Monday, August 10, 2015

"Get Up and Eat" - Sunday's Sermon

It's been a great summer.  I recently returned from our summer road trip to the Ozark hills of Missouri.  It was a very long trip--over 1400 miles one way.  At points along the way, I found myself wondering whether I could make it back home.  It seemed like such a long journey.

Similarly, the Church of Jesus Christ is called to a much longer journey, a road trip for justice and peace.  Sometimes discouragement settles in on our soul.  Sometimes we no longer hear Christ bidding us to follow him.  Sometimes we tired or distracted or afraid.

My sermon from yesterday sought to reassure and empower the Church for its service in God's world.  I share it with you now in a spirit of humility and hope.

 I Kings 19:4-8
19:04 But he [Elijah] himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.

19:05 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat."

19:06 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.

19:07 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you."

19:08 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
New Revised Standard Version
 John 6:35, 41-51
06:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

06:41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven."

06:42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?"

06:43 Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves.

06:44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.

06:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

06:46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

06:47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

06:48 I am the bread of life.

06:49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

06:50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

06:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
New Revised Standard Version

"Get Up and Eat"

When Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe in Gilead lost his nerve, he went alone into the desert and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He had just taken on the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel and triumphed over them. But now, he is depleted and defeated beneath the broom tree. There he prays to die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." I picture him curling up in a fetal position and falling asleep—waiting for God to take him home.

But instead the angel comes to pester and save him, saying, "Get up and eat." And lo, and behold, a cake is there at his head along with a jar of water—both essentials in the desert. Elijah eats and drinks as he had been commanded. Then he returns to his sleep.

A second time the angel comes, poking and prodding the slumbering prophet. A similar command is spoken, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." Without a word, Elijah rises to eat and drink; and we are told that he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God.

And at Horeb—just beyond todays reading—Elijah is reassured that there are other faithful ones who are still keeping covenant with God. Though he feels all alone, Elijah is not. And God appeared to the prophet at Horeb, but not in the wind or the fire, but in "the sound of sheer silence."  In the quite, God came to re-commission and fortify the prophet, who had lost his never and his heart in the desert forty days before.

I see the church today in a similar way: grieving and despairing in a fetal position in the wilderness. The church, like the great prophet, has had powerful successes in its ministry. It has been steadfast and faithful to its call for many, many decades—but now it is weary, curled up in the wilderness in the shade of a desert bush. It has chosen to go to this desert place all alone although there are others who might have accompanied it there.

I see the church in confusion and despairing of its life. What shall we make of all the great indifference to religion in our culture? Why aren’t we important anymore? And, what shall we make of the conflicts and the lack of civility in our society? From the loud afternoon talk shows to the political forums—everywhere we look and listen—people are treating others as less than human. There is so much—so very much—yet to be done.


A year ago today, I was visiting my brother in Kansas City while on vacation. Suddenly a news bulletin flashed across the television screen. An unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown had been fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—just across the state.  We knew this would spell trouble, but we did not realize at the time how widespread this trouble would be.

Old, old evils have emerged again during the past year.  The church is called to follow Jesus into this trouble and to work for life in the midst of so much death.  Yet, it is easier to run away into the wilderness--afraid, depleted and defeated.  Our prayers to God are not about engaging the trouble and righting the wrongs--but are filled with surrender and despair.  Perhaps we, like Elijah, might pray, "It is enough, O LORD, take away our life, for we are no better than our ancestors."

We have not been stirred to take a stand to make this world a better place. Rather we are content to sit, to slumber, and to starve away under our solidary broom tree. Jesus calls us to bridge the racial divides, to welcome the strangers, and to befriend the friendless. Jesus calls us to overcome our fears with faith, to leave this world better than we found it, to heal the ancient wounds and to raise one another up with the love of Christ.

