus compares himself to a fiercely protective mother hen.
And the reminders are definitely not only from domesticated pets. The prophet Isaiah used the imagery of God as an eagle – raising us up on her wings to catch the currents of the very heavens.
Sometimes we get so caught up in pushing God away - in putting God up on a throne far away in heaven - in making God so ‘other’ we cannot access God. I like the imagery of describing God as being as far from us as the farthest horizon and as close to us as our own breathing. God is certainly in the warm tongue of a brand new puppy. In the trust given by rescued horse. In the warm ‘this is my place’ of a cuddling cat. In the steadfast presence of a beloved gerbil or hamster. In the faithful beauty of the yellow and purple finches that come to the feeders each morning. In the pure majesty and heart lifting wonder of a red tail hawk gliding on the air currents of a summer sky. In the breathtaking awe of a mother moose with her calf stepping out on the road of a northern highway. In the neon green of a tiny bug climbing a goldenrod stem.
Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, reminds us that it is fruitless to try to decipher the meaning behind the beauties one sees in all of nature: to try to figure out what it says about the creation. All one can really do is stand mutely in wonder.
And Meister Eckhart, a 13th century mystic, reminds us to: “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar – I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.
Mark 9: 30-37; Sept. 23, 2108
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
A clergy colleague shares the story of a time he was in charge of planning the seating arrangements for a large gathering with a head table. The dignitaries were to be seated with the keynote speaker in the center and then every other one - a person with experience placed next to a newcomer. The idea was pairing to make the new folks more welcome. When one person of experience came and saw where he was sitting, he immediately picked up his place card and moved it to the center of the table next to the person who would be presiding.
It takes a certain chutzpah to do such a thing. This action demonstrates exactly what was going on with Jesus’ disciples – a deep need to be seated next to the most important person so as to by association also be recognized as a person of status.
It must have been embarrassing and difficult for the disciples who had been arguing among themselves about who would get to sit next to Jesus at the heavenly table, instead of being stuck out there with the nobodies - when Jesus caught them at it. It seems that Jesus knew what they were thinking and talking about even without overhearing.
Yet, when Jesus responds with the great reversal – whoever wants to be first must be last – servant of all – and further illustrates his point by picking up a child and declaring that children will be the first to be welcomed into God’s beloved community, they are shocked!
Children? How can it be? Children in Jesus time had little value – they were expendable – with even less value than women. How could it be possible that children could have the place of honor anywhere – much less heaven.
The disciples are stuck in the value system of their culture which tells them that greatness means being first – number one – set apart from their peers – seated at the center of the head table. And Jesus – the great reverser – tells them that no – it’s exactly the opposite.
In contrast to the disciple’s images of greatness, Jesus identifies greatness with empathy and service. Those who are great are the ones who live their lives for others rather than seeking their own social climbing. And children embody Jesus’ idea of greatness.
It may be hard for us to understand the lack of importance placed on children in Jesus’ day, because for most of us, we think so differently about children today. The concern we middle class folks have for our children is obvious in the plethora of activities, schools, sports, and books about child rearing. We love our children. And yet we often neglect their deepest needs. How often do you see parents with their children, picking them up at school or shopping or just at home – and the parents are lost in their cell phones rather than interacting with their children?
We don’t have to look very far to be aware of the devaluation of children. In American public policy, millions of children are neglected at home and abroad – and at our borders. We privilege gun rights over safe schools. Our national leaders seem to be comfortable with the children of undocumented immigrants – and even legal immigrants - remaining separated from their parents – even though we know from experience some of the long term consequences of such separation. Political leaders seem to see the promotion of children’s health and welfare as optional and thus unnecessary. Over and over, tax cuts for the wealthy, trump care for the least ones of society – children, people with disabilities, people of color, women, people with less….
In today’s Bible passage, Jesus asserts that greatness is not about status, but rather is about empathy and compassion. True greatness is embodied in the caring for the most vulnerable, the least ones of our world - first by recognizing them, giving them value, then by hearing their stories, then by responding to their needs and cares.
As usual in today’s passage, Jesus uses more than words to teach a lesson. Jesus models and demonstrates exactly what he is talking about so there can be no question as to what he means.
As usual, he uses earthy illustrations – mustard seeds, lamps on stands rather than under bushel baskets, sheep and shepherds, even dogs eating crumbs under tables. But he also teaches by the ways he encounters other human beings designated by society as outsiders – as unworthy – untouchable. Jesus touches them, feeds them, gathers them in his arms, loves them and heals them.
And it’s everyone– not just a certain select group – it’s the rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, all genders and all ages.
When Jesus picked up that little child, we might think – what a sweet moment. And for us it might be – but not those around Jesus – they were more like – ‘ewwww’ - ‘who let that kid in here, get it out of the way!’ They are disgusted, confused, perplexed, disconcerted – because this isn’t the way they have learned to define importance.
The disciples have gotten caught being stuck in the old way – fighting about who gets to sit in the important places. And Jesus catches them at it – and uses it as a teachable moment.
This text is not a sweet, sentimental image of Jesus with an adorable child – it a radical image of who and what is really important. And it is a lesson in leadership – that certain things are expected of leaders in our churches, in our communities, in our countries, in our world – that the radical leadership of compassion and caring and extravagant welcome to everyone, everywhere, is not just for the church, it is also what we church folk take out into the world.
Today, we welcome three new members into our congregation. Let’s practice. Do we welcome them because of what they have to offer us as a church? Because of the skills and abilities they bring? Because of their ability to give money to support the church? Because they will bring lots of children to swell our ranks? Or do we welcome them for exactly who they are – whether they have much to give or almost nothing to give?
Do we welcome them because that is what we do – it’s who we are – the body of Christ – extravagantly welcoming? Do we welcome them because it’s what God calls us to do – it’s what Jesus shows us how to do?
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life’s journey. No matter where you are the journey of faith. You are welcome here. We welcome you.
Proverbs 1: 20-33; Sept. 16, 2018; Union Congr. Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Some would say there is far too little wisdom being passed around in our churches today. Many would say that wisdom is sorely lacking in our churches and in our world.
Wisdom – the noun – the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement, the quality of being wise. The soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgement. Common sense.
Wisdom isn’t simply intelligence or knowledge or even understanding. It’s the ability to use these to think and act in such a way that common sense prevails and choices are beneficial and productive. You don’t get wisdom out of a textbook. You don’t get knowledge enough to make you wise. You don’t receive understanding simply from hearing others. Experience may be one of the most valuable tools in acquiring wisdom. What we learn from experience gives us the wisdom to make a certain choice or try a particular thing. You can hear about a ….. or read about … or see someone else do ….. but until you do it yourself …. You don’t truly understand.
