Come to the Table


Come, assured that you have a place at the table.  Whoever you are and wherever you’re from and whatever you believe, you are welcome at this table.  Whatever you have done or haven’t done, you are welcome at this table.  You don’t have to earn your place at the table.  It is a gift.  At this table you have nothing to prove, no price to pay.  You have only to receive what God has to give to you.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
October 7, 2018

Come to the Table

Eph. 4:1-6, 11-16   I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 
            The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.


On this World Communion Sunday it is fun to remember that as the earth rotates in its cycle, Christian communities around the world are awakened to a new Sunday morning, a new Lord’s Day, and they gather all over the world to take this communion meal.  It is our common bond.  

Communion is one of two sacraments we claim in the United Church of Christ, along with baptism.  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward or invisible gift from God.  This gift is too big to be described in words.  But you might want to choose a few words that fit for you today.  Here are some traditional words that hint at the meaning of communion.  Remembrance. Thanksgiving.  Connection.  Life. Salvation.  Spiritual nurture.  Forgiveness.  New covenant. New life.  Transformation.  Reconciliation.  Community. Foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

So come, assured that you have a place at the table.  Whoever you are and wherever you’re from and whatever you believe, you are welcome at this table.  Whatever you have done or haven’t done, you are welcome at this table.  You don’t have to earn your place at the table.  It is a gift.  At this table you have nothing to prove, no price to pay.  You have only to receive what God has to give to you.

Come to the table knowing that many others are invited too.  Some of those people you know and love.  Some are easy to feel close to.  Some are separated by culture, or distance, or hurt, or mistrust.  Let this table open your heart to the work of reconciliation. Trusting that you are loved, and forgiven, and safe, you can reach out to a neighbor, to help build the beloved community.

Come to the table knowing that your presence here matters.  You are precious, and unique, irreplaceable, and if you do not come to this table, God mourns your absence. 

Come to the table to share your longings and your hopes, your loves and your celebrations.  Come to share your griefs and your guilts and your shames and your, your fears and your anger.  God is big enough to take all of it.  Come to be known, and understood, and cherished.  Come to be changed.  Come to discover what God has in store for you.

Come to the table this morning, knowing that you don’t have to understand this gift to receive it.  Let communion work in you, God’s power in you, calling forth God’s future with you.

Come to the table Jesus Christ has set for you, and for all who seek him.  Amen.

World Communion Sunday Invitation
Dear friends, Come to the table of justice and joy!
Let praise go up to God our Life! 
From every creature on God’s good earth!

Wepraise you, gracious God, for in the beginning,
when the world was fresh from your hand,
you made us neighbors — one people though many kinds —
and lavished on us pleasures too many to name!

For you we were a sheer delight.
For each other, helpers and friends.

And so you entrusted to us your justice and your joy.

But we kept your gifts for a few and denied them to many,
creating worlds of poverty and pain.
And so we broke each other’s hearts.

But you did not reject us.

In the fullness of time you gave us Jesus,
full of grace and truth.

By his ministry of mercy,
you restore us to each other and to you.
Mending our hearts and repairing the world.

And by his Spirit you invite us even now to be for each other what he is for us — pardon and peace, blessing and delight.

For all your gifts, O God, we thank you!
And with everything that lives under, on, and above the world,
we give you glory, and we praise your name!

And now, O God, we remember Jesus.

[A brief silence ]

We remember that he forgave our sins.

He breathed on us the peace of God.

We remember that he called us friends.

He taught us to love each other as he loved us.

We remember that he feasted with the poor and rich,
with strangers and friends.

To eat with him was to taste how good you are.

Words of Institution

And we remember that on the night he was handed over, he ate supper with his friends, and he gave us a pledge of love that transcends death.

He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take and eat, all of you: This is my body, given for you.

Holy Spirit, bless this bread that the earth has given and human hands have made.
May it be for all the Bread of Life!

When supper was over, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks,
and shared it with his friends, saying:

Take and drink, all of you: This is the seal of a new covenant, my life poured out for you.

Bless this cup, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. 
May it be for all of us the Cup of Blessing!
**

Thank you, God, for life in the Spirit of Jesus: for gladness in this bread and cup, for love that cannot die, for peace the world cannot give, for joy in the company of friends, for the glory of creation, and for the mission of justice you have made our own.

Guide us to fully receive the gifts of this holy communion: oneness of heart, love for neighbors, forgiveness of enemies, the will to serve you every day, and life that is ever new.  In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


A Cup of Water


Behind Christian fences is often a belief that if we as Christians don’t get it right, our salvation is at stake. Our immortal souls are at risk.  People who believe this apparently didn’t notice the bible verses we just read. Jesus says: Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  The reward he’s talking about is heaven.  A cup of water: that’s a low bar.  

