Posts Tagged ‘love’

It’s All About Relationships

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Rev. Dr. Melanie Miller
September 4, 2011

Scripture:  Mark 12:28-34

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”
—Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, in book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 843-844

In today’s ancient testimony from the gospel of Mark, we find a scribe, part of a growing group of Pharisees, who are scared of the power Jesus is gathering with the crowd. They are scared of what his message of love will eventually do to the control and power they so gladly grab. In this increasingly conflict-charged atmosphere leading to the cross Jesus is challenged. Over and over again in the gospels we find the Pharisees and Sadducees, trying to trap Jesus with difficult questions. They try to trip him up by asked about paying taxes to Caesar. There’s a creative assault from the Sadducees, who devise an elaborate query intended to discredit the possibility of resurrection. And on and on. This morning we find this test, which appears relatively straightforward. “Teacher, which commandment is first of all?” Other gospels have the questioner ask, which law is the greatest? (22:36). Jesus’ answer to this question, this riddle, is not original. Jesus is in fact quoting scripture, two sacred texts, one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (22:37-39). By quoting Scripture back at the religious leaders Jesus’ seems to be saying that the issue is not so much finding the right answer—the right answer has been there all along—the issue seems to be living the commandment. It’s less a question of information than formation, less a matter of knowledge than action.
This conflict resonates with me. I grew up with Pharisees and Sadducees looking for right answers. And somehow Jesus’ message broke through – it’s not about right answers it about relationships. Rather than trying to change people into what you think they should be, love them. Simply love them and you will be the one that is changed. A right answer can’t pick up a frightened child, a right answer has never stayed up all night with a parent in ICU. A right answer has never written a check to Heifer Project, a right answer has never stayed up all night giggling at a junior high lock in. A right answer has never taken to the streets in peaceful protest. It kind of makes you wonder why religious people spend so much time vetting each other on right answers, when the truth is that a right answer alone never created an ounce of love.  Stop peddling right answers, Jesus says. Right answers become a religion of their own.  And in the midst of the quest for right answers, Jesus says, “Love. Love, my friends.” It’s all about the kind of love that changes the world. Do love. Think love, say love, have faith in love, believe that God is love. Give up the idea that your right answers alone can save you. If you know the right words, then bring those words to life by giving them your own flesh. Put them into practice. Do love, and you will live.

It’s surprising sometime where you find this kind of love! I found this kind of love in the Harry Potter books. Anybody else here a fan? I love a book that I hate to end. A book in which you fall in love with the characters. Characters that you miss when you return the book to the library. Harry Potter is full of those characters. Characters we watch grow up. Characters we watch navigate the tricky decisions of life. Characters who learn to choose the right over the easy. Characters who learn the lessons of today’s ancient testimony. Characters who love their neighbors in sacrificial ways.

Outside of books, in the world, where Pharisees and Sadducees still want right answers, I look for love. For me, loving God and loving my neighbor most tangibly translates into developing and nurturing relationships. In fact, when your search committee questioned me about ministry I replied, “Its all about relationships.” It’s all about relationships. It’s all about loving god and loving my neighbor and finding ways to invite folks into those places of love and care.  For me, no one better tells the story of love than a young man named Paul Seham. I called Paul last week and asked him if I could tell our story.  I first met Paul when I arrived at the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua, NY, as their minister for families in October of 1998.  Paul was one year old. Cute! He was so cute, but he did not like me. No matter how hard I tried, Paul wanted nothing to do with me. So, of course I set out to win him over. Paul loved animals and at 2 years old he was particularly fond, of crocodiles. Not alligators, crocodiles. Crocodiles became my tool to win Paul over. If I cared about Crocs, maybe Paul would come to learn that I cared about him. Didn’t work. At all. And it seemed like the harder I tried, the more suspicious Paul became.

By 5 years old, Paul had moved on from Crocodiles to Wolves. Paul still did not like me. So, I learned some interesting facts about wolves, but to no avail. Paul wanted nothing to do with me.  And then one day, when Paul was about 8, something shifted and shifted dramatically. Paul wanted to talk to me. Paul sought me out. Paul became my shadow. He followed me all over the church building and told me about volcanoes and earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates. Paul told me about obscure eco-systems and other planets and universes. Paul followed me around on Sunday mornings. He talked to me so much, his mother apologized one day. She said, “I’m so sorry. If he’s wasting too much of your time, feel free to let me know. I’ll call him off!” To which I replied, “Areyou kidding me! I worked so hard for this. I love it. I love him. I’m thrilled!”