The book of Proverbs has more to say about wisdom than any other book in the Bible. Wisdom personified in the book of Proverbs begins with a reverence for God and an awe of God and God’s vision for God’s world.
Our culture and our churches seem to prefer to rely on human knowledge and human understanding, resisting the wisdom of God that begins with reverence for the Holy One.
Perhaps it has something to do with the abundant wisdom that seems to surround us. We are overwhelmed not only with information – but with choices about which information to choose – which options, which advice we might choose.
And often, the information – the guidance offered seems to be rejected or at the least not particularly wanted by the ones who already seem to have so much. It’s a bit like having and all you can eat buffet prepared for you – and you’ve already eaten. It’s hard to appreciate and enjoy when you are satiated – even if what you already ate was far less wonderful than the buffet offered.
In the face of so much knowledge, so much therapy, so many self-help books, so many methods, so many bandwagons, I wonder if perhaps we’ve lost our sense of the kind of wisdom that is grounded in the voice of God.
A couple years ago, a small group of Union folks gathered during Lent to learn about and practice ways to incorporate Faith Disciplines into our everyday lives. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, authors of the book, Practicing our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, was one of the books that informed our learning by describing some of these practices.
Woven together, Christian practices form a way of life. This way is not shaped primarily by a certain cultural style, class, nationality or age; on the contrary, the way can embrace people in different times and places. It becomes visible as ordinary people search together for specific ways of taking part in the practice of God, as they faithfully perceive it in the complicated places where they really live.
In the Proverbs text, Wisdom is a woman, using every device she can to wake people up from their complacency and complacency. She knows the direction people are going is the way of despair and destruction. And so, she threatens. She laughs mockingly. She warns. She names the consequences likely if unwise living persists. Wisdom cries out – as long as there is injustice.
Wisdom cried out to the wayward people of Israel and Wisdom still cries out – calling people to the ways of justice: “Black Lives Matter.” “Resist” “We are all Immigrants.” “Keep families together.” “Women’s rights are human rights” “We all do better when we all do better.” “Build a pathway to citizenship, not a wall.” “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” “Hate does not make a nation great.” “Water is Life.” “No human is illegal.” “We are Better than that.” “No one should be afraid to go to school.”
“Love has no borders.” “Your religious beliefs do not entitle you to deny other people their rights.”
As long as there is injustice, Wisdom calls out - in many voices - on behalf of God, working and calling out to bring justice to all people.
Wisdom urges people to realize the consequences of following unjust, unwise actions – before they are committed. And when these unjust actions are committed, wisdom reminds those who have ears to hear that these actions will result in bad consequences. And wisdom does say: “I Told you so.”
Wisdom wants people on the streets to wake up to the injustice that exists! People are sleeping – people have their heads stuck in the sand – people are numbed - and don’t want to wake up to the very real injustice that is all around them – and Wisdom reminds over and over that if people will persist in being foolish – there will be some very real consequences. It’s too bad – but perhaps people need to learn the hard way – says Wisdom.
In our world right now it seems that injustice is carrying the day. That the exact opposite of all that Wisdom calls for is happening once again. School shootings continue so often, they almost aren’t newsworthy any more – and yet there are still no sensible gun control measures. Black people are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers. More than 25% of those killed by police are black despite being only 13% of the population. The elimination of limits on dumping waste from surface mining to opening formerly protected National parks, wilderness and waters to mining and timber extraction. Reversing environmental policies aimed at fighting the gradual warming of the planet. Routing oil pipelines through native lands regardless of ownership of lands and treaties made. Pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Some of these actions – are irrevocable – some of the results of these actions may never be fixed or brought back to what they were. The timeline for repentance – that is turning back – to the ways of wisdom - to the ways of justice for all people and all of creation – will in many, many instances be long – and some may never return.
And yet, our faith reminds us that with God all things are possible – even overturning injustice and the horrific results of that injustice. Our faith reminds us that there is still hope for those who repent and change their ways. There is the assurance of unconditional love and forgiveness. And as always with repentance – it involves a move toward a better way – a move toward God’s vision of peace with justice – for all of God’s creation.
Wisdom reminds us that God has and all-encompassing, unconditional love for every interconnected part of God’s creation. Wisdom cries out to us to reflect that kind of love for all our neighbors – our human neighbors – our animal neighbors – our plant neighbors – our rocks and rivers neighbors, our sky and star neighbors. Wisdom reminds us of God’s great love for children in the immigration detention system, for families separated in this unjust system. Wisdom reminds us of God’s great love for people with disabilities, for people with Black skin, for people fleeing persecution and violence, for people within the LGBTQ spectrum, for young girls caught in sex trafficking, for any people facing the injustice of human systems. Wisdom reminds us of God’s great love for each of us and all of us - and the reminder that we are to be the reflection of God – the hearts and hands and feet of God’s love.
Wisdom cries out in our streets because we have become numbed and hearing impaired and lethargic. And Wisdom also promises that there will be comfort – that our work has meaning and purpose – that we are planting seeds – seeds that in Gods time may produce a bountiful harvest.
In This Moment – We Are – Acting in Faith
James 2: 1-10; 14-17 , Esther 4: 4b , September 9, 2018 , RALLY SUNDAY
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
In this moment - we are - acting in faith. This phrase, lifted from the theme of this year’s Mn. Conference UCC’s Annual Meeting last June from the Old Testament book of Esther, was chosen as our Rallying slogan – our inspiring theme – our words to live by – as together we practice and live into the year ahead of us.
Take a moment to think back to last year at our Rally Sunday celebration. We are not the same people we were just one year ago. For one thing, we are all a year older. For some of us that is a huge step. For some, since this time last year, you have become new church members. We are not the same church we were just one year ago. New church friendships have been made and solidified and grown deeper over the last year. New groups have been formed with new connections made. There is a new energy in this sanctuary that carries through every single Sunday of the year! There are new voices singing. New voices reading. New voices passing the peace. New voices laughing and crying. Some families have sent students off to college, some adult children have moved back home, some relationships have been broken beyond repair and some new, changed relationships have begun. Some families are still experiencing the emptiness and rawness of the death of a close family member. Some families are deep in the anguish and attrition of a serious or chronic illness. It is one year later – and life is not and will never be the same again.
We are on a journey and even when we start anew each year to walk again the same path of faith, it will never look or feel exactly the same. The scenery changes, our fellow travelers change, the maps change and we need new some new directions.