Jesus doesn’t want to exclude anyone, he’s trying to include everyone.  It’s Jesus’ job to bring us to God.  Isn’t he any good at his job?  He’s not trying to make it hard.  What’s hard about Christianity is living into the Kingdom of God now; acting like the rules of heaven apply to us here and now.  We won’t get that part right, none of us do.  Sin means missing the mark. And we all do.  But according to the most orthodox theology, Jesus is the remedy to sin.  We will be forgiven for missing the mark.  We will be reconciled with God; all we have to do is be willing.  Christians have come up with some pretty elaborate explanations of how this works.  Let’s not make those explanations into more fences.  Let’s just remember that Jesus lights our Way forward, and our job is to move in the right general direction.  Our belonging is not in question.  Can we trust that?  We all belong to God.  Always have. Always will.  The question is: will we act like we belong to God?  Let’s follow that beacon, and give it a try. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 30, 2018

Belonging: Fences and Beacons

Mark 9:38  John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  40Whoever is not against us is for us.  41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The beginning of this month I talked about fences and beacons as a way to think about Christian ethics.  We finish the month with fences and beacons again, this time to talk about belonging and identity. Belonging is a core human need.  In our desire to belong, we build fences between “us” and “them”.  These days we feel that separation very acutely in politics.  But it happens in matters of faith as well. Who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s Christian, our kind of Christian at least, and who isn’t?  I hope we can minimize the fences, the divisions, and instead lift up a beacon, our best understanding of the Kingdom of God right now, of following Jesus, of Creative Transformation: however you describe that beacon.  If you are seeking that beacon with us, whether you are near or far, you belong. Fences separate.  Beacons invite us to come together.  

Let me give you a non-church example of how belonging works.  I belong to the California Native Plant Society.  I pay dues, and I am a card-carrying member.  That membership card is a formality, but it raises some money for them, and it gets me a discount at Tree of Life Nursery.  When I can, I go to monthly meetings of the Orange County chapter.  I feel at home at those meetings.  I don’t know many of the people there, but they are my people.  Science nerds.  People who know the Latin names of plants.  People who spend unreasonable amounts of time fussing over native gardens or hunting down rare plants on the sides of cliffs.  

I belong to the California Native Plant Society.  There is no fence keeping me in.  My membership is a formality. It is my passion for the plants and my kinship with other people who have that same passion that make me belong.  The plants, I guess, are the beacon.  I belong because I seek out that beacon and I want to spend time with people who value what I value.  My passion has been noticed.  They asked me to help organize the native garden tour next year.  Go with fellow native gardeners all over Orange County to look at everyone’s native gardens.  How could I refuse?

There’s another local native plant organization called Back to Natives.  I don’t belong to Back to Natives.  They really care about habitat restoration; that’s their passion.  They care so much that they want you to only plant native plants that grow wild locally, within a 25-mile radius of your garden.  That’s a kind of fence, and some of them can get pretty passionate about it.  My garden has California Bay Laurel, from the beloved Santa Cruz Hills of my childhood, and Baja Fairy Duster, and Blackfoot Daisies from the Mojave Desert.  I fail their purity test of local plants only. 

I’m sure the people who belong to Back to Natives have the best intentions. I know they do good work. But that 25-mile limit looks like a fence to me, and I’m sitting on the far side of it. Their passion hits me as judging me and my beloved plants wrong.  I’m sure most of them would still have me and I wish them the best, but I don’t want to belong.  Strange how that works.

I’m pondering our Christian identity here at Brea Congregational UCC, how we belong to church, to Jesus, to God. There is no real fence here that separates members from nonmembers: what you must do or not do.  And that’s OK, though it does make membership record keeping kind of confusing. There are a core group of people who do the work and play of the Church.  Most of them, most of you, are formal members.  Some are not.  Thank God for you, for your passions and your service, or this place wouldn’t exist. And there are concentric circles of people who we don’t see too often, who nevertheless claim this is their church. Some of them work on Sundays, or have health issues.  At the outer reaches of the circles are a couple of people I’ve seen at church once or twice, and in at least one case, never seen here on Sunday morning.  But this is their church, they’ve told me so. It feels good to have a home, somewhere you belong, even if you never actually go there.  Oddly, I get that. 

Clearly we are not a fenced-in kind of church.  We are a beacon kind of church.  And I’m glad. That beacon has different facets. Check out our mission statement on the back of the bulletin[i]to pick your favorite facet.  Some of you are passionate about connecting to the sacred through worship.  Some of you are passionate about a certain understanding of how God works in the world (process theology), or about the sacred call to environmental justice, about welcoming sexual and gender diverse people, or sheltering the homeless, and more. Without those passions, we would be just a social club with no real reason for being. You can do most of these things other places than in church.  But here we remember that they are sacred. I am so glad our beacon can shine, bringing comfort to people who belong here, whatever that means to them. Behind all those passions is our passion for following Jesus, for the upside-down Kingdom of God, for being a part of God’s love in action.  That’s the real beacon.  

Still there is something in all of us that wants to build fences sometimes.  We tend to trust those we belong to and give them a pass when their behavior is questionable.  We tend to distrust those on the other side of the fence, and we may assume they’re guilty unless proven innocent.  That’s playing out in politics these days, and it does not serve us.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples were putting up fences.  Missing the point again.  They do that a lot.  They had their beacon.  Jesus was right there.  Or maybe this is really a story about Mark’s community some forty years later.  In any case, the disciple John is telling some amazing exorcist to stop healing, just because he didn’t belong to John’s group of disciples, didn’t have the right membership card.  

