Archive for the ‘Gospel of Luke’ Category

The Fig Tree – 1st Sunday of Advent

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller

December 2, 2012

Listen to Sermon

Contemporary Testimony:  from “Getting Our Gaze Back” by Rose Marie Berger

I’ve noticed about myself recently that I stare out the window and daydream when I’m desperate. The unrelenting beam of information aimed at me via the computer screen too often occupies my eyes. My gaze is clouded with data bits. The mind silts up with details, images, pleas for help, advertisements, and thousands of worthy campaigns for social change. “Life shouldn’t be this hard,” I think.

By mid-afternoon the view outside my window is deep in shade…The butterflies are absent—perhaps moved on to warmer micro climes. The dark green leaves are still. I give over my intellect, my tired eyes, and some part of my soul to the cool of the afternoon. I rest.

Isn’t this kind of holy daydreaming an essential quality of sabbath? I learn humility from a tree that flowers, fruits, and multiplies whether I sleep or am awake. I am awed by butterflies that can trace the scent of sweetness without extensive computer-generated data and global positioning satellites. I look out my window through the security bars. My mouth waters in anticipation of summer peaches.

Biblical Testimony:                                Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that thekingdomofGodis near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Wondering Questions

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller

November 11, 2011

Contemporary Testimony:  an excerpt from “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” by Walter Brueggemann

The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words ofSt. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things – nothing can separate us from God.

What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.

Biblical Testimony:  Mark 12:41-44

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then Jesus called the disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Godly Play

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Mary Catherine Gunter, Godly Play (our version of Sunday School) liason to Christian Education

November 4, 2012

Listen to Godly Play Story

Contemporary Testimony:  excerpt from “The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World” by Kathy LeMay

Each of us has roots in giving, be they based in culture, faith, personal belief systems, or family. These giving roots are a powerful force and have likely shaped your values and thinking today. By remembering these roots and recalling specific examples of how you or your family gave back, you will draw on traditions that will energize your present work.

Biblical Testimony:                               Mark 12:41-44

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Still Learning

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller

September 9, 2012

Listen to Sermon

Contemporary Testimony: “Wild Geese”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. – Mary Oliver

Biblical Testimony: Mark 7:24-30
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Defining Moments

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller

January 8, 2012

Contemporary Testimony: To Be of Use  by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

“To be of use” by Marge Piercy © 1973, 1982

Ancient Testimony: Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appearedin the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

Defining Moments:  If any of you were looking for the main characters  from our ancient testimony this week you should have come to my house.  Bill kept inviting Jesus  and John to dinner.  Almost every night over dinner, there they were.  It’s not that I don’t like them, I do.  But John’s dietary requirements are a challenge and, well, Jesus is a little intimidating.

So, early in the week Bill casually asked a question about the Christmas season, which turned into a convesration about Epiphany, which lead to today’s testimony.  As we began to talk about Jesus and John, Bill was shocked to hear that these two cousins were so close in age.  For some reason he thought John was much, much older than Jesus.  That John had been around for years and years preparing the way. When I explained that, no, in fact Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant the same time with Jesus and John, he made go get the Bible and prove it.  Over the next few night, over and over again, the cousins were invoked.  One night he exclaimed, “What else don’t know?!”   There was no way I was going to invite Job and Ezekiel to the table as well, so I simply smiled!

But, Bill got me to thinking.  John and Jesus growing up together.  Think about it.  They were cousins.  How often did they see each other?  When they did, what did they play?  How did they play? Did they ever fight over a toy?  John’s father was a priest.  Do you think they ever played church, enacting the sabbath rituals, just like some kids do today.  You’ve heard the funny stories of  little  Joey trying to baptize the cat.  Did they know, as children at play, that it would lead to the story we hear today?

Jesus and John at the river.  What an amazing moment.  Do you think John heard the voice from heaven?  Or just Jesus?  And if John did, how did it make him feel?  I’d like to think the voice was affirmation for them both.  John, that Jesus was the long awaited one.  That the long, long line of prophet, of which he was a part, had not preached and proclaimed in vain.

Barbara Lundblad says that , “There’s no indication that others saw the heavens open up. –only Jesus. He saw the heavens torn apart, not opened as in Matthew or Luke, but torn apart. The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism… It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn’t careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” (Lundblad, Torn Apart Forever, January 12, 2003)

This was an epiphany.  A defining moment. And John and Jesus were never the same.

These are the things that Bill and I talked about this week at the table.  Jesus and John sitting with us at table all week, but never telling us exactly what happened that day, or in their childhood.  But there, nonetheless.

