Saturday, June 27, 2009

Watching for the Morning - Pentecost 4B

His daughter was dying. He was sure of it now. The little, ragged breaths she took had slowed down and he could barely hear them. Her body, once lithe and strong, now sank into the blanket on the mat he had laid on the floor beside their own. Her mother would not leave her side – she sat there all day, all night, moistening her child’s dry lips with water, praying silently, singing all the childhood songs she could remember.

She had only been this way for a week. The fever came on suddenly, and would not leave her. But she hadn’t eaten, and yesterday she couldn’t even swallow the little bit of water her mother tried to give her. She was dying, he was sure of it.

He had been in the synagogue every morning and every evening to pray, joining the minyan of old men there for the death-anniversaries of their wives or their fathers. He had asked everyone he met to pray for her. He had called the doctor in not just once, but every day, but at this point even the doctor with all his ideas and remedies didn’t know what to do.

It was from one of his neighbors that he heard that this man Jesus had come to town. Jairus had been hearing about Jesus for a while now – he seemed to be attracting a bigger and bigger following. Some people said he had performed miracles – had cured a man who had a withered hand, made a paralyzed man walk again, had made many sick people well again. But then again, he had done some of this healing on the Sabbath, in direct contradiction to the Law. And the last Jairus had heard, this Jesus was over on the other side of the lake, hanging out with Gentiles, even talking to pig farmers. Pig farmers! Talk about your unclean Gentiles!

After praying in the synagogue that morning, he went back home to see how she was doing. His wife met him at the door. He had never seen her look like this – her face drawn, her whole body curling in upon itself. But it was the fear in her eyes that hit him the hardest. He had never seen her so afraid. “She’s not speaking any more, Jairus, and she won’t respond to me at all!” his wife said, “Please, do something! She is going to die!”

It was that fear that drove him back out. He headed for the doctor’s house – but on the way he saw the crowd, with Jesus in the middle of them. Some of his friends from the synagogue were there, on the outskirts of the group, trying to seem uninterested and aloof. They saw the desperation in his eyes.

When he saw Jesus, that desperation took over. No one else could save her. This man had healed so many, he knew it now. Jesus could save her, too. Ignoring his friends’ stares and whispers, he pushed to the front of the crowd and fell at Jesus’ feet, “Please, sir, please, you can make her well, I know you can. Please heal my daughter, my only daughter. Come and lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live. Come, please, lay your hands on her so she made be made well and live.”

Have you been where Jairus is? Have you been to that place of desperation – that place where you find yourself just begging for something to change in your life…that place where you will do anything to make it happen?

Our Psalm for today, Psalm 130, speaks from that place. This Psalm is titled “A Song of Ascents” and is one of a group of songs with this name. It is thought that these songs were sung by faithful Jews on their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival celebration. On their journey, they would sing or chant these songs to express their feelings as a group, but also as individuals. It is interesting that these psalms are not all psalms of joy, but speak of the many different emotions the pilgrims may have been experiencing on their journey.

Psalm 130 begins at the point where Jairus is when he speaks to Jesus. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The depths, the deep places of our souls, where we can do nothing but cry out to God.

Our Old Testament lesson, from the 2nd letter of Samuel, also speaks from this place. This summer we have been reading about David – about his anointing by Samuel – the youngest son of Jesse, brought in from the fields. And last week, about his defeat of Goliath – the little guy with the slingshot and no armor defeating the mighty warrior.

But now David is in a different place. David is in the depths of his soul. Saul, the previous king of Israel, had spent months chasing David and trying to kill him while asserting his own authority. And Saul’s son, Jonathan, had stood up for David against his father. David had run from Saul, and had even had the chance to kill Saul, but he had not taken it. David and Saul had continued as adversaries, with Jonathan trying to support David, until a final battle with the Philistines, when Jonathan is killed and Saul, badly wounded, kills himself so the Philistines will not have the satisfaction of killing him.

In our passage for today, David uses an ancient hymn called the Song of the Bow to express his grief and sorrow – not just for his close friend Jonathan, but also for his adversary Saul. His words echo through the ages in a cry of pain and loss, especially the last verse, where we read of his deep love for his friend.

Unlike the gospel reading, neither the 1st Samuel reading or the reading from the Psalms offer healing. In both of these readings, we hear instead the pain and agony of fresh grief – we hear the cries of those who are overwhelmed by all life has thrown at them.