A word about exorcism.  It may not be on your short list for church jobs but it sure is needed these days. Evil spirits are not how we think about what ails us.  We call them different names now: depression, anxiety, PTSD, racism, greed, intolerance, violence, and so on.  Our society can definitely use some exorcism.

The disciple John was putting up fences. This rogue healer “wasn’t following us,” but he clearly was doing God’s work.  Kind of ironic since at the beginning of this chapter, those same disciples had failed at a healing.  “Wasn’t following us.”  What about following Jesus?

There is a place for fences. Fences can protect.  Here’s a fence I built, with the church Council’s understanding.  When an organization like another church asks to rent our facility longer term, I let them know that we welcome same-gender couples at our church, and we want our gay members to be treated with respect at all times.  Are they OK with that?  Perhaps not, because we haven’t gotten any follow-up inquiries recently. 

I sometimes feel more belonging among people who are not Christian but who are active in social justice than among Christians who fence out my friends from their idea of who’s Christian. I went to the Brea Ministerial Association for the first time earlier this month. Last year I made a couple of attempts to get myself invited, but this was the first time they gave me an actual invitation. It was good that I went.  City staff talked about their efforts to address homelessness.  They have money!  And I know from spending time with pastors more conservative than me that mostly we have the same work and similar challenges.  But I can get defensive about how I am not like them in my politics or my theology.  I can tell myself I don’t belong in the Brea Ministerial Association.  Maybe I don’t.  But maybe I can withhold judgment for a while and not assume I don’t belong.

The more desperate we are, the more we want to put up fences, with the best of intentions.  Do you feel urgency about the state of the environment like I do?  Would you like to make all kinds of rules and laws to drastically reduce carbon consumption immediately?  That would probably backfire, because nobody likes to be told they’re doing it wrong. If we throw up fences without getting buy-in, we alienate people.  All we may accomplish is putting them on the wrong side of the environmental purity fence. Then they don’t trust us and don’t want to cooperate with us.  This fence business is frustrating! 

Over the centuries Christians have put up countless fences, separating us from each other, though we all claim Jesus.  It’s embarrassing.  They put up fences of ritual:  Should you baptize infants and let their parents promise to teach them the faith, or wait till they are old enough to speak for themselves?  They put up fences of governance: pope or no pope?  Bishop, or congregational? They put up fences of behavior: is divorce allowable or not?  They put up fences of theology: Take the bible literally or not? Predestination or not? And so on.

So many fences.  What about the beacon?  What about following Jesus?  I am happy to report that back in 1957, the a merger of churches formed the United Church of Christ, in order to break down some of those fences, and put the beacon front and center.  One of my fellow UCCers in seminary was a fundamentalist.  How could this fundamentalist be in the UCC with me? She believes a certain way, but she doesn’t think I have to.  And she is African American.  She likes belonging to a church that cares about social justice.  We both belong, though we think very differently about some things.  You could say we’re coming at the same beacon from very different directions.  Thank God.

Behind Christian fences is often a belief that if we as Christians don’t get it right, our salvation is at stake. Our immortal souls are at risk.  People who believe this apparently didn’t notice the bible verses we just read. Jesus says: Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  The reward he’s talking about is heaven.  A cup of water: that’s a low bar.  

Jesus doesn’t want to exclude anyone, he’s trying to include everyone.  It’s Jesus’ job to bring us to God.  Isn’t he any good at his job?  He’s not trying to make it hard.  What’s hard about Christianity is living into the Kingdom of God now; acting like the rules of heaven apply to us here and now.  We won’t get that part right, none of us do.  Sin means missing the mark. And we all do.  But according to the most orthodox theology, Jesus is the remedy to sin.  We will be forgiven for missing the mark.  We will be reconciled with God; all we have to do is be willing.  Christians have come up with some pretty elaborate explanations of how this works.  Let’s not make those explanations into more fences.  Let’s just remember that Jesus lights our Way forward, and our job is to move in the right general direction.  Our belonging is not in question.  Can we trust that?  We all belong to God.  Always have. Always will.  The question is: will we act like we belong to God?  Let’s follow that beacon, and give it a try.  Amen.   


[i]Brea Congregational United Church of Christ is an Open and Affirming hospitality-based community of faith. We welcome in worship and service all of God’s children of any race, origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or ability. We celebrate and trust the transforming power of God, which was manifested through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We work to provide an environment of peace, social justice, personal empowerment, and spiritual growth, and to dedicate ourselves to the care of God’s Creation. Our ethical guides are to honor Christian openness to share our beliefs, doubts, struggles, and growth within the context of mutual respect. Therefore, our purpose is to reach out, taking the risk of opening ourselves to the possibility of making the stranger a friend.