I didn’t tell Bill that I invited Marge Peircy to the table this mornnig.  Things were complicated enough!   But, Ms. Piercy got me thinking.   She would have loved Jesus and John.  They were two people who jumped in head first.  They were both people who “swam off with sure strokes, native to the elements.” John submerged Jesus in the task.  After the baptismal moment, their lives “took a shape that satisfied, a shape that was clean and evident.”  Their pitchers were filled, overflowing.  (Piercy)

Marge Piercy and Bill got me thinking.  What about me?  What about us?  What about our baptism?  With Jesus and John at the river.  What an amazing moment.  Do you hear the voice from heaven?  How does it make you feel?  Does it make you feel affirmed.  Would that voice from heaven, that affirmation make you be of use?  Would it make you jump in head first.  “Swimming with sure strokes, a native to the elements.  A pitcher filled and overflowing.” (Piercy)

Some of you may have had one of these defining moments.  Maybe not as dramatic as the one  Jesus and John shared.  The heavens may not have opened up.  Or torn apart.  The ragged edges to never go back together as they were.  But maybe you did have a defining moment.  When things were crystal clear and you knew. You knew that you were where you needed to be at the right moment, doing the right thing.  That going forward you would be of use.

I love Marge Peircy’s words.  They are baptismal words.  Sacred, submerged, poured out, washed clean, caught up in the current words.

I think that’s what happended to Jesus and John that day.  It was a defining, sacred moment,  submerged, poured out, washed clean, caught up in the current.  “Reminiscent of Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and be of use.” (Lundblad)  “To jump in head first.  To swim off with sure strokes, native to the elements.  To submerged  in the task.  To be  filled, overflowing.” (Piercy)  “To come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” (Lundblad)

“You are my own Beloved Child.”

Even though John and Jesus were at my house for dinner almost every night last week my sky remained in tact.  I did not hear the voice they heard.  I did not feel my world changed.

Some of you are right there with me.  Waiting for one of these defining moments.  Maybe even wanting it desperately.  It doesn’t even have to be as dramatic and the one Jesus and John shared.  “The heavens may not have opened up.  Or torn apart.  The ragged edges to never go back together as they were.” (Lundblad)  Just some clarity,  just to know for sure.  To know for sure that you are where you need to be.

Even though John, Jesus and Marge failed to call God forth and crack open the sky above my dining room table, they reminded me that these baptismal moments happen.  These defining moments still happen.  But Just like John and Jesus we must step into the water.

If we jump in “head first and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight, native to the elements,”  God will use us.  If we submerge ourselves in the task.  In those  baptismal moment, our lives will be washed, our lives will take “a shape that satisfied, a shape that is clean and evident.  Our pitchers will be filled, overflowing.” (Piercy)

Our moments may not be as dramatic, but they still happen.  Maybe they are just moments at the table, when someone says, “why didn’t I know?!”  “What else don’t I know?!”

And then, just like that, we find ourselves in the water.  With Marge and with John and with Jesus.  Submerged.  Caught up in the current.  Baptized. Of  use.

What if we jumped head first into the social stream that separated rich from the poor swimming with sure stokes?  What if we strained in the mud and muck against  hardness of heart to move forth compassion?  What if we submerged in the taks of  breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine? What if our lives were washed with what it means to be God’s Beloved Child? (Lundblad)

Then our lives would take a shape that satisfied, a shape that is clean and evident.  Our sky may not open up, but I pray that we will all hear God in our baptismal moments, in our defining moments, saying “You are my Beloved Child.”

Why Should We Care?

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Rev. Barbara Brecht

November 14, 2010

Scripture: Luke 21: 5-19

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction.   He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused.  The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years.  Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.  

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he?  He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus.  Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless.  But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties?

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation or easy to get to.  It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit.  To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones.  In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons.  When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors.  There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating.  For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwire bra had to remove the bra before going in.  I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon.  Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay. 

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service.  Why was this rule created?  Who knows?  One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison.  So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service.  Why bother at all?

 Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation.  The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself.  There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system.  There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears.  After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave.  They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site.  The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address.  The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge.  We held a lovely memorial service at the church.  But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system?  Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable.  And how many people really care?  Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system?  William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.”  Are poor people more likely to be criminals?  Dr. Coffin goes on:  “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals.  Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons.  Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible.  We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of.  Some of us go to prison for them.  A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities.  Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers.  A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population.  Why are they deaf?  Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled.  Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars.  By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities. 

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise.  Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison?  And who is giving out those contracts?  Few people know.  Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing.  Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment.  I know there is supposed to be strict oversight.  The New York Times uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image.  Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual.  Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes.  Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison.  Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status.  These are people—people in prison.  Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis.  All people who wanted to disturb the status quo.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had.  “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead.  Total. Overcoming in prayer.”  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation.  We can become the incarnate presence of God.  Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness.  We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison. 

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction. He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused. The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years. Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he? He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus. Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless. But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties.

