Monday, October 30, 2006

The Power of a Conversation

Few things are more powerful than a conversation. When we have the opportunity to sit down with someone, face to face, to perhaps learn for the first time their name, where they are from, and what's important to them--this I believe is the essential cornerstone of community.

Over the past month I have been trying to have as many one-on-one meetings with people at Woodside as I can. I have been learning more about individuals through their personal stories, but I have also learned more about the history and culture of the church, and it's been wonderful.

So as part of our stewardship campaign, What Gift Can We Bring? (which we launched yesterday and continues through November 19th), we decided (OK, I decided) we should try having one-on-ones in worship. Each week, as a response to the sermon, we will be inviting people to get up out of their pews, find someone who they don't already know, and hopefully someone who appears different to you, and sit down with them for five minutes to discuss a particular question. I wasn't sure how people would respond to this invitation, but yesterday they seemed to love it. The questions we asked people to share about were: For what are you thankful to God? And, What gift do you bring to God that you share in this community? People enjoyed talking with each other so much, that when we started the music for the hymn, it took until the second verse for people to get finish their conversations and get back to their seats.

This church, like most I'm sure, has had a long history of giving to the building, the programs and the vision of the pastor. And that's fine--those are all good things to give to. But I know that the thing that keeps people coming back to a church week in and week out, year in and year out, is our relationship with God and with one another. So, I hope that through these one-on-ones you will get to know some of the wonderful stories that I have had the privilege to hear. And I also hope that as we deepen our relationships with God and with each other, our sense of community will be strengthened. What a gift that would be.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

(Last) Monday @ Mayorga, October Edition

Mmm... Coffee
Originally uploaded by SFAntti.

We had another great evening at Mayorga Coffee Factory last Monday. We started with these questions, and then discussed the article below. If you weren't there, you missed a good conversation, but feel free to post your comments and keep it going!

What does it mean--to you--to be a Christian?
Are there certain beliefs, actions, or ways of being that you feel are required of us as Christians?
How do you understand these words of Jesus from the New Testament: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." John 6:29
Do you feel that it’s easy or hard to be a Christian? Why?

The Amish School Shootings: The power of faith, the strength of community
By Duane Shank (Senior Policy Advisor at Sojourners/Call to Renewal)

Part of my job is to read a variety of news sources each morning, and summarize the top stories in our Daily Digest. I’ll confess that there are times when the violence in our world – from Darfur to Iraq, Colombia to the Middle East – threatens me with numbness. Then, there comes a story that deeply affects me.
On Monday morning, the breaking news bulletins began to flash into my inbox of a shooting at an Amish schoolhouse near Paradise, PA, in the heart of Lancaster County. For me, that’s home – I grew up in the county, and for 25 years my parents lived ten miles from that school. My wife’s grandmother was Amish, and we both still have relatives in the area. As more details came in, the shock and grief grew. A heavily armed gunman, Charles Roberts, walked into a one-room country schoolhouse, ordered all the boys to leave, then tied up ten little girls and methodically shot them in the head before killing himself. News stories emerged of state troopers with their uniforms soaked in blood as they worked with medics trying to save lives. Five girls died, and five are still in hospitals in serious to critical condition.
Suddenly, the media discovered the Amish. A quiet, peaceful offshoot of the 16th century Anabaptist movement who have lived in Lancaster county since the early 1700s, living and farming for the last three centuries without the aid of modern technology. I know the countryside where this tragedy occurred. It’s rolling farmland, with not a power line in sight and farmers with teams of horses working the fields. If you ignore the car you’re driving on the back roads, it’s easy to imagine you’re in the 19th century.
I’ve been surprised at the news coverage. The reporters covering the story have understood and written about the Amish in a generally knowledgeable and respectful way. As I’ve read the news, and reflected on the events, two things struck me as having entered into the news cycle that we don’t often see. One is the power of faith and forgiveness, the other the strength of community. In their quiet way, the Amish families and neighbors of these girls showed a witness to the world that it doesn’t see very often.
The power of faith and forgiveness. A pastor who has been with the Roberts family – the gunman leaves behind a wife and three children – told a Lancaster newspaper of being in the family’s home when there was a knock on the door. It was an Amish neighbor coming on behalf of the community. He put his arms around Roberts’ father, and said “We will forgive you.” The pastor concluded: “God met us in that kitchen.”
Also reported was a statement the family of one of the girls gave to the press: “We don’t know or understand why this happened but we do believe God allowed this to happen. The rest of us, our lives will go on. We will try to work together to support and help the families directly involved, knowing that the innocent children likely need help in dealing with this tragedy of their friends, neighbors, and schoolmates.’’ The girl’s great-uncle added, “There is sadness for everybody involved, including the man responsible for this tragedy.’’
One of this morning’s headlines reads: “Amish families hurt, but find way to forgive.” It is a spirit that I don’t often see in the news. A spirit in complete keeping with Jesus: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44) And a spirit that is now being sustained by Jesus: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. … Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:4, 7)
The strength of community. The Amish community is known for its self-reliance. They do not have property insurance, so a community-wide barn-raising is held to replace one downed by fire. They do not hold health or life insurance, relying rather on the community. The news reports this week have told of neighbors, friends and relatives coming to the homes of the families, bringing food and comfort. An AP story quoted a family counselor who was called to talk with the students who had run away: “There is a coming together. That’s how they deal with everything. They come together.” In a time of great grief, there is the strength of family and community.
It is a community that lives by the words of Paul to his churches: “Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…” (1 Corinthians 12:26) This week, the Amish community is demonstrating to the world the truth of those verses.
What can we do in response to this tragedy?
Pray. For the families and community of the girls who were killed, for the family and friends of gunman, for healing to the girls who were critically wounded, for our society that it learn the ways of peace rather than violence.
Donate. Members of the Amish community have established funds both for the families of those killed and wounded, and for the family of Roberts, who leaves a wife and three young children. Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service are also coordinating support for those affected.

