Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Letting the Hidden Lights Shine!

When I first came to my church I was told that I wouldn't have to preach on 5th Sundays when they popped up as the Youth always did the worship service that week. Unfortunately, by the end of my second year all the Youth had graduated from high school and gone off to college. We tried hymn sings for a while, and then the Elders came up with a Fantastic Idea! "Let's celebrate the ones who hide their lights under a basket!"

So that's what we have been doing for the last year. At the time when the sermon would normally happen members of the congregation take the microphone and speak about the person being celebrated, then present the honoree with a small gift in appreciation of her/his ministry. And we always sing "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!"

First we celebrated the woman who writes all the cards. She started out just sending birthday, anniversary and get well cards. Then she expanded her writing to include notes for any reason she could think of - we missed you on Sunday, you did a great job singing the solo, how nice it is to have you in the congregation, loved your sermon (my personal favorites!), we sure appreciate all your help with the food ministry, and on and on. At last count she had mailed some 800 cards and notes in just over 2 years! She doesn't think of her work as a ministry, or even important, but everyone who rose to celebrate her shared that her notes had brightened many an otherwise not so bright day!

Then we celebrated the ladies who are responsible for hospitality, making sure the pantry is stocked with plates, cups, etc, and rounding up everything needed for pot lucks, funeral repasts, and other celebratory meals. They decorate the hall, make sure everyone knows what to bring and where to bring it, invite people who only show up for special occasions, even put together the Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for the poor of our neighborhood. I hate to think what life would be like without them!

This month - well, I shouldn't say. You never know who might be reading this and it is a surprise, after all. Suffice it to say that we are celebrating some of the men of the congregation who do the kinds of things that people just take for granted. Of course there will be new light bulbs, and a working sound system, and freshly painted bookshelves in the preschool . . . no one really seems to notice except when these things don't happen. So, Sunday we will notice and give them thanks for all the little, "invisible" ways they serve the congregation.

I love these celebrations! It gives me one more opportunity to remind the congregation that we are all ministers of the Gospel, each in our own way, using our individual gifts and talents for God's glory and honor.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Singing the Whole Song Mark 10:35-45

Selecting hymns is still the hardest part of each week’s worship design for me. When I look for hymns every week, first I need to find hymns that fit the place they’re going to be in the worship - praise to god, or a gathering hymn at the beginning of worship, a hymn about discipleship, mission or simply going out for the end of the service. And after the sermon. either one that restates the sermon to some extent, or leads nicely into the offering or communion. Then I have to choose one from each category that we can actually sing - either a familiar hymn or a hymn with a familiar tune, or at least one that has a fairly simple tune we can pick up easily. This is really hard, because I can’t read music, so unless I know the tune by name I have to sit and plunk out the notes on the little kid xylophone I keep in my office.

And then comes what may be the most important part - reading the words. When I read all the words to each hymn I have chosen, I have to think about the whole song says. Do all the words carry the message I want to get across or are there parts that say just the opposite? Sometimes the whole song is just so perfect I can let a difficult phrase go by. Sometimes all the verses are great, but the hymn is really long. I could just have us skip the verses I don‘t like, or shorten the really long ones, but cutting out bits messes with the message. Sometimes I wish we could just sing the chorus over and over. I think it’s important to sing the whole song, even if it’s long or has troublesome words.

James and John wanted the glory without the struggle and sacrifice that must come first. James and John had heard Jesus speak of his death, and his resurrection - and wanted to stand next to him when he came into power in glory. They wanted the places of honor in the coming kingdom - they wanted to stand in his reflected glory and have everyone look up to them. They were thinking of Jesus in terms of the only model of leadership they knew, the model of kings like Herod. In those days, kings and other leaders of nations chose their favorites to sit close to the power seat and enjoy the benefits that came with being a trusted friend. The trusted friends didn’t have to prove themselves as particularly qualified for the offices they were given, they just had to be friends of the ruler. They didn’t necessarily have to work at the job their title said they had - they had other people under them to deal with the details of the work. They simply reaped the benefits of their position. James and John wanted to sing the Alleluia Chorus without dealing with all those pesky words in between.

Jesus made it clear to them that this was not the model of leadership in God’s kingdom! Leaders in God’s kingdom must first of all be servants to everyone else in the kingdom. Leaders would be those who did not seek positions of leadership, but rather would have it thrust upon them because of their servanthood - because of their willingness to follow where Jesus led.
We saw an example of this yesterday at the GLAD luncheon and business meeting. One who has spent her life serving others - taking minutes, keeping records, decorating tables, collecting tickets, organizing anything organizable, worrying about others, making sure everything was ready for everyone else - was called forward to be recognized.

