When Life Comes Unraveled: Laugh!

unraveled

This is part of a sermon series at Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland. We using some of the ideas for the UNRAVELED resources developed by Lisle Gwynn Garrity at Sanctified Art.


SARAH LAUGHS!!
Unraveled: Seeking God when our Plans fall apart
A sermon offered to the people of God at
Twinbrook Baptist Church
June 23, 2019

“Houston, we have a problem.”

You might recognize that phrase from the Ron Howard film, Apollo 13.Those were the understated words of astronaut Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) as they realized that there was an issue with the oxygen tanks on their spacecraft. In the days that followed, NASA and the three astronauts on the Odysseyovercame every obstacle to get safely home.

It was NOT that whey thought would happen. They had a detailed flight manual. They had onboard computers that were supposed to provide guidance data. But disaster hit when the service module oxygen tanks exploded. The flight plan was scrubbed. NASA and the flight crew never stopped looking for a way to make it a “successful failure.”

In a way, that is what we have been planning here at TBC. A “successful failure” – a church closing. Where we looked at our assets and decided to invest them into the future. Where we can take the funds from the sale of the building, and invest them in ministries and nonprofits that have been a meaningful part of this congregation’s life and ministry. It takes courage to be willing to do this.

When I saw the ideas behind this sermon series, Unraveled: Seeking God when our plans fall apart, I said to Pastor Jill, “This is us! This is Twinbrook Baptist Church!” We are in a season of unraveling… in every way.

The challenge has been, and will be, seeing God in the midst of our church life, especially since it isn’t what we wanted it to be. In all of the books that I read on closing a church, they basically all said basically the same thing: “pray, love each other, make a plan, and then throw the plan out the window.” Like the Apollo 13 crew, we are past lift-off, and we are waiting to see how it all ends.

Whatever challenge we face as a church, whatever struggle you are dealing with personally, you might say it is IMpossible. But God invites us to believe it is imPOSSIBLE!

I. imPOSSIBLE! Genesis 18:1-25

Our first text this morning tells the very real struggle of an elderly couple. They had moved from their homeland of Ur, and travelled as God asked, and still did not have the start of that “great nation” God had promised them. You remember that when Abraham and Sarah were known as Abram and Sarai, God promised them that they would be the progenitors of more descendants than the stars in the sky, and that they would inhabit a new land.

Pretty hard to have to have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky if your wife is barren! But, Abraham believed God.

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© 2008 LMAP, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Now not being able to have your own biological children is a painful and sad reality for many people. Some of my friends have struggled with conception and carrying a baby to term. It is heartbreaking. Being told, ‘oh, you can adopt’ or ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ is both insensitive and unkind. When you know that you want to be a mother or father… and you believe you are called to parenthood… and you have to wait and trust God in the process… those are very difficult and lonely weeks… years… decades…

It means that you are wondering, questioning, and then resigning yourself, in faith, to a waiting hopefulness, all the while going about life. Sometimes you laugh in a bit of dark humor. But you always hurt. Lisa Manterfield, blogger and writer about her own infertility puts it this way:

There are two questions I get asked frequently: How did you come to terms with not having children, and how long did it take? The answer is something akin to “how long is a piece of string and how many knots can you tie in it?”

Remember that in the era of the Patriarchs, there was no knowledge of how conception

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© 2008 eflon, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

really happened. Was it Sarah being barren? Or Abraham being infertile? The term used to describe Sarah was like a field that was too inhospitable to seed. A uterus of rocks, if you will. The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out that there is no place in the Hebrew Bible where the man is reported to have “bad seed” – yet every gardener knows it is in indeed possible to get a spoiled or mildewed bag of seed. (See: Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Wilda C. Gafney. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017. 33-34.)

It didn’t matter – in patriarchal culture, it was always the woman’s fault. By the time the 3 strangers showed up at their tent, Sarah was menopausal, so it was a moot point. There are no buns in the oven. Imagine, in this this patriarchal culture, a woman’s body not doing what it was expected to do. Imagine, having been given a promise that you will be progenitors of a great nation, that your body fails, month after month, year after year, to conceive and bear a child. Women’s bodies are, without fail, biological reminders of this fertility cycle.

So they say she will conceive and bear him a child. Yes, she laughed. Because the ups and down of life are, quite simply, incredible, unbelievable, hilarious. Why did Sarah laugh? She was 90 years old! Do you know any pregnant 90 year olds?

Yes! We all laughed! And so did Sarah.

Laughing at the IMpossible, however, is different than laughing with joy at the imPOSSIBLE! It seemed unreasonable to believe that Abraham and Sarah would have their own progeny. In some way, in some kernel of faith, they believed.

