REIMAGINING THE RULES
Matthew 11: 16-19; July 5, 2020
Union Cong. Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
When I was growing up, my family did not have a television. What we did have was a lot of games – and we played games often– many versions of card games, Chutes and Ladders, Sorry, Chinese Checkers, Checkers, and Monopoly. Monopoly was the hands down favorite of all five of my brothers. It was my least favorite – because they never stuck by the rules. Whenever I was close to winning – they would come up with some obscure new rule that would put me back in the losing position. I would try to dream up rules I could implement that would do the same for them, but for some reason it never worked. I thought I knew the rules – and my brothers played by other rules. And when I went crying to mom, that never worked either.
In today’s scripture from Matthew, Jesus throws his hands up in despair and maybe even a bit of disgust at society as a whole. You people are behaving like spoiled children whining to your parents – we wanted this or that – and you didn’t – or you never had time for us – or you wanted something else. Jesus believes that the message of God’s desire for a world of justice is absolutely clear – and yet society fails to respond appropriately. John the Baptizer fasted and lived in the desert - and people found fault with that. I am feasting with all sorts of people – and people find fault with that. These people celebrate the wrong things. And mourn the wrong things.
During this 4th of July weekend of patriotic celebration – with all that is going on in our world with BLM and Native peoples protecting sacred lands, and removing statues and images promoting and perpetuating the oppression of some - it seems nearly impossible not to make time to reflect. How is it that our generation(s) understand – or fails to understand – why we should be celebrating or grieving on this holiday. It can be so easy to ignore the voices that make us uncomfortable and let ourselves be lulled by other voices. We dance and skip rope and celebrate when perhaps we ought to be mourning.
This text in our lectionary today is a difficult word to preach on a 4th of July in 2020. This day when many choose to celebrate Independence day – our country’s independence from the harsh, oppressive rule of England. This oppression was the very reason those earliest settlers migrated to this country. And almost immediately those earliest immigrants took land that was already occupied – and then sought to destroy the ones who were already there. And before this country was very old at all, those families and individuals whose parents and grandparents had come seeking independence for themselves began to enslave other persons to serve them and the economy and lifestyle chosen by these relatively new inhabitants of this land.
Theologian Karl Barth, writing in 1955, insisted that righteousness always requires favoring the “Threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, the widow, the orphan, and aliens… God always stands unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone; against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.” (Karl Barth Church Dogmatics 1955)
Jesus knows that the people who had gathered to hear words of comfort from him – and instead have heard words more discomforting – don’t understand what is going on. As Jesus prays to God, we should recognize that Jesus’ focus is the same as it always is - never on voice of the powerful – not on the seemingly wise or learned voices – not the ones that most often are lifted up by the culture of the day as the successful ones – Jesus’ focus was on the least – the ‘infants’ he called them – the ones who are just learning - the ones who are far from the places of influence and power. We humans are taught to spend our lives seeking this kind of success and Jesus dismisses it as worthless.
When we get to verse 30 which we haven’t included today – hear the words of comfort he offers to the very ones who are still grieving while others celebrate. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We read this passage as though it is written for us. And perhaps it is. Or perhaps not. These words from Jesus are not intended for the strongest and most powerful. They are not for those with authority and position. They are words of comfort for the ones who continue to be oppressed. Jesus offers rest to the ones who have been made weary unto death by a world that fails to understand the world of injustice in which they live.
Jesus offers a clear corrective for anyone who believes the world will be saved through military or policed might, or political power, or even personal charisma. These ones have no need of the comforting Jesus offers. It is the ones who have a foot on their necks, a glass ceiling over their heads, who face a line of police shooting tear gas, or an unjust rule keeping them out of places of safety and security. These are the ones, Jesus named then and now needing rest and comfort. These are ones for whom Jesus reimagines the rules of the empire. These are the ones for who Jesus and turns everything we thought we understood about power upside down and inside out.
Jesus offers new rules for the game of life. His new rules offer rest and an easier yoke and a lighter burden. The new reimagined rules – are not to benefit the empire – the winners – but to benefit everyone – so that everyone wins – and gets to celebrate – no one should lose. And those new rules are for all of us. They mean that for any of us who are not the weary, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the ones who feel the weight on our necks, the ones who fear every day for our lives and the lives of our children – for any of us who are not the threatened ones – then those new reimagined rules mean that we must join with Jesus in providing the rest – the easier burden – the saving – the love and compassion and mercy – the justice – for those who need it.
The rules of the game of life have always been created by those in power. And Jesus reminds us that these rules created by those in power must follow in the ways of justice or we as his followers must work to change the rules to reflect that justice.
So – I was right when as a child I wanted to change the rules of Monopoly to allow everyone to have equal access to land and houses and hotels – and even though my brothers argued that the name of the game was Monopoly – one person had to win - I argued that it wasn’t fair – and it wasn’t fun – and if it wasn’t fun and fair – then I refused to play. I am still of that mindset. I hope you join me in reimagining the rules of our world to a wider vision that allows an equity for all – that all might have reason to celebrate.
SOMEWHERE TO BEGIN
Matthew 10: 40-42; June 28, 2020; ONA PRIDE SUNDAY
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I was heartened to see these three short verses from Matthew showing up in the lectionary today on the Sunday designated by the United Church of Christ as Open and Affirming Sunday or PRIDE Sunday. On this day we emphasize our unashamed, extravagant, radical welcome to all our extended family of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender non-binary, and questioning people.
What could be more appropriate than a reaffirmation of how important it is for us as Christian church to welcome everyone – no matter who, no matter what, no matter where you are on the journey of life – no matter if you are LGBTQ or straight – no matter – we say “You are welcome here.”
And that is wonderful. It means that even if we fall short – which we will, even if we aren’t always quite as welcoming as we believe we are or want to be, even if we say insensitive things sometimes – we are regularly reminded that welcoming is who and what we are. Welcoming is what we do. And we are reminded that the welcome we extend is widespread – it is for all.
We won’t stand at the door (when we are meeting all together) or post a list of who is in and who is not to determine who is or isn’t welcome. We know and are reminded regularly that everyone means everyone.
And yet, listen to these words from Jesus again as he gives instructions to his disciples: ‘Whoever welcome you, welcomes me.” Think on that. Not only are we to follow Jesus’ example of being the ones that welcome, but that we are the ones waiting to be welcomed. We are the ones hoping to get invited to the table. We are not the hosts at the table. We are the ones being scrutinized as to our worthiness of welcome. How does that make you feel? Jesus reminded his disciples that they were not the ones with privilege. They would have to wait for the invitation – and understand that what was being welcomed was bigger than themselves.
As people of privilege most of us are proud of our ability to be the hosts – to be the ones that get to invite others to our tables. We have the power and authority and the choice to welcome others. We get to decide who we will invite – who we will encourage – who we will reach out to welcome to our tables. We get to decide everything about the table – the kind of food, seating, music, other guests ….
The disciples of Jesus did not have these choices – they were not the same as us – even though we often think of them as though we are – all disciples together.
If you are a part of any marginalized community, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you are an undocumented immigrant – you must wait to be invited – and wait and wait and wait – you must beg for to be treated like a human being – you are at the mercy of those who can decide if your life has any value at all. If you are black – you must wait to be invited – you must bow under the authority of those who are white - until you are not going to wait any longer – and you demand to not only be invited to the table – but get to help plan the whole dinner – and there are repercussions. If you are GLBTQ you know how often you are excluded from the table – perhaps even the very tables at which you grew up thinking you would always be secure in the love and welcome there – until you were no longer welcome.
Jesus’ words about welcome speak for the unwelcome – the ones without the power of privilege. He knows that they will not be the ones to decide to what tables they will be invited – if indeed they will be invited at all. And Jesus was a rule breaker, a boundary breaker, a tearer- down of walls, an overturner of the status quo. He knew that the arbitrary power of deciding who gets to be the host and who always has to wait to be asked is a power- over dynamic that must be dissolved.
Jesus never meant us to have that kind of power: The power to decide than any other part of God’s creation had less value. The power to hurt or destroy others simply because you can – and who’s going to stop you. The power to pass judgment on someone else’s life – and deem that someone unworthy and in fact that they shouldn’t even have been born. Jesus meant for us to go out into the world healing and teaching and reaching across divides of race and religion and ability and gender and anything else that separates and divided God’s beloved.
We privileged have become so used to having all the cards – all the power – that we often don’t even recognize that we do. We protest that our lives have been hard too. And that’s true – but not because of your race or gender identity.
In this almost overwhelming time of Coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, and June PRIDE month – we have much fodder for our reflecting on our own places as individuals and as church in how we welcome and how we allow others to welcome us.
Do we allow others to welcome us? What might that look like? If you as a white heterosexual person are invited to the table of a lesbian couple, how do you experience your welcome? Do you try to understand the many differences for a lesbian couple than for you? Do you ask questions respectfully to understand what may be different for a lesbian couple raising children than for a hetero couple? Do you try to understand how finances may be different? Do you try to hear their stories of hate and rejection they experience? Or do you move quickly to deciding that we are not much different at all – or that we are too different - which we are not. Do you celebrate – and mourn the difficulties – of all that makes us different – and wonderful.
Phrases like All Lives Matter and I’m Colorblind, and Let’s be Like Labs – all different colors and don’t care – or We are like brown and white eggs – same inside – - these are statements made by those with privilege and power. They are made by the ones who automatically have the power to welcome (accept)– or not. They are made by the ones who so often choose not to welcome – but to set standards based on their own experience – instead of trying to understand the different experience of people who are not white hetero.
It is nice to be the one with the power and privilege to be the gracious host. It is much harder to stand back and wait to be invited – and perhaps not get invited. It is harder to stand back and follow the lead of others who may not – probably will not - do things or think the same way about things as you do.
As we celebrate PRIDE Open and Affirming Sunday, I encourage you to seek out someone you know of who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or other gender non-conforming. Try to let go of your need to be in control of the conversation. Try hard to listen. Try hard to hear.
Try hard not to make assumptions. Try hard to let go of your need to be appreciated for how wonderful you are that you accept the LGBTQ person. Try hard to enter their world – and stay there for a while. Because that is what life every single day is like for them living in a hetero-normative world – and regularly being judged if they are worthy.
All of creation is a gift from God. All of creation is to be celebrated in all of its diversity and difference. Thank God we are not all alike. Thank God we all have the ability to welcome and be welcomed. That is a really good place to begin.
Jeremiah 20: 7-13; June 21, 2020; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I remember exactly when I first knew that I was called to the ministry. It wasn’t quite as instant as it was for Saul being zapped off his horse and awakening to become the Apostle Paul, and it also wasn’t at all what I had ever planned or prepared for in high school or college to become my vocation. When I finally screwed up enough courage to go talk to my home church pastor, I guess I thought she would be thrilled for me. Instead, she looked long and hard at me, asked me several questions and finally said, “are you sure there is no other way you can do ministry other than be a minister?” I was floored. Surely, she should be jumping for joy. Never before had anyone from my small rural Presbyterian church gone into the ministry. When I responded that I had tried and tried to ignore this persistent calling – had tried so hard to be satisfied with the life I had chosen – yet this call from God, would not let me go. I felt like I couldn’t not follow this call. And when I named that double negative – I couldn’t not – she finally smiled. “Well then, let’s figure out what your next steps should be”, she said.
Last Saturday, the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ held it’s Annual Meeting on ZOOM. It was an abbreviated meeting – only 2 ½ hours, without speakers and break out events, and essentially only covering business items needing to be voted on by the gathered body. One item that is a part every year, is changes to the By-Laws. And while this work sounds dry and uninspiring, as any of you know who have worked on adjusting our own church by-laws, it is definitely theological and a profound way of naming our ministry and mission. The biggest change was the recommendation changing beginning the By-laws with a mission statement to a brand new Calling statement. And while on the surface, this may not seem like a massive shift, it really is. A mission statement names and claims who we are and what we stand for. It is valuable and helpful. A calling statement as I understand it is naming what God is calling us to do and be.
It is a clear recognition that to be UCC is to be called.
When I had the conversation with my pastor about being called to ministry, she told me in no uncertain terms that if I did follow my call, I should be aware that my life as I knew it would never be the same again. Little did I know in that moment, exactly how true that would be for me. Sensing a call is one thing, telling others about it is another. I don’t think I quite expected family and friends to be thrilled for me, but I also don’t think I expected them to be so disparaging. “Why would you want to do that – you could do anything – why throw it all away – why waste your life?” And when that call led to further upheavals and shifts, the denigration only worsened.
Jeremiah, the prophet has always appealed to me, I suppose because in many ways I feel a kinship with his overwhelming sense of call even in the face of one hardship after another. Jeremiah gets angry with God – ‘why did you do this to me? You deceived me, you set me up, you made me do this and now everyone is laughing at and shaking their heads at me.’
A huge part of ministry is pastoral. It is the part everyone loves – the feel good part – the warm fuzzies – the praying with - holding the hand of. And yet without the prophetic, the pastoral becomes self- serving instead of God- serving.