I share a love of Harry Potter with Paul and his older brother Sam. We were all on the Amazon waiting list. With each new release we waited by the mail box. Each Sunday we’d check in with each other, “Where are you? What page?”  Shortly after book 5 came out, I was at the Seham’s house. Paul, Sam and I were excitedly talking about the book. At one point I got so excited I asked Paul to go get the book so I could read him my favorite part. He ran upstairs and reappeared in seconds. I opened the book to the back and read aloud today contemporary testimony. “There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. It was your heart that saved you.”
I shut the book, looked at the boys just in time to see Paul roll his eyes and say, “You just like that cause it’s churchy!” “You just like that cause it’s churchy!” I almost burst with joy. “YES!” I said, “Yes! Paul you get it!”

And get it, he did. Get it, he does. Last August Paul and his whole family traveled with me to Kenya where we worked on a school in the slum outside of Nairobi.  Kibera, the slum in which we worked, was a difficult place for the adults on the trip, let alone Paul and his brother Sam. We were surrounded by disturbing levels of poverty and unemployment. One million people living on a parcel of land that’s about 2.5 square miles. There is no infrastructure, no sewage system, no road maintenance, few schools, no law enforcement. Every day we walked into the slum, about 20 minutes, to the school. We walked through raw sewage and piles of garbage. We walked past children playing, parroting their hellos. We walked past markets with leg of lamb, skin and hair still attached, roasting over open fires. We walked through the daily lives of the children we were about to meet at the school that was giving them a chance at life. As we looked into the smiling faces of the children of Kibera it was a blessing to embrace our basic calling as human beings – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to find in our hearts that wonderful and powerful force that resides in the heart.

Every morning I wondered about my friend Paul. What he was feeling about all that he saw. He was silent most mornings. I missed the chatty shadow from years gone.  During that week we all feel in love. In love with the kids, their individual stories. Their joy at the stories we read to them, stories from our childhood, Where the Wild Things Are, Stella Luna, Strega Nona. Paul and Sam taught the boys the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” cementing for all of us how far apart our worlds were. The fourth day we were there we went with the kids to a local park. We played games and had a picnic, cementing for all of us similar our worlds were.
On the last day as we walked through the slum to the school, tears streamed down Paul’s cheeks. I couldn’t bring myself to question his tears but I know they were for love. Paul would be saying good-bye to his new friends. Returning to a life and world that will be forever changed by these relationships, by this love.

But not because we had loved them. But because they had loved us.
Let the Pharisees and Sadducees have their right answers. I’ll take love. That wonderful and powerful force of the heart that saves us.

Yoked Together

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

A Meditation for July 3, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

After Jesus finished instructing his disciples in the art of ministry, he sent them out two by two. Then Jesus took off on a journey of his own, preaching and teaching throughout Palestine, to the disciples’ own home cities. Jesus, like the disciples, like us, in fact, was no stranger to rejection. Not every stop on his journey was successful, to say the least. We know this because verses 20-24, which are missing from today’s reading, comprise the “Woe to You” verses. For example, “Woe to you, Capernaum! It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Jesus goes on to list several other cities where his message of healing and justice was rejected, and these pronouncements seem almost like curses.

Remember that Capernaum was Jesus’ adopted home town. To hear how shocking that “woe to you” was to his audience, imagine if a local son or daughter came home and said, “Charlottesville is going to straight to hell!”

I’m guessing the lectionary, the ecumenical guide to scripture reading and preaching that I follow, left out “the woes” because Jesus’ anger and reproach can be upsetting. I don’t blame the lectionary editors, it’s human nature to want to avoid conflict! We all want to get past the challenge and the fear and the anger, and get to the good stuff at the end.

Do those of you who grew up in church remember this passage?

“Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Ah!!! Sometimes it just feels good to read the King James Version of the Bible, particularly when verses are comforting.

But we’re not going there yet. It did occur to me that perhaps I should just stand up and read that and then sit down. But before we jump to those beautiful verses, let’s wring some more juice out of the reading as a whole. Now surely, Jesus’ experiences of inhospitality, rejection and discouragement in his preaching journey influenced the rest of what he had to say. In addition to pronouncing woe on several cities, Jesus reflects his frustration at the capriciousness of people. He reminds us that we are like children sitting in the marketplace, calling out to others: “We played the flute and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

This refers to the contrast between Jesus (who usually wasn’t dreary) and John the Baptist (who certainly wouldn’t dance.) John fasted and lived simply in the wilderness; he was austere, formidable, challenging—very much a doom and gloom preacher crying, “Repent!”—and so some people thought he was possessed.