James seemed to know this about the early faith community – that they would need regular guidance on behavior. His entire book is a sort of set of guidelines on how to live as people of faith. James’ words push and pull and nudge and tug, admonishing and chiding believers in ways to become the best Christian community possible. ‘Don’t just hear the good news’, James reminds, ‘BE the good news. Don’t play favorites with those who gather with you. I encourage you to love your neighbor as yourself. When you play favorites, you are less than what you could be. What good is it to come to church when you are so busy judging others who also come to church? Can this kind of faith be any good to you? What good is this kind of faith without works – nothing – it’s dead. What’s the good of a faith that just sits? No action – no faith. It’s pointless!’
And from the book of Esther, we hear, “Perhaps it was for just such a time as this that you were - created.’
Right now - in this moment – we are – acting in faith. Just being here in this place among this people we are – acting in faith. And exactly how, you might wonder, are you doing that? It is true that as James reminds us there may be better ways to guide our actions.
If you are thinking about what an ugly pair of shoes Derek is wearing – or that color just isn’t good on Pamela – or where in the heck has Gordon been all summer? – or who is that person with the audacity to sit in Charlie’s place – doesn’t he know that is Charlies place? – or who is staffing the bingo table this afternoon – is there even going to be a bingo table???? Maybe not so much about acting in faith.
James is concerned that the very ones – these new Christ followers – the ones who have been so hungry for Jesus words – should be kind and compassionate and gentle and generous – and they are not. Instead they are being themselves – they are critical and judging and unkind – constantly making distinctions among themselves – setting themselves up as better than another – finding fault and passing blame. And – chides James – in God’s realm – there is no place that is better than another place. All places are filled with grace . All places are good. All are welcome equally.
When we get so busy determining which side we are on – the good side – the right side - and which side that other person is on – the other person not like us – the wrong side – the other side – or who is to blame – or who is at fault – or who didn’t’ step up to responsibility – or – or – or ----is that when we are doing this, we are not paying attention to what is really important . We are not engaged in building up the community of faith.
But certainly that’s not us! I almost cannot imagine the scenario James plays out in this passage happening here at Union CCUCC. I have personally watched many of you greet and welcome with extravagant hospitality all sorts of folks that find their way into our sanctuary. And this is both folks who look a lot like us and some who don’t look much like us – some who look a bit more tattered and street worn –some who speak differently than most of us – some who have skin of a different color than many of us. And yet, you leap to your feet and rush over, finding out names and then you welcome and invite these guests to sit with us, to share worship with us, to share food and fellowship with us - and to come back another time.
This is one of the best things about us - the way we care about and enjoy one another. The way we welcome each other and the way we welcome strangers among us.
So it’s not this part of James’ text that might be the biggest challenge to us today. But think about the part about faith and works. The part about living with a faith – filled gratitude recognizing that we are surrounded by God’s abundance. About living that way in every single moment in some way. The part about being so filled with gratitude and a sense of abundance and Christ like compassion – no matter what is going on - that it simply flows out of us to pass it on to anyone and everyone who needs it.
And that might be the challenge. Some of us get so caught up in the importance of our work – of whatever we are doing at any given time – that we sometimes forget why we are doing it. We get caught up in the works – and forget the faith.
We forget that we are called to action because we are part of this body – because we are part of this community of the faithful. And sometimes its not just the works - we also get caught up in the hardships – the difficulty- and forget the grace. We forget that we don’t have to do it all. We just have to do our part.
James also reminds us that doing just one good thing doesn’t cancel out doing a bad thing – a sinful thing. It’s not that kind of equalizing. You can’t say, I used a reusable water bottle today – so its okay that I treated the check- out clerk abominably. Each good thing is a good thing. And each bad thing is a bad thing. We are to practice eliminating the sins – and increasing the love.
That is what it is to be on the Jesus path – to be continually acting in faith – practicing love – slowly but surely eliminating the sins. That’s part of what it means for us to be together as faith community – to be the body of Christ. To practice over and over ways of peacemaking and justice bringing – extravagant hospitality and unconditional love. To let go of blaming and shaming – of fault finding and criticizing – of judging and needing to have our own way.
In this moment – we are – each of us and all of us together - acting in faith. Simply by being here that is what we are doing. And when we leave, hopefully we continue what we have practiced while we were here. And hopefully, what we practice is what we have learned from being God centered – what we learn from following Jesus’ example – what we learn from one another.
Perhaps this moment in time – this moment in the course of history – this moment in the turning of the world – this moment in the life of this church community – perhaps – perhaps - this is the moment – for which you have been created. Perhaps this is the moment you know that you are acting in faith.
James 1: 17-27; September 2, 2012; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
No doubt it crossed your mind on this late summer/early fall day that there might possibly be other things you could have done than come to church. You could have enjoyed a leisurely breakfast – possibly on the porch – a walk around the lake – a Sunday drive with friends – gone to the State Fair or Renaissance Festival - or possibly even slept in. Yet despite all the temptations and rewards to be somewhere else this morning, you are here – and that is something to be celebrated and affirmed.
Depending on your age or circumstances, some of you might have had this decision made for you, but here you are nonetheless. You are here at church, sitting within this community of faith, no doubt hoping that your participation will make getting up, getting dressed, and getting here worth it.
I believe that one reason you are here – is to hear once again the story of God’s unconditional love for us, God’s forgiveness for our failures and shortcomings and mistakes, God’s grace that makes it possible for us to begin again and again.
On this Labor Day weekend, it is especially appropriate to think about how and why we come to worship together. And pair that with our reading today from the letter of James – to examine once again, in one more way – how it is that we are to be God’s people together – the body of Christ – the people of God – the community of faith – how we are to BE – and what we are to DO.
Much of the time in church we are challenged ways to be as this people of God - upright – forgiving – kindhearted – compassionate – loving – never speaking in anger or self-righteousness – never speaking to one another with words that tear down rather that build up. We are to be happy - happy in our faith. We are to seek happiness in our spiritual life – not seeking or embodying struggle and unhappiness and anger.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church who lived in the 18th century said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can. This is a tall order for us imperfect humans that we are, and it may seem overwhelming.
Today, we hear from James reminding us to not be merely hearers of God’s word – but to be Doer’s of God’s word.
The church secretary at Robbinsdale UCC had a newspaper cartoon taped to the corner of her computer. It said. “ Lord, so far today I have been able to follow your commandments and to live with love toward my family and friends. Thank you for the strength that has made this possible. But in a few minutes, Lord, I’ll get out of bed and start the day, and then, I’m going to need all the help you can give me. Amen.”