Power For



About ten years ago, I enrolled in the Parent Educator program at the Echo Center in L.A., to learn to teach Compassionate Parenting, which is one way I have cared for other peoples’ children.  Ruth Beaglehole was the founding director of Echo. Ruth’s passion for the thriving of other peoples’ children knows no bounds.  She taught us that children “misbehave” when they don’t know how, or why, to do what we want them to do.  She modeled for us the kind of empathy that connects, and heals deep wounds.  She taught us that one caring adult in the life of a struggling child can make all the difference.  You might have that power.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 23, 2018

Power For

Mark 9:30-37  They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 
            33  Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


During World War Two, an unwitting experiment was performed on young children.  German air raids were hitting London with bombs night after night; no neighborhood was safe.  So huge numbers of children were removed from London; put on trains and sent to temporary nurseries or foster homes all around England to be safe from the bombs, and safe from living in daily fear.  Some of those children had already become orphaned or homeless; most were sent away from their families in London just for their safety.  But it turned out that they were not safe.  Very young children who were evacuated were deeply traumatized. Children in group care rather than foster homes did the worst.  They suffered from “failure to thrive,” developmental delays, and deep and lasting emotional disturbances.  John Bowlby and other psychologists witnessed this suffering, and they developed the concept of attachment.  Infants and toddlers require an “attachment figure,” a stable caregiver, for their healthy development.  It’s usually their mother.  If they lose that attachment figure, they grieve deeply.  If they don’t get a reliable replacement, they are at risk of permanent emotional damage. 

Similar findings came from orphanages, and from middle-class children who were hospitalized.  In urban hospitals before the 1960’s, parent access to their own children was almost completely blocked.  Hospitalized young children got “hospital syndrome.”  Hospital syndrome looks like severe, disabling depression. 

A couple of determined psychologists made heart-wrenching movies with the titles Grief: a Peril in Infancyand A Two-year old Goes to Hospital.  Made on grainy black and white film, these were the cell phone videos of their day, challenging people to face a harsh reality they had been ignoring.  A typical response comes from an elderly nurse: “This film brings back to me the first child I ever nursed in hospital.  This child was a little boy.  He grieved for his mother and it simply broke my heart. After that I never saw grief again until I saw this film.”[i]

Despite clear evidence, attachment theory was very controversial through the 1950’s and even 1960’s.  Helping professionals didn’t want to admit that they were complicit in the suffering and even long-term damage of the children they were supposed to be helping by not giving them reliable caregivers.  So they continued being complicit a while longer.

The discovery of attachment tells us something essential about our humanness.  We need relationship like we need food and water.  We need love and care, and we are deeply vulnerable to its loss. 

The discovery of attachment also tells us something else about human nature.  We can construct social systems, even with good intentions, that destroy needed relationships. We can be trained to turn a blind eye to suffering, pretty quickly and easily.  The people who dismissed attachment were scientists, doctors and nurses, social workers and philanthropists.  People in power, even with good intentions, can blind themselves to the suffering of the powerless, and delude themselves about the needs of those under their care. Who are the most vulnerable and powerless among us?  Often they are children.

Twice in the Gospel of Mark Jesus hugs a child and says, in different ways, children are what he’s about.  Children are what the Kingdom of God is about.  What did Jesus know about children?  He was the eldest of a large family.  These are not his own children he’s hugging.  We can safely assume he had no children of his own.  They are probably not any of the twelve apostles’ children, though I suppose one of them may have been babysitting.  They are other peoples’ children.  Children have little power. They do have power to love and to call forth love.  The gospel is about the power of love, which is the power of the upside-down Kingdom of God. 

Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is powerful.  But not powerful in the usual sense of having power over other people.  Jesus has power forpeople.  Power for healing people.  Power for welcoming them to belong, power for forgiving them and giving them worth.  Power for naming them children of God.

Children of God.  Plug that into traditional ideas of power, and inheritance.  God is the great King of kings in heaven, and what do you get?  We are all royalty.  Nice!  Someday we’ll take our rightful place at the throne of God, in a palace crusted in gold and jewels, and apparently squabble over who gets to sit closest to the throne, as the disciples keep doing in the gospel of Mark.  I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.

Children of God.  Plug that into Jesus’ understanding of power for, for welcoming and healing and hugging and restoring our worth and what do you get?  The upside-down Kingdom of God, where the first are last, and the last are first.  In other words, the powerful go out of their way to serve the powerless, to really care about them and if necessary to sacrifice for them, the way good parents will do for their own children.  Jesus is our eldest brother, gathering in as many of his little brothers and sisters as he can into the family of God, into the deep reassurance of trusting that there is one attachment figure that Jesus calls Father, who will never be taken from us.  Along the way some of us got attached to our big brother Jesus too. That’s OK.  

In today’s child-hugging episode, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”How is it that Jesus is the child, the vulnerable one, that God is the vulnerable one?  Maybe because God longs for our love.  Or because when we care for other peoples’ children, we participate in the kind of love that God has for us, beyond what is expected or required, but so life-giving.  And for those of us who cannot leave behind ideas of power over, as it seemed the disciples could not, this verse is a declaration of worth.  Every child has intrinsic value, because God is in that child.

This mystical identity of other peoples’ children with God leads to some very practical challenges for us as followers of Jesus.  How will we honor and care for other people’s children?  In Jesus’ day that might mean fostering children whose parents had died or were unable to care for them.  Or at least taking time to pay attention to other peoples’ children and offer them a hug, a little play, a meal, a listening ear. We can still do this.  

