July 26, 2007

Getting Through

Things continue to get worse in the ongoing drama of the conflicted mess at the church, especially since I was thrown into the middle of something I should not have been.

So I'm having a difficult time being here and finishing up this internship.

But I'll make it through ... moment by moment.

"It is not hard to live through a day,
if you can live through a moment.

What creates despair is the imagination,
that pretends there is a future,

and insists on predicting
millions of moments, thousands of days,

and so drains you
that you cannot live the moment on hand."

~ Andre Dubus

I'll make it through the next 17 days moment by moment. I'll make it through the next 17 days because I have amazing friends who are supporting me. I'll make it through the next 17 days by holding onto the really good moments of laughter and shared meals and margaritas. But most importantly, I'll make it through the next 17 days because God is bigger than this.

July 22, 2007

Because of Love

Sunday, July 22, 2007
Amos 8:1-12

Do you know how to pick fruit at the grocery store or the farmer’s market?
You know, thump it and if it sounds like this or that,
it’s ripe and just right.

For example, when a tomato, (because yes the tomato is a fruit),
when a tomato is firm to the touch and noticeably fragrant,
you know it’ll be good.

Or look for pieces of fruit that are plump and heavy for its size,
and of course, free from cuts and bruises, mildew and mold.

Most of the time these little tricks work;
or at least that’s what Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart will have you believe.

But sometimes, fruit that is perfect
in color and shape, sound and touch, and even smell
is really quite rotten and spoiled and past its prime inside.

Appearances can be deceiving.
Or to quote a well-known proverb
(since we’ve been talking about them at Bible study),
you can’t judge a book by its cover.

It’s what this vision of a fruit basket in Amos is all about.

The Lord showed Amos a basket of summer fruit –
of mangos and papayas and coconuts,
or maybe it was strawberries and blueberries and raspberries,
or perhaps honeydew melon and cantaloupe and pineapple.

And it looked delicious – good enough to scarf down immediately.

But wait … appearances can be deceiving.
This fruit is actually rotten.
Soft, mushy and unflavorful.
Past its prime.

And that’s exactly what God is telling the people through the prophet Amos –
the time is ripe for judgment.
They are past their prime.

Things may look really good,
so good the people may not be concerned,
but the end is coming.

And if the people’s appearance of holy living is deceptive,
rotten and past its prime,
so too are their words and excuses.

Sure they are couched in language of business as usual –
concern for not selling grain on the Sabbath:
“Look God, listen to how holy we are.
We’ve been observing the Sabbath and waiting to sell our wheat.”

But the words also reveal their lack of concern for the poor and the needy,
as they scheme ways to cheat the market goers out of fair prices and wares.

But God … God will have none of that.
God brings harsh judgment to the people through Amos.
And waits for their response.

What are they going to do? What are they going to do?
It’s what God is really interested in.

Not their appearance –
not the showy basket of fruit
that appears on the coffee table only when guests are around.

And certainly not their clever words –
not the boastful claims of the good things done
proclaimed so all can hear and know and admire.

It’s their actions God is really interested in.
Because if they don’t stop trampling on the needy
and bringing ruin to the poor …
it’s over …
the end will come.

And with it, the worst kind of famine.
Not a famine where summer fruit is sparse and rotten, and meals are light,
but a famine of the more serious kind –
a famine for the bread of life,
for the Word of God.

So why all this gloom and doom from the prophet Amos?
Why does the Lord swear to never forget the misdeeds of the people,
to never again pass them by?
Why does God proclaim a coming time
of darkness and mourning and lamentation?

The answer is simple:
Because of love.
Because of great love.
Sacrificial love.

Love that would send an only Son into the world,
not to condemn the world
but in order that the world might be saved.
The love of a parent who knows what’s best for his children.

Now, you may not be a die-hard Harry Potter fan like I am.
In fact, I’m guessing most of you are not.

You may have never read one of those books by JK Rowling
or even know that the final book of the series
was released at 12:01am on Saturday.

If that is so,
it also means that you probably actually accomplished something yesterday
whereas I sat around and read all day,
ten hours straight until I finished the book.

As I was preparing for the long-awaited release of the final book,
I’ve been thinking about the characters this past week.
And this snippet of an earlier part of the story came to mind:

In the second book – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
twelve year old Harry and his best friend Ron
miss the train that should have taken them back to school.

In their haste to find another way to school,
they decide to drive a flying car.
And even in this world of magic,
it’s unwise for twelve year olds to drive.