Dr. Walter Brueggemann writes about the way that the Gospel is not conventional wisdom, where what we expectis what will happen. He says,
“By his powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness… Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. Barrenness has now become ludicrous.” (See: Interpretation: Genesis. Walter Brueggemann. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. 158-9; 182.)

When God speaks to them through the three strangers who visit their tent, they hear that Sarah will be pregnant… Sarah laughs. The stranger responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 21:14)

“Too wonderful” or “too hard” or “impossible”… these are not words that are a part of our understanding of a Holy One who could do anything. The root word includes concepts like “beyond one’s power” and “difficult to do.” Where we say IMpossible, God says, POSSIBLE!

It takes courage to move past laughter when we are faced with the IMpossible. It also takes laughter… and how God answers the imPOSSIBLE with a Son of Laughter.

Part II: Genesis 21:1-7 The Son of Laughter

pumpkin
© 2007 julie, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

imPOSSiBLE! That a plain yellow pumpkin can become a golden carriage!
imPOSSIBLE! That a plain country bumpkin and a prince can join in marriage!

The opening words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein song between Cinderella and her fairy godmother have been on my mind all week.

The promise made to Sarah and Abraham – when she was in her sixties and he in his seventies falls into the category of… imPOSSIBLE!!! Or at least biologically unlikely. As they say, “that ship has sailed.” Or “Estrogen has left the building.” The imPOSSIBLE happens. Incredible as it seems, Sarah will need the midwives.

Years have gone by. Abraham is 100. Sarah is 90. Yet they have a child of the promise – Isaac. Yitschaq. Whose name means “he laughs.” It also can mean “mockery” or “joking” – as in, “you thought you were done having children… just joking!”

The intervening years have not been easy since the visit by the three strangers. The patriarch of this future great nation… has no sons by his wife, Sarah. Yes, he does have a son by a slave woman, Hagar – whose body was used for this purpose.

Let’s pause for a moment and recognize that Hagar had no choice in this matter, but was, effectively, forced to have his child. I doubt she saw it as a choice. She was… a slave… who was raped. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that, at that time, it was SO important to have children, particularly MALE children, that Sarah told Abraham to do it.

The intervening years were full of bad decisions which I can’t go into because of time, but are worth remembering. These were not perfect people, but they were faith-filled people. They lied. They took matters into their own hands. But they believed God. Quite a juxtaposition of faith and human nature, isn’t it?

Friends of our family have three wonderful children. Before the birth of their third child, they had the usual sonogram and were told “it’s a girl!” Since they had two sons already, they were thrilled beyond words. Friends threw a baby shower and there was SO MUCH PINK STUFF. They joked about not knowing how to raise a girl. The baby was born, and it was – to their shock — a boy!! And they laughed. And laughed!! And yes. They named him Isaac!

In moments of emotional extremes, you hear people say, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!” The two emotions are very close together. In our happiest moments, we cry. In our saddest moments, we cry. Both use the tear ducts and the diaphragm – and our bodies are very good at connecting the two.

In fact, we were made that way – to cry and laugh at the same time. Sarah laughed. What was that laughter about?

It might have been laughter of incredulousness. Laughter of shock. Laughter of surprise. Laughter of absurdity. Laughter in the face of fear. Laughter of disbelief.

I can’t tell you why Sarah laughed. It might have been for any of these reasons. But I do know this: Though God’s timing for this baby boy, Isaac, was not when they expected it, it still happened. God’s heart and hand were still in their lives. God knew their faith and their doubts. God works in spite of stubbornness. God heard their laughter and it was not held against them. Nothing was beyond God’s forgiveness and grace. Nothing was “too much” for God to do.

I can’t tell you that the “thing” you are waiting for, (whatever it is), will work out the way you want it to. But I can tell you that we – you and I – have a God who sees our tears and hears our laughter of disbelief – and who does not judge us.

In this crazy mess of life – we praise God. And laugh.

Part III: Proverbs 17:22; Sirach 30:21-25 Healing Laughter

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© 2006 kellinahandbasket, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Our final scriptures this morning talk about the healing power of laughter. It’s always fascinating to me to see how emotions are contagious. People start giggling at joke, and bystanders start laughing – before they hear the joke. We see people smile. We smile. We hear people laugh. We laugh. There are times I can NOT look at Regina because… she will make me laugh. You all know what I mean…

Those of us of a certain age might remember Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, or The Beverly Hillbillies. (Or you’ve seen them on re-runs.) All of those comedies had laugh tracks. The producers experimented and discovered that more people would laugh if there was a laugh track. If people laughed, they didn’t turn off the TV show, and then they would watch the commercials. (And you understand, right? The purpose was to get you to watch the commercials!) It was also cheaper to tape a show, use a laugh track, and not wait for the audience to laugh correctly.