The members of those early faith communities addressed by James, needed all the help and encouragement they could get. They needed reminders of how to deal with the conflict that inevitably arose – reminders of how to avoid unhelpful but very human behaviors such as lying, slander, quickness to anger, sordidness and wickedness. Not only is this list of undesirable behavior cited regularly – but James, like the apostle Paul, also gives examples of more desirable behaviors for which to strive.
These do’s and don’t are not threats – they are the behaviors to reach for if you want to be a Christian. They are what you DO because you are a Christian. This behavior – what we DO – is in response to what God has already done for us – it is who we are.
Christian behavior not only reflects on the individual but on the community itself. The active involvement of this congregation in The Minnesota Conference UCC – our involvement with CAER, OPEN DOORS FOR YOUTH, MN 350, INDIVISIBLE, MIRAC AND ICOM – IMMIGRATION REFORM - SECOND HARVEST FOOD BANK, JERRY’S PRISON MINISTRY, BACK BAY MISSION, SAVE THE BOUNDARY WATERS – all these and more are faithful responses to being DO-ers of the faith.
I sometimes wonder, though if too often we interpret this passage as pushing us as Christians to DO DO DO - as a more important response than BE-ing – the people of God. Are these two ways opposites – Being and Doing - parts of the same coin?
Congregations supporting people of brown skin seeking a safer, better life in the U.S. – congregations speaking up and taking a stand to get ICE out of Minnesota – or even abolish ICE - will take some flak – some folks will leave these congregations – membership and $$ will be lost. There are church members who do not want their congregations to take stands like this – to not rock the boat – to not mix politics and religion – but want to come to church to sit and pray and sing –to feel good – to attend committee meetings to decide on the color of the new sanctuary carpet, and what flavor of cake to serve at the fall harvest dinner. And it is especially to these folks that James speaks.
So, how can Christians know how to behave and how to live? I think it may not be by following our own instincts. Oscar Wilde once said that about the worst advice you could offer anybody is, “Just be yourself.”
Most of us who are deep down honest with ourselves and others must admit that we have made many mistakes. We have often been selfish and self-centered. Some of us more than others. We have not always loved others – including strangers and enemies - in the ways we are called to love by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have gotten ourselves so busy doing – in the kitchen, at the garage sale, in the political scene, at the cabin, in our workplaces – that we sometimes forget why we are doing, and how we are called to do those things.
Most of us are not really bad or even disagreeable most of the time, but we are – many of us – probably also not the best candidates for other people to model their lives upon. In fact, those of us with children and grandchildren often hope and pray that our children and grandchildren won’t make the same mistakes that we have.
If we can’t always depend on Christians – even good progressive Christians - to be good models, then who can we imitate as we strive to live the good life?
Preacher, William Willimon points out that this text tell us “You are somebody. You people are somebody. You people are not unloved, wayward nobodies; you are nothing less than royalty. No – go – become who you are.”
And when we do that – when we go become who we are – the best of who we can be – with the help of God – imitating Christ - that is everything.
Through the unconditional love of God we are loved – forgiven – exactly as we are - and through the grace of God we are given the chance to start over again and again. We become bearers of this promise – sharing love and grace, sharing forgiveness and hope with everyone and everything.
THE TEACHING IS DIFFICULT
John 6: 56-69; August 26, 2018; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Whew! This is the final passage in the zombie series – flesh and blood – living bread – and now perhaps the most difficult of all – hearing that there is only one path that leads to God. This is really difficult teaching. It is offensive teaching. It stands directly in the face of pluralism – of diversity. It disregards the idea that there are many paths to the Holy.
The disciples have been with Jesus for quite some time now. They have left their families, friends, neighborhoods, and thrown in their lot with Jesus. At first it was exciting and amazing. They couldn’t help being thrilled. But now, it has gotten really, really difficult. And Jesus isn’t making it any easier. He’s like one of those teachers that remind you almost daily that only a few in the class will actually pass the class – that there is nothing easy about this class – and there is no intention of it ever getting easier. If that is disturbing, if it is intimidating – then they might as well leave now – this kind of teacher says.
That is what many of those who had been following Jesus heard. They knew that following him was getting too hard. They missed home. They missed their families – their spouses, their children – even their annoying neighbors. They missed their favorite foods. They missed eating at home. They missed having time to rest – when they wanted to rest. And following Jesus was getting harder and harder – and so many gave it up and went home.
Some might wonder, why now? Now, just when Jesus seems to be getting specific about how he and his followers will attain everlasting life – why would they give up now? Jesus is really stirring things up – upsetting the status quo – making some lasting, systemic change. Why give it all up now?
The going gets rough- the teaching gets difficult – and the only ones who choose to stay with Jesus are the original twelve. When Jesus asks them if they too want to leave, Peter’s response is to wonder where else could they possibly go.
In the time they have been with Jesus, they have come to believe he is who he says he is. He is the Messiah – he is the holy one of God. Peter recognized what he had found. He and the other eleven were with Jesus when he healed the sick in mind and body, when he cast out demons, when he performed many miracles, when he fed those who were starving for what he had to offer. Peter believed that Jesus was God. And even though he knew it might get even harder than it was now, he wanted to be a part of that – because the alternative was even more difficult. They chose to remain in community gathered around Jesus instead of each one of them going it alone.
Isn’t this really our dilemma still? Deciding if or when to stay the course – to continue even when the going gets really, really hard – to not just pack up our signs, bite our tongues, pick up our toys and go home?
Just when we begin accomplishing even a little of the things we say we care about passionately – we tell ourselves it is too hard – it’s too much time away from our families and friends – too much time away from other things we could be doing. Let someone else step up – we’ve done our bit. We justify and convince ourselves that continuing is too difficult on so many levels. Of perhaps we tell ourselves and one another that nothing is really changing – nobody even notices our efforts – so why bother showing up anymore. Let’s just go home.
This is a difficult dilemma – whether we are protesting and holding vigil outside the Sherburne County jail – whether we are placing our bodies on the Water Protectors line – whether we are knocking door to door for political change – whether we are dedicating our time and dollars to saving the Boundary Waters - or whether we are choosing to fully engage and participate on this journey of faith.
And that last decision may actually be the most difficult – fully engaging and participating on the journey of faith - because the teaching is so difficult. The teaching is almost impossible sometimes for we rational minded folks to get our heads around.
Try as we might to remind ourselves, “It’s a metaphor!!!”, we still hear – ‘unless you eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood – you are not saved – you will not abide – you will not access the path to heaven – you will not have everlasting life….
The more we hear that our faith requires consumption of the body and blood of Jesus – the more resistant we are to embrace a faith that asks this of us. And I am not here to convince you otherwise.