As you might imagine, this method of travel broke a number of laws and school rules.
Both Harry and Ron are severely reprimanded by school professors;
they are told that their families will be informed of their behavior.
As punishment, the boys receive detention.

Worse than all this, though, is a Howler Ron receives.
See a Howler is a letter that magically allows one
who is not physically present
to still yell at and scold its receiver.

Ron receives this bright red bit of mail during breakfast in the great hall one morning. As Ron opens it, the piece of paper magically transforms into an origami type mouth. From this mouth proceeds the loud scolding voice of Ron’s mom, Mrs. Weasley:


All Ron can do is sit there and sheepishly nod his head.
He knows his mum loves him,
loves him deeply in a slightly smothering way,
loves all of her seven children very much.

But the Howler also tells Ron that his mom means business,
and that true love also comes with judgment.

And God means business in this vision given to Amos for the people.
Perhaps God furrowed her brow,
narrowed her eyes,
waved her finger,
and spoke in her substitute teacher voice
as today’s words of judgment were spoken.

And remember, these harsh words weren’t spoken to just any people,
but to God’s chosen people.

And the harsh words matter.
We can’t skip over them and toss them to the wayside.
The call to action for the poor and the needy is imperative.

But it’s also important to know what’s behind those words.

That the Lord loves these people so much
that God will not leave these people alone.

As preacher and scholar Will Willimon puts it:
“God keeps coming back to the people of Israel,
this time in the fierce words of the prophet Amos,
judging them, condemning them, punishing them
so that they might grow to be all that they are called to be.”

So that we might be all that we are called to be:
sped on our way by the God of all justice;
praying and singing and working for peace;
spurred on by harsh words meant to catch our attention;
but said … out of the greatest love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

July 16, 2007

What is your only comfort ...

when things are a great big conflicted mess at work?

Brownies with extra chocolate and walnuts fresh out of the oven, a large glass of white wine, and a good movie.

July 14, 2007

Praying for Death

I visited a longtime congregation member this week who is under Hospice care. But she's still eating meals and seems to be holding on.

The visit was difficult and good and many more things all at the same time. She wanted to die about two months ago. And was very weak at that point. But she seems to have regained some strength and she hates that.

She has had a good, full life and is ready to die. But death won't come. I was reminded this morning that "there is a time for every matter under heaven ... a time to be born and a time to die" - Ecclesiastes 3 is part of the reading for the church's Bible in a Year schedule for today.

But this week, I also prayed for that time of death to come for this woman. In fact, we spent a long time in prayer about peace, comfort and death coming soon. It was the first time I had ever prayed for death for someone.

I felt privileged to share those moments with her and hear about her very honest struggle with the end of life. I was humbled by the joke she was able to make in the midst of talking about how her family is dealing with it all. I was honored to share that time with her and sit in that liminal space with her.

July 10, 2007

Not in my job description

Obviously a pastor does so much more than preach and lead worship on Sundays. There's also the teaching and administration and visits and planning. And various other things that come up.

Here's what came up today:

Lumber dropped off at the church this afternoon for renovation work. Lumber is outside near the dumpster, which many neighborhood folk like to use as their own. They also like to go dumpster diving. Pastor is afraid lumber will walk off during the night. Pastor, admin assistant and I haul all the lumber inside the area of the church that is being worked on. It was 93 today.

July 03, 2007

Always Be Prepared

A great motto.

As a girl scout I learned it years ago.

As a member of the residential life leadership team in college, we also emphasized it.

As a pastor, they remain good words.

"Always be prepared."

Last week I was prepared to be "in charge" at the church while the pastor was on vacation. It's not the first time he's been on vacation since I've been at the church. In fact, it's more like the fourth or fifth time. So I wasn't concerned.

One seminary friend predicted the death of a congregation member ... didn't happen.

One congregation member offered to concoct an emergency so I could practice handling it ... declined her offer.

There were enough little things to deal with:

  • coordinating communion with one (of the many) retired ministers from the congregation

  • checking in on a congregation member who had outpatient eye surgery

  • checking in on a congregation member who fell down in the shower

  • checking in on a congregation member who is watching one of her best friends die

  • visiting a member who is currently under Hospice care and later in the week discovering that another member has contacted Hospice for care

  • ensuring all the pumps are working at the church during the torrential downpour one afternoon - this led to walking through a part of the church that has recently been demolished on the inside and is currently structurally unsound and then discovering water shouting out of a pvc pipe sticking out of the wall

  • coming into the office on Monday morning to find a work crew ready to bust through a wall and put in a door ... I had no knowledge this was going to happen

July 01, 2007

Extreme Discipleship

Sunday, July 1, 2007
2 Kings 2:1-14
Luke 9:51-62

In an old, dying congregation in a neighborhood church in San Francisco, the choir stands to sing. Some of them are musically gifted and others are not. Their offerings of music in the past have not been especially noteworthy.