Jesus, despite his occasional lapses into hurt anger and judgment, was known to party. He and his disciples drank wine and ate good dinners when they could, and picked wheat when they couldn’t. That got Jesus labeled “drunkard and glutton,” which interestingly, is the beginning of a capital charge under Jewish law. According to Deuteronomy 21:20, the parents of a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders, state that he was a drunkard who won’t work or obey his parents, and then the young man would be stoned, to “keep evil from taking hold in the community.” Tough times!

Jesus has his finger on the problem: you’re a drunkard or you have a demon; dancing or mourning; however you size it up, everyone has an opinion, and you just can’t keep everybody happy.

Pastors and worship committees know this very well! Passions about worship run deep, especially at Sojourners. You not only have a history as a new church start with lay-led worship, but you have grown and added members from many different, and no, faith traditions, which make people expect different things in a worship service. Being “non-hierarchical” is a value of Sojourners, but it is hard to know what that means when the pastor is primarily responsible for worship. For instance, some adore the sharing of joys and concerns, yet others think they are not prayerful enough. Some people like me to sum up joys and concerns in a closing prayer, because they can’t hear unmiked people very well; others prefer silence. Some dislike communion ushers while others don’t like the crowding and confusion that occurs when everyone is left to their own devices in how they line up to receive communion. And so on.

It basically comes down to this: how do we best get connected to God? What kind of ritual brings us closer to each other and to God? See if you can visualize this ancient spiritual diagram. A large circle represents the community. In the middle is a smaller circle, which represents God. Each person in the community is like an arrow pointing inward to God. The nearer each person gets to God, the closer he or she gets to other people in the community. The closer you move towards your neighbors, the closer both of you move towards God.

The question for both the people of ancient Palestine and of Sojourners is, “What kind of leader helps us best to access the holy—an ascetic prophet of the apocalypse, like John? Or someone who gets involved in daily life like Jesus, who may be judgmental at times but who honors all people? Or someone entirely different?

Sometime in the not too distant future, you all will have the chance to hear the sermon of the pastoral candidate that the pastor search committee has selected for you. And those of you who are official members of the church will get to participate in the selection process and decide whether that pastor will be the one to lead you into the future or not. Either you will come to consensus on that person; or, you will not and you’ll start over. And what will get you through this struggle of discerning the right pastor for you is the yoke that you wear.

I wear a stole in part to remind me, and you, that I wear the yoke of Jesus. You each bear one, too, only yours is invisible, as mine is during the week. In Jesus’ day, yokes were used on oxen to assist them in turning the earth and doing other agricultural and construction tasks. They look heavy and scratchy and uncomfortable. But note that Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden light. What’s that about?! We must remember that the people in Matthew’s time, when this gospel was written down, had lived through the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt by Rome, including so many crucifixions that the Romans ran out of trees. Matthew’s audience had a pretty high standard of what is heavy and what is light!

Remember also that looks can be deceiving. Those heavy-looking wooden yokes were whittled to fit the oxen. The oxen would not have been able to do their job if the yoke was ill-fitting or too heavy.

More important, Jesus’ yoke is easy for us because we are yoked together with him in love. He is pulling right beside us. If we stumble, he is right there to catch us and sweep us along. The only burden he lays on us is love: love of God, love of self, love of neighbor. This is not totally easy, is it! Because love requires dedication and occasionally even selflessness!

But on another level, it IS easy—because we love a God who first loved us. Even if you didn’t experience that love as a little child, even if you haven’t felt that love before, know now that God loves you far more than you can even ask or imagine. You bear a yoke that God has whittled just for you, and Jesus is pulling right beside you. And every member and friend of Sojourners is pulling with you, too. Thanks be to God!

On Beyond Zebra

Monday, May 30th, 2011

A Sermon for May 29, 1011
Scripture: John 14:7-21

A long time ago, when I was still a volunteer Director of Christian Education, I took training in an unusual form of adult Christian education called Lifetext. Its core belief was that “the student is the curriculum” and a growth in faith could come about simply by the leader asking simple questions that spiraled down deep, until a person’s thoughts and feelings surfaced.

Since “the student was the curriculum,” the trainer claimed that a Dr. Seuss book would work for a study text just about as well as the Bible! He proceeded to show us by teaching a class using The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental book. Surprisingly, it was a meaningful, faith-filled session!