I wish you all could have been there yesterday when the GLAD moderator announced that GLAD in the PSW had instituted a new award to be given at each bienniel meeting to someone who is dedicated to the affirmation and inclusion of diversity in our churches - the Gwen Gutierrez Recognition of Affirmation and Inclusivity, and that the very first Gwen Gutierrez Recognition was going to Gwen, herself. Gwen was speechless - and when she did get her ability to speak back all she could say was that there were so many others who deserved recognition so much more! Spoken like a true servant. Sometimes singing the whole song means a servant has to accept being put in first place now and then. The thing about people who are truly servants, the way Jesus told his Disciples they must be, is that they never really believe they deserve first place.

The thing about singing the whole song is not skipping over the troublesome bits. At Assembly we voted on a number of resolutions. Most of them passed with little trouble, and with either unanimous or nearly unanimous responses. One, however, generated some disagreement on the floor and actually had to go to a hand count of the votes. When it passed with only a small majority, one Assembly participant requested that the actual number of votes be included in the minutes because on this particular topic - the war in Iraq - it was clear that there was no consensus, but that there was division among the assembled churches just as there is in our nation. If we are to present ourselves to the world as united on a given topic, then ethically we must also present ourselves as divided when that is the truth. If we are to truly serve the church and each other, if we are to sing the whole song of who the Disciples are, we must even name the things we don’t want to name - disagreements and conflicts. We must sing those troublesome verses as well as the words that make us feel good.

Every Sunday, as our offerings are presented, we sing the first verse of “We Give Thee But Thine Own.” It’s a wonderfully appropriate verse for the presentation of our tithes and offerings. But I wonder if we have permanently relegated this hymn in our minds to the realm of financial stewardship. I invite you now to take out your Chalice hymnals, turn to page 382 and let’s look at ALL the words.

We give thee but thine own,
whate'er the gift may be;
all that we have is thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from thee.

May we thy bounties thus
as stewards true receive,
and gladly, as thou blessest us,
to thee our first fruits give.

To comfort and to bles,
to find a balm for woe,
to tend the lonely in distress,
is angels' work below

The captive to release,
to God the lost to bring,
to teach the way of life and peace -
it is a Christ-like thing.

And we believe thy Word,
though dim our faith may be;
whate'er for thine we do, O Lord,
we do it unto thee.

We are called to tend the sick, touch the lonely, free the captive - the actual prisoner of oppressive powers and principalities as well as the prisoner of depression, anger, hatred and all of those things which separate one from God - to teach the way of life and peace - for whatever we do for thine, O Lord, we also do for thee. We are called to give our first fruits - to give of the bounty we have received first to God’s service and then to everything else. We are called to follow Jesus, to live by his teachings, and to serve in whatever way we can all the children of God, for when we serve God’s children anywhere in the world, we also serve our Lord.

So let us be the servants to all that Jesus calls us to be. Let us give - our money and our lives - as we are called to do in this marvelous hymn. And now - right now - let us sing the whole song.

Hymn We Give Thee But Thine Own #382

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Living Into Jubilee - a sermon

There have been so many positive comments, emails, phone calls and hand written cards in response to this sermon I thought it was suitable for sharing with a larger community. With thanks to Cheesehead for an alternative look at Mark's rich man. :-)

Reading: Mark 10:17-31

Our jubilee year ended with the big celebration last Sunday. The Jubilee committee is breathing a sigh of relief - it’s OVER! We have a few last details to take care of at our next and final meeting, but the Jubilee year - the year of preparation for the celebration and for the future is over. Now we can plant the seeds in our rested and rejuvenated fields, knowing we will have a bountiful harvest through God’s grace.

How appropriate, then, that the gospel reading for today should be the story of the rich man who was asked to give all he owned to the poor - and walked away shaking his head.
This may be the preacher’s least favorite of all passages to preach. We moan and complain to each other when the lectionary brings us this passage, or the story of the widow’s mite. We know that nobody wants to hear a straight up stewardship sermon. We know that a lot of folks say they don’t come to church because “all they really want from me is my money!”
We all assume that this rich man loved his money so much he wasn’t willing to live without the big house, the nice clothes, the power and status that come with wealth. And surely, very few people today would happily give up our cars, Tvs, beds and kitchens to become homeless folks wandering around to preach the word of God. If we, like the rich man, are responsible for a family’s welfare, we would certainly walk away shaking our heads - how could we give away the things our children need to be warm and well fed and safe? How hard that would be - how could anyone even ask us to do that?