Teachers care for other peoples’ children.  I am so grateful for the teachers my son had, and I am in awe of what they do.  For all you teachers among us here, I thank you for what you do, and I thank God for calling you to do it.  How can we non-teachers care for other peoples’ children?  We can support adequate funding for teachers and schools. We can support teacher unions, so teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs long and well.

We can care for other peoples’ children when we support access to affordable health care daycare. Living wages and affordable housing and predictable work hours and family leave. We care for other peoples’ children when we honor their sexual and gender identity.  We care for other peoples’ children when we have safe church policies.  We care for other peoples’ children when we work to stop wars and to shelter immigrants and refugees and give them a path to citizenship.  And promptly release child detainees to their families.  Also preserve the planet for those childrens’ adulthood.  Well, that’s a long list.  We cannot do it all.  But we can look for opportunities to advocate for other peoples’ children.

All children are sacred and beloved of God and so they are our collective responsibility as a society.  We care for other peoples’ children when we tell people that our faith demands that we care.

About ten years ago, I enrolled in the Parent Educator program at the Echo Center in L.A., to learn to teach Compassionate Parenting, which is one way I have cared for other peoples’ children.  Ruth Beaglehole was the founding director of Echo. Ruth’s passion for the thriving of other peoples’ children knows no bounds.  She taught us that children “misbehave” when they don’t know how, or why, to do what we want them to do.  She modeled for us the kind of empathy that connects, and heals deep wounds.  She taught us that one caring adult in the life of a struggling child can make all the difference. You might have that power. 

The Echo Center has a Saturday morning class.  Caregivers of every stripe gathered in a big circle and shared their parenting challenges. Yuppies living in trendy Los Feliz and court referrals, who are there to get custody of their kids after a criminal offense, were side by side.  One time I listened to a mom of a two-year-old boy. That made an impression. What impressed me more was that the mom had letters tattooed across her knuckles: F-U-C-*.  But she obviously cared about her son, and she was trying to understand why he was having some big behavioral challenges recently.  Ruth led her through a series of questions.  They were not figuring it out.   “Anything going on in the family right now?” Ruth asked finally.  “Oh, well, his stepbrother died last week.  He was thirteen.”  You could have heard a pin drop in that room full of twenty-five people.  And you could see the wheels turning in the heads of me and all the other yuppie parents about what other peoples’ kids had to face when they couldn’t live in safety. Grieving kids are often not well-behaved.

A few years later I went back to audit an advanced parenting class, and who did I meet but that same mom.  I recognized her immediately.  It was the tattooed knuckles.  She was smiling and talking about how happy she was to have a stable home life now.  And she was coaching other parents, and talking about enrolling in the parent educator program.  She was healed enough herself to have the power to care for other peoples’ children.

Jesus said,“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This can sound scary, but usually it just means: use our power for others instead of our own advancement, like parents use their power to care for their own children.  When we care for other peoples’ children, we become part of a great circle of care that has no first and no last.  Instead, that circle begins and ends in God, and it has great power. Power to heal every grief, power to see each one of us as precious children, infinitely loved and valued.  Amen.



[i]Becoming Attached, Robert Karen (1994, Warner Books) p. 84.

Possibilities


Many progressive Christians are leery of spiritual healing, and for good reason. Modern medicine accomplishes some amazing things.  And despite doctors’ interventions and fervent prayers, clearly some people don’t get healed, and how is that fair?  We don’t want to build expectations we can’t deliver.  Certainties, even grim certainties, can be easier to deal with than possibilities.  Certainties allow us to plan, to feel secure.  They meet our expectations.  But we are constantly changing, the world is constantly changing, and what appears certain usually isn’t.  In my experience, this world is filled with possibilities, and not many certainties.

My Facebook feed this week had this post, from a UCC friend in San Diego: “Just booked a Reiki II training with a Pentecostal I met at a Franciscan monastery while on a Daoist retreat.”  Spiritual healing goes interfaith.  Reiki is originally from Shinto Japan.  It is one of a number of practices that some Christians are using to reclaim the art of spiritual healing.  When I do Reiki for someone, I can be pretty certain that they are going to get very relaxed.  They often fall asleep.  What else might happen?  I don’t know.  My job is to bathe them in love, and hold the space for God’s possibilities to do whatever they do.  A wise teacher long ago told me that in that situation some kind of healing, physical, emotional, or spiritual, will always happen.  My experience has taught me that it’s usually not in the form we expect.  

***
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 16, 2018

Opening to God’s Possibilities

Mark 7:31-37  Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”


According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus did not come to heal.  He came to give us the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  But, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s healing was wildly popular.  Long lines of people formed when they heard he was in town, looking for healing. People tracked him down when he went out into the wilderness to pray. People even tore down the roof of a building where he was teaching to get at him for healing. 

How shall we take these healing stories today?  If you’ve been here a while, you know you get to choose.  Some people are skeptical of all claims of healing by spiritual means, in the past or in the present.  Some people think Jesus did do amazing things in his time, and that time is over.  