I could try hard to explain one more time why I think John’s gospel repeats this language over and over. I could try hard to explain the context and culture that John was addressing. But what I will not do is try to convince you that this kind of language is language we need to continue using – because I don’t believe that.
It’s hard enough being a Christian even when we tuck this kind of language up on the archive shelf – out of sight – out of mind – to be taken down only once in a while to examine and comment on why it was ever used to explain the importance of embodying Christ.
It is also important to recognize how difficult this faith journey really is – and how difficult it has always been – how counter-cultural it is. From the very beginning that has been true. It’s never been easy. From the very beginning, this Christian faith has been misunderstood and explained inaccurately by those on the outside.
And yet, here we are, aren’t we – together - on this faith journey? Here we are with all our incomplete understandings of who we follow, of what we believe in – or what we know we don’t believe in! – of how we got to this time and place - and we may wonder why are we are even still here. Many of us have serious doubts about this faith – doubts about Jesus – about who he really was – what he did – and what he continues to be for us today. Many of us have grave doubts about God – about a Mysterious Other – about something – someone – that is greater than our imaginations – does such a being really exist? Many of us have doubts about church – about our calling (what does that really mean?) – about what it means to be a faith community (another phrase we aren’t really sure about.) Many of us have doubts about religion – the word and the practice.
It is my belief that if anyone says they don’t have any doubts about faith and religion and church life, they either aren’t being honest, or they are living in a fantasy land.
How could you not have doubts about some of the stories we read about Jesus? How could you not have doubts about some of the language we find in the Bible? How could you not realize the need for questioning some of the metaphors used in the Bible to talk about faith – especially in the Gospel of John? How could you not have questions and doubts about the realness of a God some have described to you in ways you simply reject, and yet you haven’t yet discovered new ways to recognize and name the abundant holiness all around you?
The teaching is difficult. The disciples were absolutely right. The teaching is still difficult for us. Not just because we cannot believe it or stomach it or accept it. It is difficult because we are people that know that God is still speaking. And because we are still listening – we know there may be a whole lot more to it than continuing to use problematic language – simply because our parents and grandparents did. As people of the Still-Speaking God, it is up to us to try out and introduce new language and new metaphors to guide our conversations about as we continue along this journey of faith.
The disciples decided not to leave – they chose to stay even though they knew it might be the most difficult thing they had ever done. The decided to remain – to abide with Jesus. And that – simply that – choosing to remain together is what made them into a faith community. It was not any particular belief or creed or covenant or mission statement – or style of worship – or names or metaphors for God – or even their committees and councils – that united them as the body of Christ. It was their professed willingness to stay – to remain on the journey. Only that. And that is still what makes us the body of Christ in the world – that we remain on the journey. The teaching is difficult – sometime the journey is difficult. They are difficult because the teaching and the journey always involve justice making. And at the same time - on this journey - there is also comfort, joy and laughter and hope along the way.
THE PROBLEM WITH BEING TOO LITERAL
John 6: 51-58; August 19, 2018; Union Congregational UCC
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
As I was proofing the bulletin this week and reread this text as printed in the bulletin, I wrote – Child Alert!!! This is a horrid, fear-inducing, creepy, scripture – no doubt about it.
I have to admit that I have never preached on this text before. In fact, when the gospel of John shows up in the three year lectionary cycle, I usually choose one of the three other texts provided. The writer of this gospel has a very specific agenda and when we read these words – they are pretty shocking – disgusting really. They are the words that send children - and adults home crying and vowing never to attend church again. They are the words that shift the meaning of Holy Communion so far that it may seem almost irredeemable.
These are cannibalistic words – when you take them literally. There may be richness here in this passage – if we can just get past the eating of flesh and drinking of the blood of Jesus. This is a big obstacle for me – I admit it. This is absolutely one of the biblical texts I just want to ignore – actually I’d rather just rip these pages from the Bible – so no one need read them – and react to them ever again.
And it is in those very moments that I wonder what God is poking at me to discover. Why was I convinced those months ago – to preach on these John texts – not just one text – but five weeks in a row – culminating in this one? What does the still-speaking God have to say to me – to us with these gruesome words?
I have to admit, I’m tired of thinking about and talking about the bread thing – or the it seems like Jesus is talking about bread thing – but really he’s talking about something else thing. It is a bit comforting to be reminded again and again, that the disciples don’t get it. They don’t get why Jesus keeps talking about bread – but even they kind of get that he isn’t really talking about bread – because of all the flesh and blood language mixed in.
The writer of the Gospel of John seems to feel it is important to let us know that the disciples and other followers of Jesus didn’t understand what he was telling and showing them. That maybe we, who are so much more worldly and language oriented, can understand that this is metaphor: metaphor that places Jesus as the source of all sustenance and connectedness to our Creator. Metaphor that starts to help us sort out what all of this means. Unfortunately, like the disciples, we have not completely figured it out either.
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes something by saying that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. It’s like saying a politician is a dove or a hawk, or a slice of turtle cheesecake is heaven in your mouth, or Jesus is bread for us to consume.
Sometimes metaphors are a struggle for us, as Jesus’ disciples discovered. Sometimes they can be helpful.
Robert Benigni’s film, Life is Beautiful, is the story of a man who dealt with life as a series of metaphors – metaphors that helped explain the riddles of life. When something happened that challenged him and his wife and child, Guido would joyfully cry out, “Metaforo!” “It’s a metaphor!” and proceed to translate the riddle of the thing that was happening into a story about what was good. The most complicated riddles that Guido and his family faced were about Italy in the time of Nazism and how he and his family of Italian Jews, were taken to concentration camps. Guido used metaphors to translate the horrific things around him and his family into something different, something more joyful. He did everything he could to protect his little boy from what they were facing by recasting it as a metaphor for something positive. Guido told his son Giosue that they were just on a big holiday, and he turned every aspect of the concentration camp into a game for Giosue, telling him that they must win 1000 points in order to win a real tank and leave. Guido said he must complete ‘tasks’ for the camp ‘moderators’ – the Nazi SS – while avoiding impending fate with everything he could offer. At one point a German officer required a translator.
Despite not speaking a word of German, Guido stepped forward and made up the ‘Regole del Campo’ from the German’s body language, claiming the tanks, soldiers, and such, in fact everything that could be seen in the camp, were part of a giant game of Hide and Seek. Guido said that Giosue could not cry, ask for his mother, or say he was hungry, because that would cause him to lose the game, in other word - death. Guido created a story to explain what was happening in the form of a metaphor – that this thing that was happening was all a game. In the end the camp was liberated and the tanks rolled in to the awful place to free those who were still alive. The little boy looked up, wide eyed, and whispered the word that his father had used to protect him: “E vero! It is true!”