It may come as no surprise to you, that the prophetic is the stronger of the two sides of my ministry, though as I age and gain wisdom, I realize I have become more gentle. Prophets are intent on making everyone see the truth about themselves and what they are doing or not doing. Prophets never let up – they simply shift gears, try another tack, use different words, different actions – until those around make a change – or attack back – or until the prophet dies. Prophets for the most part, make people uncomfortable. The make people want to avoid them. When prophets speak out, people want to offer suggestion sof a better way – a different way – a less angry way – a less destructive way – a less in your face way – they want to say and do say that a softer, kinder way could be used to ask for the change they demand.
We are surrounded by prophets right now in our world. Daily we see and hear and watch the actions of prophets who speak hard, often angry words that many do not want to hear. Many try to suggest they soften their words and actions. Many try to universalize the issues. Prophets cry out Black Lives Matter and we say but when you protest and burn and riot, we can’t hear you – you need to be nicer -work within the system. And anyway – all lives matter -not all police are bad. Prophets cry out Women’s Rights are Human Rights and we say but women have already come so far and to be outspoken isn’t feminine – and we know better than you do about your body. Prophets cry out Love is Love and Gay PRIDE and we say, that’s fine, some of my best friends are gay, but keep it to yourself, you don’t have to throw it in our faces.
Prophets say things that are hard to hear – even when we feel sure we are ready to hear. Prophets are called – called to speak the hard words they say. Some prophets, I’m sure, love and revel in this call – and some – like Jeremiah, like me – reluctantly – wish we could just preach a nice sermon about loving everybody – and everybody just getting along – and plant gardens and walk in the trees - and we cannot. We can’t not name the truth of the injustice. We can’t not name the fact that white folks simply by being white are racist – and they must become intentionally anti-racist and work to change the systems that perpetuate racism. We can’t not name the injustice of denying basic rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks and pushing and pushing to use the words – to get past heterosexual as normative. We can’t not name the injustice of detaining and incarcerating immigrants simply because they are seeking a safer, better life. We can’t not name the injustices of building mines on the edges of protected sacred waters - of laying oil pipelines across sacred native lands, the injustice of pouring and spraying and injecting poisonous chemical stews on our lands and our crops. We can’t not name these things.
The prophet Isaiah is the comfort prophet. It is true that Isaiah called for a brave new world of a level playing field for all – and Isaiah also said, “Comfort, comfort, my people.” Jeremiah never really speaks words of comfort – oh the comfort can be found – but only when the oppression and injustice have ceased. Jeremiah tries hard to stop speaking out. He knows he is hated and rejected. He has no real friends. People want him to just stop already. Work through the system. Be kinder, nicer. Stop being so angry. Stop analyzing everything. And Jeremiah cannot.
We would do well as church to read this passage and in fact reread the book of Jeremiah in these days of upheaval.
We would do well to recognize that God calls prophets like Jeremiah and so many others – so many others – to speak out and act out and rise up – and to keep doing so – until the world changes. As people of faith we must be God- haunted, God- disturbed, God emboldened – and we must keep on protesting and prophesying and resisting and acting out and rising up - even if we need to take a break for a while – until the world is equitable, and safe and a just and sacred place for everyone and everything.
LEAP OF FAITH
Matthew 9: 35-10:23; June 14, 2020; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
When the reality of COVID-19 hit Minnesota, our lives changed overnight. For everyone – perhaps especially for teachers. Katie Francis, one of our members and a kindergarten teacher described the shock of leaving her tiny students and her classroom at the end of one day and simply not coming back for – ever really. One day class as usual – and the next – a brand new scenario - who knew how and what and where teaching and learning would and could happen.
I imagine that is a lot like what it must have felt like for Jesus’ disciples in today’s story from the gospel of Matthew. Here they are today, following Jesus around, experiencing a few miracles, listening to a parable or two, perhaps getting to witness a healing – and then tomorrow – it’s GO – go out into the countryside – go to the lost sheep – go places where you are unfamiliar – go places where people might not like you. Go – cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out the demons, and proclaim the good news. Go with no money and take no payment for anything you do. Go – and take nothing with you. Go – with no baggage – no backpack – no extra footwear, no extra jacket or shirt, not even a walking stick. Go – I’m sending you out like sheep into the big scary world with wolves all around.
Yikes! I’m guessing many of our teachers hearing this may already be nodding their heads – saying “yup, that’s a pretty accurate description of what was expected of us teachers. Instantly – expected to do something almost none of us had ever prepared for – had ever wanted to do – and many of us had to be doing at the same time as stay at home overseeing our own children!
Jesus’ send-off words to his loyal disciples can give us a ‘come to Jesus’ sobering realization about what might lie ahead for anyone who would attempt to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. There is no real plan – no maps – no books of instruction on what and how others did this before you. This is living fully in the moment – taking it one step at a time – learning as you go – modify and adjust – leap of faith - living.
For those of us who like to have a plan and organize far out ahead so we know how to prepare – Jesus’ method - and the world changing overnight caused by COVID-19 – are a recipe for bringing on some severe anxiety.
And yet, we read that Jesus confidently sent his disciples out - knowing that they were unprepared – knowing that they had ears that couldn’t hear, and eyes that couldn’t see, and hardened hearts, and knowing they didn’t understand much of anything he had tried to teach them. Even knowing all of that, and despite the challenges that loomed ahead: You could only imagine problems because of the unfriendly political system in power, problems with the disciples fitness – mental and physical - for so much travel, problems with less than friendly villages, problems with weather or robbers or finding places to stay, or worse. Despite the almost inevitable difficulty in accomplishing the tasks set forth – Jesus sent them out – confidently sent them out.
There is almost always a gap between what is ideal and what is present reality. Depending on the size of the gap, what is needed to get from one to the other - a leap of faith is required – perhaps a ginormous leap of faith.
Right now in our state – and several other states in this country – our cities are taking long hard looks at police departments and policing and what is really required to keep people safe. In that process, part of what is being named is that when the very basis on which the policing institution was built, was and still is based on maintaining power and control over someone else deemed less worthy, and in fact less human – then perhaps the institution is so fundamentally flawed, that it must be completely dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up, using a completely different set of criteria about the best ways to keep people safe and healthy and out of poverty. The people contemplating this extremely difficult work – are taking a huge leap of faith. They are charting unknown ground. They are stepping out onto new territory that has never in this country been explored. They do not know what the outcome will be – only that it must be different than what it is now. They do not know if they will be successful – only that they must - for humanity’s sake - attempt it.
Just as the crowds hearing Jesus’ list of instructions for his followers must have truly wondered if anyone could possibly be up to such a task – except perhaps Jesus himself. Cure the sick? Even in 2020 with all our medical and scientific knowledge we are having an incredibly difficult time attempting to cure the millions around the world contracting the coronavirus.
Heal the lepers – that might be more doable given adequate medical space and personnel. Cast out demons. We seem no more able to do this any better today than those early Jesus followers. And the demons continue with their demonic actions leading to the degradation of humanity and all of creation. Raise the dead? We still can’t even keep up with the dying. Few, in Jesus’ day – and few today - if any - will feel up to these tasks.
Whatever your vocation - the abruptness of the world as we knew it – stopping- threw everything we thought we knew – and much we couldn’t possibly know – into upheaval. And yet – and yet – you managed - didn’t you. You managed – and most of you managed really, really well. Better that well, many of you. You may not have liked how you had to do things differently – but you did it. You regrouped. You figured out ZOOM and Google Hangouts and a host of other virtual platforms. You figured out take out and ordering groceries virtually. You figured out how to stay at home – every day. You even figured out how to visit with a sheet of glass between you and the one you were visiting. You figured out how to have a wedding – a funeral with only a few close family members. You did it. Was it better? – questionable. Doable – yes. Different – yes. And almost all of you found wonder and joy and some brand new awarenesses and ways of doing things that you really enjoyed – all in the midst of figuring how to do the impossible.
Jesus reminded those early followers that they would be like sheep without a shepherd. And we have some idea of what that might be like – don’t we – no one to feed you – provide water for you – no one to make a nice place for you to sleep – or rest – or play. No one to care for you when you get sick. No one to search all over for you when you get lost. No one to know you better than you know yourself. So none of that – you will be on your own – or think you are on your own. But you are not on your own. You have faith. You have God to trust – to be with you and guide you. You will be ok.
Throughout history, amazing things, impossible things have been accomplished. How did someone discover and create medicines, automobiles, spaceships, computers, the internet? And these amazing things like discovering medical cures for horrific diseases or creating new or overturning other laws ensuring justice for those who haven’t had it – these things don’t just happen when times are good and all is comfortable. In fact, most often these amazing discoveries happen when times are the most difficult – when the need is the greatest – in the midst of hardship and persecution.
We are living in difficult times. The journey ahead of us will surely continue to be difficult. It may be the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. And yet, with our faith in God, our trust in Jesus’ example, we can do amazing things. Jesus’ stories remind us that there is always a huge need out there – and once we see it – hear about it - we must do something about it – and that something is more than reposting a Facebook meme or sending on a hashtag or even preaching a fiery sermon – it is - taking that first ginormous leap of faith into ….. something brand new – something impossible – that with God will be possible.
CONGREGATIONAL BEHAVIOR 101
2 Cor 13: 11-13; June 7, 2020; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
The church in Corinth that Paul addresses reminds us that conflict is nothing new in the church. Right from the beginning the stories of ways in which good church folks played passive-aggressive parking lot campaigns, changed locks on the church doors while the pastor or other staff was on vacation, sent letters to the judicatory making decisions without the entire body’s approval, shouted insults at one another at congregational meetings, organized a telephone campaign to encourage members to withhold financial giving, and every kind of threatening or under the table kind of accusations and allegations that regardless of their veracity or relevance or truth threaten congregational unity and mission.
And church congregations are not the only institutions suffering from this kind of behavior threatening the unity of the organization. You’d have to live under a rock to be unaware of all the discord and division going on all around our world – and especially right here in our state.
The apostle Paul tells of a group of ‘superapostles’ – a rival group whose method of leadership is to divide and fracture – to encourage and poke and prod – and affirm members into taking sides – into an unhealthy power-over discord.
And Paul does not tell the church to just stuff it – ignore it and it will go away. Paul encourages the Corinthian church to a time of self examination and self improvement. He suggests they set tests to determine their progress. Paul reminds them too that when they begin to be seduced by other voices promising power and authority that they must look into their own lives and their common life. That they not allow the conflict – the differing world views – differing politics – differing ways of leading – differing opinions – to separate and divide them. They must seek common ground – they must ask questions – and listen – and listen – and seek answers – even when those answers don’t fit the picture they have created for themselves.
Over this past week we’ve heard and seen and witnessed the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER over and over and over. We’ve seen it on handmade posters, on huge murals painted on boarded up burned buildings, written in huge yellow letters down a city street, chalked on sidewalks, worn on T-shirts and face masks, on a brand new street sign being installed in Washington DC, lifted up in protest, lifted up in joy, lifted up in lament, lifted up in challenge, lifted up to be slammed back down in derision.
All Lives Matter is rebutted. Blue Lives Matter others cry out. Countless memes and stories and explanations explain exactly why BLACK LIVES MUST MATTER.
This from Josh Mindemann on June 3, as read on Facebook is so helpful to me:
“You didn’t start out saying all lives matter to raise awareness because lives were threatened… you said it as a response to black lives matter because to acknowledge that there is a problem took attention away from you and made you uncomfortable. Black lives matter is a call for equality and to respect people that are continually oppressed … all lives matter is a racist counter-call saying you like the status quo and the current power dynamic and giving the oppressed agency frightens you. You say make America great again because for you, America was greater when you didn’t have to share a table with someone that didn’t look like you. All lives matter is nothing more than an attempt to silence the black voice. “
And for those of us that want to separate the concerns of Black Lives Matter as too political for our church lives, understand that Jesus (a person of darker skin himself) constantly addressed similar acknowledgements as he addressed the importance of singling out the lives that matter most in any single moment – the lives that are in peril – and need extra care right now.
You may have seen this one:
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Samaritan lives matter.
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Children’s lives matter.
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Gentile lives matter.
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Jewish lives matter.
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Women’s lives matter.
Jesus didn’t say All Lives Matter – he said Leper’s lives matter.
Jesus cared deeply about everyone – particularly the ones the powerful didn’t care about - and he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups – the alienated, the mistreated, the ones facing injustice.
