Come Sunday


Worship doesn’t only happen on Sunday morning.  It happens any time we put on an attitude of worship, of worth. If you can do that other times and places, more power to you.  I like to worship in my garden, but I am alone there.  It is sweet to come into this beautiful space at the appointed time and see your beautiful faces gathered, and be comforted by familiar words and songs, and challenged by a few new ones.  It is a habit that feeds our souls. 
Art: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/celebration-susan-brasch.html
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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 19, 2018

Why We Worship

Psalm 98 : O sing to the LORD a new song, 
                        for he has done marvelous things. 
            His right hand and his holy arm 
                        have gotten him victory.
            The LORD has made known his victory;
                        he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 
            He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness 
                        to the house of Israel. 
            All the ends of the earth have seen 
                        the victory of our God.

            Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; 
                        break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 
            Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, 
                        with the lyre and the sound of melody. 
            With trumpets and the sound of the horn 
                        make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

            Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 
                        the world and those who live in it. 
            Let the floods clap their hands; 
                        let the hills sing together for joy
            at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming 
                        to judge the earth. 
            He will judge the world with righteousness, 
                        and the peoples with equity.
  
I took my first transitional ministry training in 2003 at a Southern Baptist seminary in Dallas, Texas. I was the only woman there, not surprising since in 1984 the Southern Baptists had voted that woman should not be pastors.  It was quite an experience. They were kind to me. I had much more in common with them than I expected, because Baptist church government is congregational.  So as long as we talked about pastoring churches, and not politics or theology, we related.  Many of them had not heard of the United Church of Christ.  Over lunch one of the men asked me about the UCC, and I said, “It’s a pretty liberal church.”  I didn’t think it would be helpful to explain exactly how liberal.  Another fellow piped in, “Oh, liberal. You’ve got one of those praise bands with electric guitars and drums?”  To him, liberal was a style of music.  A lively discussion started about the church conflicts they’d seen over styles of music.

In most churches I know, music wars have calmed down by now, thank you God.  Yet, many people have strong likes and dislikes about music. This is part of a paradox about coming together to worship; what works for you may or may not work for me, and yet we need to do it together, or it’s not Christian worship. Earbuds and fifty different channels is the way our culture has gone.  But that defeats the purpose of worshipping together.  So we take our different musical tastes, and life experiences, and moods, and expectations, and we all come together on Sunday morning.  And sometimes it works! Worship together takes us places we could never go alone.  And sometimes it doesn’t ring your bell, for whatever reason.  In that case, all is not lost.  There’s still fellowship time, which I honestly see as an important part of the our Sunday morning ritual.

Think of the visitor joining us on a Sunday morning, expecting... Who knows what they’re expecting. The worship of their childhood, or of their last church?  That never quite works out, does it?  Every church has its own personality and ways of worship.  That is more true in the UCC than some other traditions, because we have no required prayers or readings. 

Despite our freedom here, we have “liturgy-style” worship.  We got it from the Congregationalists, and they got it from the Church of England, and they got it from the Roman Catholics... Tradition! Stand up, sit down, sing a song, read a prayer, scripture, sermon, more prayer, stand up, another song, benediction, and so on… The order varies, but having this long list of worship elements complicated enough it that needs its own program is a very ancient way of worship- Orthodox churches today are using liturgies from the 4th and 6thcenturies, virtually unchanged. Liturgy-style worship relies on a mix of familiar rituals along with changeable parts to interpret the tradition for the world we live in. And newcomers might need an orientation, or at least some post-it-tape flags for their hymnal.  That is the hard part of liturgy-style worship: knowing when to stand up or sit down, finding the song or prayer you’re supposed to be doing next. 

The other main style of Christian worship is “camp meeting style.”  Camp meetings were traveling Christian revivals that were held outdoors in tents in the 18thand 19thcenturies.  They were great entertainment for people with pretty limited entertainment options.  The point was to captivate people into becoming Christian (i.e. to save them from hell), or get them excited to renew their faith.  Greg Laurie’s “Harvest” is in that style.  Camp meeting worship is very simple: start with a bunch of music, where you may or may not be invited to sing along, move into a long passionate prayer, and finish with a come-to-Jesus sermon.  Just these three things, no program or orientation required.  Oh, and one more thing, at least in the original camp meeting, an altar call:  people were called to come forward to repent or declare their desire to be Christian. They might be baptized on the spot. A seminary student came to that style of church and asked how long he was expected to preach.  “Till the people get happy.” said the elders. How long might that be?  “As long as it takes.”  But seldom less than forty-five minutes, it turned out.  This camp meeting style relies heavily on the power of an emotional experience to ignite faith, and honestly I am glad I’m not trying to whip up emotion like that every week.  But I know some of you miss that powerful emotion.   