Can you hear your own voice in those cries? What do you do when you are in that place, that place of depth and sorrow, that place of grief and fear, the place where you are so overwhelmed? How do you move from that place? Is it even possible to do that?

I believe all of us encounter those places in our lives. I know I have shared here some of those places in my own life. There are places, it seems, when God has left us, when we are all alone, and we have no idea where to turn.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…where is the morning, the dawn we seek? Why are we stuck in the darkness?

When I was a little girl, I was a pretty nervous kid. One night my cousins from Belgium were at my grandmother’s house for a visit– Su, who was my age, and David, who was the same age as my sister. We were having so much fun playing together that we decided it would be a great idea to sleep over that night. So, around 8 o’clock, my parents left for home, about 20 minutes away, and my grandmother got us all settled in bed. It didn’t seem to take anyone else very long to get to sleep, but I tossed and turned and began to worry and fret. I didn’t have the stuffed elephant I usually slept with. Would I ever be able to fall asleep? What if I didn’t sleep all night? My grandmother was a pretty strict woman, and I thought if I woke her up, she was going to be really mad at me. But finally my worries got the best of me, and I tiptoed into the living room. My grandmother heard me, and came out of her bedroom. I tearfully told her I just couldn’t sleep. Instead of scolding me, she offered to call my dad, and while we waited for him to come, she told me how she herself had been scared to sleep away from home, and how when she went to Girl Scout camp she couldn’t sleep all night, either. I was not scolded by her, or by my dad who got out of his own bed to collect me. And once back home, I fell asleep immediately. The dawn came again.

In my desperation, I cry to you O Lord. O Lord, hear my cries!

The Gospel story shares a response to desperation – in desperation, Jairus leaves behind his worries about what his friends may think, his concern about what someone with his standing in the community would do. He ignores proper protocol and instead reaches out to Jesus with everything he has.

The woman with the hemorrhage reaches out to Jesus as well. As a woman living with a bodily discharge for 12 years, this act of pushing through a crowd, of even touching Jesus’ cloak, was an act of courage born of desperation. According to Jewish law, a person with a bodily discharge was unclean and could not be touched, could not be in a group of believers. We can imagine that for 12 years, this woman had been alone. She had been isolated, ostracized – and probably weak and worn out. Finally, she cannot take it any more. She overcomes her fear of retribution, her fear of being recognized and called out, and makes her way to Jesus. Unlike Jairus, she doesn’t beg for Jesus’ attention, but quietly reaches out to touch him – and receives his power, and his blessing.

What does it take for you to reach out to Jesus? Where do you have to be before you recognize that God is right there waiting for you?

One of my blogging friends led me to this year’s commencement address to the graduates of Wellesley College. The journalist Kimberly Dosier spoke of her own times of life in the depths, and the choices she made. Her words, as recorded by the New York Times on Sunday June 14, are these:
You chose a Wellesley grad who spent the first decade of her career broke, begging for freelance work, who constantly heard that she was under qualified or, later, overqualified (that means old) or basically just plain wrong for whatever it was she wanted to do. She eventually ended up with a really great job, doing exactly what she wanted to do, exactly where she wanted to do it: in the Middle East. And she got hit by a car bomb; they nearly took her legs off. She had to come back from the dead, roughly five times, and learn how to walk again. So it tells me a lot about you and your current state of mind that you all thought you needed to hear from me, with whatever lessons I had to offer from those experiences, as you leave college for the rest of your life. In short, you all want to know how to be bomb-proof, right? So, you're right: I learned a lot. Most of all, that every time I ran into a wall, I had two choices on how to face it: hope or fear.

Hope, or fear. Do we really always have such a choice? Sometimes, in our depths, it doesn’t really seem like hope is a choice we have. When we have exhausted all possibilities, when someone we loved more than life itself has died, how can we choose hope? Where is the hope?

I have asked myself the answer to that question during dark days of grief and anger. And sometimes, I haven’t had an answer to that question. When we are lying in the darkness and feeling alone and afraid, the answer may not be there. When I tossed and turned in that bed at my grandmother’s house that night, I could not see an answer, for fear had consumed my ability to see. God was nowhere to be found, until I got up and chose the hope that my grandmother would not scold or punish me, but listen to me.

Where is the Hope? Where is the morning, the dawn we seek? How can we wait for the dawn when we are sitting in the darkness? In our Scripture, the word for hope and the word for wait, or watch, are the same. So when we choose hope, we join those who watch, who wait for the morning.