Until we are willing to name ourselves as racist – and privileged - simply because we are white and live in this country – and benefit from this country’s policies and provision that makes white people – any white people – have more value that black people – any black people - we will fall for at least a part of the narrative dismissing Black Lives Matter and fall for All Lives Matter. We will also fall into the narrative of condemning the way in which those black lives – those black mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, aunts and uncles and grandparents and children grieve and mourn and express their anger and outrage at the ongoing systemic injustice perpetrated on them simply because they are black. We can justify all we want that ‘he was a drug addict’, ‘she was wearing the clothes of a ho’, ‘they were hanging out in a place they shouldn’t be’, ‘they looked scary’, …… yet none of these even if they were true – none of these justifies the profiling, the built in difference in behavior toward white people and people of color and most especially black people. White people like us can condemn rioting and looting and burning buildings as going too far – and say they just lost my support – they lost deserving support when they went too far - - and we can return to our relatively comfortable, complicit white privilege – and shake our heads and repeat – if they had just done it peacefully – done it the right way ……
If we are not ‘they’, we have no right to determine how a protest should be waged. That’s why it’s called a protest. Every major change leading to increased acceptance for an oppressed group of people in this country began with protests, riots, burning, and more. And while we may shake our heads in despair, it is true that anything more benign simply does not get and keep the attention of the ones who make the decisions. A peaceful protest of folks sitting quietly or singing Kum Ba Yah certainly does not get attention and lead to change. You may not like it, but you know this is true. You know that if those family and friends of George Floyd had held vigil for a day or two perhaps even marching and holding posters demanding change - with no physical outraged action - we would not be seeing the changes that are being made.
Jesus knew this. We like to fondly think of our white Jesus – you know the one whose picture hung on the Sunday school wall – blond shoulder length hair, blue eyes, holding a baby lamb – we like to believe that this Jesus never got angry (or at least only once and that was in the temple with those really bad money changers supporting those equally bad Pharisees) – never raise his voice - only protested peacefully – with soft, gentle, kind words. We can’t help but love that image. It soothes our souls. And it isn’t accurate. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was opposing the powers of both the corrupted religious and corrupted political leaders. Every single message – every single story - every single parable of Jesus – even every single miracle - was naming and claiming and addressing one of these truths. The Good Samaritan. Samaritan Lives Matter would have been received about the same as Black Lives Matter. The Prodigal Son. The 99 Sheep. The Rich Young Ruler. The Dishonest Manager. The Workers in the Vineyard. The Widow’s Mite. And the miracles – Feeding the 5000 (people were hungry- not just that day but everyday) – healing the paralytic, the hemorrhaging woman, the leper – healing and feeding the ones that the people in power had decided had no value. Every single one of Jesus’ stories is not intended to be a story to lift up and comfort the already comfortable – the already powerful. Every single story is meant to lift up and support the disenfranchised – the oppressed – the ignored – the silenced.
Jesus knew this and Paul knew this too. So when Paul encouraged his fledgling congregations to examine themselves – to test themselves: Were they on the side that God would have chosen? – Were they on the Jesus side? And if not, then how might they inform themselves? How might they make the shift to becoming ever more the church of Jesus Christ?
Congregation conflict can be about all sorts of petty concerns – that never feel petty when they are your concern. And these kinds of conflicts whatever they are – huge or tiny - occur when church folk neglect who and what the church is about – God’s church – and commissioned to following in the ways of Jesus Christ. It is up to us to figure out in every new time, every new situation how to inform and reform ourselves to that task.
And we are expected to test ourselves on our progress – to ask ourselves hard questions – questions we won’t like the answers to if we are honest – we are expected to name and claim hard, uncomfortable truths about our own existence, our own blind spots, our own ignorances.
Conflict and divisions are inevitable, and also repairable. And just like those amazing Japanese bowls repaired with liquid gold – the repaired product can not only be functional but more beautiful even than the original.
Acts 2; 1-21; Pentecost Sunday; May 31, 2020
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Pentecost Sunday – most years in Christian churches is a time of celebration with lots of energy: dancing and waving wands of red and orange and yellow streamers – encouraging congregation members to wear red and orange and yellow clothing to create a vision of living holy fire – reading parts of the liturgy in a diversity of languages – and perhaps serving birthday cake during fellowship time to celebrate the birthday of the church.
That would be most years – and this year is anything but. How does one celebrate Pentecost in the midst of not only the restrictions caused by the Covid19 global pandemic but also as much of our state is on curfew with highways and stores closed for security - as our people of color hurt and mourn - and our cities burn? The stream of news is overwhelming – and we really don’t get to remain being overwhelmed – because the horrendous images are seared on the inside of our eyes and the hurt and betrayal voiced by our siblings of color doesn’t show any sign of abating.
On that first Pentecost day there were a hundred fifty people of faith – Jesus followers – holding vigil as they had been doing for days – every since Jesus had left this earth. Those black and brown men and women – none of them would have been white EuroAmerican – those mostly young adults were holding vigil in that room. And when they were finally empowered – filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – and they reacted – the rose up - they were accused of drunkenness and disorderly conduct. All this in the wake of the murder of a brown man killed by corrupt law enforcement.
Some of us are living similar stories this Pentecost Sunday – some of us still out and about getting things done – going to work – celebrating the most creative, unusual graduations every - serving our communities and the world – and many of us still waiting – still sheltering behind closed doors – watching our screens – waiting for what is to come – for something to come.
I can almost imagine what those gathered disciples were doing as they held vigil. I can also imagine who might have been there – not only that mostly homogeneous group of first male disciples, but also women and children – and newer followers from other towns and other cultures. It was a diversity of folks all together who had been moved by Jesus’ words and actions demonstrating a world of justice for everyone – even them. And they were all there waiting - for an advocate- a comforter – a spirit that would fill the empty place in their hearts and souls – and give them the power to not give up but to continue the work that Jesus had begun.
When the Spirit did come – fire and flames – fireworks – a lazer light show – everyone in the diversity of folks in that room – began to sob and cry out and pray out loud – each using the words of their own languages – until the room was a cacophony of noise - harkening back to their ancestor’s Tower of Babel. And yet on this day it was exactly the opposite of that earlier story : the time God’s people arrogantly attempted to build their way to heaven so they too could be God and God scattered them and gave each one a different language so they couldn’t understand each other any more. On the day of Pentecost – God gathered those scattered peoples – from the east and west, the north and south - in Jesus’ name – and sent down the Spirit to fill each one – and gave them a common language – a language of love and compassion, of mercy and grace – and justice – always justice – so that whatever native language each one spoke – all the other believers filled with the Spirit could understand what they had in common.
The other folks in town for the celebration could only hear the cacophony – the nonsense babbling of dozens of languages all being spoken at the same time – of people talking and praying over one another - and they sarcastically wondered if those in the room were drunk – even though it was only morning. And they were sort of right because they were drunk. Drunk on the Holy Spirit. Drunk on knowing who they were and what they were to do and be. Drunk on possibility and promise. Drunk on power-with. Drunk on God.
So often when times in our world are so difficult – like right now – and we cannot hold back the tears or the helplessness or the anger – it may be helpful to find at least a bit of humor – to share a laugh with someone else who cares just as deeply.
Tom Pappa is a comedian who often appears on Chris Thiele’s Live From Here radio show. Tom in his laconic voice tells stories of everyday life in all its irascibility, humor, and poignancy, and at the beginning and end of each rambling monologue about an experience, he wonders “Have you ever …… I have.”
So many of our memories of other Pentecost celebrations and even our unprecedented, almost surreal celebration today – of the Holy spirit coming to us is much like a Tom Pappa story – ‘a have you ever’ rambling and mostly ordinary but sometimes completely extraordinary and always ending with – “I have.”
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit coming into your life as you gathered together with hundreds of kindred souls – fellow believers – companions on the journey of faith – and watched larger than life images on a giant screen, heard the prophetic voices of leaders you only know by reputation, and sang and listened to music, oh the music, and sometimes even the cacophony that ensued – perhaps it was at a Mn. Conference UCC Annual Meeting or a UCC General Synod where you were moved to tears as you listened to Traci Blackmon or John Dorhauer speak, or perhaps it was the music of Sweet Honey and the Rock singing about freedom that had you sobbing out loud – --- I have.
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit coming into your life in the fire and flames of a backyard campfire with good friends or family on a cool May evening, or perhaps it was in the silence and simplicity of an early morning walk just as the sun was rising – walking among favorite trees –perhaps calling them by name, or perhaps it was in the thunder and lightning and pungent nitrogen tang of a spring rainstorm, or maybe it was in the brilliance of one more peach and turquoise striped sunrise or sunset – ------ I have.
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit coming into your life in quiet, meditative moments while singing simple, beautiful Taize music, lighting candles, and sharing reflectively, contemplatively, hopefully, on the poetry of Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry or Jan Richardson ------- I have.
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit coming into your life as you marched or held vigil with dozens or thousands of others carrying posters proclaiming justice for everyone: Perhaps those signs read ‘Women’s rights are human rights’, or “There is no planet B” or “No ICE in Sherburne Co.” or “Immigrants are Welcome Here” or “Love is Love” or “Black Lives Matter” or “Justice for Philandro or George” - ----- I have.
Have you ever experienced the Holy Spirit coming into your life as you stood working with others packing grocery carts at the CAER food shelf or maybe it was serving a meal for homeless families right here at our church as we hosted for Great River Family Promise or maybe it was cleaning and organizing the clothing closet for the homeless youth being served by Open Doors for Youth, or maybe it was sewing face masks for anyone who needs them including local senior care centers, or maybe it was writing a check for global disaster relief or any one of the many underfunded good causes– -----I have.
Have you ever experience the Holy Spirit as you were calling the cops because the black man walking in the same park where you were walking your dog seemed suspicious, or maybe it was when you quickly locked the church office door when that group of young men in baggy pants and shaved heads came into the church and sat in the back pew, or maybe it was it when you hung up in anger when the phone caller asked you to consider calling your legislator asking them to vote against putting a mine on the edge of the BWCA or a pipeline across Native Lands – ---- no me neither. Me neither.
Have you ever dreamed dreams and seen visions? Dreams of a just world for all. Visions of a world where justice is for everyone. Dreams of a time when people love and care for the earth as thought it is alive. Visions of all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, colors, races, interests, all coming together to be community – together? ---- I have.
Just like those early Jesus followers in that room waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit – even though they had certainly had many previous experiences with Jesus showing them the Holy Spirit in their lives – they were waiting for something bigger – for the mega – Shazaam – moment.
It’s easy to forget or discount the quieter, less obvious moments. To forget that God always works through other people, works through nature, works through critters, through experiences good and bad – through everything – to shower us with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always there – ready to guide and lead us – through even the very worst of times – and also through the very best of times. The Holy Spirit won’t change the world – but it will help us to change the world. The Holy Spirit will allow us – empower us – to dream bigger and bigger dreams – and do bigger and bigger things with those dreams – bringing them into reality. The Holy Spirit will push us beyond reading sound and image bytes – to taking action. It will push and pull us beyond saying ‘why doesn’t someone do something’ into doing the best we – and those we trust to help us - can imagine. The Holy Spirit will not let us fall into platitudes and thoughts and prayers and sighs and giving up and the checking out that leads to nothing – makes no good change. The Holy Spirit will not let us stay neutral.
The Holy Spirit gives us new eyes to see beyond what we already think we know – new ears to hear backstories that aren’t our stories – and to really listen to those stories and let them inform and transform us. The Holy Spirit gives us new minds to be changed – radically changed - by new information and new ways of thinking. The Holy Spirit gives us new tongues to tell new truths, new stories that are loving and justice making ways to live out God’s dream.
Have you ever hoped for all of that to happen with your church – your community – your country? ---- I have.
Luke 24: 44-53; May 24, 2020; Ascension Sunday
Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Today in not only Memorial Sunday which while not a church holiday – is certainly a secular holy day – but in the church it is Ascension Sunday. Ascension – ascending – the day the resurrected Jesus rose up into heaven – to no longer be a physical human presence on earth. Some comics quip that it is the day Jesus started to work from home.
When I was a youth in confirmation class, we were expected to memorize the Apostle’s Creed – one line of the version I learned is “he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God..” and the creed ends with, “I believe in the Holy spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.”
When I became a part of the United Church of Christ, I was relieved to find out that the UCC is a non-creedal church and that members of the UCC are not expected to affirm a specific creed in order to become part of the church. It is true that we in the UCC do have a Statement of Faith which functions similarly to a creed, however there is no requirement to profess belief in it in order to join the church. I like that – because – just like now – I have always had doubts about the meaning and interpretation of some of the phrases in those earlier creeds. What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of the body – and life everlasting? I have a better idea of what it means to me now – but I’m quite sure it isn’t the same thing that it meant when I was fifteen. And I’m fairly certain that while I wanted to believe in the resurrection of the body – being even then of a strong scientific mindset - I had more doubts about those statements than certainty.
We progressive Christians – most of us – at least many of us –puzzle over Bible stories like the ascension of Jesus. Sometimes, I really do envy those who do not agonize and analyze the veracity of these claims. What really happened, we ask? What really happened – Jesus was talking to his disciples and then just like that he rose up out of their sight into heaven? Scripture says, “he withdrew from them and was carried up.”
With scientific knowledge like the Hubble telescope, we have seen far, far beyond the blue sky called heaven that disciples may have been staring at with their mouths hanging open trying to see exactly where Jesus went. Where did Jesus go? What did the disciples see?
