Archive for January 2011
Highlighted passage: Micah 6:1-8
(My church is in the heart of a major capital campaign right now, so that experience definitely colors my reflections on this week’s text. So did my reading of Amy Oden’s commentary at workingpreacher.org, which offered helpful context information and many ideas that influenced this writing.)
Usually, we see the famous words of Micah 6:8 as a program for our living. Faithfulness to God is doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. However, when paired with the earlier verses about making an offering, I realized that this scripture is not just a guide to living, it is a guide to giving. And more than just a guide, it is a description of the process I am seeing right now in my life and the lives of so many others in our church during this capital campaign. It’s a process of struggling with what God requires of you.
The anthem “Offertory” by John Ness Beck portrays this tension and resolution in music. Our choir will be singing the anthem on Sunday immediately preceding my sermon, but you can catch it on Youtube here:
These verses in Micah are a back-and-forth, conflicted conversation between God and the people.
God summons all of creation to bear witness to the argument, even to arbitrate between the sides. The mountains, the hills, the very foundations of the earth—God calls down all of creation to judge in this argument with humanity.
You would anticipate that, after God has summoned these arbiters, God would launch a polemic against humanity and all our misdeeds, naming our sins and condemning us for our unrighteousness. After all, that’s what any good lawyer would do. But God is not a lawyer.
God is a mother. God does not yell at the people, condemn them, or recite the case against the people. God applies guilt to the people: “After all I’ve done to you, you treat me like this? What have I done to you, except love you, care for you, protect you? Who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt? Who provided leadership for you in Moses, Miriam and Aaron? Who delivered you into the promised land? What did I do to deserve this? After I’ve done all this for you and more, you still disobey me?”
Like any good child in this classic argument, the people reply, “What do you want from me? Nothing I do is ever good enough for you. What kind of offering, what kind of sacrifice could ever repay you for everything you have done? Why do you hold it over my head like that? Do you want me to give you thousands of rams? 10,000 rivers of oil? Should I sacrifice my firstborn child for you, my own blood? Would that make you happy? What will be good enough to get out of this debt I owe you? What?”
Do you all recognize this fight? Have you had it with your parents, your children?
What does your mother answer, when you reach that point in the argument? What does she want from you? She does not want to be paid back for all that she has given and sacrificed for you, for the work of bringing you into this world and raising you and keeping you safe. That is not what she wants at all, is it?
“I want you to love me, listen to me, walk with me, and do the right thing.” That’s what your mother would say, right? Well, that’s what God says. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God. Love me. Listen to me. Walk with me. And do the right thing.
I think many of us, when we start to think about our giving to God through the church, start to have this same argument with God. We look around us at the mountains and the hills, the foundations of the earth, and we realize that everything, including our life, belongs to God. When we spend time contemplating God’s goodness to us, we realize all the ways God has loved, protected, nurtured, and delivered us. When we hear the call to give, when we hear God, in turn, making demands on us, we start to think that God wants us to pay it all back somehow. We get anxious and overwhelmed, because we know that if we had to pay it back, it would take everything. We get all worked up and agitated about our ability to match God’s sacrifice with our own. What do you want from me, God? What could possibly be good enough to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me? Do you want me to give up everything? Do you want me to sacrifice every indulgence, every happiness, out of guilt for what I owe you? What do you require from me, God?
But God does not want to be repaid for God’s sacrifice, any more than our mothers do. But, for the people in Micah and for us today, God wants to place a demand on our life, a call for us to give and sacrifice in return.
“I have told you already what is good. What do I require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” When it comes to our giving, God does not want us to hurt ourselves, to unduly suffer, to beat ourselves up and prostrate ourselves in abject poverty. God wants what our mothers want—our true love and obedience, dedication and respect. God wants us to listen, and do the right thing. To do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
God does not ask if our gift is sacrificial enough, if it is painful enough—God simply asks if it is just, if it is fair enough. Is our gift a fair measure, an equal sacrifice? God does not ask if our gift is large enough, God asks if our gift is made in the right spirit. Do we love kindness and generosity, or do we loathe it? God does not ask if our gift is faithful enough. God only asks if our gift puts us closer to walking humbly with our Savior. What is God asking, requiring of you? To do justice–that your money and resources, which all belong to God anyway, are properly used and aligned with the justice of God’s purposes. To love kindness—that you have learned not just to do acts of kindness and generosity, but to love and welcome the opportunity to be generous and kind. And to walk humbly with your God—to walk the path of love and obedience, so that your footsteps match up with God’s path.
Because God knows what our mothers know—that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God will not only make us good, compassionate, loving people—it will bring our souls to peace and even joy.
This post could also be titled, “Things They Don’t Teach You in Seminary,” or “What Ministers Really Do.”
We had a boiler pipe leak on Sunday at church. When I arrived first thing, steam was gushing out everywhere and there was a giant puddle of water on the floor. I turned off the boiler, and thankfully the building was warm enough to get us through worship. After the service, a valiant church member applied a device called a “saddle” to cover the hole, so that we could have heat again. I assisted with light mopping, tool-fetching and clean-up duties.