The metaphor that addressed the riddle of who Jesus was and why people should believe in him was as complicated as the one that addressed the riddle of why good people should be taken to concentration camps and put to death because of their religion. Literal folks could see that Jesus was a teacher and healer and possibly even, he was God’s anointed one, but they could not understand that what he was giving them was spiritual life, not just the overcoming of oppression. Literal folks could see barbed wire and guards and the smell of gas chambers and a camp as a place where evil people killed innocents – but they couldn’t see it as a game that could be played to survive and actually laugh even as the threat and smell of death clung to everything around them.
Literal people could not embrace the gift of metaphor. But the metaphor is a gift and a beautiful one, because metaphor is about possibility and promise – about hope. Metaphor is about seeing things differently. It’s about wrapping our minds around things that are so big and complex and difficult – so that we can grow and become in new ways. And that is and has always been a really difficult thing to do. It was hard for the ordinary people who came to hear Jesus and it was equally hard for the disciples who had been with Jesus almost from the beginning – since they had their own ideas about who they wanted and needed him to be. It was hard for the others in the concentration camp to embrace Guido’s metaphor and so they saw him as a crazy, demented fool.
And yet, in both stories, who survived? The disciples who embraced a really complicated metaphor – knowing they could not understand the riddle about bread and flesh and blood and everlasting life? The child who joyfully accepted his father’s metaphor about an amazing game, despite what was happening around him? A metaphor can carry us to places our minds cannot.
The problem with being too literal is it keeps us from embracing all the possibilities inherent in metaphor. John’s gospel tries so hard to make us understand the riddle that Jesus is the Word become flesh.
Following Jesus is becoming more and more complicated. Incarnation – God made flesh - goes against our natural, normal, expectations of what it means to be spiritual. In fact it seems exactly the opposite of being spiritual – it is bodily fleshy and messy and of this world.
It is just too real. Jesus is bread. Jesus is flesh. Jesus is blood. And these – bread, flesh and blood are also part of the human diet. It’s hard to even say that last sentence. Some of us rush to say – “but I don’t!” - I’m a vegetarian – a vegan – I don’t eat flesh – I don’t ingest blood – and hey, I’m gluten free – refined flour free - I don’t even eat bread anymore! So – if – this gory eating is what it means to be a Christian – count me out!
The problem with being too literal is believing that cannibalism is what John was writing about. And it simply isn’t. John used language as specific as he could to stress the importance of not just idealizing and following Jesus – but to stress that in order to actually become the body of Christ in the world one needs to take Jesus into ones very being – to ingest – to have all that Jesus is flow through ones’ very arteries and veins – to allow Jesus to become the building blocks of one’s body and bones. And the only way John knew to do this was to talk about consuming – eating – Jesus flesh and blood. A metaphor filled with possibility!
So why then, do we let this biblical text stand in all its gory, fleshy, bloodiness – rather than immediately embrace the riddle understanding that John is not talking about cannibalism at all - John is talking about passion and putting ones whole self into becoming a Jesus follower – rather than a half-hearted (see there’s another one you could be literal about!) faith.
The problem with being too literal is that it lets Christians continue having conversations for years and centuries about what flesh and blood really mean for us – instead of fully embodying living our lives as people of God, disciples of Christ. If we can spend another century discussing whether bread and wine really become Jesus’ flesh and blood – then we don’t really need to figure out all that we must be in this world as the ‘body of Christ.’
Much as I don’t personally like the Gospel of John, I think it’s an important read because he forces us to use our discerning minds - to reject taking metaphor at face value – which was never intended. He pushes us to figure out why such language was so important to John that he repeats it over and over. Rather than ignoring John – let’s be challenged by John. Let’s reimagine new ways to talk about and live into the intimacy and deep engagement that John proposes.
What kind of language can we whole-heartedly take in? If it is true that we can never really know Jesus the Christ without visceral, total engagement, then we will not be able to comprehend him by sitting back in a comfortable, padded pew, in an air-conditioned sanctuary, coolly considering him as if he were an abstract, disembodied idea. Incarnation means we must get up, come forward, gather around, hold out empty hands, sip wine or juice, chew bread, and swallow. And then go back out into the world to do the work of breaking down barriers, of building up communities, of protesting injustice, of resisting intolerance, of speaking out and standing up for the least of these, of caring tenderly for creation, of loving strangers and enemies.
I AM: THE LIVING BREAD
John 6: 35; 41-51; August 12, 2018
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Jesus talked a lot about bread. He talked about making bread – about yeast and flour and salt – and how bread rises. He talked about and demonstrated feeding people with bread – about breaking bread and sharing bread and remembering through the sharing of bread. He reminded those who followed him that bread had always been important to the people of God – reminding them of how God had sent bread – manna – to those complainers following Moses from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. He knew the stories about the Israelites fleeing persecution – taking only unleavened bread because there was no time to prepare yeasted bread. Regularly he broke bread with those shunned by polite society. And he talked about himself as bread – as living bread – as bread that nourishes both body and soul.
And for the most part – the disciples and followers – didn’t get it. In Mark, ch. 6, the earliest written gospel, we read, “ … they didn’t understand about the loaves.” And now, here in the gospel of John, the Jews are complaining because they think Jesus is taking too much on himself – making himself more important than he really is - describing himself as the bread of life – and especially – the bread that came down from heaven. Who does he think he is? They know his family – his parents. He’s a nobody – certainly not living bread – and he certainly couldn’t have come down from heaven.
It’s not just the ‘living bread’ they take issue with. It’s when Jesus says, “I am – the living bread.” It’s the ‘I am’ that really gets them angry.
Go all the way back in the story of God’s people to the beginning – to the God who created heaven and earth – who put the stars and sun and moon into place – who placed humanity and all creatures on this earth – -- this is the God whose chose the personal pronoun “I Am.” This God was not gendered or of any particular race. This God was definitely not human or to be named in any terms other than I Am. I Am Who I Am. From Exodus chapter 3, God told Moses that this was how the people were supposed to know and remember God.
The closest pronunciation of God’s name in Hebrew is something like YAHWEH – which is the closest verbalization of the Hebrew word for “I Am.”
So, when Jesus says “I am --- the living bread.” It’s not so much describing himself as bread – after all bread is the ordinary stuff of everyday – it’s the I AM they really take offense to. They are incensed that Jesus has the audacity to take for his personal pronoun “I Am – the Living Bread, ” because they know that name pronoun should be reserved for God alone.