Worship is an odd thing in this place and culture.  Seeking spirituality not from Youtube videos or the self-help section of the bookstore, but together, in person, at the same time.  How odd is it? From our national UCC staff I heard about a young man who was booking a wedding at a church.  He got a tour around the sanctuary and said, “This is a beautiful room. What do you do in here?”

How would we explain our worship to him?  Where else do grownups have sing-alongs? And why do we do these things?  What does worship mean, what good is it?  Now I know that some of you come out of habit. Some of you come to see your friends. And that’s OK.  Why do your friends come?  If the answer were only to see you, we would have a problem.  There is more, but it’s hard to put into words, isn’t it?

We can get some clues from the word “worship.”  It comes from the word “worth.”  Worship shows what has worth to us: what we value, what matters.  It’s worth gathering with our friends on Sunday and not just saying prayers by ourselves at home.  It’s worth getting a religious tune-worm in your ear that you can hum the rest of the week. It’s worth sharing our concerns and our joys out loud in this sacred space.  It’s worth reminding ourselves what really matters.  It’s worth trying to get in touch with the sacred at a regular time and place, and also to get in touch with our own hearts. 

God is worth rolling out of bed for on Sunday mornings, worth our attention, our offerings of song and prayer, and our celebration. I don’t think that God is some king on a throne.  Honestly, that’s what a lot of traditional worship was modeled after: bowing before a king and telling him how great and glorious he was.  I am quite sure God does not need our bowing and our praises. Instead it is we who need to look beyond the little dramas of our lives, and remember that there is something much larger than ourselves, something worth living for.  We need power and wisdom and love bigger than our own.  We need to remember the kind of God we claim, who is in and through us if we can notice it, always at work bringing healing and hope out of every dire situation, always guiding us into love and life.  And so we worship.  

The words we use for worship matter. You hear Trinitarian words here: but Father and Son are usually said “Creator and Christ.”  You do hear words of praise, but we got the “holy ghost” out of it, if you’ll notice.  The Lords’ Prayer is in really old-fashioned language, but when I’ve tried to update it, we lose that wonderful way almost everyone can say it together. I struggle with some of that traditional language of God as all-powerful, king and mighty warrior, as we find in today’s psalm for instance. I am grateful that here we have the freedom to craft new prayers, rephrase the psalms, change the words of liturgy to fit our understanding of the sacred. Traditional liturgy’s language of father and king and lord and ruler is familiar and dear to some people, but nontraditional language of mother flowing spirit and creative transformation, and more, better describes how many of us understand God.  Inclusion and tolerance and diversity means, among other things, we can include and tolerate diverse language, and not all of it will work for each of us. The writer of our Psalm reading was getting mighty creative saying that floods clap their hands and hills sing for joy.  And that works just fine for me. Creativity in worship is a great way of honoring God, don’t you think?  

Worship does sometimes fall flat.  That’s such a shame, because we need it.  And it’s ironic too, that the Source of the universe, who makes floods clap and hills sing for joy, has intelligent creative creatures who can manage to make worship a drag.  How do we do it?    

Sometimes worship is not what you were expecting.  You wanted to boogie, and ended up with the frozen chosen.  Or you wanted quiet meditation and ended up with the shouting holy rollers.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  In this case, there is a fix.  Let go. Let go of our expectations of worship and remember that anyplace we seek the sacred, we can find it, if we come with open hearts and minds.  

Sometimes the worship is not in our language.  That may mean in Spanish or Latin or Samoan.  More likely it is just church-talk, a bunch of words that only make sense to the insiders.  Then the invitation is to go beyond the words, and find the music of the Spirit. It’s always there. 

And this is not the mall, or the 14-screen movie-plex.  We are all together in one worship, in part to support one another, so if a message one Sunday doesn’t ring your bell, you can pray… pray that it rings someone else’s. Those of you who are lucky enough to have gotten family members to join you at worship, you are doing something countercultural, and the experience is likely to mean more to some family members than others.  But it gives your family a common experience to talk about, to talk about the sacred, and what matters to you.  How precious. 

The things we do are nice, and we attach meaning to them, but they are just the forms of worship, they are not the meaning.  What is essential is what Jesus told the woman at the well in John’s gospel (Chapter 4), when she was asking which was the right mountain on which to worship. Jesus said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in Spirit and truth.” Spirit:  we don’t control it, but we allow our hearts and minds to open to it. Truth:  honesty, risking your whole self.  That might mean admitting that you do not feel a connection in worship. And then you might hear why someone else does.  Jesus is asking a lot of worshippers. It’s easy for newcomers to just see the forms, the words on the page, and miss the Spirit and truth behind them, especially if they can’t find the right page.  Regulars too can lose track of Spirit and truth, and just go through the motions, and become overly attached to the forms because we forgot to look for the meaning, the Spirit and truth beyond the words and the forms.  