Choosing hope over fear is not easy. It is a decision we have to make over and over again. It does not solve all of our problems – it does not mean that suddenly our child will be raised from the dead, or our illness will disappear. It does not change the diagnosis the doctor makes.

What it does change, though, is how we live. If we can take one small step in hope, we will become aware of God’s presence beside us. Because I truly do believe that God has not left us, even when we are crying from the depths of our souls.

So, this is where the hope lies. The hope lies in the fact that even in the darkness, God is with us. God is with us is through the night. Somewhere deep in our souls we recognize that the morning will come. Somewhere, we know God will not abandon us. We can mourn, we can cry out to God, knowing that God will come to us. Knowing that in fact God is right there with us even if all we see is darkness and despair. And so we know, the morning will come. In what time, in what way, we do not know. And this is where the hope lies. Thanks be to God.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Five - Talkin' Bout Pop Music

Mary Beth over at RevGalBlogPals writes:

Happy Friday to you all!

The sad news of Michael Jackson's untimely death has me thinking about music and its effects on us - individually, as cultures, as generations. Let's think about the soundtracks of our lives...

1) What sort of music did you listen to as a child - this would likely have been determined or influenced by your parents? Or perhaps your family wasn't musical...was the news the background? the radio? Singing around the piano?

We didn't really have all that much music in our house as I remember. No piano, my sister played guitar but hated to practice. In the car, my mom liked to play John Denver and Johnny they and Kenny Rogers were my early favorites, as well as Neil Diamond.

This song was actually the "theme" of my wedding in 1989 to Starman. We saw John Denver in concert in the early 1990s...guess that early imprinting had an impact!

2) Going ahead to teenage years, is there a song that says "high school" (or whatever it might've been called where you lived) to you?
Well, there were a are a couple of important ones, the first from my breakup with my first "real" boyfriend:

Eewww! That is a hard video to watch!

And then the song that was played at our junior prom, where I had a lot of fun with a good friend:

3) What is your favorite music for a lift on a down day? (hint: go to and type in a performer/composer...see what you come up with!)

I really like this one, but I have a lot..

4) Who is your favorite performer of all time?
Without a doubt, Phil Collins. Saw him live in 2004 and with Genesis in 2007. I love his music and the lyrics to his songs, and I must admit to even thinking he is kind of cute now (not so much when he was younger)

his drumming is out of this world!

5) What is your favorite style of music for worship?

I love it all, actually, depending on the time and place. At our Youth Annual Conference I can get into the praise music. When in a cathedral I enjoy the choir. At our home church our choir does a mixture of anthems and gospel music, and I enjoy both...

Some of my favorite hymns to sing are Gather Us In by Marty Haugen, Guide My Feet, and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.

Last week the choir sang "River in Judea" and I have been humming it all week.

Thank you Mary Beth!

Friday, June 19, 2009

RevGal Blog Pals - Friday Five -

Jan over at RevGal Blog Pals writes:

Digh, Patti. Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful,
and Live Intentionally. Guilford, CT: Skirt!, 2008.

Jennifer recommended this book, which I got because I always value Jennifer's reading suggestions. The author of Life is a Verb, Patti Digh worked her book around these topics concerning life as a verb:

* Say yes.
* Be generous.
* Speak up.
* Love more.
* Trust yourself.
* Slow down.

As I read and pondered about living more intentionally, I also have wondered what this Friday Five should be. This book has been the jumping off point for this Friday.

1. What awakens you to the present moment?

Usually, it is something one of my girls does - maybe something annoying, maybe something cute, usually something loud...I tend to spend most of my time in the present moment when they are around!

2. What are 5 things you see out your window right now?
Starman painted our porch when I was gone to Annual Conference for church, and that is a nice sight to see! Also our porch swing, unfortunately with the weed wacker on it so I can't sit there right now. A stick he used to stir the paint, and our good kitchen shears on the railing, not sure what he used those for! And the beautiful trees that line our street.

3. Which verbs describe your experience of God?
loving, forgiving, pushing, opening, holding

4. From the book on p. 197:
Who were you when you were 13? Where did that kid go?

Active, sports loving, anxious, God-loving, worrywart, hard working, tree climbing - I haven't changed much! Wish I had grown, and I have quite a bit, but that person is still just beneath the surface most of the time, for better or for worse.

5. From the book on p. 88:
If your work were the answer to a question, what would the question be?
God asking "Can you show the world how much I love EVERYONE? Can you tell the world my story?"