As Jesus goes on with one after another “I am” statement –seeming to be talking about bread – but not quite – he is inviting his listeners into a much, much bigger and deeper understanding of who he really is.
Yes – he is - Joseph and Mary’s son, yes John the baptizer’s cousin, yes the Rabbi – teacher of his chosen twelve – and so – so – much more. The writer of the gospel of John wants us the readers to make no mistake about it – this is not just about bread – it’s about who Jesus is – it’s about God – I AM – it’s about God- with- us – Emmanuel - Jesus. He is the word – made flesh – living among the people of God. Forever.
This was absolutely frightening – disgusting – abhorrent – to some who heard Jesus say it. This man, claiming to not only speak for God as previous prophets – but to actually claim to be God – I AM.
I think if most of us were absolutely honest – there is something within us that likes our gods to be up there – to be high and lifted up – to be in heaven. Even we progressive UCC’ers like our religion to be more spiritual than uncomfortably messy flesh and blood – incarnational – prodding us - right here among us.
And yet, here we are with God in the flesh – saying – “I’m your bread – be fed by me.” And we’re a bit squeamish about it.
Our hungers are deep. We are dying of hunger and thirst for something to sustain us – we bundles of insatiable neediness, looking for love in all the wrong places. Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire attempting to feed our need.
Can it be that the bread and juice we share – somehow really are Jesus – this I AM Jesus? Even If we don’t believe in the actual turning of bread and wine into flesh and blood – is it still true that somehow – someway – Jesus really is the bread and wine?
That is the conundrum isn’t it. That’s where our faith hits the road about who and what we think about Jesus – about God. That Jesus is the ‘I AM.’ That it is absolutely true that God comes to us over and over – in bread and wine – in trees and sunsets – in moonrises and dandelions – in puppies and rain – in life and death. ‘I AM’ is all that is and ever will be – and in Jesus - comes to us – a person enough like us for us to be confused – and now to be in us – like ordinary everyday bread – become completely extraordinary ‘living bread’ – absolutely as miraculous as manna dropped into our wilderness?
And God willing, may we respond like the disciples – who still (like us today) did not completely understand, ‘Well then teacher’ –“give us this bread, now and forever!”
THE BREAD OF LIFE
John 6: 24-35; August 5, 2018; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Peter Reinhart, artisan bread baker, educator and author, was once quoted in a food magazine discussing the mystical qualities of bread making and how he thought bread bakers were spiritual even if they might not view themselves as particularly religious. One baker wrote an angry response saying she did not make bread for a religious experience and did not think that making bread was particularly spiritual. She was not looking for deeper meaning from bread: she wanted to make something that tasted good and looked beautiful. Period.
“She would probably be surprised,” said Reinhart, “to find me agreeing with her.” And Reinhart goes on to say that he also happens to think that dedicating oneself to making things that taste good and look beautiful is a very spiritual act, and in fact may come close to tapping into one of the mysteries of the meaning of life, by whatever name that irate baker called it. [Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers, Ten Speed Press, 1998]
The word religion derives from the Latin root word, religio, meaning ‘to be connected to’. Many bread bakers have an intuitive sense of connectedness, whether or not they consider themselves spiritual or religious. I know that for me, baking bread is a profoundly spiritual – and religious – practice.
There is a cooking term often used by bakers: mise en place – which literally means ‘your work station.’ In practice, it means setting up everything before you begin: your tools, your ingredients, your space, your equipment – everything you will need so that when you begin, there is a rhythm and flow to your entire process. I wonder if it is not much like creating the agenda for a meeting – or preparing for a big event – planning every step of the time so that there is rhythm and flow and a fluid process and wonderful product result.
I learned to bake bread from my mother. Every week she would take out a very large metal pan – I later learned it was a baby bathtub – gather ingredients - and begin the process of baking the thirteen loaves of yeast bread that was expected to feed my family of nine through the week – though it often did not. I have wonderful memories of helping to create that bread - standing on a stool punching and prodding the lively dough – and later eating warm slices lathered with butter. As a teenager, I explored making new kinds of bread on my own, mixing and kneading and baking challah, French and Italian loaves, pita, and bagels. And most recently, in the in- between times of serving as pastor at Robbinsdale UCC and Maple Grove Pilgrims UCC, I served as the interim baker at the Good Harbor Hill bakery in Grand Marais, mixing large batches of artisan breads with natural yeast starters: biga, levain and polish. Forming boules, batards and baguettes. Sliding risen loaves off the long wooden peel onto the stone base of the steam oven. And pulling incredibly fragrant loaves from the oven to cool on metal racks. And finally - breaking open a crusty loaf to savor the first bite……
Memory goes a long way toward making us who we are. It reminds us of our roots, of who has shaped us, of the events and people who have helped form our values and our beliefs and our ability to trust and love. The strongest of memories, triggered by the senses, tend to endure. They stay with us throughout our lives, the best of them as comfort.
My memories of bread lead me to imagine scenarios around Jesus and the crowds that followed him everywhere. He had apparently fed a hungry crowd gathered to hear him speak – 5000 or so – possible more counting women and children and even the dogs – and then escaped by boat – when their enthusiasm for his hospitality – made them want to make him king. Now they have gotten into their own boats and tracked him down - wanting more of the bread he has to give. This isn’t surprising – this desire for bread - as most of Jesus’ followers were peasants for whom food was basic and not always abundant. Their lives were marked by scarcity. So a handout like the loaves and fishes event was outrageously unexpected and greatly appreciated. Who was this man that did this thing – and perhaps might there still be some of those twelve baskets of leftovers?
Is that it? Is it the bread and fish that those following after Jesus are hungering and thirsting for – and their urge to constantly seek him out? After all, it isn’t especially easy to find him – it does take some effort and time. I wonder if their seeking has more to do with their memory – of that amazing meal that multiplied right before their eyes. The smell and taste and texture of the bread. The rich oily goodness of the smoked fish. A belly that was truly full. The taste and smell that stayed on their hands and tongue long after their stomachs were once again growling in hunger. That memory of that meal – a memory to last a lifetime – was not just a reminder of a time they had had enough to eat – but of a nurturing presence – of a radical, extravagant hospitality – that they had never quite experienced before – and that kind of welcoming presence – was so much bigger – than the food itself – and became a memory for which they longed. It was almost a tribal – ancestral memory – drawing on similar stories from their ancestors – who had a similar kind of experience. They were starving in the desert - when the gift of food- manna fell daily from heaven to feed them till they were full. This memory was immersed in ongoing relationship with the God who has promised to be with God’s people for all time .