The news this week has been discouraging, hasn’t it? I have found it hard to stay positive, and caring, and do my job every day. You’re not imagining it if you’ve felt that way, too. If you keep track of the news, it can discourage the most optimistic. The world we inhabit has crazy stuff going on. Crazy. We cannot combat the evil that we see if we do not take time to re-set our emotional True North.

When things unravel around us – whether personal or political – it becomes even more important to honor the feelings and stress that we feel. And, as we are able, to reconnect to the things that give us perspective. And laughter.

In The Washington Post this week, there was an article about humor and health. Researchers found that laughter not only has psychological benefits, but physiological ones, too. When we laugh, our lungs expand, and more oxygen gets to our heart, lung, and vital organs. We breathe more deeply. Our blood pressure goes down. We feel more connected to others, because – let’s face it – funny people are fun to be around!

In illness, humor helps you cope with uncertainty and inconvenience. It gives you control. It makes you feel like whatever you are coping with – even if it is going to be chronic – is do-able. It shows the world that you are still here and kicking. As comedian Rob Reiner said, “Every morning, get up and read the paper. If you aren’t in the obits, then eat breakfast!”

It works!

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“Ugly George”

I applied this strategy with my recent knee surgery. I was fitted with a knee brace that, from time to time, I still use when my joint is going to be under extra stress or my knee is extra achy. And I named it “Ugly George.” Because… well… look at it!!

Humor gets us through a lot of tough life events.

A few days before my Dad died, he was hospitalized. One night, he fell in his hospital room, and of course the hospital staff were worried about him. They performed the usual tests to make sure he hadn’t gotten a concussion or a serious injury. They asked him, “Do you know where you are?” And Dad responded, “Why yes! I’m at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, in Beaufort, South Carolina.” The staff member said, “Oh that’s perfect!” Dad didn’t miss a beat. He held up the bed linens, prominently stamped with the name of the hospital, and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a cheat sheet?”

I’m not talking about the laughter from mocking others, of course. It’s not when we ridicule or heckle someone. It’s not making fun of someone. And, sad to say, a lot of comedy these days is insulting… and not very funny. This is the kind of laughter that encourages, invites, and engages. It is the welcome relief from pain, or grief, or stress.

How many of you have faced a parenting moment where you laughed until you just cried. I think every parent has a story. I have them. One Christmas, we all had the flu. One by one, we succumbed to that virus that includes a fever, puking, you know… fa la la la la toilet… la la la la…

It. Was. Terrible. I was curled up on the couch with one of the kids, and she threw up all over me. My parents were visiting. It was… grand. I looked up with tears in my eyes, and said to my mom, “NOW what?” Mom, with the calm demeanor of the mother of seven children said, “well, when you both stop dripping, go get cleaned up.”

I sighed. And then, I laughed.

When you both stop dripping…it still makes me laugh.

In this final set of scriptures, we read these words:

From Sirach: A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span.

From Proverbs: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Laughter is healing. Laughter is holy. Laughter, is above all, a good gift from God. May we learn to respond, like Sarah, to our moments of longing, sadness, or even disbelief, and laugh.

Amen.

Can you hear Me NOW?

Can you hear Me NOW?
A sermon for the people of God
at Greenbelt Community Church
Greenbelt, Maryland
June 16, 2019

Thank you for the warm welcome. It is good to be back here, and to worship with you. One of these days, I will have to join you and hear my dear friend Pastor G preach… perhaps someday soon!

Hear the Word of the Lord…

Proverbs 8:1-9 (The Inclusive Bible)

Doesn’t Wisdom call?
Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?
On the hill along the road,
at the crossroads, she takes her stand;
beside the city gates of the town,
in the gates themselves, she cries out,
“Women and men, people everywhere,
I’m calling out to you!
I cry out to all of humankind!
You who are simple, learn how to make sound judgments!
To the foolish among you, use your common sense!
Listen closely, for what I say is worth hearing,
and I will tell you what is right;
for my mouth will speak the truth,
and my lips hate to lie.
Everything I say is right;
none of it is twisted or crooked.
All of it is plan-spoken to those who understand,
clear to those seeking knowledge.”

 

====Please pray with me====

Holy and loving One,
We so often do not listen,
We so frequently do not ask,
And we really don’t like a change in our personal agendas…
But you, Divine One,
Know us so well.
Capture our hearts
Get our attention
And may the words I offer be in tune
With your heart
And Your holy Word.
Amen

====================

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© 2005 Masahide Kanzaki, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

While I was a music student at Ohio State, we analyzed various scores and printed music for our theory and composition classes. Sometimes we picked the music apart as a class, a kind of joint venture of a musical autopsy. Other times, we were handed a portion for an exam, and were expected to dissect it on our own. Complex or simple, I had a deep appreciation for the great works we studied. But the music that never failed to amaze me were the ones that were written when the composer was… deaf.

