Sunday, September 23, 2007

How Do I Love Thee? 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Did you follow the news this week about the demonstrations in Jena, Louisiana? Here’s the story, briefly. There’s an oak tree at a high school in Jena which is the traditional hangout for the white students there. A black student asked the principal if black students were allowed to sit under the so-called White Tree, and of course, the answer was yes. That night nooses were hung in the tree by a group of white students and violence broke out pretty much immediately. There were several clashes between white and black students, culminating in the arrest of six black students for the beating of one white student. One of those students was convicted by an all white jury, but the conviction was overturned by a higher court which ruled he should have been charged as a juvenile, not as an adult.

The problem – no one was arrested for hanging the nooses in the tree, no white students were charged for their parts in other violent clashes, but six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder after what was essentially a schoolyard fight resulting in relatively minor injuries. The problem is it appears that in La Salle Parish there is one kind of justice for whites and one kind of justice for blacks. Personally, I’m finding it hard to believe that the district attorney in Louisiana couldn’t find anything to charge against the boys who hung the nooses, although that’s what he said when he insisted this case wasn’t about race. Anyplace else that action would have been considered a hate crime, just like painting swastikas on a synagogue. It’s impossible that anyone could have missed the significance of nooses under the circumstances. Instead of those boys being punished, the 100-year-old oak tree was cut down. I guess the school board decided “no tree, no problem”?

The news reports say this was the largest civil rights demonstration in decades. Busses full of college students traveled from all over, like they did during the civil rights marches at Selma, Montgomery and Little Rock. Tina Chatham of Georgia Southern University spoke for many of the students when she said: "It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn't around for the civil rights movement. This is kind of the 21st century version of it,"
Wasn’t around for the Civil Rights Movement? Are not Civil Rights an ongoing struggle, a serious concern for anyone who seeks a world ruled by justice and compassion? Did she think it ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act? Just because some laws were changed, that didn’t mean racism ended or that the struggle toward reconciliation ended. It just means racism became a tad bit less obvious. Long time activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and pretty much anybody who pays attention, know that things are only marginally better today than they were 40 years ago. Those leaders and all who care about justice still cry out to God, as the prophet Jeremiah cried out for the deliverance of the exiles in Babylon.

Jeremiah 8:21—22
21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,

I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

22Is there no balm in Gilead?

Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people 
not been restored?

The Bible tells us that the people of Israel lost everything – their temple, their lands, their freedom – because the leaders did not, would not, care for those who needed their care – the widows, orphans, and aliens – the folks who had no power at all and no money and no one to stand up for them in times of trial. Instead of taking care of their people as the book of the Law directed them to, they focused on increasing their own power and wealth and status. This isn’t new – it’s been reality since the earliest days of humanity – the powerful always find ways to become more powerful, usually by using and abusing those who are less powerful. How do we change that? How do we move our leaders to seek justice with mercy?

Paul tells us, First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,

First of all, pray. Prayer is a powerful tool. In meetings of Regional and General Church Boards and committees there are frequent breaks for prayer, usually at times in the meeting where conflict or high feelings are most likely. Prayer can bring us together in times of conflict – at worst it gives us a moment to breathe, at best it helps us refocus and reminds us of our purpose in getting together. The best example of that I ever saw was at our General Assembly this past July when our moderator became our pastor at difficult times in the proceedings and took time from the agenda to lead us in prayer. It was the first Assembly I ever attended in which the halls after each session were peaceable – no one I heard was carrying on in anger because their position didn’t carry the day. Disappointment sometimes, but not anger. It was beautiful – and it was that way because of prayer.

Paul tells us for whom to pray – for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions. And he tells us how to pray for those people - in supplication, intercession and thanksgiving. So we pray not “God, punish those folks who don’t agree with me, who aren’t following your direction the way I think they should.” But “God, thank you for our leaders. Thank you for the work they do, and for their willingness to serve. I ask that you open their heats so they may at least hear other possibilities than the course they have set upon. And open mine as well, that I might come to understand their position.” And then, go forward and seek justice. Sit down with those you disagree with in peace and dignity, discussing the differences you have and coming to a place of agreement. Write letters, sign petitions, join demonstrations, speak your heart’s passion, donate money to the cause – do whatever it is you are able to do, whatever you are drawn to do for justice. But first, always, pray.