We cannot do this on our own strength. But, an angel still appears in the wilderness, saying, "Get up and eat, or otherwise the journey will be too much for you." The food is provided from beyond our resources. God’s providential and generous care enlivens us and moves us to ministry in broken, conflicted places of the world.

Or amid the terrible drug epidemic in our own state, what have we done to make a difference? When spent syringes are found in
playgrounds and ball fields, how can we close our eyes and slumber away? In our state, the number of drug-related deaths in 2014 was well over 300, a third more than the previous year. It has been reported that drug fatalities are higher than highway deaths in New Hampshire this year. This is not so much about crime rates as it is a measure of the soul of our society. People are wasted. People feel useless. People—including our teens and young adults—are giving up on life and giving in to death. And the church wonders whether its ministries with children, youth, and families can make some difference. The angel still comes, commanding us, "Get up and eat, or otherwise the journey will be too much for you." You cannot do this on your own, but with God’s help, you will make a difference.  It is time for the angel to poke us and prod us and save us, that we might be God's prophet Church in the world.  "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you."

God still has a plan and purpose for the church. We see that as we follow Jesus into the world. Jesus is our food and our drink. Jesus is the Bread of Life. He promises us, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." He leads us to eternal life. Whenever we commune with Christ—whether at the Communion table or in our daily prayers and study—we take him to heart and he strengthens our hearts. He is with us, giving us the courage to face the challenges in our home and the troubles in our streets.  As our Statement of Faith proclaims, "He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of others."  He raises us now and in the hour of our death. He feeds us, so that we may make this journey and be his faithful church

So, dear friends in Christ, today we are invited to get up and to taste and see God’s goodness. Happy are those who take refuge in Christ. They will find life, and they will change the world. Do not despair. You are not alone. You are never alone. Keep faithfully serving and loving, assured that your service is not in vain.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Called to be Courageous

There are stories that shape our identities.  Some attitudes we carry are instilled in us from birth as we listen to the counsel of our elders.  One of those stories in my family of origin came from grandparents who had lived through the Great Depression.  They were not interested in investing in the stock market because they had seen how the Market Crash of 1929 had personally affected their lives.  A dusty box of worthless stock certificates stored in the attic remained as a symbol of that painful time.

Another story that was told around the kitchen table had to do with serving on the church board, the store board, or the bank board.  We were taught to shy away from such responsibilities.  When the local bank was sold, board members were scrutinized and criticized.  When the time came for the sale of the local mercantile, the board members were subject to many questions.  Those board members were our long-time neighbors and friends.  We did not seek such responsibility.  Members of my family would never respond to an invitation to serve in such a public way.  We were cautious followers, who refused to assume the risk of leadership.

So, what happened with me?  What story has shaped my identity more than those formative family stories?  Sometimes I think, "It certainly might have been a different, easier life had I never left the place where I was born."  If only I could have avoided the responsibilities that are required with leadership, being in close contact and conversation and--in those pivotal, defining moments--being out front.  What story has given me such courage?

The preacher when I was ordained chose the call of Jeremiah as model for my own calling to ministry and leadership in the United Church of Christ.  I've never forgotten the text:

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Then I said, "Ah, LORD GOD! 
Truly I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a boy."

But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth,
and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

So, see where God has taken me.  God's hand touched my mouth.  God's Spirit descended into the depths of my heart.  Jesus called me to the tumult, and my life has never been the same.  It has been a series of amazing adventures. 

I write today from General Synod 30, as the Conference Minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.  I can only imagine what my grandparents might say.  I am called to lead and to love: to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.  I am called to be courageous.

O LORD GOD, I cherish your call.  You have brought me to and through "unexpected places."  You have surrounded me with other faithful and courageous disciples.  You have touched my mouth and my heart.  You have strengthened my hands.  I trust you to see me through and, at the last, to lead me home.  Amen.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Breaking Down Walls, Bulding Peace

You may recognize the title of this post.  It is the theme of the New Hampshire Conference's upcoming Annual Meeting.  Based on Paul's words in Ephesians 2:14, this theme speaks to the power of the gospel in making peace in places of hatred and hostility.  When we selected the theme, we were thinking of the trouble in our cities after police shootings.  Things we had imagined were in the past became present in our own time.  I wondered, naively, whether the theme would still be timely in October--whether the racial divide in this country would still be evident this fall.