I don’t think these are the kinds of questions that are helpful to spend much time pondering. They are similar to questions asking what really happened the day Jesus died – the morning the stone was rolled away from the tomb – the day Jesus appeared on the beach – or earlier? What really happened when Jesus turned water into wine – his first miracle – or healed the blind man – or the hemorrhaging woman – or the paralytic – or the one inhabited by demons? With our current extensive scientific knowledge we can make good guesses explaining many possibilities of how some of these miracles may have occurred.
It might be more fruitful to explore how these stories of faith affect us today. What are the realities of our own lives that connect to and are informed by the story of Jesus sharing one final set of hopes and dreams and instructions and then leaving this physical world forever?
You are witnesses, Jesus told them. You have been with me – for what – nearly three years. You have seen things you never expected to see – miracles and wonders – a world turned upside down – insiders and outsiders becoming one – you are witnesses to all that. Now what will you do with that knowledge – that experience – what will you do now that you have had a life changing experience? And - I’m not done with you yet – I’m sending even more power – the Spirit – to empower you to bear witness in all the world – to carry on my work – my life work – the work of God. And then he left them.
Jesus gives his followers clear instructions. He reminds them that even now – he has no plan to leave them on their own in the challenging work of bearing witness. He is sending an advocate – a comforter – the Holy Spirit, and this spirit that they will receive on Pentecost will give them - and us everything needed to be effective in continuing Jesus’ – God’s ministry.
From September 23 2015 through September 23, 2016, Amy and Dave Freeman spent a year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Their purpose was to bear witness to all the iterations of this amazing place in all its seasons – and to raise awareness and advocacy about the threats to this protected place from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining being planned on the wilderness edge.
Amy and Dave traveled more than 200 miles by canoe, foot, ski, snowshoe, and dog team. The wrote a book A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters.
What the Freeman's did in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, is what Jesus mandates for each of us to do in all of our life – to bear witness – to experience life lived in the fullness of God’s grace and mercy – and then advocate and educate and raise awareness to that experience. Because of the new life the Spirit opens in you – you can never be the same again – you have had a great awakening – experienced a miracle you can’t quite explain – cannot quite doubt away – and now you are promised the power of God’s spirit to be with you - and in you - immersing you with all you need - to be exactly what this world needs in this moment of time.
Today, in the midst of the global pandemic caused by the microscopic virus called Covid19, more that ever, we are needed to be the ones bearing witness to the goodness of God, the compassion of Christ, the sustaining comfort of the Holy Spirit. In the face of so much fear, so much terror, so much hopelessness, so much misplaced anger and distrust, so much hate against the wrong enemies, so much division and fragmentation, so much failing to see the good – so much rushing to decisions based on faulty information or economics - we need to bear witness to something else – the joy and hope – the good news of Christ with us in spirit.
We have a whole book of amazing, miraculous, unbelievable stories that our faith allows us to believe – to give us hope. We have story after story about people who loved and followed God, messing up, failing, cheating, stealing, hiding, running away, falling short. And we also have the reminders in those stories of God never giving up – of God always seeking, always welcoming back – always having a brand new plan for a brand new beginning.
No matter what happens – and much of it is sure to be bad – much of it will be things we don’t want to happen – no matter what - God’s plan is always for a new thing - for new life – new beginnings – new hope for all of creation. We can count on that – and we can bear witness to that – even when we have not yet seen the results of the promise fully – even when we feel as though we are still in the dark – even when we still can’t breathe – even when we still feel as though we are suffocating – even when we are so lonely we don’t know how to go on. Even then – we can count on the bounty and overwhelming grace of God. And we can in our own small or big way – bear witness to that grace and love.
LIVING STONES: BUILDING BLOCKS
1 Peter 2: 2-10; May 10, 2020; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
It is a pep talk that Peter is attempting in our scripture text for today. Peter encourages his church folk to make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. Those who have had a taste of God you will want to be shift your thinking and your actions. If you are going to throw your lot in with Christ followers, then you should do so knowing full well what that means – about who you are and what you do. You can’t just tell yourself that what happened in the past stays in the past because it doesn’t. Santayana is known for reminding us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Christianity today has made quite a radical shift from the church to which Peter wrote. We have become increasingly alienated from other Christians. Can one claim to be Christian – but not one of those Christians. I know we do that regularly. Or we say, they cannot really be Christians, not and say and do what they are doing. It’s no wonder so many outside of Christianity look on and shake their heads and refuse to entertain any idea of joining in.
I remember during my first year in Seminary, when I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost and Joy of Discipleship and afterward, I wondered why anyone would ever given a choice choose Christianity. Why would anyone choose the harder, more difficult path? That is some of what Peter is reminding his listeners.
Make a clean sweep of malice – pretense – envy – and hurtful talk. Certainly none of us ever participate in any of those! We are always = always – kind and generous – thoughtful and compassionate – caring and considerate of others – aren’t we?
Peter knew that there is always some trial and error when taking on a new way of being. He compared it to a baby and a mother learning to feed and be fed.
This reminds me of a mother sheep and her brand new babies. Many seem to think that mothering comes completely naturally – that it is pure instinct – that of course every new mother will immediately be filled with joy at the sight of her brand new offspring and will immediately know what to do and how to do it in the best way possible.
Not so much. Often that is true – and often it is not. So often a brand new sheep mom will give birth to twin lambs. Almost always her hormones will trigger her to begin making deep guttural mom talking sounds to her babies – but not always. Almost always she will begin licking and cleaning her new lambs – but not always. Almost always she will nudge her babies to her full udder urging them to drink the life sustaining first milk – but not always. Sometimes the birth is difficult – perhaps because the mom is malnourished – or the lamb is turned – or for one reason of another the ewe is too small for the size of the lamb – and by the time the lamb is born the mom is exhausted or has lost her ability of interest in encouraging her offspring to find the milk – and perhaps she even decides she doesn’t want one of both of the lambs and bashes them away from her – or perhaps she doesn’t have any milk – or perhaps the baby is born weak or small – or perhaps the birth was traumatic and the lamb has no sucking reflex – or perhaps the moms teats are too engorged with milk for the baby to latch on – or
So many factors can keep everything natural from happening. The miracle is that most of the time both mother and babies – or any mammal species – know at some deep level how to do this – and make it happen. The DNA has been hardwired for sustaining life.
Each year at lambing time – I am amazed at the wonder of this process of perpetuating life. And many years I am also saddened and grieved when some part of the process fails to work as it should – and death instead of life – is the result.
Spiritual milk – and spiritual mothering – is what will nurture a new Christian believers life of faith. It is completely natural – and at the same time – there are so many things that can go wrong. We each start out with the raw materials of Jesus’ teachings – of the God stories of creation and salvation. We each have at least some of what we need to sustain a life of faith. Whether it will catch on – well that depends doesn’t it. It is so easy to become malnourished. It is possible that circumstances throw us into trauma – and we simply are not able – at least without intervention – to grab onto the miracle of the new life of faith and begin to grow and thrive.
Basic needs give way to buildling blocks. The living stones that others may have rejected – with God – can become the basic building blocks of a brand new creation.
The life of faith – not only of believing – but also of doubting and questioning – is no small call. What we can know is that we are not alone in bringing the miracle into being – we can rely on God to bring the best possible results – with whatever raw materials or situations we find ourselves in – God will turn the worst case scenario into something better. God will turn out mourning into dancing.
Peter reminds us that our role is clear and we are compelled to act. We are empowered to do all the things necessary to bring the world God envisions into being. It wont be easy. It will often fall apart at least once – often over and over – and we will want to give up. But we have been named and claimed by God and nothing can take that away from us. “I am convinced that neither …… (romans 8)
On this day in our world when we celebrate mothers and mothering by non-mothers we can know that what we are doing is enough – for this moment – it is enough. We know because we are Easter people, that new life always, always, always somehow arises from death. That is an extraordinary claim. It is what can sustain us and support us. It can help us make our way to the new world awaiting on the other side of this global pandemic in which we find ourselves. It can enable us to speak our own words or joy – of hope – of help – of peacemaking.
5 THINGS ABOUT TENDING SHEEP YOU’VE BEEN DOING ALL WRONG
John 10: 1-10; Psalm 23; May 3, 2020
Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
If you are a user of social media, you have most likely come across the proclamations: 5 things you’ve been doing all wrong in your kitchen, 10 things you are doing all wrong in teaching your dog, 3 things you are doing all wrong in writing your sermon. And yet, though initially annoyed, I’m often intrigued enough that I can’t help but read how I ought to be using my kitchen strainer upside down to more efficiently drain my pasta – or that I should use a soft voice to give commands to my dog as my yelling sounds like barking to her and she will just want to join in. It is true that many times these ‘All Wrong’ things make sense – it’s the title – all wrong - that annoys me. Why not simply suggest 5 things to make your day more efficient, happier, more productive, less frustrating…. And yet, there is something about being called out “all wrong” that certainly does grab one’s attention.
As I was planning for this Sunday which is often call ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ as Psalm 23 and one of the gospel shepherd and sheep texts are always part of the lectionary – I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the times I’ve heard these scripture stories of sheep and shepherds being explained by pastors with little or no experience with real sheep. And I find myself wanting to cry out, “That’s not how it really is with sheep – or a real shepherd wouldn’t do that’. Thus – my title for today – 5 Things about Tending Sheep You’ve Been Doing All Wrong.
The Gate is NOT the only way the shepherd enters the sheep fold. In today’s scripture Jesus says that anyone who doesn’t use the gate to get in is a thief or bandit – that the shepherd enters by the gate. I’m sorry Jesus, but in my experience that isn’t true – in fact it may be exactly the are the best to step over or climb over to access the sheep pen. Shepherds know that if they are to get the bucket of feed to the feeder without being trampled by the flock of sheep - sometimes it is better to step over the fence in a place the sheep are not expecting you. Then the sheep remain standing at the gate – watching and waiting to accost the shepherd stepping in with the food. This way, you can carefully without spilling – or having a boss sheep spill for you – the feed into the feeding trough and then call out sheep, sheep, sheep to the silly ones still standing at the gate in expectation. Bandits and sheep rustlin’ thieves simply leave the gate open and the sheep will exit of their own accord – easy pickins for anyone who wants these troublesome wandering sheep.
And that takes me to ‘all wrong’ #2. The Voice. It’s not so simply as the sheep follow the shepherd’s voice. Jesus said that the sheep know the shepherds voice and will run away from the voice of strangers. This is absolutely true but at the same time, sheep are extremely suspicious creatures. They are slow to trust and slow to believe that a new would be shepherd can be trusted. A shepherd will quickly learn the importance of how and when to use their voice – the voice the sheep know - and when to stay silent. Sheep learn routine quickly – they know the minute the shepherd rises in the morning – because in addition to voice, they recognize the shepherds light. A light goes on in the house – the sheep know it is breakfast time. They begin verbally letting you know they are hungry. Sheep also quickly learn to recognize vehicles – namely the car of the shepherd arriving home after a long day of other work – shepherding people instead of sheep. They know that a car means the shepherd is ready to provide dinner. And just as the voice of the non-shepherd can cause fear in sheep - it is also true that an unknown vehicle not only does not elicit the sheep calling greetings to the shepherd, but may actually cause the sheep to bolt to the farthest corner of the sheepfold in terror. And if the sheep are especially athletic, the wrong car, the wrong person, or the wrong dog, may cause the sheep to leap right over the fence – completely ignoring the waiting patiently at the gate which is operated by the interim shepherd – in order to escape the terror of the potential thieves and rogues. A good shepherds learns when and how to use their voices to call and calm their sheep and sheep learn more slowly but surely to recognize that their personal shepherd is the one they can trust to provide food and shelter and safety.
The Shepherd. There are not necessarily easy ways to quickly tell a good shepherd from a bad shepherd. Jesus knew this when he described ways to tell the difference between the actions of good shepherds and bad shepherds. This was not new news. Years earlier, the prophet Ezekiel goes on for pages describing what to look for in a good shepherd versus a bad shepherd. So how do you know? You may visit a sheep farm, meet a shepherd and based on the quality of the facility, food available, the health of the sheep, etc. say to yourself, “good shepherd” or “bad shepherd.” And yet, unless you visit regularly, get to know the shepherd, get to know the sheep - you may miss a lot. What you see might look good – or bad – for a moment. It takes time to determine what makes a good shepherd. A beautiful state of the art barn, lush hay, brand new equipment does not necessarily a good shepherd make. Neither does an older but serviceable building, fences repaired may times, and older equipment make a bad shepherd. What determines good versus not good is the relationship. It is the trust and caring and accountability between a shepherd and their sheep that counts. Jesus knew this too. A good shepherd is there for the sheep and knows each sheep by name. A good shepherd knows which sheep has 3 little black spots on her right ear or which one has a torn left ear, a big broad muzzle, a healed scar on her hind leg. A good shepherd notices these kinds of things and has an ongoing relationship with their sheep and knows almost intuitively if something isn’t quite right. It takes time to become a good shepherd – months or years perhaps– to build this kind of relationship.