Their inner muse was so strong, so well-developed, that though they were deaf, they could create symphonies and string quartets and never hear a note of it. The works of composers like Beethoven and Smetana, Fauré and Vaughn Williams stunned me when I realized that they never heard them performed.

They never stopped listening. Even when they could not hear.

  • Our texts this morning invite a new kind of listening. They ask us, even though we may be tone deaf to God’s speaking to us, that we try and listen anyway!
  • Whether it is seen or known, the Scriptures this morning invite us to HEAR the words of truth, to become aware of the voice of Wisdom and Understanding.
  • Our texts this morning invite us to engage with the Created world around us in new ways. To see. To hear. To praise. To worship. To respond.

The problem is that we are, so often, slogged down in the everyday drone of life. And it drowns out our attempts to love and follow God!

Gotta pay the bills
Gotta pick up the kids
Gotta do the laundry
Gotta fix dinner
Gotta get groceries
Oops the cat threw up… gotta clean that up.

And then as every parent knows… the end of the school year hits:
Gotta get teacher gifts
Gotta help the kids study for exams
Gotta get poster board for that last project
Gotta find that band shirt for the concert (And does it still fit? That was Christmas!)
Gotta get good seats at graduation
Gotta sign the kids up for camp
Gotta find a hotel for vacation

AND… if you are dealing with a chronic illness…
Gotta get a scan and blood test
Gotta see this specialist
Gotta try a new medication
Gotta
Gotta
Gotta

We are on this treadmill existence, going nowhere fast!

The Divine invites us –
To reprogram
To reboot
To re-engage with the world around us!

Listen! Think! Look! Praise!

Listen! God says: “Doesn’t wisdom call?”
Think!  God suggests: “Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?”
Look!   God’s people respond: “When I look up at your heavens…
Praise! God’s people sing: “How majestic is your name in ALL the earth!”

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The *@%$!! Washington Beltway

That’s not “normal” mode for human beings. Well… I know it isn’t for me. I might do OK at the “Praise” part on Sunday mornings. But by Tuesday afternoon’s rush hour… um… well… there are different words on my tongue.

Charles Hummel published a booklet in 1961 titled The Tyranny of the Urgent.  In this small volume, he suggested that there is always tension between things that are urgent and things that are important—and far too often, the urgent wins.

Yes. Far too often, the urgent wins. Anyone who has ever had their tasks changed at work because the Boss says, “I gotta have this today” knows exactly what Hummel meant!

We who are locked into our smart phones and Outlook calendars, and have trouble remembering to PRIORITIZE what God thinks is important… Can we learn to not just do the next thing?? Not just respond to the next email, the next tweet, the next voicemail?

I’m not there yet. But I’m working on it. I’m really bad at “unplugging” actually, but I keep trying. Because how can I hear “the still, small voice” of God when I’m not listening for it? “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW???” God asks…

Um… nope. Not really…

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More seagulls than people!

Every year, I look forward to vacation, when I try to reconnect with the created world around me. Quite honestly, I am looking forward to getting away… Before I see you again in July, we will journey to a place where there are more seagulls than people. Where the loudest noise I hear is the wind in the sea grass and palm branches, and the biggest decision I have to make is where I will take my afternoon nap… on the beach? …in the hammock? …or at poolside?

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Sunset over a tidal marsh.

And as my blood pressure goes down, and freckles reappear on my nose… I breathe deeply and watch the day unfold at a pace that has nothing to do with the clock, and everything to do with the rhythm of sun and sand and sea. I make time at sunset to watch the birds come in to roost in the marsh, and see the shadows grow longer over the sand dunes. I hold star charts overhead and marvel at the number and intensity of the planets and constellations when the city lights are fading. I look for sea turtle hatchlings.

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An egret taking off over a tidal marsh.

In short, I am immersed in the physical world I can see, whether or not I can understand it. Because I don’t need to be able to explain the reasons why stars twinkle to marvel at the number of them. I can watch fireflies (or lightning bugs – whatever you call them) and not know if they are advertising for a mate or just doing what they do… blink… blink… blink…

We are far from being hunter-gatherers or shepherds like the writer of the Psalms. But even if you ARE a botanist or an astrophysicist, you can still marvel at the way that our planet moves from season to season, and sustains humans and animals.

Terry Tempest Williams in her book When Women Were Birds wrote:

Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.

The world is meant to be celebrated! BUT – also to be cared for… The Psalmist was aware that the entire Created world was under humanity’s dominion. Everything in the air, the sea, and on the land was given to humanity to care for…

How aware are we of our stewardship…
When plastics pile up in our landfills and pollute our oceans?
When we depend on fossil fuels in increasing ways?
When we do not ensure that the vulnerable, the weak and the hurting have clean water, clean air, and enough food?
When Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water after 5 years…
When there are famines in one part of the world, and food waste in the other?