Bonus idea for you here or on your own--from the book on p. 149:
"Go outside. Walk slowly forward. Open your hand and let something fall into it from the sky. It might be an idea, it might be an object. Name it. Set it aside. Walk forward. Open your hand and let something fall into it from the sky. Name it. Set it aside. Repeat. . . ."

Spent the ride home from Annual Conference basically doing that, and figuring out that it seems that God is telling me it is time to move forward with my long in coming ordination process.

Thanks Jan!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Seeds and Trees - Pentecost 2B

(ed. note...I don't actually even mention the gospel here, just using Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92)
“Weeds and Trees”
Well, it happened this week. I knew it was only a matter of time, with a 10 year old girl, and an 8 year old girl, and a 5 year old girl. We were headed somewhere in the car, and Freckleface, the eight year old, said to me, “How did you dress when you were a teenager, Mom?” When I told her, I pretty much dress the same way I do now, she said “I can’t imagine a teenager dressing that way!” I had to push the point, “Why not, Freckleface? Is there something wrong with the way I dress?” “You just dress so old” she told me.

Sigh. Well, actually, teenagers in the early 1980s did wear oxford shirts, and skinny jeans, and white running shoes. They also wore leggings, ripped sleeveless sweatshirts, and feathered hair, but I didn’t tell Freckleface that, mostly because I never adopted that style (well, ok, I did do the feathered hair). But it is official, I guess. I am old. My children think I dress old. I celebrated my 40th birthday a few years ago. I have friends who are my age who have children who have graduated from high school. My own three girls will all be in elementary school next year, and I don’t see any more babies coming to our house.

One of the benefits of working here at Medium City First United Methodist Church is that I am one of the younger people on the staff. And because I didn’t even start seminary until I was in my 30s, and I am still in the ordination process and have been for the past 10 years, it is easy to still think of myself as young – a young clergyperson, just starting out. And I am just starting out, and I do have a lot to learn, but by the time WisePastor was my age, he had been a pastor for 20 years already. So playing that young card only gets me so far.

What does it mean to get older? In our culture, we seem to like people to be just the right age – somewhere between 25 and 35, I think. If you are younger than that, you are too young, and beyond that, you are, well, out of touch, as my daughters made very clear to me the other day.

As WisePastor mentioned to you last week (or as you may have heard me say), for the month of June he and I have decided to focus on the Psalms in our preaching. We don’t usually read the Psalm for each week in our services, although I do try to use it in the call to worship. With four readings as a part of our revised common lectionary each Sunday, reading all of the texts during worship isn’t always easy, and frankly, I don’t usually focus on the Psalm when I preach, so leaving it out hasn’t seemed like such a bad thing.

WisePastor and I are not really alone in this practice. Peter S. Hawkins had this to say in a recent article in The Christian Century:
Most worshipers take the psalms for granted, treating them like background music that establishes a mood but has little grip on the imagination. Yes, the 23rd Psalm is brought in for comfort at funerals, and folks would miss the “green pastures” and “still waters” were they not invoked. But mostly psalms provide responsive readings no one really attends to, or offer a transition between more important scriptures.

I hope you all paid attention when Dalton (Jacob, WisePastor) led you in the reading of today’s Psalm. Because I think it has a lot to say to us, especially when we couple it with the other readings for this week.

I didn’t have (WisePastor) read all of our readings for today, or else there is no way we would have gotten done with worship before the sun went down/lunchtime/Sunday school hour was over. In addition to our reading from Ezekiel, there was also a reading from 1 Samuel in our Old Testament selections for this second Sunday after Pentecost. This passage tells the story of how David got to be king of Israel after Saul – maybe some of you are familiar with it. God sent the prophet Samuel to visit Jesse, a farmer who lives in Bethlehem. Jesse has a number of fine sons, and when Samuel shows up, Jesse obediently trots them out, one by one, for Samuel to see. Samuel is looking for some word from God that the one he sees is to be the next king of Israel. Samuel keeps expecting that the next one he sees is going to be the one God wants – as the elder sons are trotted out, one by one, for inspection. But one by one, God rejects them. Finally, no one is left, and Samuel asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” “Well,” Jesse admits, “there is one more, the youngest one, he is out with the sheep.” Jesse didn’t even consider David as a possibility – he didn’t fit that narrow age range he assumed God was looking for to make a good king – maybe in those days it wasn’t 25-35 but 15-25, since life spans were so much shorter.