Worship is not a spectator sport. We get out of it what we put in.  That is both attitude and action.  You might think that you just sit here, but you pray, and you sing, and you ponder the words, and perhaps even discuss them later, and it makes a difference.  Thank you.

Worship doesn’t only happen on Sunday morning.  It happens any time we put on an attitude of worship, of worth. If you can do that other times and places, more power to you.  I like to worship in my garden, but I am alone there.  It is sweet to come into this beautiful space at the appointed time and see your beautiful faces gathered, and be comforted by familiar words and songs, and challenged by a few new ones.  It is a habit that feeds our souls.  And we are blessed that each of you came this morning. Amen.

Wake-up Call


I recently lived for two years in Arlington Virginia, five miles from Washington DC. The Washington Metro stopped a half block from my apartment, so I managed pretty well without a car.  Coming back from downtown DC, it was a straight shot on the orange line to the Ballston station, underground all the way.  Only one time, the train burst out into bright sunshine.  Where was I? “Arlington Cemetery,” said the station signs.  I was on the wrong train.  The blue line and the orange line follow the same route in DC till they split in Virginia.  So I got off the blue train, went down one set of stairs and up the other, enjoyed the scenery waiting for the blue train going the opposite direction, back a couple of stops, up another set of stairs, and finally onto the orange line to go the right direction.

Having gotten on the wrong train once, you might thing I’d learn.  But the only difference between the blue and orange trains is a small colored banner on one spot on the top of each car.  I took the blue train by accident a lot in the two years I lived in Arlington. It got to be a joke with my husband.  I’d text him.  Delayed. Visiting Arlington Cemetery.  Arlington Cemetery, that bright sunlight on a route that should be underground, was my wake-up call.  Then I’d realize I was on the wrong train.

Getting off the wrong train was inconvenient, it was embarrassing, and it was a no-brainer. If only it were that clear and simple when we get off course in other parts of our lives. What kind of wake-up call do we need when we’re doing is not taking us where we want to go?  God invites each of us into abundant and compassionate living, and we often miss the invitation.  And then God creates another invitation, but it might be more inconvenient and embarrassing than the first.  If we keep missing invitations, we might get a really dramatic wake-up call.  God doesn’t expect us to be perfect.  But we could save ourselves a lot of trouble by not staying on the wrong train for longer than we need to.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 12, 2018
Wrong Train

Numbers 22:12-35. God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” So Balaam rose in the morning, and said to the officials of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” So the officials of Moab rose and went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.” 
         Once again Balak sent officials, more numerous and more distinguished than these. They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak son of Zippor: ‘Do not let anything hinder you from coming to me; for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do; come, curse this people for me.’” But Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God, to do less or more.  You remain here, as the others did, so that I may learn what more the LORD may say to me.” 
            During the night God came to Balaam and said to him,  ‘If these men have come to summon you, then rise and go with them, but do only what I tell you.’ When morning came Balaam rose, saddled his donkey, and went with the Moabite chiefs. 
            But God was angry because Balaam was going, and as he came riding on his donkey, accompanied by his two servants, the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road to bar his way. When the donkey saw the angel standing in the road with his sword drawn, she turned off the road into the fields, and Balaam beat her to bring her back on to the road. The angel of the Lord then stood where the road ran through a hollow, with enclosed vineyards on either side. The donkey saw the angel and, squeezing herself against the wall, she crushed Balaam’s foot against it, and again he beat her. The angel of the Lord moved on farther and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn to either right or left. When the donkey saw the angel, she lay down under Balaam. At that Balaam lost his temper and beat the donkey with his staff. 
            The Lord then made the donkey speak, and she said to Balaam,  ‘What have I done? This is the third time you have beaten me.’ Balaam answered,  ‘You have been making a fool of me. If I had had a sword with me, I should have killed you on the spot.’ But the donkey answered,  ‘Am I not still the donkey which you have ridden all your life? Have I ever taken such a liberty with you before?’ He said,  ‘No.’ Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes: he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn, and he bowed down and prostrated himself. The angel said to him,  ‘What do you mean by beating your donkey three times like this? I came out to bar your way, but you made straight for me, and three times your donkey saw me and turned aside. If she had not turned aside, I should by now have killed you, while sparing her.’ ‘I have done wrong,’ Balaam replied to the angel of the Lord.  ‘I did not know that you stood confronting me in the road. But now, if my journey displeases you, I shall turn back.’ The angel of the Lord said to Balaam,  ‘Go with the men; but say only what I tell you.’ So Balaam went on with Balak’s chiefs. 