Doesn’t Wisdom call?
Doesn’t Understanding raise her voice?
Doesn’t the Holy One call to us, asking, “Can you hear Me NOW?”

Today –

When you walk out into the warm sunshine or cope with a sudden summer thunderstorm,

Who will you thank?
Who will you praise?
Whose heart will speak to yours?

Can you hear Me NOW? God asks…

May our answer be… YES.

Amen.

Breakfast on the Beach

Breakfast on the Beach
A sermon for the People of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
April 28, 2019
Rev. Deborah Vaughn, BCC

John 21:1-14
1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


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A shrimp boat off the coast of South Carolina. (Much bigger than the Galilean boats!)

Thank you for the warm welcome. Thank you, Valerie and choir, for leading us in praise and worship. It is good to be back here on a day like this, full of joy and celebration!

When Pastor Dee mentioned that this was “Bright Sunday,” I pondered what post-Resurrection story brought me the most smiles. I tried to think — what Eastertide scripture portion brings in the most joy and love – after all, we are not remembering a funeral! We are resurrection people! This vignette from the end of the Gospel of John just makes me smile. A fishing story to end ALL fish stories.

Fishermen love to talk about the one that got away. Or the one that was THIS big. It might have been a minnow on the hook, but it was a WHALE by the time the tale is finished.

It reminds me of the story of a man who went off to do some fishing one weekend. He had absolutely no luck. Zero. None. Nada. About half way home, he sees a fish market, and he stops and says to the owner, “hey, throw me four of those medium sized rainbow trout.” The owner says, “throw them? Why?” The man says, “Well, at least that way, I can say I caught them.”
But wait… there’s more…  
The owner says, “Oh, is your name Jim? And is your wife’s name Cathy?” Puzzled, the man answers, “yes…” the owner responded, “Ok then, Cathy called. She wants you to bring home salmon instead.”
Ba-bum-bum…

Galilee
Photo Credit: “Sea of Galilee (Kinneret; Lake Tiberius)”, © 2018 Gary Todd, Flickr | PD-CC0 | via Wylio

We know that Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fisherman when they were called to be one of Jesus’ followers. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, we can read about Jesus showing up on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and inviting the four to become “fishers of people.” You remember the story? They had been fishing all night, and Jesus told them to row out into deeper water, and drop their nets yet again.

Bless Simon Peter! He probably could have used a lot saltier language but he said, “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Can you hear the eye roll? IF YOU SAY SO…

You remember what happens next? They catch so many fish that their nets begin to break, their boats began to sink, and they had to be rescued by other boats to help haul in the catch.

You would think with such as auspicious beginning that they would remember…Not just this event, but the other miracles that Jesus did. But, apparently not.

After the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version anyway, Jesus told them to go ahead to Galilee, and he would meet them there. We do not have a time stamp, but it was probably a few weeks later when this morning’s Scripture took place.

How do we know this? It’s about 184 km or 114 miles from Jerusalem to Galilee. That is about 5 days of hard walking. Not a leisurely stroll. But because, in all likelihood, it wasn’t just “11 bros” going fishing, but their whole families and households, it was probably a two week hike, with a stop for the Sabbath. It was an intentional journey, not a casual whim.

They walked home. Walked. Probably still confused. Still debating what really happened. Just like us – you have 11 eye witnesses, and that means there are 15 versions of what happened – not to mention the debates about what it all means!
Did you see? Thomas stuck his HAND in Jesus’ side?
Mary said there was an angel!
Yeah, but the guards said there was an earthquake…

The disciples, the men and women who followed Jesus, were real people. They argued. They cried. They got tired. They got people-sick. They defended Jesus… and then denied Jesus. I think that they went home, perhaps to find answers, perhaps just to be rejuvenated by the smells and foods and sounds of home.

While we know that they traveled with Jesus all over, we don’t know how long it had been since they were home.  Have you ever journeyed back to your old school, your old neighborhood, maybe back to see family, and realize you are not the same? You don’t quite fit any more… but it’s all you know.

I think they were “disciples of amnesia.”
They had forgotten all that they had seen while traveling with Jesus. They had forgotten the improbable results. The unlikely people who would be followers of Christ.
They fell back into their old habits, their old haunts, their old occupations. They were tempted by the same old problems.

It’s like those of us who are enthusiastic gardeners and get all excited the first warm weekend of Spring. We go to the big box stores and see the baby tomato plants… and we forget that last frost is still coming. And those plants will surely die in the first cold night they are outside. Amnesia!