We assume this was the end of the story for him. But we don’t know that for sure. Perhaps he walked away to a quiet place, where he could pray and reflect Where he could spend time in discernment of God’s call on his life. And then, who knows? Maybe, later, even maybe after Pentecost - he did do what Jesus asked of him. In seminary I met many men and women who gave up established careers as architects, nurses, engineers, psychologists, teachers, human resources directors, accountants, small business owners, even lawyers! to follow the call they had received. They left their homes, and in some cases lost their families, to follow the call they had received. For every one of them, giving up what they knew and were comfortable with was a hard decision. For many it was a decision that was years in the making. Like the rich man of the story, at first they walked away shaking their heads.

The thing about God’s call on our lives is that, if we don’t pay attention the first time, God won’t give up. We’ll hear that call again and again until we finally do what we are called to do. We keep being given new opportunities to say yes -

Next week 12 or so of us will give three days of our lives to go to Regional Assembly. A few of my colleagues are seriously envious, because they will be the only person attending Assembly from their church. But this congregation has a long and respected history of service to the church in our Region. Many of our members have been on one or another of the Region’s Boards and committees over the last 50 years. And we still serve the Regional Church. Linda has been serving as Moderator for 4 years, her term ends next week. Gayle serves on Regional Board and GLAD. Gwen serves on the GLAD Executive Board I serve on Disciples Women’s Executive Committee and the Church in Society Committee. Ton’Ee serves on the Disciples Pastors and Partners Executive Committee. We serve by attending Regional Assembly and voting on the issues, by participating in the Unity Walk, by showing up at installations and other Regional events. Hank and Gil even served the region last week by playing golf!

What are you willing to give to serve God in the church? In light of today’s passage, the first thing that naturally comes to mind is money. When Lupe and I were preparing for her baptism, I asked her where she thought the money in the offering plate went. She answered “to help the poor.” And a lot of it does. Last year between regular offerings, extraordinary giving for natural disasters around the world, and our Talents program we nearly tripled our outreach giving! But she was surprised to hear that most of the offering money goes just to pay the bills - the same way most of our income at home does. It’s a lot easier to ask for money to help hurricane victims than it is to ask for money for the electric bill and copy paper. There is no question but that this congregation is very generous in our giving. Last week in his offering meditation Hank pointed out that every year our budgeted expenses exceed our expected income by about $20,000, yet somehow we manage to get the bills paid and increase our outreach giving. The week before that, Mark challenged us to tear up the checks we had already written, and write a new one for a larger amount - he asked us not just to give an amount that would still leave us feeling financially comfortable, but to give more than we think we can afford.

Money is actually the easiest thing for us to give. The hardest things for us to give are time, effort, and creativity. People who serve the church, as ordained or licensed ministers - people who serve the church on boards and committees - people who take weeks or months creating works of art to be shared with the congregation - People who make phone calls to ask us for prayer or to bring food to a pot luck - people who make sure the lights are all working, the windows are clean, the bread and cup are all ready for communion - all these give up something of great value in God’s service.

We’re looking at a new beginning - the beginning of our next fifty years as well as the beginning of a new church year. In December we’ll be voting on new board officers and a new budget. We’ll be asked to pledge our giving for next year, for the first time in many years. You might be asked to serve in a new or different way. And your first response may well be “that’s a lot of work!” You may think you don’t have the time or the energy to take on even one more thing. I remember asking June to take on the challenge of sending cards and she wasn‘t sure she could do it - but I know, we all know, that now she thinks of this ministry as a blessing. Last Sunday Jody - who together with Gwen spent a lot of time tracking down former members so they could be invited to the Jubilee - came to me after the worship and said “I didn’t want to serve on the Jubilee committee because I thought it would take up too much time and effort, and it was a lot of work, but now I am so grateful that I did. I have seen people today I haven‘t seen in decades and may never see again.”

Jesus said “You can be sure that anyone who gives up home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for me and for the good news will be rewarded.” It is hard to give up our lives to serve God, to carry the Good News, to follow the teachings of Jesus. But he asks nothing less than the gift of our lives - not an hour or so on Sunday - not 10% of our money or our time - but the totality of our lives. He asks that we dedicate every moment to the service of God. And the rewards are indeed great, far greater than any sacrifice we may make. When we are living according to the Good News, emulating Jesus through our love and compassion and service to others, we do indeed have a hundred times as many houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and pieces of land, for we have become part of a much larger family in Christ. That may not be so obvious to most of us, but those of us who travel in service to the church - like Linda and Doug - find themselves with family where ever they go. Welcomed into the arms and homes of strangers. Fed by people they never met before. Accepted with love and without question, because they come in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not why we serve, but it is one of the rewards we have been promised. When we give of ourselves, the gifts we receive are far greater than we can imagine.