The saddle fixed the hole 100%. However, it did nothing to fix the second hole we discovered three feet farther down the pipe. We did not have another saddle on hand to apply. The device was not available at retail stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, so we shut the boiler off and waited until Plumber’s Supply opened the next morning.
Monday morning, I dropped my son off at school, and got a call from the church secretary. “It’s cold in here!” she said. I got on the phone, and a second valiant church member was available to install the second saddle, with technical support available by phone from the first. Since Plumber’s Supply was not too far from my son’s school, it was only natural for me to run that errand.
So, at 9:03 a.m., I pulled my little Kia up in front of Plumber’s Supply, amid a long line of professional plumbers’ work trucks. I immediately realized I was way out of my league. That realization grew deeper when I stepped out onto the sidewalk and realized that the block-long building had four different entrances, each one for a different department. All I knew was that I needed a 2″ saddle for a boiler pipe—and there was no door that said that.
I picked the closest one, and was directed down the warehouse hall to the department I needed. Since it was Monday morning, the place was busy, with several sales representatives seated behind desks and half-a-dozen contractors waiting around to order supplies. I joined the crowd standing around waiting, looking and feeling completely out of place. They were dressed for a normal day’s work—jeans, jackets, boots, tool belts. I was also dressed for a normal day’s work—skirt, blouse, pumps, scarf.
Everyone treated me with the utmost kindness, and guided me through the order, pick-up, cashier process. I emerged 20 minutes later having paid a mere $27 for the 2″ saddle that would enable us to restore heat to the church, and hopefully keep our old boiler running for the rest of the season. (We are in the midst of a capital campaign to replace it by next winter.)
In the life of a solo pastor of a small church, there is no “normal day’s work.” This was my first time at a supply store for professional plumbers, but it was far from the first time my work for the church had taken me to different, unusual places that most people do not get to see. Every day is different, and you never know what to expect. There will be days that involve fixing boilers or repairing copy machines or fighting floods in the basement. There will also be days when you make a pastoral call at the bar of the American Legion, or hold a burial service for someone’s beloved cat, or make homemade sausage, or relearn papier-mache, or rent vans, or march in a parade, or research labor laws, or attend a fancy fundraising dinner with a celebrity speaker. It’s all in a day’s work.
And that’s what makes ministry so grand. Especially since there are valiant church members—who also are not plumbers or boiler technicians—engaged in the mutual effort to keep God’s church up and running, serving the community and spreading the gospel in whatever ways possible.
Somebody Else’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Brundage, Plume Books, 2008, 342 pp.
At long last, after holidays and funerals and ministry galore, a chance to read! I picked up this book back in November from the clearance table, hoping for a little light diversion over the Thanksgiving weekend. I finally started it on MLK Day, and discovered it was a great choice.
Somebody Else’s Daughter has a great cast of multi-generational characters, centered on an elite prep school in the Berkshires. The middle-aged generation of characters is comprised of the headmaster and his wife, a teacher, and several wealthy parents. The student generation of characters are the daughter of the headmaster, a local prostitute, the child of a single mother who moved to the school after a very different life, and the adopted daughter of two wealthy parents, who is also the birth daughter of the teacher. Everyone in the book has a past full of secrets, and the story uncovers them one by one.
Brundage wove this story together in a beautiful way. The story draws you in like a spider in a web. I had no idea where it was going, what the plot was going to be, but it didn’t matter. I was captivated by each of the characters and by Brundage’s simple yet exquisite writing. Each chapter, each scene stood on its own, yet there was mystery after mystery unfolding. As it rolled along, I started to pick up clues about upcoming plot twists, but they were subtle and indirect. Then, almost suddenly, I looked up to find myself in the middle of a mystery and a thriller for the final hundred pages or so.
The experience of reading this novel reminded me of riding the log flume. Most of the ride is a gentle, rolling trip through the trees and around some corners. Then, you enter the old wooden sawmill, see the giant spinning blade and your heart starts to beat a little faster. At the end, you go crashing down below the blade, now the incline at top speed into a big splash, laughing with delight. Somebody Else’s Daughter was a great ride, and just the escape reading I needed.
Highlighted Passage: Matthew 4:12-23
Put down your nets—you’re after the wrong fish.
When Jesus approached those would-be disciples on the shores of the Galilee, they were doing what they had done every day, probably since they were young boys—climb into boats, row out into the Sea of Galilee, cast out nets to catch fish, haul in the nets, sort the catch, cast the nets out again, haul in again, sort again. All day long. At the end of the day, they rowed back to shore, and mended the nets for the next day’s work. Cast, haul, sort, row, mend. One day after another, one net after another.
Until the day Jesus arrives. “Repent,” was his message. Turn around. You’re going the wrong direction with your life. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The glory of heaven is right here all around you, next to you, and you are busy with nets. Casting, hauling, sorting, mending—you’re so focused on the nets that you’re missing the presence of heaven in your midst. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Put down the nets—you’re after the wrong fish. Come with me, and I’ll show you the kingdom of heaven. Come with me, and I’ll teach you what you really should be fishing for. Then you can show others.