The disciples had amnesia.

In this morning’s passage, we hear words that are familiar from the passage I referenced earlier in Luke:

“You have no fish, have you?”

“NOooooo.” Now – I would bet – they had a few choice words more than just “NOooooo.”

But…

Nevertheless, when Jesus told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat, they did… and there were “so many fish!” And that was what jolted them out of their amnesia.

It took this huge, amazing, miraculous catch for them to do a double take and for “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (that is, JOHN), to realize that wasn’t just some kibbutzer standing on the shoreline – it was Jesus!

And Peter, bless him, was so excited that he jumped overboard and swam to the beach. John thought we needed to know that Peter fished in the buff and had to first put clothes on before he swam to shore. Ok then.

But… hear me… It took a miracle at daybreak, when they were tired, sore, and probably very frustrated, to FINALLY listen. And then to witness, with their own eyes, Jesus’ abundant gifts to them – “153 fish” – (I wonder – did someone COUNT them? John… apparently!)

onjal-machhiwad - navsari - gujarat - india
Photo Credit: “catch, onjal-machhiwad”, © 2011 nevil zaveri, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When God invites us to breakfast on the beach… what waits for us is the abundant, overwhelming, satisfying, compassionate love of God.

Jesus didn’t chastise or scold. He didn’t say, “Now didn’t I tell you to go to Galilee? I don’t remember saying ANYTHING about fishing.” Jesus used this extraordinary circumstance to remind them of the extraordinary, over-the-top, welcoming love of God.

Friends… maybe you… like me… are not exactly receptive to the suggestions of our friends and families when we are tired and disgusted and frustrated. When we are exhausted. When our best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Maybe you… like me… are really only receptive to help when we realize we are standing there with empty hands and an empty net. Maybe you… like me… are jolted out of our amnesia to remember…

God’s faithfulness
God’s compassion
God’s people willing to show love and mercy
God’s abundant provision

As Karoline Lewis says, “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance. The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace.”[1]

Not “just enough” but an ABUNDANCE! Not just a token expression of God’s love, but an ABUNDANCE!

Abundant joy.
Abundant grace.
Abundant hope.

Cast out your nets.
See what God is waiting to do through you – through Bethesda UCC – through your homes – through your places of work.
Your nets will overflow.
Thanks be to God!

[1]Lewis, Karoline. John. Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary.© 2014, Minneapolis, MN. Fortress Press. p.255

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God
Ephesians 1:3-14

A sermon offered to the people of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
July 15, 2018

It’s wonderful to be back here with you. The last time I subbed for Pastor Dee, many of you were on a bus headed to Baltimore for the General Synod meetings. I am delighted to be giving Dee some well-deserved rest, and I want to commend you on giving your pastor a lengthy time of renewal.

This morning, I want to wander with you in the first chapter of Ephesians. Now, as Biblical scholars love to do, there has been discussion and disagreement over the years as to whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians. Was it written by a scribe who took liberties with Paul’s dictation? Is it a restatement of Colossians? Is it from a student of Paul? Or is it from the latter period of Paul’s ministry, written for the struggles of the area surrounding Ephesus?

Honestly? I will let wiser heads than mine go argue about that. What is clear is that this book contains wisdom that the First Century Church needed. Its central message is of unity: one calling. One baptism. One household of faith. The earlier patriarchs decided that Ephesians was part of the written Canon and adopted it. Paul/or the author that only God knows wrote it. I think I’ll land there.

In just eleven verses, however, the writer unpacks some heavy-duty theology! He touches on predestination, creation, atonement and redemption: all those “churchy words” that would take a week to unpack and properly understand. The text declares our place in the Kin-dom of God as “God’s own people.” Oh… and just to make it “fun” for those of us who had to study Koine Greek, he does all that in one extremely long run-on sentence.

But I want to focus on these verses because it focuses on the “big picture” of the “kin-dom” of God. The “kin-dom.” Not the kingdom. You may have heard it before… But if you aren’t familiar with it… it is a word that describes the relational nature of God, the way that the Divine adopts, loves and relates to us. We are adopted Kin! This expression works for the central theme of unity, rather than a top-down, power-heavy structure in “kingdom.” Kin-dom has been in public discourse for many years, but appears earliest in the work of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and also the writing of Sister Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun.

A wise woman I know, Dr. Reta Halteman Finger, suggests that “The Kin-dom of God is a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar.”[1] Instead of a top-down, authoritarian government that humans like to set up, there is a sense of communal responsibility and commitment to one another. That’s the kindom! And Paul, teaching this radical re-ordering of government, just might have upset Caesar’s priorities!