The murders of nine African-American Christians in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday are a source of deep sadness in my spirit.  How can this be?  I recall the stories of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963:   Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.  Now, in our own time, there are nine more to add to the long list of those who were murdered within the sanctuary walls, as well as those killed in the streets of our cities, towns, and villages.  I grieve the loss of life at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Wednesday.   May we pray for the families of Cynthia Hurd, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, The Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor.  May we pray that the evil of racism is purged from our hearts and our society.  May we teach our children and youth to walk a path of peace and to join our Christ in breaking down the old, deadly walls of hate and hostility.

Many words and commentaries have been offered in recent days.  I know how important it is to talk things out.  I believe, however, that this is the time for reverence, self-examination, and silence as we face the reality of racism that divides our nation yet again.  This is also the time for witness--as we saw yesterday as people came together to worship and hope at Emanuel AME Church just days after shootings in their sanctuary.  Yes, this is the time to act in ways that reflect the reality that Christ is our peace.  Christ is our hope.   God's justice will prevail to transform hearts and lives, to heal a broken nation.  We shall overcome . . . today.

"For Christ is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."

May it be so . . . today!



Monday, June 8, 2015

Holy Water

Holy Water

Every day finds her kneeling with the dawn,
Bending low on soft garden soil,
The aged face shrouded in fading sunbonnet,
Tending plants that will soon be finished.

When August comes with scorching sun,
She still bends low as if to pray,
The soft soil now dry, dry, bone dry—
Water, the only hope for her and for them.
So every day she kneels with the dawn,
Grateful for the green,
Sprinkling can in hand.
Holy water!

Water is our only hope!
We are plants, in parched earth,
Thirsting for life-sustaining drink,
We are the ones who will soon be finished
Yet every morning finds her kneeling,
Sprinkling can in hand.
Holy water!

Remembering Esther Frieda Ricka Krueger Schulte
August 28, 1896 - October 10, 1975
My Grandma

Monday, June 1, 2015

I See Hope

Sometimes it is easy to become discouraged about the Church.  The most recent Pew Research Center study finds that there has been significant decline among those who identify as Christians in the United States, a nearly 8% decline in just seven years.  The number of those who identify as "Mainline Protestant" dropped from 18.1% (2007) to 14.7% (2014).  New Hampshire is listed as the second least religious state in the nation, with Vermont being the least religious, according to this study.

In some ways, our situation may be compared to an old family business that has been passed along from generation to generation.  When the market shifts, whether gradually or suddenly, the owner is faced with a major decision:  adapt, continue steadfast with the business model of my great-grandfather, or simply close.  This is a moment of decision for those who hold the heritage and the traditions of our forebears.  Yet we are clear, in the United Church of Christ, that it is the responsibility of each generation to make the ancient faith its own and to communicate the Good News in ways that change lives and transform the world around us.

Well, I want to share that yesterday I was delighted to be in worship with our church, The United Church of Christ in North Hampton, on its Music Sunday.  It was a service where the Word was sung in many languages and styles.  It was a powerful service that included the farewell of a beloved, accomplished "Director of Melodies," who had served in that role for twenty-four years.  There is life and great joy in North Hampton!

What gave me great hope happened during the offering of gifts.  Two young children where lifted by their parents and encouraged to place the family's offering in the plates.  This is a regular ritual for those families.  It reminded me of the widow who modeled generosity in Jesus' day (see Mark 12:41ff.)  It was a privilege to observe these little ones in their parents' arms, learning lessons about generosity and sharing--making their offering to the glory of God and to the good of their neighbors.  I wonder how, in the years yet to come, these children will grow and model their own expressions of faith and love for God.  In my mind's eye, I already see them as leaders of the Church.  I saw hope in North Hampton yesterday--hope for the Church when the news about our decline and diminishment seems especially discouraging.