God is my shepherd, I shall not want. We live in a world of wanting. Since humanity first began we’ve wanted things. So, just because God is our shepherd, doesn’t mean we are likely to stop wanting. However – because God is our shepherd – perhaps the kinds of things we want might change. If God is our Shepherd providing all that we need – then our faith guides us to want less of the things we don’t need. And as our wanting lessens, our lives are ever more filled with gratitude for all that we do have.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies does not mean these enemies are kept away while a lush table filled with good things is placed before us while those ‘enemies’ watch with hungry eyes and bellies. The table God provides is a table big enough and plentiful enough and extravagantly welcoming for everyone. At God’s table are no longer enemies and friends – all are welcomed and fed and become part of God’s beloved community. God wants us to do the same – to prepare tables of bounty – to which we invite strangers, enemies, friends, sheep and shepherds, thieves and rogues, all – and eat and converse and build relationships with one another.
The one thing you have been doing all right? Building relationship. Because really, isn’t that what these stories are all about? Not about whose in and who is out. Not about whose at the table and who is kept away. Not about who has ears and eyes to see the caregiver and who does not. Not about how things instead of how one cares. If you are building and tending relationships you are doing it all right.
THE ROAD OF BROKEN DREAMS
Luke 24: 13-35; 3rd Sunday of Easter; April 26, 2020
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Here we are, going into the third week of the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, and instead of beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel – the hope realized – here we are travelling along with those two unfamiliar men – Cleopas and the unnamed one – sharing conversation about the deplorable, devastating state of the world.
Today, along with those two clueless men, we too travel this road of broken dreams, where all of our conversation centers on wondering what happened and how we had hoped that someone might have some viable answers and appropriate actions to turn around the horror and hopelessness of a city on shutdown.
It is on this road of broken dreams that Jesus joins them, but they fail to recognize him. Jesus, the very one that has dominated their conversation. Jesus, the one in whom they had placed their hope for the saving of the world. Jesus the one they loved – the embodiment of their hopes and dreams for liberation from the oppression and injustice of the empire. As they talk, kicking up stones of frustration with their dusty sandals, this ‘stranger’ joins them who seems to be completely unaware of all that has been going on.
“Are you the only stranger who doesn’t know what has been happening in these days?” How can you not know about this world-shattering event? They proceed to tell him about Jesus, the one they thought – really believed – was the Messiah – the promised one – the savior of Israel. And now he’s dead - and our hope is gone.
Have you ever been at an event, or shopping, or a coffee shop, or gathering and saw someone who seemed vaguely familiar but you just couldn’t quite place who they were? You look and look, sideways, across the room, across the table. You can’t quite place the mannerisms, gestures, the voice. And once you realize – you are like duh – how could I not have immediately known?
This is especially true when you realize it is someone you have spent a good bit of time with – but in a completely different context. After you begin talking and suggesting possible shared experiences - and figure it out - you wonder how you could not have immediately recognized them.
Jesus chides these men – who still don’t know him – even after some conversation. How is that possible? What blinded their eyes and dulled their ears? Did Jesus look different? After all, he’d been dead for days. He certainly may have been dressed differently. May have had his hair cut. Perhaps death turned his hair white changed him in other ways? Perhaps, they didn’t recognize him because they never again expected to see him. They knew he was dead – gone - after all. They had already given up the hope Jesus promised. They were ready, if not happy about, to going back to the old oppressive normal. And we wonder, how could they have been so dull, so lacking in awareness, so slow of heart?
How could they not have? Aren’t we just the same? How many times must we be almost hit over the head in order to recognize God in the blessing of a day of sunshine/ of necessary rain after weeks of drought/in a lone green tuft of grass pushing up through the crack in the concrete? How many times do we fail to recognize the face of Christ in the mercy and goodness of an unexpected action: the delivery of much needed handsewn facemasks/ the offer of someone to shop and deliver groceries/ the masked, poster carrying protesters holding vigil even in the midst of pandemic - standing up for immigration justice.
And even when Jesus begins to preach – a long chronicle of the scriptures all the way from Moses through the prophets – they seem not to recognize his voice. I’m told the length of the road to Emmaus was seven miles. If you imagine that those two men has already traveled a mile or so before Jesus joined them, they still had five miles to listen to Jesus expound on the scriptures. And if he were talking, they must have been walking even more slowly than they might have to allow time for catching one’s breath – so Jesus must have preached more than the average 10-15 minute sermon. And in all that time, they still didn’t recognize him?
Clearly this scripture is not meant to impart a historic moment – but rather a testimonial to faith. Those men were somehow unable to recognize the resurrected Christ until he broke and blessed the bread and gave it to them.
Later on, in retrospective, they remembered that their hearts burned within them as Jesus was talking – but if that was true – why didn’t they mention it at the time. It makes me wonder how many of us have hearts that burn within us at the reading of the scripture during our weekly worship – but say nothing. And I wonder too, how many times our eyes and our hearts are opened during the sharing of Holy Communion – when we break bread and are reminded that this bread – is Christ’s body – broken for us. We remember that when we share the bread – we become the body of Christ. And I wonder if you – like I so often have – saying those words – get goosebumps run down your arms. And I wonder if your heart doesn’t burn within you – at least a little when you hear those words and share in eating that bread. And when the cup is poured out – the cup of blessing – and I remind you that as you drink the same juice that is in that cup, the blessing is now in you – and wherever you go – you take that blessing with you – --- I wonder if you – like I do – feel a warming glow all through your body – the warmth of blessing and grace and hope.
And all of a sudden – your eyes see more clearly – your ears hear more sounds – your senses come alive - and your whole being becomes more aware – that we are in the midst of holiness. That God is with us and though we are still physically in the same place - we are no longer walking the road of broken dreams – but the pilgrimage of faith – and on that journey – we know – we know - that the risen Christ is with us and we are immersed in blessing and hope and possibility.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
John 20: 19-31; April 19, 2020; Union Congregational C, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
In many Christian churches this first Sunday after Easter is dubbed “low Sunday.” In most years perhaps the lowest attended Sunday of the year. Hmmm, I wonder what that means in this season of Coronavirus pandemic when ever since we made the transition from in-person worship to on-line worship our ‘attendance’ numbers have made weekly leaps from the 70’s to over 500 on Easter Sunday. I’m not sure if Union UCC in Elk River has ever had over 500 in attendance on any Sunday since it’s very beginning over 145 years ago.
So how are we doing today? Are folks still signing in – looking for a little ‘Good News’ in a world of mostly ‘bad news?’ If so, this may be a very good day to check in.
Today’s scripture is one that is familiar to many as the story of ‘doubting Thomas.’ As if doubting has become such a descriptor of Thomas that is has now become part of his forever name.
Thomas, assuredly is not the only one who doubts. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and was joined by the person in white, who she eventually recognizes not as a gardener as she first though, but as Jesus, she begins by doubting. She believes Jesus is dead – not alive – just the same as Thomas believes Jesus is dead – not alive. And Thomas is not ready to believe that this person that looks at least something like Jesus, acts like Jesus, speaks like Jesus – and yet cannot possibly be Jesus – because he saw Jesus die and be taken down from the cross – dead –--- is alive.
Mary Magdalene did not believe until the resurrected Jesus spoke to her directly, personally. Thomas will not believe until he can put his hands in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands, feet and sides to know for himself that they are real – not the incredible work of a really good makeup artist.
We can focus on the doubting of Thomas – and the doubting of each of us - for how many of us would have immediately believed in the resurrection of Jesus????
Even now - I’ve heard your doubts, your progressive wonderings, your justifications about it not mattering whether Jesus really was bodily resurrected or not. I’ve heard your not quite believing the miracle of a dead body coming back to full human life. So I’m going to assume, doubting is not the issue. Doubting is a given. I’m not going to focus on the doubting – other than to name doubting as perhaps an integral part of faith – a beginning of faith – a necessity of faith.
What I want to talk about is verse 26: “it was a week later when the disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.” And though the doors were shut – most likely locked for safety – Jesus came right through them and stood before the disciples saying “peace be with you.”
Did you hear that? Jesus came right through the locked doors to proclaim peace with and among the disciples.
Right now, most of us – unless we have been categorized as ‘essential workers’ are biding our time in this global pandemic behind mostly closed doors. We are on lockdown – shelter in place – quarantine.
And I want to remind all of you who are feeling so alone – so isolated – so fearful – sad- separated – I want you to know that Jesus can walk right through locked – closed – quarantined doors! The body of Christ is not ruled by the law of the land. There is no virus or disease or local or global or any other kind of crisis that can keep out the holy presence of God made flesh – of death brought back to life -of everlasting life – of resurrected being – Jesus - from coming into whatever place we are – to be with us and assure us “Peace be with you.”
Thomas demanded proof. If Thomas lived today, he would be daily – hourly – scanning the internet to find the latest information on numbers, curve heights, global preparations, and death tolls. Thomas wanted proof – what we would call scientific proof. Thomas was not convinced by anecdotal stories from others about what they saw and what they experienced. Thomas wanted to know the truth -right from the source. Thomas wanted to stick his fingers into the wounds to determine if they were real or faked.
We are many of us – Thomas. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting and needing that kind of proof. Clearly Jesus understood it by baring his body and inviting Thomas to feel for himself.
And yet, Jesus also added blessing to those who believed in his being raised from the dead without sticking fingers in his wounds.
Jesus blessed the ones who like those today without any real proof – yet based on best information are staying home – and staying safe. Are choosing to wear the best possible face mask and gloves to venture out for only essential purposes. Who recognize the importance of physical distancing – not only to protect themselves, but even more importantly to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you who have not seen – not experienced personally – but have believed.
The disciples of Jesus were frightened following Jesus’ death. They knew they might be next in line to go on trial for sedition and stirring up the people. After all they were with Jesus nearly every day. They were scared. Why wouldn’t they be. They were taking the precaution of staying inside. Staying behind closed doors. Only going out for the most essential of tasks. And no matter – when Jesus – the risen Jesus came to find them – those closed doors were as if they didn’t exist. Jesus walked right through them into the hearts and minds of the most doubting —the most skeptical – the most disillusioned of disciples in that space.
And that is still what Jesus does. From the moment of his birth being named Emmanuel – God with us – Jesus embodied what it meant to be God with us. And still Jesus walks right through all the walls and doors and barriers we put up to keep ourselves safe in this world. Jesus shows us and bestows upon us what it really means to be safe – to be immersed in blessing - to be filled with the holy spirit – to be loved unconditionally.
Even today. Even in the midst of the most disorienting, world shaking, death scaring, global health crisis, most of us have ever known, that is the promise. No matter where we are – God will find us – and love us unconditionally.
DON’T BE AFRAID
April 12, 2020; EASTER SUNDAY, Matthew 28: 1-10
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Elk River, Mn.
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
The Easter story begins with fear. Fear is an immobilizing emotion. Fear paralyzes us. Fear keeps us from moving forward. Fear makes us angry. Fear makes us blame others. Fear makes us imagine the worst possible futures.
Jesus tells the two Marys who came to the tomb that early Easter morning, “Don’t be afraid.” And I wonder what it might mean to not to be afraid of something that is definitely something fearful. And then what might our not-being-afraid look like? It would seem that only a simple person could avoid fear when the world you know is turned upside down and inside out.
Well, then, what is the opposite of fear? I went online looking for answers and found that WordHippo promises 446 words defining the opposite of fear. The list includes: courage, bravery, confidence, faith, daring, determination, guts, nerve, heart, dauntlessness, audacity, encouragement, assurance, heroism, grit, temerity, mettle, backbone.
And when I went to a specifically Christian site, the answers were similar but slanted just a bit different: Some say love, some happiness. Some assurance, or boldness, confidence or fortitude.
And one more site suggested that “The opposite of fear is an emotion that draws one towards the thing feared. Therefore the opposite of fear is curiosity. I like that. I like that a lot. The opposite of fear is curiosity.
Early in the day, the first day of the week – Sunday the day after Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb where the crucified and dead Jesus had been laid. The women went to prepare Jesus’ body with spices and grave cloths. They were filled with grief, perhaps angry or sad at the injustice of this death, perhaps angry with the disciples– especially the ones who had turned their backs on Jesus when he needed them the most.
The story according to Matthew, is a bit different from the story told in Mark or Luke or John – each gospel telling the story somewhat differently. Only two women came to the tomb in this version. Two Mary’s. And when they got there, there was an earthquake – certainly a terrifying act of nature. The men guarding the tomb were filled with fear not only because of the earthquake, but because the earthquake caused the heavens to be torn open allowing an angel of the Lord to come down from heaven and roll away the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb where Jesus lay. The guards and the women all experienced this. They were all there right in the middle of the shaking and quaking of the earth. The guards fell to the ground as though paralyzed – like dead men, Matthew records. But the women seem to me made of sterner stuff. And though the angel told them not to be afraid, we have no reason to believe that they were afraid. Their behavior suggests that they may have been beyond fear. Jesus – the Messiah – the one who came in the name of the Lord to save the world from itself – had been killed – brutally, horribly killed. They saw it all unfold. The worst had happened. What more could cause them to fear? Certainly not a simple earthquake! So when the angel tells them not to be afraid, I can see them shrugging shoulders, shaking their heads, assuring this angel – this angel! – that there is nothing on this earth or in heaven that could cause them to be frightened unto death ever again. When the angel assured them that Jesus was not there, that Jesus had been raised from the dead – just as he told them – they were in awe – not so much scary fear – but O MY GOD! awe. And great – heart-shattering – breaking open- joy.