Recommended Reading:
Simply Christian by N.T. Wright
Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris

Monday, October 09, 2006

Hard Words for Hard Hearts

broken heart sign
Originally uploaded by sassypants.

I have gotten many comments about this past Sunday's sermon, so I thought I would post it here for others to read. May these thoughts give you comfort, and something to ponder.

Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:18-24, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, and Mark 10:2-16

In this sanctuary yesterday I helped celebrate a wedding. A lovely couple stood here, beaming at each other as they exchanged vows and rings. Their families and friends were there and rejoiced with them. There was much talk of love, of commitment, of God. It was a happy, happy day. On this wedding day, all talk about was the hopeful and promising future that this couple will have; all who gathered in this place shared in their big dreams of home and family and everlasting. The wedding was beautiful and joyful, just as they had planned, and that is how is should be.
Our scripture reading from Genesis 2 also speaks of how things should be, about God’s big hopes and dreams for creation. Back in the beginning, the story says, God created man and woman as fitting partners for each other. God made them out of one flesh so that when they marry they will no longer be two, but joined together as one flesh. It was the way that God intended it to be.
But sometimes the marriage is different than the wedding. Sometimes things don’t turn out as we planned, dreams and hearts get broken. Sometimes the heart that gets broken is the heart of God.
I would so much rather celebrate a wedding than preach a sermon on divorce. And you probably feel the same way—that you would rather be at a wedding than here to hear a sermon on divorce. But here we are. And here is Jesus being tested by the Pharisees on the laws concerning divorce, and we need to try and understand what he says to them and what it means for us. So here goes…
Before we can understand what Jesus is trying to say, or even really grasp the question he was being asked, I think we need to look closely at the historical context of this Gospel lesson. The context is very important both to understand the question Jesus was asked and the responses he gave.
First, marriage: Marriage in the first century was much different from our Western 21st century concept of marriage. In Jesus’ time and culture, marriage was an agreement, a contract, between two families. The couple that was married, especially the woman, had very little to say about it and only in the rarest of cases did love have anything to do with a marriage. It was common at that time for men to have multiple wives, because women were viewed essentially as property. In this context only women were guilty of committing adultery, and for the man it was more like buying a used car than our understanding of adultery as marital infidelity. Therefore, because marriage was primarily an economic and social arrangement to dissolve a marriage required for contracts to be amended, involvement from the families, if not the community; and it there needed to be a justifiable reason for the divorce.
Second, divorce: In general, the Jewish Law in the Torah had very little to say about divorce, except for those few verses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which says: If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Naturally, there were several religious scholars who had differing interpretations of this text:
The school of Rabbi Shammai said: "A man should not divorce his wife, except where he has found in her a case for indecency, as it is said: --'...because he has found in her an indecent thing' (Deut 24:1).
The school of Rabbi Hillel had a much broader interpretation: "A man may divorce his wife, even if she has burned his supper, as it is said: --'...because he has found in her an indecent thing' (Deut 24:1).
But the school of Rabbi Aqiba had the broadest interpretation of all: "A man may divorce his wife, even if he has found another more becoming than she, as it is said: --"because she does not find favor in your eyes" (Deut 24:1).
Each of these teachers quoted the same verse from Deuteronomy, the same law, which allowed for divorce in some cases, but depending on the interpretation, the application of the law was very different. But they all agreed on one thing: the right to divorce belongs to the man only.

