Isaiah Lit a Candle (sermon 11/30/14, Advent 1B)

holding candle - vigil

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.  – Isaiah 64:1-9

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Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the streets, seeing the terrible injustice being suffered by his people at the hands of others, the pain in his heart bubbled up and spilled out in his prayer to God that we heard this morning. Tear open the heavens, O God; come down here. Make your presence known and set things right. Bring your justice, real justice, to your people, and deal with those who treat us so harshly.

In the depth of his pain and sorrow, Isaiah, like so many others, felt that God was angry at them; that God had abandoned them and left them to their own devices; that even God had turned away from them. Most of Isaiah’s people found peaceful, constructive ways to put voice to their suffering and to express their hopes for a time when they would be treated with justice. But a handful of them, in their pain, in their suffering, in their anger, felt that if God wasn’t going to come down and set things right, they were going to take things into their own hands, and fight back against the power of the empire that was oppressing them. Someone once called violence the language of last resort for those who were unheard. Isaiah knew that was true. But he also knew that the same person had denounced violence as counterproductive, that it never brought peace or justice; it only created even more problems. Isaiah knew that was true, too. With pain in his heart, Isaiah, the prophet, proclaimed that those people who had taken things into their own hands because they couldn’t see God anywhere in their situation, only grieved God all the more. Isaiah recognized that even in their suffering, even in the midst of the injustices they were enduring, that they had only made matters worse.

And as he continued to pour his heart out to God, he realized it wasn’t just those other people; the ones oppressing his own people, and it wasn’t just that handful of his own people, who had displeased God. Isaiah realized that, in different ways, undoubtedly, and certainly in different measure, everyone had lost sight of God. Everyone had lost hope in God; everyone had displeased God by going off in their own different directions.

So as Isaiah spoke from the heart, asking God to come down from the heavens and restore justice, he also asked for God’s mercy. He asked God to remember that we’re all clay in God’s hands, and that God is the potter, and he asked God to shape us and mold us all into creatures that are pleasing. In his wisdom, Isaiah, the prophet, asked God not to be angry, and to forget all the divisions and failures – those of his own oppressed people, and those of their oppressors as well. All of them.

Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the street, in the middle of all the shards of broken glass and debris on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, seeing the injustice, and the frustration and anger boiling over and into the streets, Isaiah, the prophet, began to cry – not from the clouds of tear gas wafting through the air, but from the heart. His heart ached, longed, for justice and mercy. So as he stood there in the street, Isaiah lit a candle, a single, solitary candle, and he held it out in front of him, a symbol of calm in the midst of chaos. And somehow its single, small flame cut through the darkness more brightly than all the fires burning around him. It was a candle of hope. Hope that someday soon, God would return and restore all of creation. Hope that soon, God would finally bring goodness, and justice, and mercy to a world and to people who so desperately needed them. Hope for him. Hope for them. Hope for us. Hope for oppressed and oppressor alike. Hope for everyone, because, as Isaiah pointed out as he continued to pour out his heart to God, and as he held his candle high in the darkness of the night, “Remember, God, we are all your people.”

Isaiah was a prophet.

Thanks be to God.