They turned to run as directed, to tell the disciples, when the most awesome part of the story yet, Jesus himself, the Jesus they knew and loved , but not quite Jesus -or perhaps more accurately – the so -much-more -Jesus – meets and greets them like he has always done. Awestruck but not paralyzed – the women reached out to hold him, to hug him, to fall to the ground to kiss his feet. Jesus admonishes them again to not be afraid – these women who seem not at all afraid but filled with curiosity – how can this be? These women filled with courage are the ones to go to tell the disciples that Jesus – resurrected Jesus – wants to meet up with them on the road to Galilee.
In this year of the Coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, we are constantly being reminded of how fearful is this time is in which we are living. Every news feed, nearly every news bite seems to almost revel in feeding the fear.
We are daily reminded of the rising numbers, the heightening curve, the hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the misguided leadership. Be afraid we are told. Be very afraid. This is the worst of times ever. Death will have the final word.
On this Easter morning as perhaps nearly every morning for the past several weeks, many of us are frightened. Many of us are filled with fear. The world as we thought we knew it, has changed dramatically. Our daily lives are not what we expected or had planned for. Normal is not something we even know anymore. And as for ever returning to normal, we understand may not ever happen. The new normal to which we return may be altered forever by this pandemic and all it has caused and changed in our lives and our world.
Some of us focus on fearing the seemingly small stuff – though I do know that if these things are what you fear – they don’t seem small - like will I have enough toilet paper or milk or bread or soup? Or perhaps your fears are bigger. What will I do when the severance from losing my job runs out – will I lose my house? Will my family survive? Or perhaps, what will I do as I am part of the most vulnerable population? Should I just bow to the inevitability – should I lock myself away, in fear and terror over the possibility of contagion? Or - what if my family – never the most stable before this time – now in our forced togetherness completely disintegrates with physical and verbal abuse and worse? What if my job as an essential worker puts me in the place of contagion? What if? What if? What if?
And Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”
Perhaps as Marianne Williamson so perfectly puts it: “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Easter is our light. Easter and the new life promised by the resurrection of Jesus make us powerful beyond measure.
Here we are at Easter – a very different Easter to be sure. No church sanctuary overflowing with the pastel colors and fragrance of lilies and narcissus, hydrangea and tulips. No church filled with joyous Halleluias and Christ is Risen! Indeed echoing from one end to another. No front yard Easter egg or food shelf hunt with children’s joyous laughter ringing. And yet, Easter doesn’t need any of those things – much as we love them - to arrive right on time every year. In fact, Easter just like always sneaks in silently, quietly, hopefully filling our world right along with the morning sunrise. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Easter joy this year may be more contained, more sheltered, more quiet, and yet no less real, no less joy filled. Death, Easter reminds us need not be feared because God promises us resurrection. New life with God is always the final word. Even if death does occur – which it will - God can use that death to bring about new life – resurrection – a new start – a new way – new understanding.
Don’t be afraid. Or perhaps, feel the fear and celebrate anyway. Let curiosity about what lies ahead tame your fear. Tell others what you know – that fear or death itself cannot – is not - ever the final answer. When God is on the loose – new life is always on the horizon. Alleluia. Amen. Happy Easter.
BREATH OF HOPE
Ezekiel 37: 1-14; March 29, 2020; Fifth Sunday of Lent
Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
When I first chose this scripture text, it was to fall on Confirmation Sunday, and I thought it seemed a perfect text for lifting up with the ways in which our confirming youth make the transition from childhood to full church participation and membership, renewing and enlivening our church in that process.
And yet, here we are, three weeks into ‘stay home/stay safe’ and ‘shelter in place’ in a time of Covid 19. This Sunday, here at Union UCC, all of our worship leaders are in their own homes, isolating to not only flatten the curve, but to buy our health care providers the time to get the resources needed to most adequately address the escalating numbers of new cases of the virus reported daily.
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones seems a perfect metaphor for our community today. Ezekiel speaks to a people – his congregation - who say to him, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
I have read words written by several of you just this past week, putting similar words to similar concerns that pulled forth those cries of lost hope and sadness of isolation, from the people of Israel to Ezekiel. “We are cut off from our families, our neighbors, our friends. We don’t now what to do with ourselves. We are struggling. We are alone. We are so isolated. Our hope is rapidly disappearing. We are cut off completely.”
It is certainly no stretch to consider in this reflective, examining time of Lent – yes it is still Lent- what it means to be overlooking a valley of dry bones -human bones - and lamenting! ‘Can these bones live?’ God asks Ezekiel. ‘But how?’ Ezekiel has heard the despair of the people as so he asks? ‘How can these bones live?’
Ezekiel is a prophet of visions. That is how he experiences the world and its connection to God. And today, his vision is dry human bones as far as the eye can see. A dead people. A disappeared people. A people who are no more. When God asks Ezekiel, ‘Can these bones live?’, Ezekiel answers, ‘O God, you know.’
God does know. It is God that created the world and all that is in it and on it – it is God that brought people into the world – it is God that chose – over and over - the most unlikely to lead – to bring forth the new life the world always needs. It is God that over and over calls the people away from the ways of death and destruction to new life and building up, from hate and greed to love and compassion, from the corruption of the Empire to empowering the masses. It is God that calls the people wringing their hands in despair and lost hope, to new life – and new ways of living - over and over.
Ezekiel’s vision is given to a people who have lost heart, who are suffering a death of the spirit, who are virtually dying while still alive. Ezekiel’s people have been isolated, exiled, and are living without many of the things that formerly seemed vital and necessary to their well-being. Many are dying because they have no protections to allow them to stay alive. Ezekiel witnesses this and sees that the soul of his people – God’s people – is withering – dying – and literally as lifeless as a valley of dry bones. And then God asks, ‘Can these bones live?’
Ezekiel responds, I have no idea how – but - ‘God, you know.’ What do we reply when God asks us these kinds of questions? Can this country – live again? Can this people embrace the new life God offers - the new life that most likely will never again look like the old life left behind. The new life that calls for new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of being people connected with one another, new ways of loving and caring for the most vulnerable, new ways of planning and being flexible. The new life to which God called the ancient Israelites and to which God calls us today never calls on the people to lay the blame, never calls us to point the finger at who is at fault, at where the fault lies. The new life never requires us to ask, ‘who did this to us?’ ‘Who can we find to punish to make us feel better? Who is responsible?’
God calls us to a new life of: ‘Given this: What can we do?’ How, then shall we live? What can we – must we - do differently in this brave new world? If we can’t have or can’t do this or can’t live or work or eat or play here – then what can we do – how can we live in this new time? How can we live fully in this present time - not simply blame and shame and wait it out. How can we breathe new life into the dry bones of the valley on whose brink, we’ve found ourselves standing ?
Lent is a season devoted to these sorts of questions every single year as we choose – often with humor -what we will give up or take on for 40 days. This year, under the dominion of the Corona virus, Covid 19, these kinds of questions take on new meaning and weight. For most of us, it is true, we never intended to give up this much! Or take on this much! For those of you juggling and struggling to be a parent, a teacher, a mother, and a spouse – you didn’t choose this. For those of you with aging parents or grandparents in locked down senior living – that don’t really understand why you can’t visit – you didn’t choose this. For some of you, some of this time is truly a welcome Sabbath – with time to catch up on projects or reading or getting outside or sleeping or cooking or….. but still – you miss your friends, your book group, your walking companions….. – and you didn’t choose this.
We are only a week away from Palm/Passion Sunday, the day we remember Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem, heralded as the one who would save the world from itself! And then we remember how things quickly fell apart as we move into Holy Week, with all the trials and tribulation, the betrayals and false information, the isolation and loneliness, the quiet and overwhelming sleepiness, the death – the death. ‘Can these bones live? God, you know.’
‘God you know.’ And we know. We believe in the God of new life, the God of resurrection, the God who refuses to take death as the final answer – and always, always, comes back with a brand new way to experience an ever new way to live. We believe in Easter. We often call ourselves Easter people -recognizing how important new life – resurrection – is to us. We know it and we believe it but we don’t always live our lives as though we do. Doubts creep in - or krash in and we try to take things into our own hands – often to less than desirable results.
God continually challenges us to examine our dry bones – and determine how - with God’s help – we can and will move forward – in new and positive ways. We will find ways to ‘visit’ with grandmother or toddler grandbabies. We will find ways to remain connected to one another without being physically in the same place. We will find ways to support the things that matter to us – in new and creative ways. We will find ways to make the change we long to see come about even when all the powers of the Empire seem to holding it back.
‘Can these bones live?” “Yes, God, definitely yes!”
INVESTING IN NEW EYES
John 9: 1-41; March 22, 2020; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Several weeks ago – pre Covid 19, pre- social distancing, or shelter-in-place, or stay home-stay safe precautions – another life-time ago it seems - I first selected this text from the gospel of John as the lectionary text from which I would preach today. I was particularly intrigued at that time by something in the Feasting on the Word preaching resource for this scripture text about a blind man healed by Jesus. Written by Deborah J. Kapp, she introduced the text by describing a phenomenon called ‘Bowling Alone.’
‘Bowling alone’ is a term used to describe the growing concern over the past several decades in which cultural observers voiced concern about the erosion of social capital in the United States. They cited the breakdown of neighborhoods, ever decreasing participation in organizations like the PTA and churches, and fewer bowling leagues. ‘People are ‘bowling alone’ as the title of a famous book described it, and that is troublesome to many people.’ Even more troublesome to some others are reports of the breakdown of an even more basic American institution – the family. “
I found this take on setting up an introduction to this text intriguing – and then Covid 19 happened.
If you are watching and hearing this worship service and sermon today on Facebook Live, you know that our church, our state, our country, and most of our world is practicing a brand new phenomenon called ‘social distancing.’ To stop the spread of the Covid 19 Corona virus, we are all being asked to stay away from other people – at least 6 feet away – and even then with no more than 10 people in the same space.
And many are already practicing the next level of security, ‘sheltering in place’ which means remaining in our own homes – not going out to stores, or church, or our weekly bridge group, book club, favorite brewery, or concert or movie.
We are staying safe, lowering the curve, keeping others – particularly vulnerable others - safe, and waiting out the time it takes to get the Covid 19 Corona virus under control.
Some of us have been putting together puzzles, watching concerts and opera on social media, binging on Netflix, making phone calls, even singing in on-line concerts – alone. We are in essence - bowling alone.
Some self-describe that they are going bonkers. Others stir crazy. Others are welcoming the opportunity of time to rest and relax or finish up some long- unfinished projects. Others are baking and cooking way too much food. Others are hiking or horseback riding. And we are doing all these things alone – but not quite. Not quite alone because this time - people are checking in with others on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, Zoom, Skype and more. Really connecting with each other – it seems. People are posting photos and videos of the things they are doing - alone – and sharing with others who are doing similar or other things – alone. Just by posting a photo of doing a puzzle – I connected with at least five other friends who are also doing puzzles – all friends I had no idea even enjoyed puzzles.
Last Thursday evening, Gigi and I joined in with 137,000 others to watch the Indigo Girls play a concert in a living room in Atlanta Georgia. We sent waves and like messages and noticed others we know who were also watching this wonderful free concert. We were alone in our living room – and yet it sure didn’t feel like we were isolating glued to our solo screens. For me, I felt so connected to people all around the world – watching these two women - whose concerts have all been cancelled due to the pandemic - share their music and hopes and concern for our world.
Today’s text about a man, blind since birth, and now healed by Jesus is not a simple miraculous healing story. It must give us new eyes for seeing.
Blindness, much like other unexplainable diseases and limitations in Jesus’ day, were often explained by describing them as a punishment for sin or the existence of devils residing in the one with the dis-ability. If you have ever known anyone who is blind – particularly from birth – you most likely knows the foolishness of thinking that blindness is something to be pitied. Blindness is simply a given for that person – part of who they are – not something they are missing.
It is true that because of a world structured for a seeing population, adaptations for one who is blind must be made. And yet, isn’t it absolutely true that the ones who are really blind – are those who have eyes to see and yet cannot understand that sightlessness is simply different – not better or worse – and definitely not a judgement or punishment or less than. And that’s really difficult to understand for a seeing population. It is now – and it definitely was in Jesus’ day.