Under Greco-Roman law, women also had the right to initiate divorce, which is the law that Jesus refers to in the second part of this passage when he is speaking to his disciples, but the Pharisees are only concerned about the Mosaic law. In traditional Jewish culture, an unmarried woman who was no longer under the protection of her father, was utterly without status and completely vulnerable. So regardless of who initiated the divorce, a divorced woman would find herself with very few options for survival apart from prostitution.

And there is one other thing going on in the background that we need to understand in order to fully grasp the meaning of this particular scripture lesson. Herod Antipas, the Romanized Jewish ruler of Galilee and Peraea, (the region on the East bank of the Jordan River) had recently divorced his wife in order to marry Herodias, the ex-wife of his half-brother. When John the Baptist criticized Herod for this, his new wife had him beheaded. So if Jesus also goes against the Mosiac law, he will draw the fury of the religious establishment. And if he goes against the Greco-Roman law, he runs the risk of suffering the same fate as John the Baptist.

Knowing all this contextual information helps us frame the question posed of Jesus. It helps us understand the complexity of the issue he was being asked to address, and that Jesus was being set up once again by the Pharisees. It helps us see that in Jesus response he critiques a system that treated women as property and left them vulnerable when they had to choose between an abusive marriage or life as a divorced, and therefore outcast, woman. Jesus views men and women as equals, not just in divorce, but primarily as equals in marriage—a radical concept. It helps us understand that the first century concepts of marriage and divorce were very different from our own.

But in order to understand what this passage means for us today, we must look to Jesus’ response in the context of the wider Gospel message about sin and redemption.

Jesus responds to the question “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” by going all the way back to the beginning, back to the creation where God established the sacredness and holiness of human relationship. In doing this, Jesus takes the question completely out of the legal realm. This is not about laws at all—whether they are Biblical laws or human laws. It’s about a created order; about a relationship between two people, and their relationship with God. It’s about human sin and brokenness that separates us from each other and from God. It’s about our hard hearts, and how those hard hearts crack and break wide open. And it’s about how God’s grace can help us find healing and wholeness in the midst of our brokenness.

