Being Neighborly

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I can’t wait for Halloween this year!  Costumes for the boys, check.  Mom and Dad coordinated costumes, check.  Candy to give out, check.

Here’s one of the most exciting parts for me:  for the first Halloween in six years, we have neighbors.  So often I have preached about neighbors, biblical challenges to be neighborly and love one’s neighbor, and I have not had to “practice what I preached.”  Sort of.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved living in a parsonage and have always had a wide view of neighbor that included not only actual neighbors, but also church members, community members, friends, staff of local businesses and (most recently) residents of a close-by assisted living facility.

So in a broad sense, I did have neighbors.  But in a more traditional sense, this year is the first year my kids and I will ring the doorbells next door and across the street and down the block.  And those doorbells will actually be on a street we live on instead of a friend’s street in a neighborhood we don’t know.

The whole family is excited, frankly.  The boys have neighborhood buddies they’ve met on the bus.  My husband and I are getting to know the families across the street.  We’ve even met a family at the gym who lives two streets over.  (Every time I see the dad there, even though I do know his name, I call out, “Hey, neighbor!”  It just doesn’t get old.)

And what better day to “practice” being neighborly than Halloween?  I saw it on an old high school friend’s FB page one time and her thoughts rang so true:  Halloween is one of the only times of the year when we actually open our doors to strangers, when we get excited to see who’s knocking, and when we welcome those strangers with gifts (treats) and smiles.  We are warm, we are inviting, we are happy to greet those strangers– dressed as all manner of outcasts from zombies to vampires to superheroes to Muppets (that’s us this year!)

On Halloween, Darth Vader and Yoda can walk side by side around the neighborhood.  When Batman and the Joker see one another on opposite sides of the street, squeals of delight usually ensue.  Princesses, kings and queens, fairies, and robots–heck, even angels and devils–find community and camaraderie in the shared goal of filling their bags with treats.  Parents and grandparents and designated grown-ups of all types nod knowingly and smile at one another.  It’s magical.  There’s not another day of the year quite like it.  And here’s the awesome thing– all that diversity, sworn enemies invading the same streets for candy, and I’ve never seen a protester with any kind of a sign saying, “God hates Miss Piggy.”  Nope, not one, ever.

My illustration is getting a little heavy-handed, but you get the idea.  If only… we could be as warm and welcoming and inclusive (and celebratory) of difference on the other 364 days of the year.  Then we might begin to scratch the surface of what it truly means to be a neighbor.

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The Hardest Thing to Say

It’s tough to say goodbye to a place you’ve loved for six years.  My youngest son had just learned to walk when we came to St. John’s, and now he is a lightning-fast 7 yo who can outrun the whole family.  My oldest has been nurtured and encouraged, and my husband found community unlike anywhere else I’d served.

Saying good-bye to this congregation was tough, even though it was a good time for me to leave, and I felt ready to do it.  Even the wisest decisions can be heart-wrenching, and it really felt like a wise time step aside so that the congregation could welcome new pastoral leadership.

So instead of a last hurrah, a final “kick-butt” sermon, I just said some simple words about the importance of shared Christian life together.  You can read them below:

I agonized quite bit this week on what scriptures to choose, wondering which choice would be best to speak to everything that was going on this week.  Today is World Communion Sunday—a day when churches all around the world wake up and gather together and break bread and share the common cup.  A prophetic and anticipatory day that reflects our shared hope that the church, the Body of Christ, will soon be united more than it is divided.

It’s also, of course, my last sermon—which I had not really given any significant thought to UNTIL someone asked me about it last week.  That got me thinking.

So I wondered all week about what to say and how to say it.  I read the scriptures again and again.  But it was not until I closed my eyes and IMAGINED us all here today that some inspiration came to me.

I imagined us together singing our first hymn.  I imagined us passing the peace.  I imagined holding the bread at communion.  I imagined at the last, speaking and receiving the words of separation and forgiveness (which we will do at the service’s close).  And then I imagined walking up here to this pulpit, and that’s when I realized that what needs to be said today will not be said in the sermon.  It might not even be said at all.

When I imagined all of us coming together this morning in worship, I realized that what is important today is not what I say, it’s what WE DO.

We have gathered to sing God’s praises as a community.  We have already quite literally enacted reconciliation and peace by welcoming one another in Christ.  We have listened together for wisdom and guidance in God’s word.  We will in a few moments remember together our savior’s last meal and ministry and break bread and share cup in His name once again—this time, quite importantly, not only as a community at St. John’s but as a world-wide Christian community.  Then we will say good bye to one another in gratitude and grace and hope.

When I thought about the power of those actions, I realize there is not much I can say or add to them.  We forget sometimes as Christians, coming to church and going through these motions each week, the power of these actions we do—the power of shaking hands and smiling and welcoming, the power of reading scripture as a group, the power of giving.  We do things here we don’t do anywhere else in our lives.  But it’s so subtle, it’s easy to overlook.