This text, long as it is – thanks to the writing perambulations of John –however, is not so much about the moral or ethical implications of blindness or disabilities – as it is about the difference between before and after. Then and now. The man born blind doesn’t seem able to quite describe what happened when Jesus smeared mud in his eyes, but he certainly can tell the difference it makes. I WAS blind – but NOW I can see. Once I saw the world like this – and now I see it like this. Now my eyes are opened and there is so much I hadn’t even known about. Here is what I see and know now. Jesus didn’t heal the blind man because there was anything wrong with him – he healed him to open his eyes to a new way of understanding.
Over the last week – for most of us - our world – and our lives – have changed in radical ways. We were people who chose where and when and how and why to go here or there or anywhere we chose - within our own limits for those choices. We were people who jumped in cars with other people, went to restaurants filled with other people. We went to concerts and movies and plays and conferences with many other people. We went to the gym and the bowling alley – often crowded with other people. We shook hands and hugged and shared space -close space – with many other people – most of them strangers to us.
And yet, to some extent, many of us have been ‘bowling alone.’ Many in our world have lived and moved and had our being in the midst of a great crowd of witnesses – and yet we have in many ways lived solitary lives with little really, truly, connected lives. We are really, many of us much like the blind man in Jesus’ time living a mostly solitary life with little truly connected interaction with other people. And just as that man – with a earth shattering experience – Jesus – learned another way – the Jesus way – of becoming part of the beloved community of believers – I believe – so have we.
For many of us – Covid 19 – has begun to change our our belief that without physical connection – there is no connection. We are discovering new ways to connect – to stay close – to have our eyes and ears opened to the hopes and dreams and joys and sadnesses of others.
My hope is that in this time of forced Sabbath – that we are becoming MORE connected, more aware of strangers who are truly becoming friends – that we are connecting to – on social media – Facebook, twitter, Instagram – on our ZOOM Book Club gatherings, GOOGLE GROUPS Happy hour with folks from all over the country – with musical artists whose concerts have been cancelled recording live and posting it out free to the masses. And the multitude of resources – everything from how to draw a bluebird to knitting tutorials to a flatpick guitar lesson to science and math lessons for kids at home to a church youth group on-line – to outdoor cooking demos - are amazing and seeming unlimited!
I’m sure many of these options were available before Corona – but now our eyes have been opened. Now we need them in our time of seclusion – and we are finding that we are not alone at all. We are finding like- minded folks who also want to learn to identify the bird songs of returning spring birds – or want to read the latest Louise Erdrich book and discuss it with a small group – or want to learn how to fillet a fish and cook it wrapped in salt over a wood fire. (These are all things I want to do!) Our eyes are opened because BEFORE we lived in a world where we didn’t need to find connections without physical connections – and NOW, times are different and we need to find real connections and interactions without physically touching. BEFORE we spent much of our time with strangers who never became friends – even though we shared physical space with them - and NOW – with newly opened eyes – we can spend time with friends – who are no longer strangers as we share important parts of our lives – with them – even though we may be miles, continents apart.
Physical closeness does not necessarily make us connected, it is shared stories and interests and passions. As we move into this time of social distancing which is really physical distancing and social connecting - may we be invested in ever new eyes to take it all in – in ways that make us ever closer – whether we are 6” or 6’ or 6,000 miles apart.
The church doors are closed – we are not gathering in the same space – and yet, isn’t it true that the church was never in that building anyway. The church is and has always been wherever we are – the body of Christ - out in the world – in our homes – in our workplaces – in our isolation – in our connection – in our blindness - or in our new ways of being Christ for each other.
John 4: 5-42; March 15, 2020; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Insiders and outsiders. If we were to only get to pick one story to show the essence of who Jesus is, this might be the one. Jesus strikes up a conversation about a woman – outsider. Uneducated – outsider. Samaritan -outsider. Shameful past – outsider.
Think back to last week when Jesus met with Nicodemus. Man – insider. Educated – insider. Jew – insider. Respected religious leader – insider.
And Jesus meet both equally – bypassing all of the artificial boundaries set by humans.
Thirsty church folk need this message. Thirsty vulnerable folk in our country and around the world need this message. We need the well and the water it contains – the real well and water – and the metaphorical well and water – just as we need the good news from the man who has come to the well asking for water and then telling us everything we have ever done – and everything about who we are – knowing us inside and out!
Whether we know it or not – isn’t this what we are thirsty for? For someone to know us inside and out – and completely – unconditionally – love us – not in spite of who and what we are – but because of who and what we are?
We live and move and have our being in the exact opposite of that world. We live in a conditional world. It is who you are. It is what you do. It is who your family is. It is where you live. It is who you know. It is what your family does. That is what counts.
And Jesus turns all that over when he initiates a conversation with the unnamed woman at the well. In that seemingly simple action – he overturns – steps over – bypasses – breaks the rules – of so many social mores of his day. And he does it simply, quietly, without fanfare or loud voice or pomp. He simply asks for a glass of water.
Jesus is thirsty. The walk through Samaria was long and tiring. The disciples have gone to buy some food in the village and Jesus finds his way to the well - and this is where he encounters the woman. It ought to be easy for a thirsty man to get a drink by himself – but Jesus doesn’t seem to be able to do this by himself. He asks the woman to get him a drink – giving her a chance to see the face of Christ in a stranger.
Jesus is thirsty – and we are the ones with a bucket. Can such a little thing as a cool drink of water really be the beginning of a journey that will save a life? Yes. And we will never know this until we meet the stranger – and acknowledge the need – and offer a cool glass of water – or a piece of bread – or a plate of tacos – a warm coat or shoes without holes – a fair wage – paid time off - or a listening ear to hear stories of a lifetime of sorrow or injustice.
Last week we had the dark of night to explore the wonder of doubts and questions, resistance and reluctance with Nicodemus the Pharisee’s visit to Jesus. Today, we have the bright noonday sun shining the truth into every big and small failure, every regret, every bad decision, every wandering off on less than helpful paths, every broken place in our hearts and lives. It is much more difficult to place ourselves alongside the woman at the well right out here in the open in the middle of the day – than it is to sneak in with Nicodemus in the middle of the night. We can’t hide much of anything at the well – and well – that’s kind of the point of this story. We are an open book to Jesus compassionate love – whether we are trying to hide or not.
Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is the longest one he has with anyone in the Gospels – and it is important to notice that it is with a woman – an unnamed woman (so clearly we know she isn’t wealthy or otherwise important) – she isn’t a religious leader – or any kind of leader – and she’s alone – unusual for a woman in her time.
And unlike Nicodemus who simply couldn’t seem to set aside his own preconceived ideas about life and birthing to understand why Jesus tells him he must be born again – and keeps saying “how can this be?” ---- this woman seems to almost immediately grasp what Jesus is saying.
Perhaps it is her own need – her own thirstiness for understanding and a need to be heard – because when Jesus tells her about ‘living water’ she stops asking questions – and asks to have this living water for herself.
And when she asks a question of her own is it based on one of the issues that separates Samaritans and Jews – that divides and alienates them and even makes them fear and hate one another – is where is the proper place to worship God?
This may not seem like such a complicated question – or perhaps you get it immediately. Certainly in our own country and world today – the divisions between Muslims and Christians and Jews has become ever wider – mostly based on misinformation and fear. So the question, where is the proper place to worship God? Might not really be so different from the religious divisions we are seeing today.
Jesus responds to this woman who gave him water - that it doesn’t matter where – what matters is how you worship. It’s how you live your life that counts with God. What God is looking for are those who are simply and honestly themselves – their best selves - before God.
Most of us live in places where water is plentiful and readily available. And yet we know all to well of places not just across the globe – but closer and closer to us where water is under attack – Flint, Michigan, the waters impacted by the Line 3 Pipeline, the waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness threatened by proposed Twin Metals Mining – waters in our own state – in our backyard. On TV, the internet and news we are constantly bombarded with news of contaminated waters – of household taps flowing contaminated fracking gases instead of water, rivers flowing red or yellow with mining run-off poisons – or invisible chemical contamination, of aquifers sinking and emptying, of watersheds damaged beyond human repair….
The divisions are not only human to human – they are human to non-human. Jesus’ message of living water for abundant life is more than metaphorical. When even the waters drawn from the well are contaminated – what is a physically thirsty one to do?
Jesus knew that it is difficult to think lofty thoughts on an empty stomach – just as he recognized it is equally – or perhaps even more difficult – to grasp the concepts of everlasting life – when one’s throat and tongue are parched. When one is so thirsty for a cool, clean glass of water to quench a very real physical thirst – it is near to impossible to focus and refocus a life on the ‘living water’ mentioned by Jesus.
Today, when nearly every sound bite of news is focused on the latest iterations of Covid 19 – the Corona virus – it is difficult to focus our minds and hearts on much of anything else.
Jesus was not unaware of where worship occurs. He knew that it isn’t only in cathedrals and synagogues and small churches – it is at the well – and the riverside – and by the sea. It is at home with only one person – and perhaps a beloved dog – or with the whole family amazingly all home together. It is in a walk through the trees – in a cabin up north. It is connecting on virtual formats as well as in the physical community. Jesus reminds that it is who you are that matter – not where: a water protector – one who will offer a clean, pure glass of water to a thirsty child. It is the way you live – walking softly and gently and carefully on this earth – protecting and healing the damage done in the name of progress. It is caring for creation – all of creation - that matters. It is taking the precautions necessary to lessen the impact of a global pandemic. It is thinking of health and wellbeing of others – all others - not just yourself. That’s the kind of people God is looking for.
We come to the well of Jesus’ living water, thirsty for so many things. And we leave to go back to a world that is thirsting in even more ways – thirsting for real ‘living water’ that renews and reminds that we are all - human and non-human - God’s beloved.
A BEGINNER’S MIND
John 3: 1-17; Lent 2; March 8, 2020; Union United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I first heard the term, Beginners Mind, used when a new intern on my Community Supported Agriculture Farm told us about her mindset for learning new things, particularly at our farm. She told us that she had been a gardener, been a business owner with employees, and had a lot of life experience, however, she wanted to approach working and learning at our CSA farm with a ‘Beginners Mind.” She wanted to set aside any preconceived notions of knowledge or skills she already knew or had - or ideas about what would work or what wouldn’t work and instead desired to be open to brand new ideas and ways of approaching this new time in her life.
I loved this idea, and throughout other areas of my life and learning and teaching, I’ve tried to use this approach as well.
I also found out that this idea comes from the practice of Zen Buddhism and there is a word for ‘Beginner’s Mind’. Shoshin refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. When you are a true beginner, Shoshin teaches, your mind is empty and open, and ready to learn.
Jesus’ teachings seem to parallel this concept of Shoshin. In today’s text: ‘Open your mind, Jesus encourages Nicodemus. Don’t let yourself get stuck in all you already know about birth and new life. This idea I trying to teach is bigger, more mysterious, more of God than anything you already know and understand.’
This scripture text we hear today is a complicated one for us - on the one hand it is so familiar – or at least the last part is so familiar – that even those with no biblical knowledge may be familiar with it. John 3:16 shows up on posters and banners at football games, on parade horses, on letterhead and more. Because of this, most of us may forget what it really is all about.
And the story of Nicodemus – the Pharisee who sought out Jesus with burning questions about the new faith Jesus taught – is also at least fairly familiar as it has brought us the concepts of “born again” and “saved” - ideas that most of us are familiar with and have at least a few opinions about already.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is confused and conflicted. He is highly educated – and has gotten stuck in all he has previously learned - the religious dogma of his training and his vocation as a religious leader. And Jesus’ teachings of something outside that teaching – something bigger - challenge Nicodemus’s preconceived ideas. And yet, instead of simply being put off or outright sneering at those ideas - Nicodemus is intrigued by the promises of something more than what his present faith and practice makes available.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused and intrigued – and with his mind filled to overflowing with what he knows through his education – and the experience of his everyday practice. As he meets with Jesus wondering how it is that Jesus is able to perform the miracles and teachings he is doing - these things that has the city in an uproar – all Nicodemus’s ideas about God and religion – come smack dab up against the brand new ideas Jesus proposes about salvation and the kingdom of heaven – and what it could possibly mean to be born from above.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above – ‘born again’ into the new life that is faith path Jesus is teaching. And Nicodemus is stuck in this world. How can anyone be born again? He is literal. Born again? How can anyone go back into their mother’s womb? Is that what Jesus is suggesting – it can’t be – so what is it? And Jesus says, you’re not listening to me. It isn’t about human birth – it isn’t even about baptism with water - this is a God thing – a grace thing - about being filled with – baptized with - the Holy Spirit.
Has anyone ever asked you if you have been born again? Has anyone ever asked you if you have been saved? And if so, what was your response? Did you immediately reject these concepts? Did you wonder like Nicodemus? Did you ask someone you trusted to explain?
We recently had this conversation at our Bible Study group with a range of responses from this progressive Christian church folks. ‘That kind of language makes me uncomfortable.’ ‘It isn’t language I would use.’ ‘I think I know what they are asking, and it isn’t the way I think about my faith and how I live.’
