Sunday, August 22, 2010

Faithing & Division, Pt.3

part 3 of a sermon preached to Lovell United Church of Christ, Lovell, Maine August 15.

[Note: This next section involves composite characters and events, in order to protect the identities of the people involved. I'm retelling them, because I've had these experiences many times, in several places, with a number of different people. If you imagine you know exactly who I'm talking about, know it isn't entirely the person you're holding in your heart.]

Sometimes, social causes create our challenges for faithing; sometimes family causes, sometimes, health cause. In each, we need our stories and the songs that guide us back to those stories to help us keep keeping on. Some of my best teachers of mustard seed firefly faithing in the midst of the unknown are the people I have known living with dementia. In dementia, we lose our stories and as we lose our stories, we lose ourselves. It is up to the rest of us, the community, to hold onto those stories and give them back. But most of us don’t like retelling the hard stories, the hurting stories, the stories without immediately happy endings. Still, they’re part of our story, and some of us need to know them and retell them until we can find a way to transform those stories so they have some hope and help to them.

He was wearing five neckties. This was a very special day, a five tie kind of day. Some times one tie was simply not enough. I walked with him a while, pausing to pray with the people he stopped by, curious about where his waltz partner was. Usually, when I visited in the daytime, the man of ties was waltzing with the same woman, who wore pink earrings every day. But it was sunset and the world was a different place, the ward suffused in the red and gold and purple fire through the windows. Finally, we came to her, where she was sobbing in great fearfulness, begging the staff to find her son. She just wanted him home, even if only to bury him. Couldn’t they please help, anyone please help?

You see, the town had come, and taken him, dragged him away, and no one dared go after them and find him and bring him home. It was the same hour he had been taken, and in this story no one wanted or could find a way out of, she was stuck, every sundown, reliving, had been reliving since before she was brought to this place.

A few days before, I had been visiting another parishioner who had known many young men who had been lynched. We had been talking about that time and something in the news that had brought up that terrible time for her. I asked, “What did folks do?” “We did the only thing we could do then, we prayed,” she said. “Alone?”  She smiled wryly. "No, always together, at the home or at the church, and we sang our prayers.” Those songs we pray for faithing perseverance are seeds of mercy. It’s the answer religious people have been giving for millennia in times of terror and fear: gather, two, five, ten, five hundred, and sing our way until we can feel God’s hand in ours, hear God’s heart beating with ours, know that Immanuel is real – we are not alone or forgotten.

The man of ties was weeping silently, wringing his hands, not knowing what to do. Others were joining the wailing, because when one of us is frightened, we can all easily become frightened. We can be divided, we can be tortured, the world can find us unworthy even as God finds us beautiful. Faithing together, we find our courage, our hearts with God. But even in her terror and unknowing, this woman who relived losing her son every night, losing him freshly again, already knew what to do in her unknowing, for her criess were carried on a familiar hymn tune. And so, I did as I had with my parishioner a few days before, as we prayed for her grandchildren and all those in danger in a warzone on the other side of the world. I reached out and took the woman with pink earrings in my arms, and started to sing with her, and with her, we changed songs until there was one that brought her that sense of God with us:  (H.R. MacFayden, "The Lone Wild Bird", sung to the tune Prospect.)

The lone wild bird in lofty flight is still with thee, nor leaves thy sight. And I am thine! I rest in thee. Great Spirit come, and rest in me! The ends of earth are in thy hand, the sea’s dark deep and far-off land. And I am thine! I rest in thee. Great Spirit come, and rest in me. 


Faithing & Division, Pt.2

Part 2 of a sermon preached with Lovell United Church of Christ, Lovell, Maine, August 15, 2010.

Mustard seed faithing suffuses the landscape in which I live and minister in South Florida, much as it does here in western Maine, where I grew up. The two places share a lot of the same spirit, along with the same knowledge that regular people have troubles in life and those troubles do not mean God has left us behind or is rebuking us. We share an understanding of how God is with us when the sorrow bird lights over our heads and you know trouble's not far behind.