I wonder:  Where do you see hope budding, blooming, and bearing fruit in your church in these days?  We have much to celebrate.  We have so much for which to be grateful as we offer our prayers to God from whom all  blessings flow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Note to Self: Next Time Get Here Earlier

I do not remember the year, but I do remember the traffic jam.  A friend and I drove to Ladue in St. Louis County to hear a lecture by Dr. Elaine Pagels, the renowned religious scholar who has done extensive work with the Gnostic gospels.  We left for the lecture at a decent hour with plenty of time to get there, but as we approached the local church where Pagels was scheduled to speak, we got into a major mess.  All brake lights and no movement for blocks.  Surely there must have been some kind of accident ahead or, maybe, some St. Louis sports star was in the neighborhood.  What a surprise to find that the traffic jam was for a scholar!  We spend the two hours of the lecture in a fellowship hall, listening to the lecture over a cracking speaker.

Tonight I had a similar experience.  I am in Denver for the Festival of Homiletics.  The evening worship was scheduled for 6:45 p.m.  The preacher was Dr. Walter Brueggemann.  When I arrived a half hour before the service was to start, the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church was packed to overflowing.  The balconies were also already full.  People were in chairs in the narthex outside the sanctuary.  I finally found a seat on the second floor outside the sanctuary--just beyond the narthex.  Wish I had packed my binoculars!  This is the view from my seat:

If I sat up really straight, I could peak between the banisters and wooden posts to see into the sanctuary to catch a glimpse of Brueggeman.  The sermon was powerful, reminding me that I am one of those little ones, those babes, whom God has chosen.  Fortunately, the sound system at Central Presbyterian is good; no static tonight.
What I learned from this experience is that I need to get there earlier if I am to find a seat in the sanctuary.  I am getting up early in the morning so I can arrive earlier than just get there "on time."  And, here's a thought:  Wouldn't it be wonderful to have this kind of problem in your church next Sunday.  You don't need Pagels or Brueggemann to be there, for you have a preacher, a pastor and teacher.  Rather than arriving at the last minute with plenty of places in the pews for you--what if you had to get there an hour ahead of the service just to get a seat in a pew?  Imagine that, it might still be possible even in New Hampshire. 
 O God, prepare me to get to the church, ready to worship, ahead of time.  Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Called as Friends

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 
--John 15:15, New Revised Standard Version

 In the church of my childhood, our pastor was a great preacher.  He was ordained in 1920, and his deep booming voice sounded like claps of thunder.  No microphone needed.  He had learned the art of projecting well.  What I remember today is the way he addressed us:  "My Dear Christian Friends."  I took those words literally.  For him, they might have been part of his rhetorical style, but I heard them as an affirmation of friendship.  To be a Christian and a member of Christ's church was to be rooted in a relationship of friendship.  No matter what, we were still in this together.  We were friends.

What we call each other matters.  A classmate in preaching class would use "Folks" repeatedly in sermons to address his listeners.  There was neither affirmation nor affection there.  "People of God," "Brothers and Sisters," "Disciples of Christ," are often spoken today--but they do not satisfy my deepest hope for the church as a community: Friends with God and one another.  And sadly, I often hear "they" or "them" when I am working with churches that are caught in chronic conflict.  There is no friendship there--no love professed or lost.  No church left.

So today, I am praying for "My Dear Christian Friends"--friends who are far away and friends who are very near, friends who bear heavy burdens with great courage and friends who inspire my heart to sing, friends who confront and friends who comfort.  I thank God this morning for that aging preacher whose greeting still echoes in my mind.  I praise God for all friends in Christ who share this journey with me.