That’s interesting isn’t it? Because right here in the gospel of John – it is the language Jesus uses isn’t it? Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again. He tells this Jewish man that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven –the realm of God – in order to be ‘saved’ - he must be born again. And yet, we don’t feel comfortable with either of those ideas – ‘saved’, or ‘born again.’
Today’s scripture text from the gospel of John is so familiar – particularly to more conservative or fundamentalist Christians – and yet within more progressive Christian communities, it has been suggested that perhaps this text is a text of terror. That this has been used as a text used to subdue, to put down, to oppress, to separate, to keep out – to use in any way to keep people away from the grace of God. Exactly the opposite in fact from the original purpose of this story told by the apostle John.
Matthew Laney, pastor and writer for the UCC Daily Devotional, tells us that while the words of this scripture text so often used in a judging, scaring method to frighten people into certain behaviors that will get one into heaven – keep in mind these three things that might help:
1. These verses are not pointing toward heaven, hell or purgatory. Eternal life in Johns gospel isn’t never-ending existence after bodily death. Eternal life is about abundant life here and now.
2. For John, Jesus is the door into eternal life -right-now – right here. This is known as ‘salvation.’
3. These verses are not about people, at least not exclusively so. Jesus does not say, ‘For God so loved human beings that God gave…” Jesus says “God so loved the cosmos” (world is ‘kosmos’ in Greek) that includes flora, fauna, fungi, earth wind and fire, rocks and clouds, protons, electrons, neutrons and quarks, blackholes and nebulae and dark matter. God loves all of it because it is God’s to love.
These verses have been interpreted as being only for humans – as we believe humans are the only one who could interpret them and believe them – and yet, as Laney, points out – who’s to say humans are the only ones capable of belief and worship? The Bible doesn’t say that. According to scripture – all of nature (which includes every cell of your body) praises and worships God.
The cosmos is not separate form you or outside of you. You are an integral part of it. It is an integral part of you. You are an integral part of God’s love – and God’s love – grace – is an integral part of you. That is what Jesus came to reveal – way back then – and right now.
Perhaps the ideas behind the words were too nuanced or complicated for the literal Nicodemus. And yet, I believe that as his relationship with Jesus developed, as he came to know and love Jesus, he would also learn to move beyond the literal “born again” and ‘saved’ language to understand what it points to – that the grace is right now -right here. That the realm of God is that God loves the cosmos, including us, unconditionally all the time.
It doesn’t have to be off-putting or creepy or fright- inducing language unless you choose to leave it at that. God through Jesus has always meant this overflowing of grace to be language of love and inclusion – for everyone – everything – in every time and place. Even you. Even me.
Struggle and Testing: Training for the Wilderness
Matthew 4: 1-11; March 1, 2020; Union Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
Lent is not in the Bible. There was no such thing back in Bible times. We do have some historical evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the Lenten 40 days of prayer and self-denial and reflection did not come about until much later.
Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the world did not come to the end followers believed would happen as they understood Jesus himself said it would. As the years went by followers stopped expecting such specific grandiose results from God and thus also expected less from themselves. Oh, they still read the scriptures, they still met in groups, they formed churches, they tried to figure out how to live as believers. They wore silver and gold crosses as jewelry and hung larger wooden crosses on their walls, and they remembered at least a little what those crosses stood for. But for the most part the scriptures became historical poetry and myth, and the crosses became jewelry and decoration. And over the years, Christ followers gave up the ways of struggle and hardship and accepted the ways of comfort and the security of possessions. And they began using the scriptures to back up what they chose to believe, rather than seeking direction from God. For the most part they stopped doing the revolutionary things that Jesus did and taught such as standing up in solidarity with the poor, feeding the hungry, and overturning the religious and political power structures that kept so many in unjust oppression. They blended in with culture and began to appear almost the same as the non- Christians next door.
Until - someone – perhaps a biblical scholar, wondered what it really meant to be a Christian. What made them different from the folks next door? What was the love that identified a Christian? And that someone or someones - looked to the ancient scriptures for insight. And they found that throughout the history of God, believers and even doubters had regular rituals – regular reminders – intended to bring them back to God. They recognized that throughout faith history that even the staunchest of believers were likely to stray – to get lost – to blend in – to forget over time. They also realized the need for a regular time to be set aside for remembering and re-aligning people of faith to the vision of God.
They found some interesting numerology in scripture relating to the number 40.
When the Hebrew people left the bondage of Egypt – they had to spend 40 years stumbling and bumbling and wandering and experiencing some really hard lessons in order to learn some very important things about who and what and why they were, before they were allowed into the land promised by God to be their new home.
Moses spent 40 days up on a mountain meeting with God and at the end of that time received the stone tablets of the law – what we call the ten commandments.
Years later, Elijah the prophet spent 40 days on that same mountain listening and searching for God before he finally figured out that God was always there in the still small voice.
And Jesus following the amazing revelation at the Jordan River: being baptized by John and named by God as the beloved, chosen one – was led off into the wilderness for 40 days – of temptation, struggle, and testing – in preparation for the ministry before him.
40 is an important number in the stories of our faith. It may be that even back then, people knew that one couldn’t learn and make into habit a new practice in less than 40 days. We do know that by 20 days, Elijah hadn’t figured anything out. And even in 20 years, the Hebrew people hadn’t gotten it and were still building golden idols to worship instead of God. In 20 days, Jesus was still up on the mountain being tempted to jump or worship the devil.
The church realized that something was needed to regularly bring its followers back to God. And they knew that it must include reflection, repentance (confessing sins and turning back), and renewal. And because there was already the tradition of a few days of fasting between Good Friday and Easter in preparation for the Resurrection – and because this was also the spring time of the year – as time when all of creation was springing into new life – this seemed like the appropriate time. So, the church decided to institute a season of Lent. The word lent comes from the old English word lenten meaning spring – not only referring to the natural season following winter, but to the new life offered by the resurrection of Jesus.
This new church season of Lent would provide 40 days to stop life as usual – habits as usual – and give time to clean up one’s act - to let go of some of the more destructive practices that had gradually been added into one’s life –
and to take on some new practices that more closely aligned with God’s vision of peace with justice for the whole of creation. And equally important would be to use every one of these 40 days being intentional about those new practices.
And - knowing that going cold turkey about changing one’s life practices would be really difficult – as well as more importantly for these church scholars - knowing that Sunday – the Sabbath – should always be a time of celebration and rejoicing, which is hard to do when you are weighed down with sackcloth and ashes and starving to boot – these church planners set aside 40 days – not counting Sundays – before Easter every year - to get back on track.
I think about this kind of intentional set- aside time – as a time of testing – yes, but even more, as a time of risk-taking, of finding out for yourself what it really means to trust God to help you when you aren’t sure you have what it takes – or are pretty sure you don’t have what it takes on your own. For many, yes, it is also a time of struggle – pitting your own desires against letting go and letting God. It’s both the little things and the big things: ‘What would it really hurt to just take a quick peek at my FB page – even though I decided to give that us? Just one bit of chocolate, one sip of coffee – just to relieve my caffeine-deprived body? Just one day to be a couch potato instead of taking that promised daily walk or jog? Just one moment to read my novel instead of my Bible? Just one day to ignore immigrant justice or climate change or …..’
Lent isn’t meant to be simple or easy or uncomplicated. It is meant to be a time of disruption of your normal schedule. A time of reminder that emptying that place inside you – while it will feel hollow and uncomfortable – is necessary in order to allow it to be filled with the holiness of God - instead of all the stuff we are addicted to that we regularly use to fill it.
And that’s why we need Lent. A spring housecleaning of the soul. Time to clean out our inner fridge. Time to sweep up all the dust-bunnies in every corner and under the furniture of our beings. Time to wash the windows of our soul and let the light shine in.
For many of us that will be a real struggle. For many it will be the hardest test we’ve ever taken. For many it will be temptation after temptation to get through. And yet, if you do take this gift of 40 days of Lent seriously, using every day intentionally, I guarantee you will feel different by Easter – you will be different by Easter!
Matthew 4: 12-23; Jan. 26, 2020; Union Cong. United Church of Christ
Rev. Robin Raudabaugh
I have never been much of a fishing person. I sometimes wish I were, but when I remember the patience and time required in the act of fishing, I also remember why I am not a fishing person. However, lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the fishing idea of catch and release. Many who fish these days practice catch and release – moving the act of fishing from one of procuring food to sport. And that worries me a bit – when I think about catching a fish – that thinks it is getting something good to eat – catching that fish as sport – and then letting the fish go so that it can be caught again for sport. And while the sport of it concerns me at bit – much in the same way that bull riding or bull fighting as sport seem to my mostly I admit uneducated evaluation of how something that is a game to a human may seem to be something else entirely to the animal involved.
And yet, I also know that many fisherfolk that practice catch and release are some of the most fierce advocates of the conservation and preservation of habitat and species and environment. I know that these persons have learned carefully how to catch the fish, set the hook, and then how to unhook the fish ever so carefully to avoid damaging it so that when it returns to the water it can swim away to live again.
The gospel of Matthew tells us a fishing story - one version of the story of the day Jesus walked along the sea of Galilee and noticed several young men casting their fishing nets into the sea. And Jesus called them telling them he would teach them to fish for people.
Ever since I first learned to sing “I will make you fishers of (men)” as we playacted casting our fishing rods out over the water and then reeling in our make-believe line - years ago in Sunday school, I’ve wondered a bit how the ones being caught or snagged or netted on those lines might feel about the day’s fishing. I’ve seen photos of those trophy fish held high – probably out of water too long to be healthy. I’ve seen photos of fishing nets that were supposed to catch one kind of fish with many other protected species also caught and dying as they were discarded.
I also know the perils of pushing a metaphor too far. Jesus after all is talking to fishermen. They know how to fish – they’ve been doing it their whole lives. They know what to keep and what to throw back. If they were fishing with lines, my guess is that they would know all the precautions to take about releasing the fish they weren’t going to keep.
And that makes me wonder about Jesus. I wonder what Jesus would think about catch and release? Because I rather like the idea of catching people to bring in to the community of God, and then releasing them to go about their everyday lives.
Most of us think of fishing as a pleasant pastime – a sport. And unless we’ve done some time working in the commercial fishing industry we have quite a different perspective than those first early fishermen – the ones Jesus called to follow him and become his first disciples. Fishing for them was not a pastime, it was the family business. Most likely had been the family business for generations. It was what put food on the table and provided an income to purchase those other things needed. Those men on the shore that day, were fishermen in the way that some of us are pastors, teachers, lawyers, project managers, and executives. Fishing was what they did, day in and day out.
And Jesus caught them, taught them, and then released them to go out and catch and teach and heal and then release as well. Jesus called them not to leave fishing – but to fish for God. To use all the skills they’d learned while fishing to help him bring into reality the kingdom of God – proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Today we are celebrating Health and Human Service Sunday, bearing witness to the faithful heritage of the United Church of Christ history of founding schools, hospitals, and orphanages in times when such were scarce and needs were great. There are now more than 400 UCC affiliated health care centers, hospitals, and retirement communities, transitional housing for homeless or domestic violence, and service centers for children, youth and families.
On this day, we celebrate the vision of the United Church of Christ in continuing to recognize Jesus’ call on that day on that beach in Galilee to proclaim the good news while healing and curing diseases for anyone in need.
When those first four fishermen were called by Jesus, they dropped their nets, left their boats behind, followed after Jesus, and immediately began learning new ways to fish for so much more than fish. One of the things I loved about the way Jesus called these brothers to follow him is that he didn’t say he was going to make them preachers or teachers or rabbis. He didn’t say they would become evangelists or baptizers. He said they would be doing the same thing they are already doing – have been doing for generations – fishing. All the things they’ve learned, known intuitively about fishing – they will be using now to fish for people.
And because they know how to fish – and because of other stories we’ll read later, we know that even though they followed Jesus – they still fished for fish as well as people. Now through fishing - they are learning about something new too. They have experienced the healing power of Jesus and found out that they too could be healers. They saw diseases being cured and learned that they too could cure with God’s power. And they also are learning to release – to let go - release – their need for status and power (as in the time they tried to secure prized seats for themselves, Jesus chided them). They are learning to let go – release - their desire for having the right answer (they seldom did). They are learning to let go – release – their need to fully understand everything Jesus taught them (they seldom did).
When those first four were invited to fish for people, they dropped their nets and left their boats behind. When we are invited to fish – are we expected to drop our textbooks, our scalpels, our musical instruments, whatever tools our trade requires to follow Jesus? Or are we required to drop them only long enough to give our lives over to – to catch on to - the teaching, healing ministry of Jesus – and then release our need to be so in control of our own life direction – that we can continue to use our God-given gifts and skills to fish for people wherever we are in whatever place we are. Ordinary everyday people – and extraordinary everyday people – some with skills for fishing for fish, some with skills for teaching, some with skills for music or law or organizing or speaking or tending the earth or planting seeds or healing whatever needs healing …. all are called to drop our nets and leave our boats long enough to redirect our lives into the community of the gospel of good news for all the world. And then whatever we do – however we fish – it will be for the healing of the world.
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, disparit