Kindom fits this morning’s Epistle reading. Can you hear its familial nature in the first verses of greeting? This concept of unity and community? Paul spends a lot of time defining and declaring the whys and wherefores of our relationship with God. As I reflected on the text, I asked myself, “What was SO IMPORTANT that he wanted to build this painstaking theological foundation?”

That’s where I was drawn as I pondered the text. It would be easier to outline and define each of the big theological words and then go home… and maybe watch a little soccer. But I don’t think that’s the central message. It is, for me, summarized in Ephesians 1: 13-14.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13-14

All those conditions and definitions of our relationship with God are for the purpose of cementing in our adoption. Our inclusion in the family of God. Our place in the plan of God from the beginning of time. Not because of anything we do or are. Not because of where we grew up, or who are grandparents are, or where we went to church. But because of grace. We are loved because of grace.

These words applied to the members of a church in the region of Ephesus in the first Century. And they are true for us today. It is because we are chosen, because we are forgiven, because we are redeemed, because we are loved that we are all adopted into the family of God. We are God’s own people. We are all known and loved and covered by God’s grace. Gentiles? Welcomed into the kindom. Jews? No more privileged than the Gentiles. All are part of the beloved!

The problem is, we struggle with what being “the family of God” looks like, acts like, talks like, worships like, eat like, loves like, smells like, and serves like. We have opinions. Definite opinions! “That’s what Church should be!”

Even in a progressive, Christian community.
Even with people who want to be in a church!
Even with a congregation who has deep roots in love, fellowship and service.
Even in an area where we have county, state and federal officials with a progressive bend.

I don’t have to tell you that in our country, the divisiveness and incivility is at epic proportions. Not just on the internet. The highway road rage. The office shootings. The gun violence in schools. The rise in domestic violence. The “bully pulpit” of some politicians who seem bent on dividing any coalitions that threaten his or her own power, and suggest if you don’t do things their way, you’re not really a “Christian.” From County politics to Congress, there’s a whole lot of hating going on!

In all of these situations, grown up people forget what was drummed into their heads in elementary school. You remember some of those truths from the book by Robert Fulghum, All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.[2] You know… basic human decency? “Take turns. Say please and thank you. Clean up your own mess. Say that you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” And so on…

We forget we are all the same — flawed, forgiven humans. From the outside, we are so radically different. We are fractured by our individual needs and interests. We experience life from such radically different perspectives that it’s hard to have peace in a household, let along in a church. Yet Ephesians brings back to mind our mutual inheritance and redemption. As they say in the South, “we are kinfolk!”

How can we see and celebrate this family resemblance? This kin-dom?
First, by seeing that we are all brought in to this fold by God.

Not a one of us came up with the idea on our own. We were invited, enticed, engrained, enfolded into the fabric of the community by the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s job! We came into the family under difficult circumstances, or privileged ones. We were nurtured by Godself. We were known, loved and wanted before we knew we were known, loved, and wanted. We are a holy, blended family. Our identity is not because we know how we came into our spiritual heritage, but that we were, indeed adopted in. Just like there are many kinds of family (biological, blended, adopted, foster) there are many ways to come to a knowledge of God’s personal love for each one of us. And there is no “one correct way” to come into the family — just like there are many ways to create a human family! Our identity in God is exactly the same.

This should bring forward in us a sense of deep humility. In every way, we are each forgiven much, and blessed with much more. But far too often, it comes out as entitlement. It’s as if our little selfish inner selves are saying, ‘God always DID like me best!’ or churches say, “God likes the way WE worship best!”

I have to tell you that churches and even whole denominations have split over this entitlement. Congregations “bleed out” and die because there are power struggles and cliques! Common goals and dreams are set aside for personal wishes. But God invites us to lay our sense of “earned favor” and accept that it is unmerited, unearned, and unending. The grace of God.

What’s another way to demonstrate that family resemblance? Because it’s not just understanding that we are brought in on equal theological footing. It is to acknowledge that this kin-dom is not built on the expense or punishment or exclusion of others. 

To offer a more modern perspective, I’d like to return to the views of the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She proposes a view of the church and society that is based on Mujerista Liberation theology. She believes that life, in its fullest expression, results in the freeing of families and communities that are not oppressed by others. The Latina culture’s high value of family and community is a result of honoring and promoting the mutual hopes and dreams of everyone. This is the foundation for all societal and spiritual experience. This is how people thrive! She declares that this is multi-generational and in it there is room for all![3]

How many of us have had living situations where the mutual concerns and benefits of every member of the community were part of the decision-making process? Maybe it was your first apartment or rental house with friends from college. Maybe you lived in an intentional community, or were part of a dorm or rooming house where you shared in the rent, the rules and the chores.