Anyone who has experienced divorce, either personally or as an innocent by-stander, knows how painful it is. I know about the pain and brokenness of divorce because it’s an epidemic in my family: my great-grandparents were divorced, my grandparents are divorced, and my parents are divorced, and although my mom is happily remarried for more than 20 years, but my dad is on his fourth marriage. Two of my dear friends are currently going through divorces. Because I know how complicated, how personal and how painful divorce is, you will never hear me condemn or judge anyone who had experienced a divorce. I was talking with someone in our congregation who went through a divorce years ago and she told me that the hardest part about the whole experience was that she felt that she needed to grieve, but no one would talk with her about it. People either avoided the subject or expected her to get over it. But as I once heard a pastoral counselor say, “Divorce is a death—it is the death of the ‘happy-ever-after’ dream.” Even when there are legitimate, rational reasons for a divorce, even when it’s the best possible resolution to a tragic, or abusive, or loveless marriage, it still hurts like hell.
Even though it might hurt to hear him say it, we need to hear Jesus say, “that’s not the way that God wanted things to be. That’s not God’s desire or hope or plan for us” because we need to remember that because God loves us, God offers us hope and healing in the midst of our pain and brokenness.
We know that in order to find that hope and healing, we have to begin with our own sin. We begin by owning up to our mistakes. We are hard-hearted people, each and every one of us. This does not just apply to marriage and divorce. We know there are many ways in which our sin divorces us from faithful relationship with God and healthy, holy relationships with other people. This kind of divorce is no more or less painful to the heart of God than a legal divorce within a marriage. But when we pray for forgiveness, God’s grace enters into our broken places bringing healing and transformation. That’s at the heart of why we gather together for worship every week—for the opportunity to offer up our brokenness to God, and for God to fill us with grace and mercy.
The spiritual writer Anne Lamott, who is no stranger to pain, was once asked in an interview what she most wanted to convey to her son Sam about God. "I want to convey that we get to be human," Lamott answered. "We get to make awful mistakes and fall short of who we hope we're going to turn out to be. That we don't have to be what anybody else tries to get us to be, so they could feel better about who they were. We get to screw up right and left. We get to keep finding our way back home to goodness and kindness and compassion. . . I want him to know that no matter what happens, he's never going to have to walk alone. . . That's what I'm trying to convey to Sam."
That is the heart of the Gospel message, too. God doesn’t want us to be broken, hard-hearted people, but we are, and God still loves us. God doesn’t want us to hurt one another or break promises or have to go through struggles and pain, but we do, and God still loves us.
You know, all week I have been wrestling with the passage, with it’s meaning and how we are supposed to understand it. I finally thought that I might have an idea that would preach, but there was one thing I just didn’t get. I couldn’t understand why, in the very next moment after this hard teaching on divorce, Jesus is scooping up, hugging and blessing children. I had decided that although it was part of the lectionary selection, I wasn’t going to try and talk about it this morning; I wasn’t even going to read it.
But last night it finally dawned on me -- Jesus’ love and acceptance of these children is actually the key to this passage. We are those hard-hearted people Jesus talks about; but we are also those children. Even when we are broken and flawed and screwed up and hopeless, God doesn’t want us sent away. God wants us right here. Jesus wants to take us in his arms, put his hands on us and bless us. So what else can we say, but thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Things I Didn't Learn in Seminary

Last week a woman came into the church looking for help and she asked to see the pastor. At first I thought she might need money or a referral to a service agency. That's why most people come in off Georgia Avenue, and that's fine, because that's something we do pretty well around here--make referrals, talk, pray, occasionally give out a little money for food or transportation. That's something I know how to do. But this woman needed a different kind of help. She asked me if I could perform an exorcism. She told me that she was possessed by a demon, and, as if on command her body quivered, she twiched and seemed to involuntarily spit out the name "Jesus."

Now exorcisms are not something I learned to do in seminary. And I do not disbelieve in demons, but they are not a part of my daily spiritual reality (I guess I should be thankful about that). I asked her if she had been to a doctor, but she insisted that it was not a physical problem--it was a spiritual problem. So I told her that I had never performed an exorcism before, but that I would certainly be willing to pray with her. We went into the chapel and knelt before the altar; I put my arm around her and I prayed fervantly. As I prayed, this woman convulsed and shook and cried.

When I finished praying we talked for a bit. She told me about all the things in her life that she thought might have caused her demon possession. She spoke about reconciling with her mother, and getting rid of furniture that she had bought with money given to her by a friend who had been dealing drugs, about learning to read the Bible again and spending time in prayer. And while I may not have a strong belief in demons, but I do have very strong faith in repentence, in the power of prayer and forgiveness, and in the goodness of God to overcome evil. I encouraged her to keep doing that spiritual work and to try and have faith that she would be healed.

As I watched her leave, I wondered if my prayer had helped her at all. Then I went back to my office to work on my sermon (something I actually did learn to do in seminary). I sat down and read the the Gospel lesson for the week, which was from Mark 9:38-50. It begins this way: "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us."

Pretty strange coincidence, huh? I guess I still have a lot to learn...