One night, having a meal I had brought to some people I met, people who had been resting in the shrubberies at the edge of a parking lot, as not uncommonly happens, we prayed together and someone asked me why I wear a torch, the symbol of my Unitarian Universalist, and your sister religious tradition. I explained how strongly I feel we are all called to share  our light with one another, in the worst of times ever more so boldly. One of my companions then told me this story:

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples had been thrown into prison for preaching how we are light in the world as we show God's love. They were sentenced to be executed the next day. The guards who brought the news handed Jesus and his disciples each a last cigar as a kind of mercy. Then the guards went off to their own dinner and games. Now in this prison, like many prisons around the world, there were a lot of insects. These insects had gathered while Jesus sat there in prison, to listen to Jesus teach, because you know Jesus couldn't sit down for five minutes without teaching something. And among these insects were some fireflies, who had a plan that they whispered to Jesus. Later that night, when the guards check their prisoners, they decided it had been indeed a mercy to give them the cigars, because the guards could see all these lights in the darkened cell. Of course, by then Jesus and his disciples had escaped, with the fireflies showing their light for freedom and love.

[Inspired by this story, I went to learn more folktales from Latin America about Jesus and the animals, of which there are many, and encountered a version of this tale in John Bierhorst's fine anthology, Latin American Folktales, Pantheon Books, 2002.] We laughed and agreed we could be faithful fireflies. In Latin America, there are all kinds of folktales about that animals that have learned from and helped Jesus. These stories, like today's lection, are fire of hope, reminding us that no one is too small to make a difference and also that when all of us small people are busy showing our light and making a difference, the world becomes a radically transformed place. Stories are beacons along our path, set here by our spiritual ancestors, beacons we nurture and pass on to those who come after us. This is fire upon the earth, a baptism to undergo, a race to run. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus. (to be continued)

Faithing & Division, Pt.1

This sermon was preached with the United Church of Christ, Lovell, Maine, August 15, 2010.

Gospel Reading: [And then Jesus said,] "I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, not peace, but division From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49-56).


Some weeks the word we find from what we've checked out of the great library called the Bible is not a comfortable world. Sometimes that word, when we're not personally going through a tough time, can be pretty scary. But when those words were spoken and remembered and written down and shared from place to place, it was because the going was pretty tough. But that doesn't mean we're comfortable with it or want to revisit it, or, even if we're going through tough times, that we don't want to think about the tough times as our deeper baptism in fire and in love. If we're avoiding self-righteousness and fire and brimstone, we tend to avoid these texts, because they're hard.

As a student, sitting around one day with a number of other harried and exhausted students, one of us asked, "What's that thing that tells us what to preach on again every week?" One asked, "The Deacons?" We agreed that no, listening to the Deacons is good, but that wasn't it. Another asked, "The Church Office?" We agreed that no, listening to the Church Office is good, but that wasn't it. One asked, "National Public Radio?" No, that was definitely not it. Finally, I asked, "Are we talking about the Holy Spirit." We agreed that it was helpful when the Spirit showed up, but then the one who asked the first question, said, "Wait! It's the lectionary!"

Fortunately, the editors of the lection know that we're not always comfortable with these stories, and yet, like those sprouts that are so good for us, we receive the texts of fire. We live with the lectionary in recognition that not all of us having an easy time of life, and that even when we are having an easy time, we need to be prepared for all of life's different events -- for the trials and tribulations as well as the good stuff. The school of regular lessons and comforting songs and delicious food also has to have space for the school of hard knocks -- lessons we might avoid if we leave the recommended reading list of the lectionary.