Theoretically, this is the same way that the Church could be. I say, “could be” because we all know that there is a difference between being an “organization” and an “organism.” The Body of Christ is an “organism.” But the practical governing and life of the Church is most definitely an “organization.” We have committees and commissions, pastors and church councils. And sometimes we take our eyes off of our common ground, and we forget our family resemblance in our “organism” as the Body of Christ!

Humor me this morning… because I believe that one metaphor we can visualize is to think of ourselves… is a quilt!

unnamed-3
Quilt block from one of my grandmothers

We are stitched together. All of us unique parts are brought together with the whole design in mind. Each quilt, each local Body of believers, are unique and beautiful, and each part of the pattern repeats in a way that brings harmony, beauty, and warmth. The quilt is pieced in patterns of shapes and colors, (like this one, made with squares and diamonds, or like this quilt, made up entirely of hexagons.)

Creating quilts in my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ day created community. Women gathered around frames a “quilting bees.” Their shared efforts provided a piece of practical household furnishing. Quilts take what’s left of scarce resources and make something new.

IMG_4455
My grandmother’s quilt. 

There is an unproven legend that quilts pointed the way on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it’s true! As Anna Lopez, an education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan said to Time magazine, “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”[4] Maybe those quilts were used to guide people to freedom.

Quilts memorialize events or people. How many of you saw the NAMES Project, the quilt which remembers AIDS victims? Families and friends created a 3×6’ panel and they were stitched together into huge blocks. In 1995, the quilt covered the entire National Mall. Now it would blanket it many times over.

Perhaps when you think of a quilt as an image of the Body of Christ, you think of this lovely one made by my grandmother. And you think to yourself, “Yes! The Church! Decency, order, variety and diversity! Blended together by God and stitched together in unity and love!” God is that comforting presence, that warmth that welcomes us.

As the poem in our bulletin this morning suggests:
I think God is a quilter
Who takes His needle and thread
To piece our world from nothingness
And give it form instead.

Well… yes.
And no!

First, I think if God is a quilter, then God should be represented as a “She.” I think I have met one male quilter in my life… No offense to the anonymous writer on the internet. Just sayin… it should say she takes HER needle and thread…

I actually think the kin-dom of God is a little more wild and rambling and creative, and a little less controlled and boxed-in. I think the work of the Spirit is freeing, not confining. I think the actions of the Church are passionate and varied and beautiful. I think there are times for the kin-dom of God to be beautiful and decent and well-ordered enough to make any introvert happy.

And then… the Bapticostal side of me says… No… the Holy Spirit is a crazy quilt!

 

crazyqlt
Created by my great-grandmother.

Here’s the real picture of each of us being grafted in, adopted, changed and molded into a whole. Here there are threadbare places and misshapen pieces. There is imperfection! There is chaos. Wildness. There is random order. It is unified, but unique. They are all stitched together in this crazy quilt called a “church.” Apart by ourselves, there is no sense. Put together, it is a beautiful thing. It is a legacy, a promise, a dream of what is to come. It’s a dream of God might do, if we could get along. Like the “hope chests” of old, there is the possibility of what is “not yet.”

The Body of Christ, the kin-dom of God that is represented by this crazy quilt, is a church that knows there is hard work ahead. Its a church that says, I will do everything I can in this process of loving and caring for one another and our world will take everything we have. It will only be as successful as our least-attached piece, as our least committed member.

In the writing of Ephesians, Paul (or pseudo-Paul), was attempting to bring unity to a deeply divided people. A people who had other gods and religions practicing right on their doorstep. A culture which denied women the rights of full citizenship, and allowed slavery. (And even told slaves how they should act!) Ephesus, though a modern seaport in its day, was not so good at showing love and compassion to one another. The writer’s words were full of encouragement, of unity, of love, and of understanding.

And in these words, may we see and know for ourselves that we are each a piece of God’s divine plan in the world. We are each chosen, beloved, adopted and blessed. We are each stitched into the kin-dom of God. May our lives be a response to God who loves us, and may we together bring the praise of God’s glory.

Thanks be to God!

Gracious God,

We who are comfortable, forget those who feel discomfort. We who are healed, forget those who are wounded.  We who need you, forget that your Holy Spirit would change us and mold us and meld us and loves us in ways that we cannot even fathom. May the words that have been spoken be like arrows to our hearts, for you are a Great God who can do all things… in Christ, we pray. Amen.

 


[1]From Kingdom to Kin-dom and Beyond. Christian Feminism Today, https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/Accessed 6/29/2018.

[2]Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.

[3]Chapter 9, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (p 171-190). Valentín, Benjamín. In our own voices: Latino/a renditions of theology.Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, © 2010. Accessed: June 29, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.31279.0001.001.

[4]Stacie Stukin (2007-04-03). “Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”TIME. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1606271,00.html  Retrieved June 27, 2018.