Prayer does bring change. Prayer first of all changes the one who prays. I’ve told you, I think, that I pray a gratitude list every day. And I give thanks not just for the things I like in my life, but also the things I don’t like. For the people I’m angry with, or who just will not agree with me on things I consider important, because they make me consider how to present my position in a way they will understand. For the cold I caught, because it makes me slow down. And when I pray this way, I find that I become more willing to see another’s position. When I pray this way, I become more willing to speak and act in love. And as I become more willing to listen, to understand, to come to agreement – I understand again just how powerful prayer can be. I understand just how much God loves us, to give us a tool that changes hearts and minds with so little effort.

When I first read this passage I thought of the sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

She wrote this love poem to her husband. But I suddenly heard it as a prayer – as words spoken to God. And as I read the words that way, I realized that when I speak of my love for God, I can more easily hear God’s response. And I heard the response in these words

How do I Love Thee? My child, let me count the ways.
I love you In all the ways I hear your prayer, and in all the ways I respond.
In all the ways I move you to hear and respond to the cries of those around you,
In the words of life taught by my Son,
In the gifts of healing found in those words.
For the words of love and forgiveness found there have always been the balm that heals all wounds.

When I pray for the power to love, the pain in my heart begins to heal, my anger begins to cool. When we cry out in pain, in anger, in frustration, “Is there no physician here? Is there no one to heal the wounded? God responds in love and compassion. God pours out love upon us, encourages us through the words of the Gospels to share that love throughout the world. And as the love spreads, like a healing salve on a wound, anger and hatred are healed.

My brothers and sisters, there is a physician for all the world’s ills, the Christ who was sent by God to teach us love. And in that healing power of love, There IS a balm in Gilead.

Hymn There is a Balm in Gilead

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Five - DeCluttering Edition

Sally of RevGalBlogPals poses a great set of questions for me, since I'm getting ready to move!

Making the most of our resources is important, I have been challenged this week by the amount of stuff we accumulate, I'd love to live a simpler lifestyle, it would be good for me, and for the environment I think...

With that in mind I bring you this Friday 5;

1. Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
I'm a hoarder who wants to be a minimalist. I keep everything - even decades old electric bills! - but I'm constantly looking for ways to clear out the excess stuff in my house and office.

2. Name one important object ( could be an heirloom) that you will never part with.
I have a crucifix that was hung above the front door in every home my parents lived in for as long as I can remember.For me, this is the one thing that really says "This is my home." It is the first thing I hang up whenever I move.

3. What is the oldest item in your closet? Does it still fit???
I've been continously weeding out my closet the last few years. Every season I look at what I have and if I haven't worn it in two years out it goes. The oldest thing I have now is a 50's costume that I bought for a Hot Rod show back in the 1970s. It might fit, I'm not sure. How often does the occasion call for a skirt with a crinoline and an I Like Ike button?

4.Yard sales- love 'em or hate 'em ?
Love Them! And dread them. I try to drive past instead of stopping cause I know I can't stop at just one. :-)

5. Name a recycling habit you really want to get into.
Where I live right now the trash company sorts and recycles everything so I don't have to pay attention to which can I put things in. My new house is in a different area so I've have to re-learn how to sort out my trash again.

And for a bonus- well anything you want to add....
Moving is always my favorite opportunity to get rid of things I don't use, never liked, or got tired of. The big problem used to be "But what if Great Aunt Whatshername comes over and doesn't see the horrendous whatnot she gave me?" That's not a problem anymore with me living on the opposite coast from the rest of my family, but tell me - what do you do with dustcatching gifts from The Husband that merited a "Oh, it's just what I always wanted" Pack them away and eventually lose the box?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lost and Found Luke 15:1-10

On Sunday evenings I like to watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It’s a program on which a family in great need is selected to receive a completely new home, built on their existing property, to replace a house that’s pretty much falling down and otherwise unsafe. The people for whom these houses are built are not just in financial need, they are also people who genuinely deserve the help, people who dedicate their lives to helping others, sometimes despite rather serious physical handicaps. They’re often nominated by members of their community because of the good they do for other people while their own homes literally fall apart around. Hundreds of volunteers from the community come together with Ty Pennington and his team of designers and builders to demolish the existing home and then build a completely new home designed for that particular family in just one week, while the family is sent to Disney World or someplace for a vacation. Last Sunday Ty Pennington and his crew built a new home for the family of Jason Thomas.