“Be opened,” Jesus said.  There are other possibilities for understanding this story; I wonder if you are open to this one.  Whatever the historical accuracy of Jesus’ healing stories, Mark wanted his readers to know how powerful Jesus was.  And Mark wanted his followers, us, to encounter that power ourselves, by stepping into the story. What happens if we use our imaginations and put ourselves in the place of this man whose ears and tongue are closed, who is in need of being opened, being healed?  This is a different way to experience the story, not as history to be pondered, but as a parable to be lived: an invitation to encounter the transforming power of Christ today.  Instead of, “What really happened two thousand years ago?” we can ask: “What in me is closed off?  What might be opened if I invite the power of God to work in me?  What might become possible?”

Do you know anybody who was given a medical diagnosis, and told, “Nothing can be done, it’ll be like that for the rest of your life,” and it turned out that condition resolved and the person made significant recovery?  I know quite a few. 

Many progressive Christians are leery of spiritual healing, and for good reason. Modern medicine accomplishes some amazing things.  And despite doctors’ interventions and fervent prayers, clearly some people don’t get healed, and how is that fair?  We don’t want to build expectations we can’t deliver.  Certainties, even grim certainties, can be easier to deal with than possibilities.  Certainties allow us to plan, to feel secure.  They meet our expectations.  But we are constantly changing, the world is constantly changing, and what appears certain usually isn’t.  In my experience, this world is filled with possibilities, and not many certainties.

My Facebook feed this week had this post, from a UCC friend in San Diego: “Just booked a Reiki II training with a Pentecostal I met at a Franciscan monastery while on a Daoist retreat.”  Spiritual healing goes interfaith.  Reiki is originally from Shinto Japan.  It is one of a number of practices that some Christians are using to reclaim the art of spiritual healing.  When I do Reiki for someone, I can be pretty certain that they are going to get very relaxed.  They often fall asleep.  What else might happen?  I don’t know.  My job is to bathe them in love, and hold the space for God’s possibilities to do whatever they do.  A wise teacher long ago told me that in that situation some kind of healing, physical, emotional, or spiritual, will always happen.  My experience has taught me that it’s usually not in the form we expect.  

Our 12-step friends deal in possibilities.  It can seem impossible for a long-time alcoholic to stay sober. Step two of the 12-step process is, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”— to believe that recovery from alcoholism is even possible. Holding open that possibility often requires a whole lot of work, and a supportive community to help a person show up and keep doing that work, until the possibility can become reality.  

Have you noticed that you can’t force somebody else to be open to a possibility when they’re closed to it, just don’t believe it’s possible, don’t want to accept the invitation?  According to Process theology, God has the same dilemma.  In formal Process theology, God is not described in human terms. Instead God is like a force of nature– actually a force in and through and beyond nature.  That force is constantly inviting us into new possibilities for good: for healing and relationship and learning and celebration.  The God of Process thought never forces those things on us; instead that God lures us with beautiful possibilities, and we choose them, or not.  Sometimes we just close ourselves to God’s invitation.  And there are always more possibilities.

How do we discover God’s possibilities for our lives?  How can we be open to them?  That, to me, is one of the most important purposes of prayer.  I write in my journal, “Here is my situation, God.  What shall I do?”  A surprising amount of the time, I get a sensible answer– when I remember to ask.  Sometimes I get an answer that really surprises me.  Is it my subconscious?  Is it God’s Spirit?  I can’t tell, and I finally realized it doesn’t much matter.  What matters is that I show up and ask the question.  Sometimes my own head is an echo chamber.  When I share my situation with caring friends, they often see possibilities that I can’t.  Our Buddhist friends practice mindfulness: a kind of gentle, unattached paying attention.  Mindfulness often helps possibilities become clearer.  

When I was at the OC Pride parade this summer, checking out the booths, one of them was recruiting foster parents.  “Have you ever considered becoming a foster parent?” said the woman as I walked by.  
            “I’m hoping for grandkids someday, but no.”  
            “Why not.”  
            “I can’t because…”  That lady was good.  I listed off my reasons and she countered each one.  I started wondering, is foster parenting a real possibility?  I went home and mentioned the idea to Scott.  I thought he’d shut it down.  He didn’t shut it down.  Foster parenting.  Not likely, mind you, but it might just be possible.  Something to pray about.

I’ve been writing in my journal some other possibilities that seem pretty unlikely, but I refuse to close the door on them.  Reversing climate catastrophe.  Healing the political divide and reversing economic inequality.  My sister staying sober for more than a month or two.  None of these seem likely to me, but they are possible.  

Sometimes these possibilities just help me keep hope alive.  When I am feeling restless or brave, I ask: “What can I do to help them happen?”  It may not be my job to do anything.  Or I may discover some small action that can make a difference, usually not in the way I hope or expect.  Often the difference I make is to just to open a possibility for someone else.

A neighbor of mine has become a dear friend in the past few years.  We have walked together through a lot.  We’ve been there for each other.  There was a point, though, when I though I should give up on the relationship.  For the second time in a row she forgot she had made a date to spend time with me. Just clean forgot, made other plans, didn’t seem very bothered. I was telling myself, “She just doesn’t care enough about me to bother keeping appointments.”  