The message that I received this week and the message I would share with all of you is a simple one—to remember and be mindful of what we do together; here in this place with all of you on the 6th anniversary, to the day, of my first Sunday at St. John’s, I say goodbye.  And it’s difficult to do that for as many reasons as there are people here in this community.  But there is something much deeper than words that binds all of us together.  We share a faith, we share a love, we share a grace that challenges us and forgives us.  We share a Christ who calls us to work, whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey, for the unity of the Body of Christ.

So instead of more words, let’s get on with doing exactly that.  Amen.

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Funeral Ministry

10494832_10205693610072291_2298277278671725316_nNever would I imagine taking photos at a funeral, but I have learned never to say never. Last week I got called to do a funeral for a young man who had died.  His family had been Catholic from way back, but were “not very religious” and his mother had never gotten around to getting him baptized.  The funeral home could not get a priest.  So as often happens, I got a call asking if I’d be willing to officiate the memorial.

The local funeral homes call me when they have “unusual” situations, when families don’t have a pastor or priest, or they feel they need an officiant who will be able to roll with the punches. I’ve had some interesting experiences in this ministry (although I’m sure nothing compared to funeral directors who’ve been in the business for many years.)  I’ve done funerals where the cops were called, where family members jumped on the coffin, a grieving daughter screams about the coffin not being “sealed” properly.  I’ve officiated funerals where no one spoke because there was not one good to say.

This young man’s death was related to a life-long struggle with mental illness, and his family, still in shock, wanted to remember him as the fun-loving, risk-taking, mom-worrying, Dr. Who-watching, Renaissance Fair-frollicking person that he was.  So they decided to have a Mardi Gras-themed funeral.  Hats, masks, beads, a horse-drawn carriage for the procession to the grave, and of course, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

It felt strangely natural as we got out of our cars and followed behind the horse and carriage at the cemetery.  Truly, it was something that mourners did for centuries before limousine style hearses came into fashion.  Someone carried a music box, we wore our beads, and we walked up the hill to the site where the young man was laid to rest.  Some older relatives were whispering as they walked about his not being baptized, so I scrapped the Dr. Who quote I was going to read for the story of Nicodemus and Jesus from the Gospel of John.  I pulled it up on my phone (thank God for online Bibles!), and talked about how, while there are traditional ways of “coming to God” through Baptism and Communion, this scripture tells us a story of a man who was unable to come to Jesus by his society’s accepted norms.  He was a Pharisee and was not able to publicly acknowledge his relationship with Jesus.  So Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.

Long ago, as I myself sat in a church that had VERY definite roles about “how to come to Jesus,” a very subversive Sunday School teacher told me that God is there for us anytime we need God.  Anytime we come.  In the bright of day, in the dark of night, in public, in secret.  God just invites us to come, anyway we can.  Nicodemus did, and the young man did as well.  Miracle of miracles, our God is “big enough” that we can come to God as many different ways as there are people in this world.  And God will receive him, you or I just like Jesus received Nicodemus.  Because the God who made us LOVES US JUST THAT MUCH.

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Ugly Quilts

One of our church's Ugly Quilts on the altar ready for blessing.

One of our church’s Ugly Quilts on the altar ready for blessing.

O Lord, we give you thanks and praise for the generosity, dedication and creativity of the quilters who have come together to create these quilts.

We thank you for the willingness to help, the passion for justice, and the spirit of collaboration these quilts represent.

We rejoice that so many in our congregation brought neckties and gave of their time to complete this project.

God of Justice, we acknowledge our sorrow that these quilts are needed in this world.

We lift to you our shared frustration and sadness that too many in our world, too many in our own community, are without a reliable and comfortable place to live.

We pray for all those who are in need of shelter, all those who are in need of adequate food, clothing, and resources.

We pray for them and for us— that we might find the compassion in our hearts to be part of a solution to end homelessness and poverty among your beloved children.

God of Compassion, bless these ugly quilts, the beautiful hearts that worked to make them, and those children of yours who will receive them.

We pray these quilts are a small comfort in the midst of life’s storms, a reminder that there are those who care and those who are willing to fight for change.

We pray all these things in Christ’s most precious name.  Amen.

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Apokatastasis: Pentecost 2015

We are the church, my friends.  We are the spiritual descendants of the Greeks and Galileans and Phrygians and Libyans and Persians and Romans.  We are the descendants of those Egyptians and Asians and Judeans and Mesopotamians.  We are the Parthians and the Elamites and the Medes.  We have heard the Gospel, we have found relationship with Jesus Christ and we have rejoiced in the grace of God, and we are called to go out into the world, broken and hurting as it is, and share the HOLY SPIRIT within us!

Read the rest of Pentecost 2015 here.

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Separated from God? No More!

A belated Easter sermon, excerpted:

Now, let us think for a moment how this scripture from the Gospel of Mark ends—the women run away, terrified.  They were afraid.  Afraid.  That’s it?  It’s finished?  There’s nothing more to the story?  They were scared and ran off?

As I thought about the end of his life, I couldn’t help but think about the beginning of Jesus’ life as well—there’s another passage we read at Christmas, one of the birth stories from Luke this time, that talks of the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds.  After hearing and seeing angelic beings all around them, the shepherds had the most logical of reactions—they were terrified, “sore afraid” says the Charlie Brown version from King James.