Jason Thomas is one of the heroes of 9/11, an ex-Marine who spent the days following 9/11 working to save lives. Even though he was no longer on active duty, and even though his job had nothing to do with law enforcement or fire rescue, he immediately left his job and went to the Ground Zero to offer his help. He kept working for days, and long after most people thought there couldn’t possibly be anyone left alive, he just kept digging until two more men were freed from the wreckage. Because of his persistence, his refusal to give up, two New York Port Authority Policemen were rescued. Afterwards, he stayed and kept looking for more survivors, until finally he was told to go home, to let it go. There was no one else left. Those two policemen that he rescued were the last two people who came out alive. Do you remember the celebration when those last two were rescued? On the days following September 11th, Jason Thomas lived up to the motto of the Marine Corps – Semper Fi – Always Faithful. He would not give up.

In many ways, Jason’s story is like the story of the lost sheep, and the woman with the lost coin. Like the shepherd, he left everything behind to search for the lost. Like the woman, he left no corner untouched, searching diligently until he finally found what he was looking for.

The Lost Sheep and the Woman with the Lost Coin – we’ve heard these two stories so many times. We’ve wondered why a shepherd would leave a whole flock to chase one lost sheep. We may have been able to relate a little better to the woman with the lost coin – at least she probably had the other coins safely in her keeping while looking for the lost one. And then there’s the way the shepherd and the woman reacted to finding what was lost. I mean, normally if you lose a sheep, or a sum of money, or anything really important, you don’t throw a party to celebrate. You’re much more likely to keep it to yourself so nobody has to know you lost it in the first place!

When we look at these stories next to the story of Jason Thomas, maybe they make more sense. Most people didn’t just walk off the job and go downtown to dig through the rubble. Most people kept working, kept earning a living for their families, kept themselves safe. Yes – most people sent money or donated supplies or did something to help. And a lot of people from all over the country did go to do whatever they could. But most people didn’t go to the extreme effort he did. And of those who did go down to help with the rescue efforts, most had given up on finding anyone else alive long before Jason did.

If this man, who didn’t even know the people he was looking for, could be so dedicated to finding and saving them, how much more important must we be to God, who knows and loves each one of us. How much more faithful, even than a Marine, our God is, to offer forgiveness to anyone who admits their faults and asks for pardon.

Paul experienced this forgiveness personally, on the road to Damascus, and talks about it in his first letter to Timothy verses 12-17:
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

What we always have to remember about Paul is that he wasn’t what the world would have seen as “lost.” He wasn’t a tax collector, or a drug addict, or an adulterer, or a thief, or anything like that. He was a righteous man, a faithfully practicing Jew, who believed he was doing right in chasing down and arresting or executing people he believed to be blaspheming against God. Although Jesus taught much that was in accord with what Paul believed, he also taught things that turned Paul’s world upside down! Paul didn’t understand how anything could be more important than obeying God’s laws. He didn’t understand how the Messiah could come as a wandering rabbi from Galilee. He didn’t even understand that God’s kingdom was not a physical place, but a state of being. Talk about finding one who was lost! Paul is the perfect example, way better than a sheep or a coin or even two policemen. For here was a man who didn’t understand that he was lost. Who believed that he was right and would not be open to any other point of view. But Jesus chased him down, pointed out his errors, forgave him, and welcomed him warmly into the family of Christ – even sent him to other believers that he might be healed physically as well as spiritually.

Paul wasn’t made perfect that day. He would continue to get angry and to fight with people who didn’t see things his way. But from then on, he would search his soul, confess his faults, and ask forgiveness. From then on, he would understand that Love is the foundation for God’s kingdom, and he would really try to be loving even to those who opposed him. We know these things, because he put them in writing, and those writings have survived even till today.