Samuel asks to see David, and Jesse calls David in from his shepherding job. And that’s it. “Rise and anoint him” God tells Samuel – and David becomes King David, a youngster who makes some mistakes, to be sure, but the one who also leads Israel to a period of great triumph, and who becomes the ancestor of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.

What happens when we tell people they are “too old” to be of any use any more, or on the flip side “too young” to know what is really going on? What happens when we dismiss people because we think we can’t learn anything new from them, or that they are somehow just not really going to add anything to our community?

Today’s Psalm addresses that issue. The Psalm begins as a pretty standard song of praise. In fact, many of the Psalms start out this way, singing praises to God. Now, before you think singing praises to God is a kind of mundane thing to do, think about what this Psalm is saying here, and who is saying it. This Psalm was likely written during the time of the Exile, when the Israelites were forced to move to Babylon, and forcibly acculturated by the Babylonians – told to act and dress and worship the same gods the Babylonians did. They were displaced from their homeland. They were forced to live on the lowest rungs of society. And yet, they sing songs of praise to God.

And that is not all. They declare here, in this Psalm, that they will not only continue to live as God’s people, even in a strange land, they will flourish. And not only the young and virile among them, but even those whom everyone else has forgotten,. Listen to these words again:
The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit, they are still green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright, he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Think again, Babylonians, if you think you can just throw the old Israelites away. Think again if you think there is nothing new we have to offer.

Children strong enough and wise enough to become kings. Older people still vigorous enough to sing praises and to produce fruit for God’s kingdom. Again and again, God’s word shows us how God turns our own expectations upside down. Again and again, God takes what the outside world considers too young and weak or too old and used up, and makes it into something new.

The passage from Ezekiel furthers this understanding of what God can do. We don’t get to read much from the prophet Ezekiel, except for that passage we read a couple of times a year about the dry bones in the desert coming to life. Ezekiel was a prophet during the terrible, tumultuous time in Israelite history when Jerusalem was attacked and many residents of the city, including Ezekiel himself, were deported to Babylon. Our passage for today comes in the middle of prophecies of Israel’s destruction – and yet, it is a word of hope. “From the lofty top of a cedar” the prophet says, God will take a sprig, a new shoot, and plant it in the ground.

Notice that God isn’t going to start all over again with a new tree, although, of course, God could do that if God wanted to. God is starting from something that is already there, a cedar, a strong and straight tree. And the sprig that God takes from this tree is going to grow.

I have been attending a few of the neighborhood meetings that WisePastor has been holding in some of your homes the past month or so. I love to hear what you have to say about the church – how Medium City First, the congregation of this church, has been there for you through good times and bad. How many of you have formed strong friendships in this church. And how many of you have been here for a very long time, and have raised your children here.

But I also hear some pain when you speak – because not all of your children have chosen to stay here. And you see churches around here, mostly non-denominational churches, where there seem to be a lot more cars in the parking lot on a Sunday morning. And so you ask yourselves, “do we have to be different to be God’s church today, in these times? Do we have to dress differently, act differently, have different kinds of music here in order to grow, in order for our grown children to want to come back here to worship?

I think what our scriptures are telling us today is that we still have something to offer. I think we are hearing that this old church, standing here in the center of Medium City, still has some sap running through it. Should we keep doing things exactly the same way we have been for the past 50 years? Well, first of all, we aren’t. We have changed some of the songs we sing. We have changed our liturgy – the outline of our services. And we can continue to try new things – new sprigs will keep coming up out of this strong cedar that is our church.

But God has plans for us here at Medium City First United Methodist Church. God has plans for us to continue growing strong – and to grow in new and surprising ways, ways that people might not expect from a church that has been around for so long. We have both history and potential.

So yes, we need to change. But we do not need to become anything else than what are already becoming. We can stand firm on our traditions, proud of what we have accomplished, and still be nimble, vigorously responding to new challenges and meeting the ever-changing needs of God’s people and the people of this community. We do not have to concern ourselves too much about what are not, because to be honest we are quite busy enough working on what we are becoming. And what we are, what we are becoming, and what we will be is the church, this church which serves God and brings God’s love to all of the world, right here, right now, one person at a time, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

So go out from this place to show the world that you are sprigs growing from an old cedar. Show the world that Medium City First, this strong church right here in the center of the city, is here to stay. Together, let us be the church God is calling us to be. Together, let us stand tall and straight, with the pure sap of God’s love running through us. Thanks be to God.