I think we have a lot in common with these fisherfolk—Peter, Andrew, James, John. They had ordinary, familiar names. We all know our fair share of Peters, Johns, Jameses and Andrews. They work ordinary working people, just like us. Every day, they went out to catch fish. Some of the fish went home to feed their families, the rest to the market, sold to pay taxes and rent and buy clothing and medicine and anything else their families needed. The next day, the same thing. Work – eat – sleep –work – eat – sleep – work – eat – sleep.
How many of us live that kind of a life? We work hard every day, at the computer, on the assembly line, answering the phone, solving problems, building with our hands, tending to needs, managing papers. That work gives us the money we need to provide for our family—and so we spend it, to feed our families, pay taxes, pay the mortgage, buy clothing, medicine and anything else our family needs. Unlike those fisherfolk, most of us are blessed enough to have some left to buy televisions and computers, music and movies, trips to the mall and evenings out. But our lives are on the same cycle. Work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep – work – consume – sleep. “Repent,” says Jesus. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And if you don’t put down those nets, stop the cycle, get beyond working/eating/sleeping/consuming, you’re going to miss it.
“Repent, and follow me.” Repent has a negative connotation of absolute depravity, similar to idea in 12-step groups about “hitting rock bottom” so that you can turn your life around. In reality, though, repentance does not require a rock-bottom moment, a 180-degree change-of-life. To repent is simply to feel regret at the direction of your life. It’s about breaking the cycle, correcting the course, deciding to make a change—whether it’s 180-degrees or 18. It’s about recognizing when you’ve been following the wrong pursuit, that your life is not headed in the right direction, that you are so busy casting, hauling, mending, sorting—so busy working, eating, consuming—that you have fallen into a life without wonder and purpose and beauty, lost the sense that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that we might glimpse it. Repent and follow me—put down the nets, you’re after the wrong fish.
Don’t we all, like those ordinary disciples, want more than working and consuming? That’s what Jesus offers. Follow me, and you’ll discover that heaven isn’t as far away as you think. It’s right here at hand. (For a great, fun explanation of how heaven is right at hand, check out the song “The Gospel Story” from Butterflyfish.) And if you stop following the cycle and start following me, you’ll have glimpse heaven around you all the time. You’ll start to see that God has more in mind for you than work and nets. You’ll stop fretting about the next day’s catch, the next day’s food, the next day’s mending. You’ll find the peace that passes all understanding, the confidence of God’s love and care for you, the light of hope in all things.
You and me together, says Jesus, we can show all those people trapped in their own nets of working, eating, consuming, together we can show them that there’s more for them, for all of us. There are people everywhere living in darkness, and we can show them the light—the light of heaven, all around them, beckoning them to live in love, to build peace and justice, to practice kindness and generosity. We can capture their hearts and together bring healing and good news to them all. Put down your nets, and follow me.
I am just downright irritable this morning. And I hate being this way.
Normally, I am a very chipper person. So much so that I am often accused of being annoying, pollyanna-ish and overly optimistic. But occasionally–like today–I am just downright grumpy.
And I don’t like it. Or much of anything else at the moment.
What frustrates me most at times like this is that I know exactly why I’m so irritated, yet I still find myself in the same position.
I am in such an ornery mood because I am stressed out about the sermon for tomorrow (notice that no sermon sapling ever got posted this week). I am nervous about the sermon tomorrow because I haven’t spent enough time this week preparing for it. I haven’t spent enough time preparing for the sermon because I have been overwhelmed with other pressing commitments at the church. Because I have been overwhelmed, I have not had any time to decompress or relax or take time for myself this week, except in desperation when I watch some bad TV or go to bed early. Because I have not had (or made) the time to relax, I can’t clear my head well enough to concentrate on the sermon. So I get more and more nervous about the sermon, more and more frustrated at all the distractions, more and more irritated, and more and more anxious. It’s a cycle of escalation.
This is a bad situation. I don’t let myself get in this position very often, but sometimes it just sneaks up on me.
The only cure, I have found, is to take the time to relax. The sermon won’t come to me in such a mood. No one wants to hear a sermon written by an irritable preacher—there is much griping and little good news in one of those. I have lots of ideas of what to say this week, and they will come together if I can just claim the space to let the Spirit in.
I have learned, after nearly 10 years of preaching, that the best thing that an irritable preacher can do is absolutely nothing related to the sermon. Instead, she should do something that helps her reclaim a sense of space and a sense of God’s presence. For me, it usually works to undertake something I wanted to do–for myself or even for church–that I didn’t have time to do during the week. Somehow that makes me feel like I have reclaimed the speed of my life and put things back into balance. This morning, I cleaned the kitchen and posted this blog entry. It may not be a sermon sapling, but I feel better for having written something at all this week.
By the time I hit the “publish” button, my mood will have already improved greatly. Especially since it means sharing that funny picture of a grumpy baby. I trust God’s forgiving grace will be with me, and with any other preachers who stumble across this entry when they are too irritated to write their own sermons.
This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.
As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.
In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.
I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.
During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.
I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.