I think that if we have a predetermined idea of who the Lost are, we’re missing the big picture. The sheep was part of the flock, and wandered away. The coin was one of 10 that was somehow misplaced. The policemen were human beings who were in clear and present danger. Paul was a righteous man whose understanding of what was acceptable to God was inflexible. All of these were lost. All of these were part of something larger – they weren’t just random units that someone went looking for just to be looking.

Who, then, are the Lost? Who are the sheep and the coin of these parables? Who are these sinners God is seeking so diligently?

There are the obvious Lost – folks who don’t go to church at all – the ones we’re told we’re supposed to evangelize. Non-believers and drug addicts and alcoholics and criminals and homeless folks. People who are angry at God. People who believe they’re doomed to hell, so why bother. People who don’t seem to be part of anything - loners.

But there are a lot of other Lost ones.

The Lost are members of congregations who feel alienated or disconnected somehow. They may still show up, but their hearts aren’t in it anymore. The Lost are the folks who find their church’s theology unbearable, or see more ambition and power seeking behavior than they think ought to be happening in church, and so they wander off. The Lost are the ones who have been driven out of their church, because they have a drug problem or got divorced or came out of the closet, who feel rejected but who desperately want to be part of Christ’s family.

The Lost are Us. Whenever we find ourselves feeling less than, or not a part of, or rejected, or unwanted – we are the Lost. Whenever we find ourselves feeling better than, or needing to be in control, or angry because others question what we are doing - we are the Lost. Whenever we are doing anything that will separate us from God and from each other, we are Lost.

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we don’t have to stay Lost. We can find our way back and join in that celebration, for the path back is easy enough to find.. God has sent Jesus as the Light to guide our way. Through Jesus, through walking the path that Jesus has shown us how to take, God’s amazing grace finds us and bring us back safely from any danger we may encounter. Amen.

Hymn Amazing Grace

Sunday, September 09, 2007

I Will Follow Him Luke 14:25-33

Six years ago this week I was preparing my very first sermon for my very first ministerial position as student chaplain at a retirement community. It was National Grandparents Day, and the passage the lectionary gave me to preach was “hate your father and your mother.” NOT the message I wanted to have to preach on my first Sunday in a room full of grandparents and great-grandparents! I survived that encounter, and I learned a lot. Of course, that was sort of inevitable since I was working in a community full of retired ministers and missionaries and pastors wives, including Doug’s parents.

This is a difficult passage. First, let’s look at what it doesn’t say. Jesus says “hate your family”? How can this be when Jesus always said love everyone? This is easier to understand when you realize that he was using a teaching tool commonly used by rabbis of his time – hyperbole. Making a point by exaggerating it. Not hate, precisely. But rather, don’t allow ties to other people prevent you from discipleship. If you are called to travel – as missionaries are, for example – don’t let your family keep you from following that call. Remember, Jesus’ disciples at the time were asked to travel as missionaries, carrying very little, often gone from their families for long periods of time. If they had stayed at home because of family ties, the Good News of God’s Kingdom would not have gotten very far.

And what about giving away all your possessions, really? After all, Jesus was supported throughout his ministry by people who had possessions – homes and wealth and even his tomb. We’ve come to understand that it isn’t wealth by itself that he preached against. It was allowing the accumulation and possession of things to come between you and God.

And then there’s the bit about carrying your cross.

Often preachers using this passage talk about bearing the cross of personal, financial, emotional or physical problems without complaint, with faith that God will carry us through any difficulty. You’ve surely heard people say something like “Yes, I have constant pain from my arthritis, but it’s just the cross I have to bear.”That’s not really what this passage is about either.

More often this passage used to reckon up the cost of discipleship – what we must suffer and endure if we are truly Christian. We use examples of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – both great men, both spoke out and acted against oppression – racism in America and Nazism in Germany. They both walked forward faithfully through difficult and dangerous times, knowing that their very faithfulness could lead to their death. They both gave their lives for those who were oppressed, as Jesus did. That is a piece of the meaning of this passage.