When we leave this place today, let us keep in our minds the image of the rich man walking away from Jesus. Let us consider what it means to give up our lives to follow Jesus - and may we all decide for him, so that when God calls on us - when we are called upon to give and to serve, to His greater glory - we can say “Here I am, Lord.”

Hymn Here I Am, Lord

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Five: Creature Comforts

Reverendmother here...Maybe it's the arrival of crisp October, my favorite month. Or maybe it's the fact that the divine little miss m has been sick all week (and if the baby ain't happy, ain't nobody happy). Whatever the reason, my thoughts have been turning to cozy creature comforts--those activities and spaces that just make a person feel good. And so...

1. Comfort beverage
Spiced hot apple cider, unless I'm sick then it's boullion

2. Comfort chair
The right hand corner of the love seat in the living room - the left hand corner is full of pillow, Colts Cheerleader teddy bear, and a stuffed cat made by an Alzheimer patient when I served a retirement home as student chaplain. Crocheting bag on the floor in case I get tired of the book I'm reading, TV on, feet on the coffee table and fleece football blanket from my alma mater on my lap.

3. Comfort read
Ooh - that varies. I will read through everything I own by one author, but the author changes. It's usually sci-fi/fantasy - Mercedes Lackey, Ann McAffery. If I need total unreality then Terry Pratchet's Discworld novels or Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers Guide five-volume trilogy.

4. Comfort television/DVD/music
Last time I was really sick I discovered all those home decorating and repair programs. Watching 2 pairs of neighbors redecorate each other's living rooms or whatever is the kind of mindlessness I need to take me away from the world. Also gives me ideas for what I want to do in my home when I feel like getting up again ;-)

5. Comfort companion(s)
In a perfect world I would have dogs and cats to pet and cuddle for comfort, but since I live in an apartment . . . The Husband and I can sit for hours in quiet companionship. Dinah the lovebird if she is behaving herself (she likes to chew on my shirt collars which can be annoying).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Thanks for the warm welcome

It is wonderful to feel so welcomed by the Revgals. Some mentioned the diversity present at our Jubilee. Here's a look at who shows up most Sundays.

Moving Forward . . . Slowly

Why am I not surprised that I woke up this morning with aches and sneezes and sniffles? I'm scheduled to teach Bible stories and sing songs with our preschool students this morning, but it is my policy to stay away from humans as much as possible when I have or may have something contagious. Too many of my folks are either very young, very old or have lowered immune systems for other reasons - so, I need to stay away from the church again today. An opportunity for gratitude - Thank you, God, for making me rest another day.

I wonder a bit where to begin the process of moving forward into the next 49 years. I know my longer term goal - to participate in our denominational revitalization process. First I have to present it to the Board and get their commitment to the project - then to the congregation.

Meanwhile - The church Board has decreed that this will be a time for encouraging our members to "Grow One" (percent) in their giving. How timely, therefore, that Sunday's lectionary reading has Jesus telling the wealthy young man to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. So preaching on stewardship would be pretty much a no-brainer.

Or - At the Jubilee worship we were invited to write down our dreams for the future of our church and offer those dreams. Another good starting place. That same passage from Mark encourages the disciples to make following him their priority. The disciples in my congregation can be invited to make their combined dream for our future together a priority - not just something written down and forgotten.

Too bad the sneezes and sniffles are making my brain fuzzy - even my computer seems to be thinking more slowly than usual.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The morning after

Early this morning I walked into the sanctuary. It was still dark, the only light came from the floor-spot illuminating the stained glass cross soaring above the Table and the baptistery. Gold highlights glinted from the cloth draped along the choir loft and on the Table for our Jubilee Celebration. It was filled with a pregnant silence - echoes of yesterday mingled with dreams for tomorrow.

What a day! What a celebration! What great glory and honor and praise was given to God!

The work of preparing for the day began at 9 am. A banner to raise, little handprints to be removed from the narthex windows, inserts and pens and ribbons to be put in 250 bulletins, a sanctuary to drape in cloth of gold (actually, paper of gold, but it looked cloth-like), last minute calls because I forgot to line up an acolyte and the caterer got lost. Tables to place, signs to put up, and suddenly Hey! It's nearly 1 pm - quick, go home and change clothes!