I recently lived for two years in Arlington Virginia, five miles from Washington DC. The Washington Metro stopped a half block from my apartment, so I managed pretty well without a car.  Coming back from downtown DC, it was a straight shot on the orange line to the Ballston station, underground all the way.  Only one time, the train burst out into bright sunshine.  Where was I? “Arlington Cemetery,” said the station signs.  I was on the wrong train.  The blue line and the orange line follow the same route in DC till they split in Virginia.  So I got off the blue train, went down one set of stairs and up the other, enjoyed the scenery waiting for the blue train going the opposite direction, back a couple of stops, up another set of stairs, and finally onto the orange line to go the right direction.

Having gotten on the wrong train once, you might thing I’d learn.  But the only difference between the blue and orange trains is a small colored banner on one spot on the top of each car.  I took the blue train by accident a lot in the two years I lived in Arlington. It got to be a joke with my husband.  I’d text him.  Delayed. Visiting Arlington Cemetery.  Arlington Cemetery, that bright sunlight on a route that should be underground, was my wake-up call.  Then I’d realize I was on the wrong train.

Getting off the wrong train was inconvenient, it was embarrassing, and it was a no-brainer. If only it were that clear and simple when we get off course in other parts of our lives. What kind of wake-up call do we need when we’re doing is not taking us where we want to go?  God invites each of us into abundant and compassionate living, and we often miss the invitation.  And then God creates another invitation, but it might be more inconvenient and embarrassing than the first.  If we keep missing invitations, we might get a really dramatic wake-up call.  God doesn’t expect us to be perfect.  But we could save ourselves a lot of trouble by not staying on the wrong train for longer than we need to.

It’s so common for people to keep doing a thing that’s not working that psychologists and economists gave it a name: the sunk-cost fallacy. What I’m doing is not working.  But I can’t quit after all the time or money or effort I’ve invested. I can’t stop now. Otherwise I’ll have to admit what I’ve been doing hasn’t worked, and I’ll have to figure out how to do something different.  Sunk costs.  It can take huge courage– trust– or sometimes desperation!– to change.  But all of us get on the wrong train sometimes. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for the ticket or how long you’ve been riding if it isn’t going where you want to go.  And I want to go where God leads, well, at least most of the time.

I love being in tune with the sacred.  That can mean different things.  Holding firm to beautiful values.  Listening to your gut.  Seeking God’s guidance; that still small voice.  And none of us does these things perfectly.  So be prepared for wake-up calls, and depending on how far you’ve been traveling on the wrong train, those wake-up calls may feel jarring. But don’t fall for the sunk-cost fallacy.  If we’re on the wrong train, we can just admit it, turn around, and start heading in the right direction. 

Which brings us to the tale of Balaam and his donkey.  Or, as the King James Bible says it, Balaam’s ass.  You’ve got to admit the King James version has a ring to it.  The bible has two talking animals, and Balaam’s ass is the second one.  In this little magical realism tale of a man who gets on the wrong train, it is his faithful donkey who gives a wake-up call, but not before Balaam makes an ass of himself. 

Balaam is a high-priced consultant to the rich and famous.  He is a renowned seer, prophet-for-hire, so in tune with God that he knows how to bless and curse whole tribes and nations, or so the story goes.  Balaam is not a fraud– he really cares about honoring God.  The king of Moab sends a delegation to hire Balaam.  The job is to curse a pesky tribe of immigrants called Israel, who are making Moab nervous.  Balaam does not just sign on the dotted line.  First, he consults God, who is on the favorites list on his cell phone and always picks up. “Should I take the job?” And God’s answer is clear.  “Don’t do it. I want to bless Israel, not curse them.” So Balaam turns down the job.  (Should anyone ever curse anyone?  I don’t think so, but apparently people thought differently in those days.)  

And then Moab sends more powerful officials, dripping with silk and jewels, and carrying a big blank check.  “Balaam, the King wants you and only you.  Name your price.  We won’t take no for an answer.” With big innocent eyes Balaam tells these fat cats, “Even if the king gave me his house stuffed with silver and gold, I would not be able to defy my God.  But wait here. I’ll just double check and see what God says this time.” Balaam really wanted to get on the wrong train.

And God lets him.  “You want to go so badly, Balaam, then go.  But make sure you say only what I tell you to say.”  

So off Balaam goes, on his poor innocent donkey.  Then an angry angel with a sword blocks the road: that should be a wake-up call. Only Balaam, the great seer of his time, doesn’t see the angel.  His donkey does, and balks. Twice the donkey sees an angry angel with a sword blocking the road, and balks.  Twice Balaam, the great seer, sees nothing special, and beats the poor donkey for balking. Finally the angel blocks a spot between two walls so narrow the donkey can’t move.  She’s stuck.  So she just lies down.  And when Balaam beats her again and yells at her, the donkey starts talking!