This passage does tell us that Christ must come first in our lives. Following Christ, being a Disciple, means that we are first Christian, then whatever else – child, parent, partner, employee, citizen – whatever. The Cross that we carry is the Cross of being a Christian.

One of the Revgalblogpals asked “So what are you preaching this week – Jeremiah, or Paul or that heavy cross?” And it struck me that there was something wrong with this question. Think about it. Why is it we only seem to talk about the burdens involved in following Christ, and never about the JOY of carrying our cross?

Let me point out that Jesus’ very disciples, the ones who spent all their time, waking and eating and sleeping, in his company, the ones who listened to every word he spoke, weren’t able to follow him to the Cross. When he was arrested they panicked and ran, they hid themselves from the Romans and the Temple guards. And in the case of Simon Peter, denied even knowing Jesus. It wasn’t until later – after the resurrection – after their joyous reunion with Jesus – that they were able to truly follow him – to preach his message, to carry news of the resurrection and the life everywhere in the known world. They faced trouble – Yes. And Yes, they would later face persecution, imprisonment, even death. But they followed him, not as a burden they bore, but as a joyful vocation.

Think about the things you do joyfully – things you do because you can’t not do them.

The image this passage evokes most powerfully for me is the image of the young man who arrived at the doors of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, with his younger brother across his shoulders, and saying, “He ain’t heavy Father. He’s my brother.” Carrying his brother was hard work, undoubtedly. But it was hard work he did with joy, knowing that at the end of the journey was warmth and safety for both of them. He did it because the most important thing in his life was the love he had for his brother.

Luciano Pavoratti is probably the only opera singer in history who was able to bring opera into the lives of people who typically wouldn’t ever hear it. Most opera singers wouldn’t have been caught dead singing pop music, or appearing in comedy films, and even on Saturday Night Live? He had a gift he joyfully shared with as many people as possible. In an interview he said “this isn’t work – this is what I do because I love it.” He had to work hard – practicing and traveling and taking care of his voice – but he couldn’t stop. To the end of his life he shared his gift with the world, because singing wasn’t his job – singing was who he was.

Teachers – the good ones - don’t become teachers because they’ll get rich doing it. They teach because they love to teach – because it is their vocation. Even when they retire they find ways to keep teaching. You should see Marsha talking about Alternative Christmas with our preschoolers. And Stasi teaching them crafts – these retired teachers continue teaching because it is what they love. They really can’t help themselves. They just kind of fall into teacher mode. Teachers everywhere work really hard, they may be driven crazy by paperwork and administrative stuff and in some places they are in real physical danger when they go to work. But they are teachers, all the time, because that is who they are.

And Ministers – I don’t know any retired ministers. I know a lot of ministers who no longer serve a congregation, or do any ministry for which they get paid, but they never quit being ministers. At Robin Run I watched ministers in their 80s and 90s spend all their time doing some kind of ministry. I know they spent quite a bit of effort helping a certain student chaplain learn what she was doing. A minister’s work isn’t easy. Some of what they do is difficult or emotionally painful or just aggravating, and in the case of missionaries it can be extremely dangerous. These folks serve joyfully to the end of their lives, because they can’t not serve. Being a minister isn’t a job. It is simply who they are.

Some of you know that I watch the occasional football game, and that I kind of like the Indianapolis Colts. When Tony Dungy arrived in Indianapolis to become the head coach of the Colts the very first thing he did, before he even looked for a house, was to look for a church. And this wasn’t something he tried to keep quiet – he brought it up at a news conference! According to an article in Christianity Today, he said that in his college football playing days he was a hotheaded jock, not a mature Christian by any means. But today he is a Christian first. He is very different, as head coach, than the stereotypical cursing, hard driving, abusive head coach. His understanding of how to treat his comes from his understanding of how Jesus would have him behave toward all persons. Apparently, treating football players with respect and love works pretty well. The Colts have a great reputation in Indianapolis and elsewhere – they work hard in the community to do good, they don’t make headlines for drug use or spousal abuse or fighting. And they do win football games.