But I wondered if there was a possibility there I wasn’t seeing.  So I screwed up my courage and put on my Compassionate Communication. That’s one of my favorite possibility tools.  I called her up.  “I’m going to ask you something really awkward,” I said, “because I care about our friendship.”  That intro put her on alert that I was anxious but not angry, and I was about to bring up a hard topic out of care and not to blame her.  Then I got down to it.  “This is the second time you didn’t remember we made an appointment.  I’m feeling discouraged. I wonder if our appointments matter to you.”  She sheepishly explained that she doesn’t keep a social calendar.  Just doesn’t at all.  But she also claimed she valued our friendship.  She’s usually home most of the day and lives down the street.  So we agreed that I’d just call or knock on the door when I wanted to visit, and that has worked pretty well. 

To this day, I am almost always the one who calls her.  But I made peace with that a while back when she told me, “It’s weird, Terry, but you always seem to call when I most need to hear your voice.”  

We can’t be open to every possibility. Sometimes accepting limitation is the most healing thing we can do.  Other times, God is inviting us to something new. “I can’t,” we say, when the truth is, “I won’t.”  “That’s just the way it is,” we say, when we don’t want to get our hopes up.  Do we really know what is possible?  

I invite you to reflect now on possibilities in your life.  What in you is closed off?  What might be opened if you invite the power of God to work in you?  What might become possible?  Ponder that for a minute or two.

***

An open heart is a tender heart, a powerful heart.  An open mind is a mind that can learn, and grow.  May we be opened to God’s possibilities for all of us.  Amen.

Just Shine


A story is told of a little girl who was seeing stained glass windows for the first time. It was the right time of day, so that jewels of colored light poured through the windows.  Her grandfather was telling her her whose pictures were in the stained glass.  “See, there is Peter, and Paul, and Matthew, and Mary.  They are all saints.”  “Oh, I get it,” she said.  “A saint is someone who has light shining through them.” Indeed.  In the New Testament Paul and Luke use the word “saints” (or we could translate “holy ones”) to describe all the followers of Jesus.  Not just the perfect ones.  So even you and I are saints.  They seldom talk about one saint, singular, instead almost always a group of them, supporting one another.  Jesus does not use the word saint, rather he uses follower, disciple. If we are followers of Jesus, God’s light shine through us.  

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Video version: https://www.facebook.com/terry.lepage/videos/10217632643991923/

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 9, 2018

(Extra)Ordinary Service

Acts 9:36-42  Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.


Today we heard a story about a woman who followed Jesus.  Her name in Aramaic is Tabitha.  In Greek, it is Dorcas.  Both words mean “gazelle,” the graceful desert deer that can leap so high. Tabitha is the only woman who is listed by name in the bible as a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  So how did she follow Jesus?  Apparently she sewed clothes.  

Sewing is so ordinary that you might not have thought of it as discipleship.  People like me, who are good with words, have plenty of role models in the Bible.  Prophets and preachers who share the Good News.  But God’s children have physical needs too, and I know that many of you are more comfortable serving in that way.  I know my Grandma Lucy was.  Grandma Lucy got surplus parts from clothes factories, and sewed dozens of quilts with her friends; some were made all out of collars, some all out of sleeves, to donate to families in need.  Those quilts weren’t works of art, but they were unique, and warm, and labors of love. Grandma Lucy also sewed a patchwork quilt for each of her grandchildren.  I was old enough to help with mine, so I had pride of accomplishment, of making something warm and useful and pretty out of my old pajamas and sundresses.  A lot of people besides Grandma Lucy serve God in ordinary ways like sewing.  So I’m glad Tabitha made it into the bible.  

I suspect there was a lot more to Tabitha than sewing. Her friends were weeping and showing off the tunics she had made.  In those days there was no Macy’s or Target.  All clothes were hand sewn, all cloth was hand spun and woven, all very labor intensive.  Those without the money or the relatives to do that labor had only scraps to wear.  Tabitha may literally have been clothing the naked.  Imagine: a tunic made just for you: showing that someone cared enough about your dignity to invest hours and hours of their labor into making you presentable. Tabitha would treat you like the beloved child of God you are, so that the ordinary service of sewing became extraordinary.

And there’s more. I’m pretty sure Tabitha was the leader of her sewing circle.  When she died, her friends were missing more than her flair with tunics.  We can only guess at the ways that she inspired them and encouraged them.  Maybe just by taking their work seriously.  This ordinary skill that they discovered could be a service to God.  Maybe Tabitha talked with them as they worked, about their lives and their faith.  Maybe it was her laughter, or her quiet caring.  Somehow, Tabitha showed forth the love of God with a needle and thread. Tabitha’s body is long gone from us now. But her spirit has lived on over the centuries in thousands of church sewing circles, often called Tabitha circles, or Dorcas circles, continuing to show forth the love of God through needle and thread.

 The apostle Peter was a different kind of disciple. The story says that because Peter prayed, Tabitha came back to life.  That skill is too extraordinary for me to believe.  And on this particular day, that part of our story leaves me grumpy.  So I want to leave Peter for today and skip to the book of Hebrews instead.