A Letter into a Black Hole

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I got a piece of mail today from the Presbyterian Lay Committee, seeking a financial contribution. If you aren’t familiar with the group – and if you aren’t Presbyterian, there’s really little reason why you should be – it was formed in the mid-1960s as a reaction to what they saw as an inappropriate, supposedly non-scriptural, liberal shift in the theological direction of what’s now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The denomination had been embroiled in a bitter divide in the early part of the 20th century, in a debate known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy“. The controversy had to do with the way the Bible was to be interpreted, and whether the denomination’s clergy were required to adhere to a specific shortlist of doctrinal issues. The issue had been rather decisively settled in favor of the Modernists in the 1920s; the more or less simultaneous playing out of the infamous Scopes Trial, which pitted essentially the same arguments against each other in a courtroom and on the national stage, instead of as part of a church assembly, served as a fitting symbol of the Fundamentalists’ defeat and loss of control within the denomination.
In 1967, the denomination adopted a confessional document – a statement of faith – called, imaginatively enough, the “Confession of 1967.” It was in this document, known as “C67” for short, that the church – brilliantly and decisively, in my opinion – first put the “Modernist” understanding of biblical interpretation in any official confessional statement.
The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed to fight adoption of C67 as part of the denominational constitution. It lost in this effort. Long after that loss, the PLC continued to promote its views through the ensuing years, never really conceding defeat – kind of like those stories of Japanese soldiers from World War II holding their position in some cave in the Pacific and not crawling out until  decades after the war had ended.
Eventually, the PLC did crawl out of that particular cave – never really conceding their position, but deciding to focus on a target more current and relevant than C67 itself. They found fertile ground to re-energize their conservative base, and to raise funds, by fighting against the denomination’s gradually more welcoming stance toward acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the full life of the church, including its leadership, and in the most recent times, against same-sex marriage – and particularly, permission for Presbyterian clergy to officiate them – as it’s been becoming the law in more and more states. This group may have been the most strident opponent of these developments within the PCUSA over the past two decades, and probably the loudest crap-stirrers finding any excuse, real or imagined, to bash the denomination and call for people and congregations to disaffiliate with it. Their reaction to the denomination’s recent move to permit its ministers to officiate same-sex marriages borders on the apoplectic.
If you know anything about me, you can probably imagine my thoughts when I received their plea for a financial contribution.
Frankly, I’ve gotten many these junk mailings in the past, and I’ve just thrown them in the trash and forgotten about them. And now, with the denomination’s acceptance of LGBTQ folk being eligible for ordained offices in the church, and with PCUSA ministers being permitted to officiate same-sex marriages in the states where they’re legal, I should really care even less about the PLC’s increasing irrelevance. For some reason, though, this time I felt some crazy, admittedly futile need to reply…
Carmen Fowler LaBerge
President, Presbyterian Lay Committee
Dear Ms. LaBerge:
I received the Layman’s letter requesting a contribution to your organization in the mail today.
I am the Interim Pastor serving the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York. Auburn is the original home of Auburn Theological Seminary. It’s the city that gave birth to the Auburn Affirmation of 1923, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a critical document in the history of American Presbyterianism – and which I’m also sure you’re aware, calls for a way of understanding what it means to be a Presbyterian, in terms of doctrinal standards, freedom of conscience, and ordination requirements, which is very different from the one your organization is calling for.
Beyond Presbyterian history and theology, Auburn is a city steeped in the history of social justice in this country. It was the hometown of Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, whose home sits directly across the street from our church, and who, along with his family, were strident abolitionists – in fact, his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman’s home is just down the street from here; in fact, for a time, she was a member of our congregation and was married here. From its beginnings, our congregation was inextricably connected with the issue of social justice with regard to the abolition of slavery. The congregation was formed when its organizing pastor was fired from his former post for requesting prayers for John Brown, and being “too abolitionist.”
Auburn is also noted for its involvement in the struggle for women’s rights. The noted women’s rights pioneer Martha Coffin Wright lived just around the corner from our church. Working together with her sister, Lucretia Mott, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they spearheaded the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 – the very first women’s rights convention in American history, and which was hosted by the First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls, just next door to Auburn.
Clearly, Auburn is an area that throughout our nation’s history has taken a strong stand toward progressive understandings of a number of social justice issues, and more often than not, by way of progressive religious doctrine which was considered by some to be extremist, dangerous, unorthodox, and sometimes even heretical. And the Auburn Affirmation, which speaks so eloquently and strongly against the positions that, almost a hundred years later, your organization continues to espouse, is one of the crowning achievements of this city’s proud history.
Your recent mailing referred to “the disaster that comes with incremental revisionist, progressive liberalism;” considering this to be an “assault on Christ and His Word.”
Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with you and your organization more strongly. I believe that the social justice advances that I’ve alluded to, in which Auburn has played such a vital part, are unquestionable success stories made possible in large part by progressive strains within Christ’s Church. These are successes – and other examples could be offered – which, in their time, were fought tooth and nail by the more staid, conservative strands of the faith as being contrary to the supposedly clear teachings of scripture. These repeated failings of the conservative wing of the church to see what time has proven to have been the path most consistent with God’s will, Christ’s teaching, and the fullest meaning of scripture, have become utter embarrassments in the history of the Church; shameful bits of history for which repentance is called for.
Continuing this city’s proud history of working for social justice for an ever-expanding circle of God’s people; and recognizing the ongoing disputes within our denomination over questions of the role of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Church, including serving as ordained servant/leaders; a number of years ago the Session of the Westminster Presbyterian Church adopted the following statement of inclusion:
“Westminster welcomes everyone, no matter where you are on your faith journey or your life journey. In faithfulness to our understanding of Christ, Westminster affirms the full inclusion of all God’s people in the life and ministry of the church. We welcome persons of every race, gender, age, sexual orientation, family status, and economic status into full participation in our faith community. We value questions as much as answers. We encourage curiosity, discovery, and honest struggling with questions of faith.”
Since its adoption, Westminster Church has not merely paid lip service to this policy, but it has lived it out, in faithful obedience to Christ, in any number of ways – not least of which is the fact that the Session has entered into an Interim Pastor agreement with me – an ordained Teaching Elder, a deeply committed Christian who loves the Lord and works each day to proclaim the gospel in word and deed and to serve and lead this congregation, who also happens to be openly gay. Further, without trying to sound immodest, I believe the congregation overall is quite pleased with my pastoral service to them, and is perfectly convinced of my qualifications and the validity of my call to ordered ministry – something that you and your organization would flatly refuse to accept.
Thanks be to God, every day more and more Christians are coming to see the error of our past understanding of LGBTQ-related issues within the church. Most significantly, this is a phenomenon seen across nearly the full spectrum of Christian traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant; Mainline and Evangelical, Liberal and Conservative. With God’s help, I believe that this will be a complete, or nearly complete, non-issue within the Church within a single generation’s time.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will finally see this situation for what I, and many, many other Christians believe it to be: evidence of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, bringing us all to an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will, just as we had to painfully learn from the Church’s erroneous positions with regard to those other issues from the past.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will recognize the thoroughly and unnecessarily negative and divisive role that you are occupying within the Church, and that you will repent of your actions.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will come to understand the immense damage that the Church’s traditional understandings have caused in the lives of millions of LGBTQ people, both within and outside of the Church, over the course of the past 2,000 years. I hope that you finally feel the weight – the evil – that we, the Church, have either perpetrated directly or enabled through others in the lives of these people, all of whom were created in the very image of God, including the sexual orientation with which God chose to bless them.
In light of my strong opposition to the stated mission of your organization, and my doubts that any kind of reversal or repentance on your part is likely to occur any time soon, it’s also my sincere prayer that you don’t hold your breath waiting for a financial contribution from me.
Conservative and Progressive brothers and sisters in Christ are called to work together, serving as a check and balance against excesses of either tendency. I humbly suggest that at this point, the Holy Spirit is making abundantly more clear every day that in this matter, the misguided excess – the error – is found in the positions that your organization is fighting for.
I pray God’s fullest and deepest blessings upon you.
Rev. Dwain W. Lee
Interim Pastor
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Auburn NY