As a matter of fact, they have been decidedly cringe-worthy. One choir member is tone deaf, the accompanist is hard of hearing and often forgets to turn her hearing aid on, and several choir members can’t keep the beat.

But something is different this time. Sister Mary Clarence is directing this ragtag group and she has whipped them into a soulful chorus, one that has even attracted the attention of the Pope.

The movie is Sister Act and the song they are about to sing is “I Will Follow Him.” Though originally a love song by Little Peggy March concerning extreme devotion to a boy, in the context of this worship service, the song took on new meaning.

In this concert for the Pope, the swinging singing sisters of St. Katharine’s Convent begin quietly and traditionally:

I will follow him, follow Him wherever He may go.
And near Him, I always will be,
For nothing can keep me away, He is my destiny.

The choir continues:

I will follow Him, ever since He touched my heart I knew,
There isn’t an ocean too deep,
A mountain so high, it can keep,
Keep me away, away from His love.

And then, in a split second, the church choir transforms into a lively, spirited show choir. They continue with the song, though they are now belting it out from the bottom of their guts and adding hand motions.

I love Him, I love Him, I love Him,
And where He goes, I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow.

These are bold claims:
Because of my love for you, I will go wherever you go.
I am willing to follow and trust.

Elisha follows.
Elisha follows Elijah to the very end.

Given three opportunities to stay back and go no further,
Elisha commits to remaining by his mentor’s side until he leaves earth.
Even when town prophets try to deter him,
Elisha reprimands them with a command for silence
and continues to follow Elijah.

The disciples make the same bold claims while they are on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go.”

And Jesus is quick to cut through the easily sung devotion and commitment:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Following has its consequences.
It means giving up some luxuries and even some basics.

And Jesus wants to ensure the disciples have some sense
of what they are saying, of the declaration they are making:

“Remember that nice home you had …?” he says.
“You know the hot meals you used to count on every day …
the pallet and pillow you slept on every night …
those things are not givens when you’re on the road with me.”

And as the disciples ponder this, Jesus calls out: “Follow me.”

Jesus’ summon is met with qualifiers and excuses:
“Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
“But let me first say farewell to those at my home.”

Jesus’ response is not nice and easy or neat and tidy. It’s costly and difficult:
“Let the dead bury their own dead” and
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Whew. Jesus isn’t messing around. These are hard words.
These words ask the disciples, they ask us,
to put Jesus above home, and family obligations, and relationships.

As biblical scholar and preacher Fred Craddock puts it:
“Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over family.
The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best,
not the worst of human relationships.”
In this call to extreme discipleship, it’s about placing Jesus first.

And with that kind of sacrifice we all have our own questions:
“Can I check my schedule first – to see when it would be most convenient to take a trip?”
“Do we have seat belts for this bumpy journey?”
“Will it be safe?”
“Will I be able to stay in touch with my family?”
“Do you guarantee that my sacrifice will be worth it?”

And Jesus answers “no,”
with his eyes fixed on Jerusalem,
knowing and considering that what is ahead is difficult.

Following will require his first disciples and future disciples
to stand firm and proclaim repeatedly like Elisha: “I will not leave you”
even amongst the demands of home, family obligations, and relationships.
I will radically reorder my life, so I can follow Him.

Following will necessitate looking forward, not backward.

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Only looking back will not work.

In plowing, looking over your shoulder will cause your rows to become crooked.
In driving, only looking in the rearview mirror is guaranteed to cause an accident.
In church, only dwelling on the past will not leave room for the Spirit in the future.

And so here’s the questions we’re left with:
Where is Jesus asking us to travel, not yesterday, but today and tomorrow?
And in those travels, on that path, what does it mean to put Jesus first?

As we ponder and pray about these difficult questions
and the call to radical, extreme discipleship,
remember and know this:

We journey together,
we follow as a community of faith,
of fellow travelers on the road with Christ.

And on the Way, we are regularly nourished at the Table, at this Table –
given bread and wine for the journey,
given strength to continue on the difficult path.

Thanks be to God. Amen.