When the donkey starts talking, does Balaam say, “Wow, my donkey is talking, Something really strange is happening!”  Nope. He just starts arguing with his donkey. In front of those rich officials from Moab, Balaam makes a King James donkey of himself.

But finally Balaam the great seer sees the angel, the sword, and the obvious: he’s on the wrong train.  He bows down before the angel.  ‘I have sinned!”  He sinned when he knew the right thing to do, and had his heart set on doing something else. And he sinned when he was so preoccupied with his own paycheck and prestige that he couldn’t see what was in front of his own face.  And he’s finally ready to repent.  Here “sin” means doing what doesn’t work.  Wrong train. And repent means: get off that train.

So Balaam says to the angel, “Oops, sorry, I’ll just turn around and go home now.” But God is getting creative. “No, keep going, but only say exactly what I tell you.” So Balaam did.  He traveled hundreds of miles to Moab, hopefully treating his donkey with a little respect.  When he finally arrived, despite the expectations of the king, he did say onlywhat God told him to say.  Three times the king of Moab took Balaam to a mountain top and carried out bloody animal sacrifice.  That was how they did it in those days.  But Balaam didn’t.  He waited for all the blood and drama to be finished, and just said, excuse me, I’ll just step aside and find out what God wants me to say now.  Three times, on three different mountaintops, they did this. And three times Balaam delivered a flowery poetic blessing for Israel instead of a curse.  One of those blessings is still recited in Jewish worship today. You can imagine how this went over with the King.  Balaam never did get paid.  But his reputation for “only saying what God told him to” was taken seriously after that.

God is creative. When we hop on the wrong train, sometimes God can use it for good.  At the least, for our learning, if we are willing to learn.  But first, we need that wake-up call.  

The summer before I started seminary, I thought I had to leave the UCC, the United Church of Christ and join a Methodist church.  You see, Methodist pastors get appointed to churches by their bishop. They avoid this challenging search and call process that you have started.  As a Methodist I could have had job security.  I can’t say God told me to become a Methodist.  My best impression was that God was going along with my plan. But I kept hitting obstacles. I had been going to two services each Sunday, one at my home church, Irvine UCC, and one at whatever Methodist church I was visiting that week.  I didn’t feel much attraction to any of them.  

I had been praying for guidance on which church to join– which Methodistchurch to join.  One weekend I had gotten a sense in prayer that I would know which church was the right one, and I had been comforted by that.  So I went to Irvine UCC for the early service, and a Methodist church after that.  The Methodist service was OK.  But the Irvine worship was amazing.  The guest speaker was Rev. Bill Johnson, the first openly gay minister in the UCC.  He was so inspiring, he made me so proud to be in the UCC.  And the music was gorgeous, …  I was so moved by this awesome radiant Spirit-filled UCCchurch.  You might have thought I would get the message at that point.  But no.  I was just really sad because I was going to have to leave this wonderful church. 

God has put an unlikely source of guidance in my life: not a talking donkey but an agnostic husband.  (Who does not appreciate the comparison.)  As I told my story to Scott, he just smiled.  He had already told me his opinion, and I hadn’t heard it. It took me about two more weeks to realize my prayer about which church to go to had been answered that morning.  Was I ever embarrassed to tell my Irvine UCC friends that no, I was not leaving after all. I learned that I belong in the United Church of Christ.

We will keep getting on wrong trains.  And God will keep trying to get through to us.  Our job is to pay attention, stay humble, be teachable, at least eventually. And not get trapped by sunk costs. When we finally notice that wake-up call, just get off the train!  We will keep getting on wrong trains, and God can be pretty creative at using our detours to bless us.  God never expected us to be perfect.  Just forgiven, and loved. Amen.

Mending as Sacred Art


The picture is a peculiar style of Japanese art, called kintsugi.  In kintsugi, broken pottery is mended with glue and gold dust.  Kintsugi invites us to own our flaws and our struggles and our mends.  Instead of hiding them or being ashamed of them, we respect our limitations, honor our struggles, find the beauty in them.  That, my friends, is gospel.  God never expected us to get it right the first time.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
July 22, 2018

Courage for Reconciliation

2Cor. 5:16-20  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  

Courage. It comes from the Latin word cor, heart. It takes courage to follow Jesus, if we’re paying attention, because we will do it badly, and we need forgiveness and reconciliation. We are all in process. Reconciliation is heart work: it takes courage.  You can analyze it if you like, but the only way I know how to really reconcile is with my heart wide open.  

Courage. For me, courage often means getting out of my head, out of analysis mode, and into my heart,.  Admitting when I’m hurt, or scared, or confused about something. And sometimes just admitting how much I care, and how vulnerable that makes me.  It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable.  It takes heart.