In our love of Jesus, in our desire to make Jesus “accessible” to all of those who do not know him, we usually focus on the fact that he was welcoming and loving and kind and gentle—just think for a moment of all the words you might use to describe Jesus to someone who did not have a relationship with him.

Yet when we look at the beginning and the ending of his life, we see that folks were afraid. Afraid.  They were afraid at this birth, and here at his resurrection they are afraid again.

Why, I would ask, why fear?  Is Jesus terrifying?  Should we fear him?  Not just the shepherds and the women at the tomb… but I think if we looked deep into our own hearts we might find some of that same fear when it comes to the realities we are called to proclaim at Christmas and Easter.

See, these are the times of the year when we ask you “get real” with Jesus—when Christ is born, we aren’t just having a baby shower every year at Advent and Christmas, we are proclaiming that God was born flesh to live among us, to know us, experience our humanity, and to save us.  We proclaim at Christmas the wonder of the incarnation—that Christ can live in you, too.  And it’s wonderful, but if we take it seriously, it can be a little scary.

Here at Easter, we proclaim that Christ, who took on humanity and who took on the weight of humanity’s sin, stepped into the gap of separation between us and our Creator and said NO MORE!  This rift, this torn relationship cannot continue any longer.  Easter says that we are NO MORE separated from God, that the Christ who lives within us lives forever more and invites us—me and you and everyone here—to share in that eternal life, to share in that unconditional grace and love.

We say it at Christmas, too—but maybe we all get distracted by the thought of the baby—when we take these truths seriously, when we do more than celebrate Easter, when we do more than celebrate the resurrection, when we actually claim it and live it in our lives, when we let it shape us and mold us and change us, when we understand that we are no longer bound by sin, when we get in our heads that God loved us just that much, that death and sin will not have the final word in our lives and that because Christ lives in us RIGHT NOW our lives can be different, RIGHT NOW our lives can be changed—when we do this, when we take this truth seriously, when we understand it is not just a truth OUT THERE but a truth IN HERE, in my life and in your life, then it IS scary!

It is scary when we hear these words not as a story but as a truth for our lives.  When we understand this is a living text that leaps off the page and speaks to us right now, right where we are, needing love and forgiveness and grace and welcome.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life:  to know Jesus is to know resurrection in your life, it is to know the possibility of change and new life… but it also is to know death.  Resurrection is an invitation to transformation—not when you die, not only when we die, but RIGHT NOW!  This is the power of what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago—this is why our God is so awesome, and this is what most Christians don’t understand.  Or don’t really believe.  Or maybe don’t want.

We don’t want to change.  We don’t want to be different.  Because change and difference in our lives are uncomfortable and scary and sound like way too much work!  We don’t want to ask ourselves the tough question I’m going to ask right now, the one God asks all the time:  what in our lives need to die for us to know God more closely?  What in our lives needs to die for us to walk transformed in Christ?

Easter is scary, and it asks us to be willing to take the risk of change.  Yet we know that it will be life-affirming, we know it will be healing, we know it will be joyous, we know it will bring us to wholeness, we know it will bring us a feeling of completeness and love and mercy we have never known before…

Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and we can be raised too, if we only let go and accept God’s invitation to transformation.  And of course there is fear and trembling along the way—we felt that fear yesterday and the days before… we know we can overcome those things because we stand here today in joy.

We know the invitation, we know the fear, and friends we also must be honest about the need.  We as individuals and we as a church NEED new life, we need to be changed, to be transformed, to be made whole again.  As I said when I started, I need resurrection.  I need Easter.  And let me say it really really clearly—I need to not just talk about it and preach about it and celebrate it and KEEP IT AT ARM’S DISTANCE, I need to make it real in my life, I need to live it and let it change me.

Today, my friends, let this Easter morning be different.  Let us be honest in the face of our fears.  Let us be honest in our hesitation and our habit of keeping change, real change at an arm’s distance away.  It’s time.  It’s time to stop being afraid, it’s time to change our posture, to open our hand and open our heart and, even though it’s scary, live EASTER.  LIVE resurrection.  Let God come into your life and make a difference because he lives!  Amen!

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Proud of My Church

Art by Joy, a child who received the some books to take home from our Jackie's Books Mission Project.

Art by Joy, a child who received the some books to take home from our Jackie’s Books Mission Project.

St. John’s UCC has a mission program that began just before I came:  a beloved member named Jackie passed away, and her family and the congregation were hurt and grieving.  So they decided to remember her by honoring one of Jackie’s passions– after years of being a Baltimore City schoolteacher, Jackie was passionate about getting books into the hands of children in city schools that had inadequate resources and libraries.  So the congregation began collecting books (new and gently used) to donate to city schools.  Currently, the books are distributed to any school or library that we hear needs them.  We collect books during the year, with a special emphasis during our Vacation Bible School.  This year we got a packet of “thank you” notes from one of the local schools.  And they are just heart-warming!  I especially love the drawing of our church included in one little girl’s note.  Here is truly evidence that God is still speaking and working in the lives of God’s people!

I really think this child's name says it all.

I really think this child’s name says it all.

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