Participants and guests started arriving at 2:30. The guest violin soloist needed me to help with the sound system. The member who designed the paraments needed me to raise and lower them so she could press them again. The returning Charter Member who was presiding over the table needed to be filled in on "how we do things here now" . . . At 4 pm the pre-prelude began, the participants were rounded up and settled in their seats, and I could relax. Whatever happened from then on was completely out of my control and settled firmly in God's hands.

And it was glorious! Participants in the service ranged from 12 to 90-something, from newly baptized to charter member. They came from across the country for a home-church reunion and from congregations around the region to share in our celebration. The music ranged from the hymns sung at that very first worship service in 1956 to a song written specially for our Jubilee. The congregation was invited to remember the past, celebrate the present, and write down dreams for the next 50 years.

There were tears and laughter, joyful reunions and sadness for those who were gone. Everyone I spoke to during the fellowship meal said it was a wonderful event. A former pastor told me the Jubilee Celebration was the high point of his life - really! And everyone - members and guests alike - told me to stay home today and get some rest.

So tomorrow I will work on follow-up. I'll check the guest book to see who came and to whom we should mail copies of the bulletin and the Memory Book. I'll decipher the hand-written dreams and share them through the newsletter. I'll work on a sermon inviting the congregation to begin the journey into the next 50 years.

Today - I think I'll stay in that quiet worshipful place, listening to the echoes of yesterday and looking at those glints of gold that hint at tomorrow.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Celebrating JubileeToday

Our great Jubilee celebration takes place in about 8 hours. The sanctuary, fellowship hall, bathrooms and offices are clean and clear to receive our guests. The bulletin boards are renewed, and the Awareness Board has been updated with information on Justice issues that we are (or should be) concerned about. The Regional Minister has his sermon ready and I am ready with words to welcome all to our Jubilee Worship Service. The graphic designer delivered the Memory Books to my home yesterday evening. The committee is gathering at the church at 9:30 am to prepare for the 4 pm Celebration; to hang the banner outside and put together the worship bulletins and drape the sanctuary in cloth of gold. Everyone is so excited . . .

Would that we could be so excited about worshipping God every Sunday - that we would always make sure the House is clean and clear for visitors - that we would approach the weekly meal of bread and cup with the joyful anticipation we are feeling about the catered Fellowship Meal after worship.

Is it even possible to always keep this level of excitement? Or do we need special occasions to approach God's house as a place of great celebration? Should not we wake up on Sundays saying "Today I go to worship!" and not "Oh yeah, I go to church this morning" as if it is a trip to the grocery store - just part of the weekly routine.

The challenge in the weeks and months ahead will be to keep the spirit of Jubilee flowing through the hearts and minds of the congregation - and the pastor.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday Five Civic duty

It's that season of the year when lawn signs are sprouting as surely as flowers in the spring; elections are just around the corner. And so today we bring you a Civic Duty Friday Five.

1) How old were you when you voted for the first time?

2) What was the contest at the top of the ballot?
It was a Presidential race - Nixon vs McGovern. I did not vote for Richard Nixon. :-)

3) Can you walk to your polling place?
Yes. It's at my church

4) Have you ever run for public office?

5) Have you run for office in a club or school or on a board?
Yes - served as secretary in almost every organization I've ever belonged to, Elder in my home church before leaving for college, VP in my college sorority (at age 46!), and member of seminary student council

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Miracles Happen

Yesterday I attended an 80th birthday party along with about 20 other members of the congregation. The birthday "girl" has been attending our church for nearly 20 years, but has said often and emphatically that she would never place her membership there. She felt unloved and unaccepted. It didn't help that several years ago a member, hearing her say this, suggested she might be happier if she attended worship somewhere else.

The miracle happened this morning when I extended the weekly open invitation to become part of the body of Christ in our congregation. This woman, face wreathed with smiles, walked forward and accepted the right hand of Christian fellowship as a full member of the congregation. I've never heard my congregation speak the words of welcome with quite so much vigor and joy. Some were in tears. Everyone made a point of greeting and congratulating her.

She said she finally realized, at her very first birthday party ever, that the people she worships with every single Sunday really do consider her part of the family.

What a little thing it is to attend a birthday party. Who could have predicted that this would have such a profound impact on the life of this woman? Hopefully, as we celebrate and move forward from our Jubilee, we will remember today and reach out to welcome others who feel alone.