My father died almost three years ago.  My dad was a character.  He had two typical modes of relating: holding forth, and being preoccupied. And my dad loved me.  He believed in me.  What a precious gift.   

Dad was a physicist.  He measured the braking speeds of BART trains.  He designed scanners for cargo containers.  He loved a stimulating discussion.  And he was always right.  He would say with a grin, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”  Then the rest of the family would groan. I am my father’s daughter, in ways that are helpful and ways that are not.  I have learned to add, at the end of a pronouncement, “but I could be wrong.”

I remember more than once dad would be lounging in his upholstered recliner in the family room, trying to ignore the chaos four kids were making, till he couldn’t take it any more.  Then he’d yell, and we’d stop doing whatever was annoying him, for a while.  His yelling startled me, but I never feared my dad. I knew he loved me, and I also knew that he didn’t hold grudges against me.   I did wonder why he had to wait till he was angry to say something.  When I had my own kid, I learned how hard it was to do that differently. 

Outside my family, I learned, people did things differently.  I remember when I was living with my college roommates Christy and Dove.  Dove and I were having an engaging discussion about politics or something.  We were astonished when Christy broke out in tears, “Oh please stop fighting,” she said as she ran to her room and hid.  Fighting?  We were just having fun. I have since learned that different people, cultures, families, communicate differently.

Underneath his rough exterior, my father’s heart was tender and faithful.  When I was losing him to dementia, I tried asking him about things he loved, to cheer him, but instead he would sob.  He could no longer be safe up in his head, keeping his tender heart under wraps. 

I am not waiting to do my sobbing.  I do it many times when I quiet my busy mind and listen to my own heart.  I do it preparing sermons, and reading the news. I do it when I stop trying to analyze or fix, and just let go and let God.  

As a young adult I worked as a chemist, and I was nurtured in my faith by Methodists.  I took many roles at the church, I studied the bible and loved it, and I got to preach! I also had a kind of stereotypical born again experience. (That’s not required around here.)  God became real to me.  Jesus took me on his knee, and told me he loved me, and told me that my character flaws, which had grieved me many times, could be used for good, for gospel. 

After several years of waffling, I finally “answered the call.”  I knew my people skills were not there yet.  But I remembered my friend Sam. Back when he was my lab partner in grad school, Sam told me he wasn’t sure he was up to the career to which he felt called, but he loved it so much he was going to try with all his heart.  So I did.

I became a transitional minister because that’s the ministry I could do when my husband’s job wasn’t portable, but it has been a fit.  I love new things.  I enjoy change.  I love meeting new people, and hearing their stories, even if I can’t always remember their names.  And I can say goodbye. I can say hard things, set hard limits, so the next pastor maybe will have an easier time with certain things.  Every church has certain things. And I don’t need everybody to like me.

I get it that my presence is hard on people who don’t want change.  I do ask you to change things; it’s part of my job.  And here’s the thing.  No matter what I do or don’t do, my very presence is change, because I cannot be your beloved former pastor.  For some people, that hurts.  And there is no way to do it differently.  

On top of that, I am my father’s daughter.  I have opinions.  I can be blunt, and loud.  I want you to know that you can always challenge me, or ask me to do something different, or just say no.  I want you to practice talking about hard things with me. If I happen to be holding forth at the time, youmay have to be blunt.  I can change modes, but I might need a reminder. You don’t have to be good at telling me what you don’t like.  You don’t have to be nice.  Just be real. Ask me to listen, you have something to say.  I can take it.  And we can work it out together.  That’s gospel.  Truth and reconciliation.  That’s gospel.  Reconciliation matters to me.  A lot. 

Here is one thing that really hurts me about transitional ministry.  Knowing that someone (there’s usually someone) is feeling annoyed and disconnected from their transitional pastor and has to sit and listen to me every week, or duck out and miss all their friends.  When they could come and hash it out with me, and hopefully find peace, and enjoy their church. I believe in do-overs. Second chances.  Reconciliation.  That’s gospel. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s worth the risk. 

The sacred runs in and through each of us, and we are all are flawed.  When we open our hearts we will get hurt and disappointed sometimes, and I surely hope you bring your heart to church.  I want this to be safe space to talk through our expectations and disappointments, our celebrations and our hurts. 

Being real takes heart, courage. Reconciliation is not the peace that passes over misunderstanding, but the peace that passes understanding, that comes by working through differences with open hearts, learning, and building connection. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  

I’m back doing compassionate communication practice groups this week.  I need the practice as much as anyone. Compassionate communication helps me connect my head to my heart.  It helps me let go of the baggage that gets in the way of reconciliation, and it helps me express hard things from the heart, in a way that connects. 