Don’t you love Dr. Seuss? I read his books as a child and then read them to my own boys. The best things about Dr. Seuss books are his rhythmic use of language and his wonderful made up words, like “Grickle-grass” and “Truffula trees.”

The Seuss book that is apropos to today’s gospel passage is On Beyond Zebra. (Leonard Sweet was the first to link this book with this text) Conrad Cornelius O’Donald O’Dell, who is learning his alphabet, tells his friend, “So now I know everything anyone knows. From beginning to end. From the start to the close. Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

But no! Conrad’s friend never “stops with Z:”
“So, on beyond Z! It’s high time you were shown
That you really don’t know all there is to be known.”

He takes him on a guided tour of all the weird creatures that begin with the letters on beyond Z, such as Yuzz, Wumbus, and Glikk.  Here’s one I especially like: “And Nuh is the letter I use to spell Nutches, Who live in small caves, known as Nitches, for hutches.”

Although this book was written in 1955, it’s very relevant to today’s crazy pace:
“And way, way past Z is a letter called ITCH
And the ITCH is for Itch-a-pods, animals which
Race around back and forth, forth and back, through the air
On a very high sidewalk between HERE and THERE.”

The message is pretty simple, but profound: the traditional alphabet pins down boring old “reality,” but if you explore further afield there are more interesting worlds to discover, new words and beings limited only by the imagination.

You might say that Jesus was an “on beyond zebra” person. He gave his disciples new words to learn and even new identities. In an ancient culture where slavery was the norm, Jesus considered his disciples friends and not servants, devotees or even rabbinical students!

Instead of buying into Roman addictions to wealth, power and knowing the right person, Jesus favored the poor and the marginalized; and the sick and the differently-abled.

Roman faith was held in a large number of gods and goddesses who possessed human frailties, and who were angered if just the right rituals were not performed. Devotees often had to pay to be initiated, and buy special clothes. But Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what I know.” There is no need for arcane knowledge or secret rituals, or as Jesus said in today’s reading, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”

Romans also worshiped the Emperor, but Jesus referred to God as his Father-Mother. In fact, early Christians were persecuted, not because they believed in Jesus or the God of Israel, but because they were considered atheists because they would not worship the Emperor.

Christianity is an “on beyond zebra” kind of faith. For instance, in Thessalonika, according to the Book of Acts, an angry mob tried to capture the Apostles Paul and Silas, calling them the people who had “turned the world upside down!” (Acts 17:6.)

Jesus lived, and taught, and died for, a religion of loving kindness which was unique in the ancient world. Unlike members of pagan Roman religious societies, who collected money for their own feasts, Christians contributed to a common fund for the support of widows and orphans. They also brought food and medicines when they visited prisoners in the mines or in jail. Tertullian, an African Christian apologist of the second century, wrote, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, 2003, pp. 7-10)

“Love one another, as I have loved you. Abide in my love.” Love, not fear is the center of Christianity; love is our deepest, most fundamental core value. It is the measuring stick of all Christian behavior.

Christian love is not just an emotion—a welling up of affection like we often experience when thinking of our families or close friends. The love we share for each other in Christian community is different. Frederick Buechner reminds us that rather than merely a warm feeling, the love we share in community is an act of will; it is intentional. Sometimes we have to deliberately form that intention of the heart every day, or we can lose it. Love in community must be practiced and kept limber and flexible by the kindness with which we speak and act towards each other; otherwise it can be stretched too thin, become brittle, and even break. That is how we abide in his love like Jesus asked us to. And that intentional, practiced love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Love begins with God…circulating from Father-Mother to Child to Holy Spirit and back again. Never-ending. Love so abundant, so full, so abiding that it spills over into the world, in a creative flood that generates new life. Love so complete, that God would enter human life, to live and die as one of us, to show us how to be fully human and fully divine.

Love so deep, that we can rest in it, and let it permeate our very cells; love so strengthening, so challenging, that we are propelled out into the world with courage and grace to share that love with one another.

Christian love, particularly sacrificial love, is very on-beyond zebra in this splintered modern world of violence and divisiveness, just as it was in the Roman world.

The United Church of Christ is very “on beyond zebra”—we were the very first to ordain women, African Americans, and GLBTQ folks. Sojourners was created and named to be an on beyond zebra church in the city of Charlottesville, which is untraditional in some ways and hidebound in others. All people, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey, are welcome at Sojourners United Church of Christ. May all who come here, and all who interact with you and those who just hear about you say, “’Only look—see how they love one another.’ See how they love and care for the world like Jesus taught. See how they abide in God’s love.” Amen.