Jesus understood that people cannot celebrate spiritual bread, cannot think lofty thoughts when their stomachs are growling for the bread that feeds an empty belly. And Jesus made sure that food – real – yeasty – chewy – fragrant – grain-filled bread was provided for hungry stomachs before moving on to the sermon of the bread that lasts forever.
The crowd around Jesus soon learns – that the bread of which Jesus has been talking – the “I am the bread” - was never really the kind of bread they imagined – and it was not the stuff of which they had been eating earlier. The bread Jesus spoke of – the ‘bread of life’ – the body of Christ – however was every bit as fragrant – as nourishing – as memorable and enduring – as any loaf of good bread lovingly, carefully, creatively, mixed and shaped and baked to feed anyone who needed it.
We too seek after Jesus the Christ, we too come to the table of God’s enduring love, hungry in more ways than we can even put a name to, and we leave it to go out to feed a world that is hungry in even more ways – a world starving for real sustenance.
And we join with Jesus in offering extravagant hospitality, whenever we seek and put into practice down-to-earth, grassroots ways to share good news – whenever we seek and find and create from scratch – solutions for new ways to set the oppressed free from anyone or anything that might oppress them – whenever we bind up the broken of heart – broken of soul – broken of mind – whenever we offer a glass of cold water to anyone that thirsts –whenever we hand a thick slice – or a tiny cube – of real bread - whether wheat or gluten free - bread mixed and shaped and baked with love – bread that grows cells - and bread – that feeds the soul - -- to anyone who hungers.
The Privilege of Power
Jeremiah 23: 1-6; July 22, 2018; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Any text that begins with the word WOE should make us wince. Woe is a hard word. Defined: Misery, sorrow, distress, wretchedness, sadness, unhappiness, heartache, heartbreak, despondency, despair, depression, regret, gloom, melancholy. Woe and lament are closely tied with lament being the action of recognizing woes. Jeremiah is the prophet of woe. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!... It is you who have driven them away…. It is you who have not attended them.”
The shepherds condemned by Jeremiah as the ones who destroy and scatter the sheep - are rulers who have abused and misled and lied to the people of Judah and brought them to their ruin. These leaders don’t deserve the title of leader – they have proven to be unfaithful to the position of national leadership. They have chosen greed and oppression over justice. Jeremiah expresses God’s dismay at their behavior. And yet, even with his serious condemnation - Jeremiah doesn’t stop at judgment – he follows these harsh words of woe with the promise of hope and redemption for the people of God – the people being mis-lead.
It is true that the kings condemned by Jeremiah are long dead. And it is still true that God has specific expectations for those who possess power. The privilege of power is always accompanied by a responsibility to use that power for the good of those under the care of that power. Power is never to be only power over – always to be power with and for. The kings forgot they were called to be shepherds. They forgot their primary purpose was to nurture and protect and guide and love their flock. They forgot they needed to physically be out in the pastures every day and night watching over and tending to the needs of their sheep. And their failure – their lack of using their power for the good of the people and the land, led Judah and Israel into exile.
Few of us have experience with what it means to have the power of a world leader, many of us have experience of being a person with power and authority over others – and every single one of us possesses power – however small - of one kind or another. No matter how young or old or in between – we have power. Whether at home, at work, in social or public situations, we have interactions with others that involve some form of power over others. No matter who we are, we have this power. We can use it for good or we can use it to control and hurt.
Jeremiah condemns the leaders for their abuse of power. He also promises that it is not forever – that a new leader will rise up who will be the very epitome of what a ‘good shepherd” will act like - one who will rule with wisdom, who will bring justice and righteousness, who will care for and love the people, who will tend and seek out and feed and lead carefully through hard times. The promise is not specifically who this ruler will be – it’s easy in hindsight to think Jesus – but that’s not specifically the promise here – but that this is what God will do. God never speaks about the end of something without promising an even greater future. The still speaking God always offers a promise of hope. With God, there is always a place beyond the worst of human failure – a place beyond God’s judgment – a place beyond exile. No matter how bad things seem – God promises hope for something better.
So what changes about the way we live our everyday lives, knowing this truth? How do we respond to this hope of something so much better that God promises? Well, here’s the catch - the promise always comes with responsibility. Believing and knowing that God offers a vision of a better future never, ever gives us permission to sit in silence, or sit in security, or sit anywhere and just wait. Because of this hope, we are not bound to the fears of an uncertain future, and yet, along with this promise – this grace – comes response.
The first response – the first way to use power wisely is to share it. Good leaders – good shepherds - are expected to share their power ---- and the sheep under their care are also expected to share their power.
If we can believe that a leader – a shepherd is coming who will lead us in the ways of justice and peace – then our part is to get ready for that shepherd. And getting ready means that we are already living in the ways of justice and right relationship as best we can – so that when the good shepherd – the new leader arrives – the transition between the leader and those led is seamless.
Sometimes when we hear that God promises this kind of hope – this kind of deliverance, we mistakenly believe that there is nothing for us to do except wait and hope. However, waiting is not doing nothing. While we wait, in hope, in expectation, we need to be doing all we can to prepare for the arrival of this new shepherd. [this sure sounds like an Advent sermon doesn’t it? Preparing, expecting, getting ready – for a prince of peace, a wonderful counselor, a good shepherd, a great leader??] And while we prepare: working for peace and justice in all we do and all we are, resisting and protesting, making change where we can, living in love and right relationship, building strong community – we are not to have the arrogance of believing that we will fully accomplish these lofty goals. We are also not to throw up our hands in despair and quit when we don’t accomplish all – or even any - of what we are working toward. When we march for peace and justice – if peace and justice do not happen – today, tomorrow – in the next decade – the next century – we are not to stop working and marching for peace and justice.
Jeremiah language of woe speaks to the grief of a world gone woefully awry. This is lament. And Jeremiah knows that lamenting – immersing oneself in the overwhelming grief of injustice – in necessary. It is the beginning of the process of newness. Without acknowledging the grief - there will be no awareness of hope of the new.
Jeremiah has gone far beyond anger. His condemnation now is woe – is lament. And it implores the people to this same communal despair – to go beyond anger at the injustice – to move to grief and lament – so that eventually – they will hear and live into the hope offered.
This is also our promise of God’s hope. In spite of how bad things are in the present time, the promise of hope – of newness is always ours. In our own time, this promise is ours. If we are the oppressed – the hope is a leader that will lift the foot of oppression and pull us up out of oppression. And if we are the oppressors – we will learn a new way to use our power with rather than against.
The privilege of power is ours. For most of us - we do have this privilege. And because we do, we also have the responsibility to respond. To use whatever power we have as wisely and compassionately as we can, wherever we can, with whomever and whate