The cover picture on your bulletin is a peculiar style of Japanese art, called kintsugi.  In kintsugi, broken pottery is mended with glue and gold dust.  Kintsugi invites us to own our flaws and our struggles and our mends.  Instead of hiding them or being ashamed of them, we respect our limitations, honor our struggles, find the beauty in them.  That, my friends, is gospel.  God never expected us to get it right the first time.  May we have the courage to name the brokenness in each of us and between us, and be willing to mend it, with the help of God.  Amen.  

Choose Your Stories


We are told that Ruth was King David's great grandmother.  Her story was not incorporated in scripture till five hundred years after it happened when the Jewish exiles were returning from exile in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem. Their struggles are told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and there was plenty of tragedy, and bitterness, and fear. The tiny remnant had just returned home to a capital city that was a pile of rubble.  They were surrounded by foreigners. How could they keep their identity and their God among strangers?  

A "homeland security order" was given:  Jewish men must “put away” foreign wives and their children, to stay faithful to God and country.  “Put away” is a nice word for divorcing your wife and abandoning your children.  In the face of this cruelty, the old story of Ruth was dusted off and told anew, to remind the people that chesed (steadfast love and mercy) transcend borders and nationalities, and God’s chesed is sometimes given to us by foreigners, and the chesed of a foreigner shaped Israel's greatest king, David. 

What was that “homeland security order” meant to accomplish, anyway?  To protect the nation, the religion, pure, free of outside influences.  (Remember, no separation of church and state back then.)  They had important values to protect.  But I wonder.  Acting out of fear, using intolerance and cruelty, breaking promises, mistreating women and children, which values do those acts protect?  No values I want.  Might this have resonance in our day?

We are surrounded by bitterness, and fear.  That bitterness will never heal by drawing lines that divide.  No wall or prison or exclusionary law is strong enough to protect people who live by fear and demonize others.  Our values as a nation and as Christians are strong enough to provide welcome to strangers and make them part of us. In welcoming strangers, our identity will shift, but our values will prevail.  In fact, those values require that we welcome strangers, as so many of us were once welcomed. 

*****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ                                        
July 15, 2018

Chesed: Love Heals Bitterness

Excerpts from the Book of Ruth
            1:1  In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife [Naomi] and two sons. 
            4…When they had lived there about ten years, 5her two sons died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband. 
            6  Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD show steadfastlove to you, as you have shown to the dead and to me.  9…Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 
16But Ruth said, 
            “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! 
            Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; 
            your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 
17      Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. 
            May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, 
            if even death parts me from you!” 
            1:22  So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. 
            2:3[Ruth] came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of [Naomi’s husband.]
            2:8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.  9… I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”  10Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”  11But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.  12May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”  
            2:19  Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said. 20  “The LORD bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his steadfastlove to the living and the dead.” 
            Ruth 3:1  Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you….  3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to [Boaz] until he has finished eating and drinking.  4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 
            Ruth 3:6  So [Ruth] went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her….8At midnight [Boaz] was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!  9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”  10He said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your steadfastloveis better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.  11And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.
            Ruth 4:13  So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 17… They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. 

Some people consider the bible a book of rules. I do not.  Its greatest power lies in its stories.  We tell ourselves stories in order to live.  And which stories we tell can determine how we live.  Ruth’s story is a story of steadfast love, but not conventional love.
            Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; 
            your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 
This reading is used at weddings, but it was not spoken by one young lover to another.  It was spoken by a young widow, Ruth, to her mother-in-law Naomi.

The backdrop of this sweet love story was bitter: famine and death.  Famine had brought Naomi to the land of Moab ten years before.  Death, of her husband and then her two grown sons, was sending her back to Israel.  Naomi has no close relatives back in Israel; she simply hopes she can find food in her native land.  The name Naomi means ‘pleasant.’  But, she says, "Don't call me 'Pleasant.'  My name is now Mara, 'Bitter,' because God has dealt bitterly with me." Naomi's bitterness is a natural response to "when bad things happen to good people." I do not believe God caused Naomi's tragedy, or anybody else's. I do believe God is acting in every situation to bring forth good out of the most unlikely circumstances.  Frequently God acts through people, people with loving and generous hearts, like this young foreign woman Ruth. 

Love is the great commandment:  to love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  What do we mean by love? Not an easy question.  The original Hebrew word for Ruth's kind of love is chesed.  Chesedis not a feeling.  It is love in action.  The NRSV translates it here as "kindness", but that is too weak.  God’s chesedis mentioned many times in the psalms, and it’s not translated kindness: NRSV says his steadfast love endures forever. So we read it as "steadfast love".   Greeks translated chesedas "mercy," love that is not required or earned. Chesedgoes way beyond "nice" or a gift of a few dollars. Chesedis big, takes risks and becomes vulnerable, as Ruth became vulnerable when she promised to stand by Naomi in her abject poverty, in a foreign country, no matter what.  