Now, I always looked forward to going back to school because, yes, I am a nerd and a geek, but mostly I looked forward to the new possibilities. It was possible, if not likely, that this would be the year I would fit in, or at least not alienate too many kids, or at least, only get into fights every third day. Now sometimes the teacher would begin the school year asking us about the summer and sometimes the teacher would begin by asking what we would like to be when we grow up. What would you like to be? ( e.g. farmer, parent, teacher, firefighter) We have such dreams and hold onto possibilities like they're sure-fire achievements that we just need to bust out of the piggy bank. But then there was always that kid, you know. And one day the teacher asked that kid, "What do you want to be when you grow up.?" And that kid answered, "Possible." "Possible?" the teacher asked. "Yes," that kid answered. "Everyone's always telling me I'm impossible. So when I grow up, I want to be possible." No promises, no sure thing, just being possible. Life is in those possibilities, because to live in being possible is to live faithfully.

Most of us speak of faith as a noun, a nice place to visit where we see lambs leaping over spring flowers and gentle Jesus gathering lilies and take some pictures and go away with the tee-shirt that says we've been there and even got ourselves some, right here, in this pocket. Or, did I put it in this pocket? Or, is it outside in the car?

Our readings today are not about a faith we can have and send postcards from to our friends and neighbors. Our readings today take place in some pretty difficult times, where there's no gently sloping meadow by a shaded stream. And like the kid who wanted to grow up to be possible, we can faith and live in hope, or we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and despair when difficult comes and we feel surrounded by impossibility. Nurturing our capacity for faithing is what we do gathering here every week, retelling these old stories, singing these songs of the heart, bringing our troubles too big to bear on our own and offering more love and compassion than we ever imagined we could. Faithing -- living in possibility -- is something we cultivate everyday, but it is most tested in the times of deeper baptism, the times Jesus and Paul are talking about in this week's lection. When we sing our heart's songs and tell our heart's stories, we remember that God is already with us. God is already holding our hands and encouraging us on, right here, in this deeper baptism of division and fear that Jesus says he brings.

One of the ways religious communities nurture faithing is right in those moments that feel so impossible, when everything could fall apart, when sister is set against sister, brother against brother, parent against child. Those impossible moments that crack open our hearts and tear at the seams of our souls, those times of conflict, Jesus tells us, are moments of deeper baptism, times for us to claim and live -- to faith -- into, together. You know how you feel when someone rubs you the wrong way? I bet that's happened to most of us in the past month, if not in the past few minutes. That's the moment that Jesus is tapping you and the person who's annoying you, through the Holy Spirit, tapping you on your shoulders and whispering "deeper baptism" into your ear, while the choir of witnesses starts singing on their cloud. It's like washing potatoes -- one potato at a time uses an awful lot of water and doesn't get very clean. All the potatoes bumping into each other in the tub removes much more dirt, and yummy clean potatoes comes out ready from the tub. (Reference) Or, it is like the Buddha at Sukotai, which is this huge Buddha that has stood for centuries. (Jack Korfield, "The Wise Heart," Best Buddhist Writing 2009. Shambhala Press, 2.) And for centuries the monks carefully cared for the clay Buddha, until, after a time of drought where everything dried up in the area, the clay Buddha cracked. The monks discovered underneath the clay was a gold Buddha, but that discovery had to wait for a period of great stress to break the old way of that statue's being, showing the even more wonderful and beautiful underneath. Or, it is like that time when the pilgrim found the Possibility Store. (Reference)

[Retell a story from Margaret Silf, One Hundred Wisdom Stories From Around the World. Pilgrim Press, 2003. The pilgrim goes into the world seeking peace, love & joy & finds only hardship until the pilgrim arrives at a small cottage where dreams can be fulfilled. The pilgrim then finds that the cottage only has the seeds -- it is up the pilgrim to plant and tend those.]

We all carry possibility us, the seeds of life. But sometimes we forget that seeds need to crack open to germinate, that they need persistent tending. In that tending our dreams may show signs of stress and suffer. We might argue about the best ways to care for them, and how many dreams we can tend, and how well we're doing. Mustard seed faithing though, is living in the multitudinous possibilities, embracing the conflicts and divisions and apparent impossibilities we encounter and create as opportunities for deeper baptism in the work of the Lord, the work of love, the work of justice, the work of mercy, the work of joy that allows us to endure the cross and keep our arms open wide in embracing the stranger as well as the friend.  (to be continued)