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation nor easy to get to. It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit. To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones. In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons. When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors. There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating. For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwired bra had to remove the bra before going in. I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon. Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay.

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service. Why was this rule created? Who knows? One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison. So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service. Why bother at all?

Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation. The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself. There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system. There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears. After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave. They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site. The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address. The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge. We held a lovely memorial service at the church. But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system? Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable. And how many people really care? Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt. Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system? William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.” Are poor people more likely to be criminals? Dr. Coffin goes on: “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals. Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons. Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible. We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of. Some of us go to prison for them. A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities. Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers. A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population. Why are they deaf? Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled. Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars. By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities.

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise. Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison? And who is giving out those contracts? Few people know. Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing. Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment. I know there is supposed to be strict oversight. The NEW YORK TIMES uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image. Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual. Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes. Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison. Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status. These are people—people in prison. Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis. All people who wanted to disturb the status quo. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had. “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead. Total. Overcoming in prayer.” Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation. We can become the incarnate presence of God. Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness. We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

Loss’ Gain

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Rev. Marcus R. Ingram
A Sermon for May 15, 2011
Scripture: Luke 15: 1‐10 (The Message)
The Story of the Lost Sheep
1‐3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
4‐7″Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety‐nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety‐nine good people in no need of rescue.
The Story of the Lost Coin
8‐10″Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