That’s what Jesus calls us to be in this passage. First, follow him. First, be Christian. Then be whatever else we are. Be Christians in the same way that young man was a brother, Pavarotti was a singer, teachers teach and ministers minister. Be Christian because we can’t not be – because it is who we are. Like Tony Dungy, our Christianity should form the way we do our work, the way we treat other people, the way we act in every aspect of our lives.

Where ever we go in life, we need to go there as Christians, carrying the cross of God’s love, joyfully and with much praise and rejoicing. Where ever we go, we need to follow Jesus along our way. Where ever we go in life, we know we are not going alone, not as simply an individual, but as part of the body of Christ. And even if we’re not certain about the direction, we know there is one who can lead and guide us on our way, who goes before us, who has already shown us the way to go. Join me now in asking him for guidance.
Sing - Lead me, guide me.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Last but not Least James 5:15-20

We’ve reached the end of James’ letter to the church and the end of the Summer Sermon Series. Unlike many other letters written at about the same time in history, James doesn’t use the end of his letter for personal greetings, or a long benediction. Although today’s reading is the last part of the letter, it is certainly far from the least important part. There’s nothing here that can or should be skipped over. The last paragraphs in this letter make some critically important points for living a Christian life.

First, he says Above all do not swear. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. In this James simplifies the words of Jesus reported in the Gospel of Matthew 5:33-37 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Our Quaker brothers and sisters take this statement very seriously indeed, so seriously that for a long time they were unable to hold any public office in England and other European countries because they refused to swear on a Bible. They still don’t – when testifying in court or being sworn in to public office, they affirm they will tell the truth, but will not place their hand on a Bible and swear to it. In part there is the problem of false swearing. If, for example, I believe a certain thing to be true and swear to it, then it turns out that what I believed to be true isn’t, I will have sworn falsely. Think about it – have you ever looked all over for something, maybe even accused someone of moving it, and then, upon finding it in an unexpected place said “What’s it doing in the garage? I could have sworn I left it in the kitchen!” Had we sworn we would have sworn falsely, even though we believed our words to be true. James, however, doesn’t just echo the commandment against swearing falsely, but simply says “do not swear” at all, ever.

James said don’t swear because speech between brothers and sisters should be truthful, and each one should be trusted to be truthful.. Speaking plainly and truthfully with each other is the basis for community. This simplicity and trustworthiness in speech carries over into the language of prayer. James has already addressed this a bit elsewhere in his letter. In the first chapter he says that one who is suffering should not say “I am being tempted by God” And earlier in this chapter he cautions us against seeking revenge against the source of our distress. Rather, we should simply lift our pain up to God who is the source of healing and grace. Likewise, anyone who is happy should sing praises to God, giving all honor to the one from whom all blessings come.

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord..

In the world James lived in, there was no separation perceived between the health of the body and the health of the soul. Body and soul were inseparable in life and were treated together. Our medical science today separates not just body and soul, but even all the parts of the body. If you go to your general practitioner with an upset stomach, you may end up seeing half a dozen specialists before someone is able to figure out exactly what is the matter. This is not necessarily a good thing – because the whole body is connected. We know that emotional or spiritual upset affects the way our physical body feels. There is a growing trend in the medical community toward holistic medicine – toward treatment of the whole body. In James’ world, this was a given. So medical treatment included treatment of the soul - anointing with fragrant oils, laying hands on the sick person. The oil and the physical contact return the one who has been alienated by illness into the community. The act of visiting and anointing and praying also brings the one who prays back into contact with that alienated one. That simple human touch reaches across pain and loneliness and brings us together.

The seminary I attended was a Disciples ecumenical seminary. My classmates came from many different Christian denominations and traditions. We had different beliefs about theology and practice and prayer. Most of us would respond to “will you pray for me?” with “Yes of course” and then add that person to our prayer list. But Millie treated these requests differently. Millie was a Baptist woman in her 70s who had been called to the ordained ministry somewhat later in life than most. And she was on fire! When the Gospel Choir would sing in chapel, she would get so excited that she’d be jumping up and down praising Jesus as we went back to our seats. The first time I asked Millie for prayer I expected her to say “yes, I’ll pray for you” But what happened was that Millie wrapped her arms around me and began to pray – out loud, right there in the middle of the hallway near the library. She praised God and called upon God to shower me with love, to forgive my sins, to heal my soul even as the surgeon would work to heal my body. I felt so much better when she me go. The touch, the caring, the immediate response, brought me back into the community from which I felt isolated by my illness. And it left Millie jumping up and down, praising Jesus.