The book of Hebrews tells us we have a “ great cloud of witnesses,” people who came before us and were faithful in hard times.  We can remember these people when we need encouragement.  Though they died long ago, they are somehow still a part of us. Some of them are biblical characters of old, like Tabitha.  Some are historical figures whose stories can inspire us, like Harriet Tubman, a personal favorite of mine.  And some are people we have known personally, who did ordinary service, or extraordinary service, for us and with us.  The longer we hang around, the more people in that cloud of witnesses we know personally. Ordinary people who have died and gone home to God.  In the light of God’s love, we know how extraordinary they were.  Now Bill and James have joined that cloud of witnesses. 

I don’t know how life after death works.  At seminary I heard process theologians arguing over it– that was entertaining. I just trust that God has a place for us.  But I also suspect that certain church folks are not going to go marching in with the saints without stopping back regularly to encourage and support us here on earth. We are not alone.

So we can wash dishes with Brother Lawrence, and we can repair the church with Saint Francis, and we can discuss theological books with Harry Emerson Fosdick.  And through it all is the Holy Spirit, who prays when we don’t have the words, and makes of our ordinary teaching and cleaning and singing and bookkeeping and cooking and letter writing and gardening something extraordinary.  All we have to do is show up, and be willing to go with the flow of the Spirit, be part of something that is much bigger than us, that transcends time and space, the Spirit that gently sews the broken pieces of our lives and our community together. 

I believe this, but it helps to be reminded.  We need church.  This idea of banding together to follow Jesus with other living people, to know each other personally and commit to supporting one another: it’s not in fashion. Churches, even the most fundamental ones, often struggle these days to get people to make commitments of time and money.  At the same time people gobble up spiritual books and videos… The hunger for God is there. What can we as a community offer that a book can’t?  Real lived examples of following Jesus.  Complete with mistakes!  Real interactive discussions.  Although that means we’ve got to be together for more than this hour.  Books are lousy listeners.  Books give you so much advice.  I’ve read so much great advice in books it would take me dozens of lifetimes to live it all.  But I’ve never once had a book ask me, “So, how did that work out for you last week?” Nor have I ever had a book notice when I was feeling up or feeling down and ask me about it. 

We as a church may not always live up to this high calling of supporting one another on the path of discipleship.  Sometime people think the sewing is the whole point of the sewing circle, or that cleaning the church kitchen is tedium instead of privilege.  Sometimes we get caught up in our own dramas and forget to let go and let God.  After all, the church is full of people, and people are full of flaws.  And if that’s all it’s got, we’re in trouble.  But that is not all.  It is full of people surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, opening themselves to God’s Spirit, so we can show forth the love and transforming power of God. When we are willing, God’s Spirit has room to act among us, and make us more than we could ever be alone.

A particular calling of this church is not sewing but hospitality.  So in the spirit of Tabitha and all the people who love and serve in practical ways, let us remember that our ordinary hospitality makes a difference. When we bring snacks to share after worship, we are providing a excuse for people to make connections and share a little of themselves. Perhaps we even provide a meal that someone really needs. When we take time to introduce ourselves to someone new, or to warmly greet a person who is not yet a special friend, we are doing that work of hospitality, letting people know that it matters to us that they’re here.  When we invite a church friend, old or new, to share a meal, we are, and making space to know and be known in the light of God’s love.  

A lot of ordinary work is required to keep a church running.  Depending on how we do that work though, it may not be so ordinary after all.  If our intention is to help the sacred be known and love to be shared in this community, our acts of service will be extraordinary—devotion or meditation for us, and more often than we realize, a gift to someone else.  Please don’t wait for someone to serve you.  Take small opportunities to serve as those before us have done.  Do it, knowing that God can use our ordinary acts to do extraordinary things, though we may never know the details.  Do it in honor of people like Tabitha, and Bill, and James, and other faithful people who have served with an unexpected gift or a warm welcome, or a casserole, and have helped to make God real to someone in that small way 

As we mark the passing of two generous and caring souls, one of whom was so dear to so many of you, one of whom we were just getting to know, it seemed appropriate to sing “For All the Saints” as our opening hymn.  Saints are not perfect people, just people seeking to live in the light of God’s love.  Their service might appear ordinary, but nothing is ordinary when we see it in the light of God’s love for us. 

A story is told of a little girl who was seeing stained glass windows for the first time. It was the right time of day, so that jewels of colored light poured through the windows.  Her grandfather was telling her her whose pictures were in the stained glass.  “See, there is Peter, and Paul, and Matthew, and Mary.  They are all saints.”  “Oh, I get it,” she said.  “A saint is someone who has light shining through them.” Indeed.  In the New Testament Paul and Luke use the word “saints” (or we could translate “holy ones”) to describe all the followers of Jesus.  Not just the perfect ones.  So even you and I are saints.  They seldom talk about one saint, singular, instead almost always a group of them, supporting one another.  Jesus does not use the word saint, rather he uses follower, disciple. If we are followers of Jesus, God’s light shine through us.  How extraordinary you are.  Amen.