President John F. Kennedy.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Princess Diana.
Michael Jackson.
And now, Osama bin Laden.
The death of these echoes through the halls of history. Details of their life infiltrate our contemporary memory. And, if we were of age at the time of their earthly departure, we likely
2
remember where we were when we heard the announcement. Without much work, we can return to those moments, running the fingers of our mind across the tapestry of emotions that characterized these losses.
Shock.
Disbelief.
Sadness.
Judgment.
And, interestingly enough, jubilation has been seen in recent weeks.
Today, I don’t intend to critically engage what a particular reaction to death signals about an individual or society. Rather, I am intrigued by the loss process that clearly inspires a range of emotions. And, if there are lessons, how might I (perhaps we) be open to these teachable moments?
Our text from Luke’s Gospel shares a couple of stories about sources of loss, en route to the fairly well known narrative of the prodigal. First, readers are invited to consider a shepherd’s career. One day, one member of the flock goes missing, and a question emerges: does it make sense to leave the group to search for the lone wanderer? Scripture insists that, of course, the good shepherd would go.
In a different scenario, the writer of Luke’s gospel asks us to think like someone who has done the good work of saving money. The traditional avenues of banking haven’t been used to secure the funds, and some of the money is lost. Again, scripture holds that the committed person will not be settled with loss, so the saver seeks after the absent currency.
Both of these stories seem to be prologue for the dramatic human story of two children with different degrees of maturity, and how a loving parent cares for them both. In many
3
congregations where I have heard Luke 15 used as the sermonic text, each of these stories is used as a way to illustrate how God loves even the most questionable of characters. Certainly, the group gathered around Jesus described in verse one seems to raise the eyebrows and blood pressure of the religious leaders in his day; their presence, however, also increases the hope of those who believe that this text is about the redemptive love of a savior who cares just as much about our heart as our behavior.
The usual handling of this text suggests that these parables teach the religious leaders that it’s okay for Jesus to hang out with sinners. In fact, it’s where his best work is done because he came to reach even the worst of us. If I were interested in entertaining that tradition of thought today, I would encourage us to contemplate a broader focus for Jesus’ message. Perhaps those who needed his scandalous love the most were not just the self‐aware, publicly known sinners who gathered in verse one. Maybe it especially included those who didn’t seem to know they were akin to sin, like the religious leaders, for example.
That, however, is not my assignment today. Rather, I would like to explore with you some parameters of loss from the text that fascinate me. Let’s go. In each of the aforementioned situations, two things are consistent: (1) the individual who experiences the loss is confident enough to acknowledge it; and (2) that which is lost is deemed valuable enough to warrant finding it again. As I bear in mind that this may be the last time I stand before this congregation and preach, these notions of loss haunt and compel me. I am over the moon about my transition to South Africa in a couple of months, but I am acutely aware of other, less welcome implications of this journey to be with my partner. To aid my loss process, I decided that today should be a tribute to you and my favorite things about worship at Sojourners, which to me, point toward additional distinctives about the congregation.
When I moved to Charlottesville in the summer of 2007 from North Carolina, I believe I knew less than five people who lived here. Having lived in Winston‐Salem for twelve years at that point, I had established a significant community that in many regards, functioned as family.
4
My vibrant academic and professional life at Wake Forest University was well complemented by my relationship with Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church. This charismatic congregation of nearly three thousand was a space of spiritual nurture and served as the site of my ministerial ordination in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ denomination. While I had no deep interest in finding a replica of my then “home” congregation, I knew that I needed to find a meaningful worship community.
During my first few months in Charlottesville, I would sometimes attend as many as three worship services on a given Sunday. If I mapped it correctly and the traffic light gods favored me, I could be on time for an eight o’clock, nine thirty, and an eleven o’clock service. As I began to tire in the marathon that became my Sundays, I found myself intrigued by a peculiar gathering that met in the middle of the morning and encouraged beverages and snacks in the sanctuary. I don’t know whether to credit my height or my sports coat, but on my first visit, I was warmly greeted as a visitor by staples to the congregation, including Becky and Bob Garrity whom I had met hiking. Interestingly enough, it couldn’t have been more than maybe visit two when Enid Krieger and Marie Coles Baker shared with me in their uniquely confident manner that my church searching would eventually yield me settling down at Sojourners. In retrospect when I note the differences in size, theology, and worship style from my Winston‐Salem church, I might be moved to say, who knew that I would end up here. I guess Enid and Marie did.
Over the past few years, I have come to learn how unique and empowering Sojourners is in the way it inspires community. I couldn’t quite understand it when I first arrived, but I knew there was something attractive about the way I was embraced by the congregation. It was one of the few places I had visited in my relatively short life where I was not on the hook for introducing myself. Rather, then strangers made their way toward me for the purpose of sharing themselves. Now that I am more known, this give and take happens even with the children. A few weeks back on Palm Sunday, I arrived at church during the time devoted to children. The adult congregants were receiving palm branches, and I ended up with two
5
because Silas saw me come in, realized he was out of palms, ran to the supply at the altar area, and made sure I was included.
That palm branch‐turned‐cross now travels with me in my car wherever I go, and I plan on it accompanying me across the Atlantic. Silas’ sweet gesture will remind me of the good conversations he and I have shared and the general goodwill I have experienced in this congregation. An additional example is the way new members are received. When I had been around long enough to see people officially join the church, I was impressed by each new member’s introduction by a current member of their choosing. And, let’s not forget the tying of a chosen piece of colorful fabric into the collection of other swatches that, I believe, represent the eclectic collection of Sojourners. What a warm message of welcome and inclusion!
But I shouldn’t have been surprised at the approach. Other experiences with the congregation in hindsight made this ritual of connecting to the congregation logical. I will not soon forget my surprise when the congregational prayer following the sermon wasn’t rendered in only the voice of the pastor. The invitation to openly share prayers, joys, and concerns was unexpected to my private Self. I must admit, though, a deep appreciation for the courage and commitment it takes to offer such safe space to a gathered community. You won’t often hear my voice during this portion of worship, but I wish you could witness what’s going on in my soul. In my best attempt at explanation, I believe I am strangely being made simultaneously more human and eternal. Listening to the challenges of others reminds me of the frailty inherent in our common humanity. Relishing the joy of challenges overcome or the experience of good fortune seem to point toward what the promise of heaven may mean.
These community notions of mine find further resonance in our ritual of communion and the ever spirited closing circle. As we are invited to table or to join hands around the room, I sometimes feel this organic Presence that signals a beauty best found in simplicity. A meal of
6
bread and beverage. A blessing confirmed by linked limbs. Individual and collective. Words spoken and sung. All of us from each of us. Plain. And oh so profound.
I believe that I will carry these memories with me to South Africa, complemented by one more thing. Without doubt, my theological horizon has been extended as a result of my connection to Sojourners…but not just through the expected source of exposure to responsible, reflective preaching and service. I believe that I have learned how to more rightly speak of God because of the intentional inclusion of silence in our worship. In a world that readily borders on overstimulation, finding and cultivating places of quiet is countercultural. It is in these spaces that I believe I have learned to hear God more clearly. Initial discomfort eventually gives way to a different way of being in the world.
My theological sojourner Howard Thurman says this: “…can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself? There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing the rumble and the traffic, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough – not quiet enough – still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.”
And it is this assignment that has encouraged me to consider the concept of loss during this last sermon of sorts. To be sure, I have spent much of my time today reflecting on the many things I have gained from my experience at Sojourners United Church of Christ, but in a couple months, I will be transitioning away. Like the figures in our scriptural text, something I have come to cherish will soon show its absence. While I believe that my loss will be a custom, irreplaceable one, I know that I will seek to find essential elements of the community that has helped sustain me while here in Charlottesville.
Interestingly enough, I, too, find this message to be salient for this congregation during this time of leadership transition. There are lots of noises and echoes and sounds, poised to
7
distract from the noble priority of choosing a new pastor. To be sure, the task is largely not about the candidates, but this congregation. Can the search committee and subsequently the members of Sojourners get quiet enough, still enough to hear the sound of the genuine in this place? “I don’t know if you can, but this is your assignment.”
Amen.