Any real commitment to steadfastlovemakes us vulnerable. Think about it.  Our love may not be returned.  Our loved one can be taken away from us.  The one we pledge to love may come with bitterness, emotional baggage.  And any commitment takes time, and money, and puts a curb on our individual freedom. Yet we are made for love and commitment. We are made to give and receive chesed.  We are made in the image of God, and what does God do?  God loves, generously, hoping for return, but not demanding it and frequently not getting it either.  

Jewish tradition tells the story that God's first act of chesedwas to create a world, and us– an act of generosity we will never repay.  Our Christian tradition tells the story of God becoming human in Jesus, vulnerable in flesh like ours, so he could better show his love for us, and then what happened? He was rejected and killed, by people. But his love for us could not be killed. We are not always good at this kind of love, this chesed. Yet we need to commit ourselves to give love, and open ourselves to receive it, to be whole, to be who God made us to be.  Even in the face of tragedy and bitterness. Maybe especially then.

So in the face of tragedy and bitterness, Ruth made her commitment of love to Naomi, they traveled to Israel, and how did it go?  Ruth camps with Naomi and gleans in a field.  This is begging, the early version of a food shelf, relying on God's chesedthat was written in the law of Israel:  Leviticus 23:22. When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.This field turns out to belong to Naomi's distant male relative, Boaz.  Boaz treats the beggar Ruth with respect and kindness and generosity, In fact he feeds her lunch, and he sends her home with her apron overflowing with grain. At hearing this good news, Naomi praises the chesedof God; her bitterness is beginning to heal.  Also, she’s not going to starve, something most of us can take for granted.  

Naomi determines to make a match between Ruth and Boaz.  I'm sure she checked it out with people close to him, before she set him up. So when Ruth uncovers his "feet," wink, wink, on the threshing floor after a lot of wine at the harvest party, Boaz will do the honorable thing, and marry Ruth.  His response to this entrapment is to praise Ruth for her chesedin wanting to marry an old man like him.  Ruth is a foreigner, could be labeled a golddigger, but he knows he can trust her, because of what she did for Naomi.  By this time chesedis bouncing around that barn so fast and furious that the hired help will all be married soon too.  

In the end Ruth's devoted love heals Naomi's broken heart.  Steadfast love was the seed.  Joy is the harvest.  Or, as Jesus said it,blessed are those who show chesed, for they shall receive chesed.  You probably have heard this saying from the Greek translation.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

We are told that Ruth was King David's great grandmother.  This story was not incorporated in scripture till five hundred years after it happened when the Jewish exiles were returning from exile in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem. Their struggles are told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and there was plenty of tragedy, and bitterness, and fear. The tiny remnant had just returned home to a capital city that was a pile of rubble.  They were surrounded by foreigners. How could they keep their identity and their God among strangers?  

A "homeland security order" was given:  Jewish men must “put away” foreign wives and their children, to stay faithful to God and country.  “Put away” is a nice word for divorcing your wife and abandoning your children.  In the face of this cruelty, the old story of Ruth was dusted off and told anew, to remind the people that chesed(steadfast love and mercy) transcend borders and nationalities, and God’s chesedis sometimes given to us by foreigners, and the chesedof a foreigner shaped Israel's greatest king, David. 

What was that “homeland security order” meant to accomplish, anyway?  To protect the nation, the religion, pure, free of outside influences.  (Remember, no separation of church and state back then.)  They had important values to protect.  But I wonder.  Acting out of fear, using intolerance and cruelty, breaking promises, mistreating women and children, which values do those acts protect?  No values I want.  Might this have resonance in our day?

We are surrounded by bitterness, and fear.  That bitterness will never heal by drawing lines that divide.  No wall or prison or exclusionary law is strong enough to protect people who live by fear and demonize others.  Our values as a nation and as Christians are strong enough to provide welcome to strangers and make them part of us. In welcoming strangers, our identity will shift, but our values will prevail.  In fact, those values require that we welcome strangers, as so many of us were once welcomed. 

Ruth’s story of steadfast love from a foreigner, or Ezra’s story of cruelty in response to fear, which will it be?  Stories remind us of who we are and what we value.  If we tell ourselves stories of the evil outsider, the dangerous other, we create fear, and we become cruel.  If we tell ourselves stories of mercy, steadfast love, generosity, providing protection, building kinship, we can make these things happen. 

It is much harder work to build up than to tear down, to heal instead of remain bitter, to unite instead of divide.  We might need God’s power to do it.  But is there any better work? And what if we don’t succeed in accomplishing what we hope? Maybe our accomplishment will be that in a time of bitterness we remember and live the values Jesus shows us, in the face of fear and bitterness and intolerance.  May we tell each other stories of chesed, steadfast love and mercy, and live by them. Amen.