Prayer is good for the one praying and the one being prayed for. When we are suffering in any way, it is our responsibility to ask for prayers – not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those who do the praying. If we do not ask for prayer, we are alienating ourselves, and rejecting our community. When we pray, especially when we are praying for someone else, we draw closer to God. Prayer is powerful. The act of praying, especially when we are praying with another person, brings blessing upon both the one praying and the one being prayed for. When we pray, as James directs, for the forgiveness of sin in the one who is ill, we are following the example of Jesus, who often told those who sought healing “Go, your sins are forgiven.” The purpose of prayer is the healing of the soul – the removal of fear, an ending of isolation and alienation, the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness.

Can our prayers make it stop raining for three years and six months, then bring the rain back as Elijah did? Probably not. Can our prayers help another heal from the pain of isolation and loneliness that illness brings? Absolutely. Can our prayers bring back one who has strayed, one who has wandered from the truth, one who has isolated herself from the body of Christ? Certainly. It happens all the time. It happened to me.

Throughout the summer we’ve been hearing James instructions on how to live as a Christian. We’ve been given direction on how to Love God and our Neighbor. How to be faithful to the example of Jesus the Christ.
Endure difficulties with faith and to turn our backs on temptation, praying for God’s guidance.
Really listen to the Word and to each other, with our hearts, not just our ears and our minds.
Act in response to what is really being said, not what we think is being said.
Be faithful, for faith will draw us to do good for others.
Welcome everyone equally into the body of Christ
Show love to everyone equally, without prejudice of any kind.
Do not judge one another.
Seek always to find common ground for agreement, avoiding conflict.
Be very careful how we use words, for words create the realities in which we live.
Be humble, and know that we forgiven.
Be patient. Know we can’t force others to change, but we can pray and wait for willingness.
Live as one community, speaking simply and truthfully, praying together, confessing our own sins and forgiving each other, as God forgives us.
And in every circumstance, Pray, for prayer brings us closer to God and to each other.

The words we have heard in this letter are words with which we can change our lives and by changing our lives, through our example, we can change the lives of others. These are truly words to live by – these are wonderful words of life.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A time for grief, a time for joy

It has been a horrific week. Last Saturday morning a long-time member of the congregation died unexpectedly. Sunday morning another - a woman in her 70s who was just baptized last Easter. Monday after spending time with both grieving families I had to take my beloved bunny, the Reverend Samuel T Rabbit, to the vet where he was eased out of this life. Tuesday I could barely function.

What I faced Tuesday morning was what was already going to be an unusually busy week. I had to finish writing a grant for our preschool which was due on Friday and I had to prepare the monthly newsletter so our members could receive the paper version by September 1st. Luckily the web version is easy to do once all the writing is completed. Then there was the usual bulletin preparation and general office stuff. And on top of these, planning a funeral and doing my own grieving while working with the two bereaved families.

I cried out in despair as the psalmist did, first to God, then to friends. I shared my grief, my anger, my concern that I wouldn't be able to do what I had to do. I received consolation and strength, the assurance that God was walking alongside of me. I cried and worked, and cried some more.

Tuesday afternoon I received a phone call from a friend, who had a bunny she wanted to give me. I agreed to see how Mr. Whiskers and I would get along. Tuesday and Wednesday my friends surrounded me in person and virtually, and prayed with me. By Thursday all the work I had to complete was finished and I was able to go to the church to truly celebrate the life of one who has gone home.

I feel good - able to sing praise songs in the morning as I used to do. The grief over two humans and one bunny is still there, but no longer paralyzing. Mr. Whiskers and I are getting along well - he's a glutton for being petted, and has started looking excited when I come out in the morning, and coming over to nuzzle my face. He's not my Sammy, but he's really helped me get through the pain of loss.

Thank God for friends and prayers and bunny rabbits.