A Literal Problem

Article originally published in the Auburn (NY) Citizen 11/8/14, titled “Westminster Presbyterian: The Bible Wasn’t Always Taken So Literally”:

Pope Francis

In a recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope Francis boldly restated the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and the origin and diversification of life through evolution, is not incompatible with the Christian faith. As he put it, God was not “a magician with a magic wand.” I’m very glad that he weighed in on this subject.

This can be a sensitive topic. A significant number of Christians in this country would claim that the Bible must be understood in a highly literalistic way. This leads to the belief that in order to be a good Christian, a person has to believe in a literal reading of the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible: God created every aspect of creation distinctly and uniquely, with no reliance on evolution. Many of them hold that the universe was created by God in six literal Earth days. Others grant that the “days” may be metaphorical and not literal 24-hour periods, but that otherwise, the Genesis accounts are a literal accounting of how we all came to be.

I empathize with and respect these fellow Christians. In fact, I used to be one of them. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand the Bible differently — and, I’d suggest, in a way more consistent with the overall history of how the Bible has traditionally been understood.

The belief that the scriptures must be understood to that degree of literalism — that they are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the way that these Christians would define those terms — is actually a relatively new development. It only started to take off in this country in the 1840s. My own Presyterian denomination was a major proponent of this understanding of the Bible in the late 1800s, until it renounced the viewpoint in the late 1920s.

In reality, from the very beginnings of the faith until now, the vast majority of Christians have not understood the scriptures to be read and understood that way. Of course, some portions were, and are, considered literal, but overall, the Bible has always been understood to be in many places allegorical or metaphorical. It was never intended to be as factual as the morning newspaper or a technical report. The Bible is the collected traditions and writings of a number of pre-scientific cultures, all trying to convey great, transcendent truths about God and us. These days, my own denomination puts it this way: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.” (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “Confession of 1967”

Why does any of this matter? Simply this: studies have shown that American students continue to lose ground in overall education levels compared against their global counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this, but one important reason is that some groups demand that high school curricula and textbooks minimize teaching of these scientific concepts that are for all practical purposes universally accepted as fact, while also demanding that other, far less scientific theories are taught — “pseudo theories,” as Francis put it — all stemming from a desire to bolster a highly literal reading of Genesis. Constitutionally, this is bad because it imposes the religious beliefs of one subgroup of one religion upon the entire, diverse student body. It’s also bad because it hobbles these students’ academic development — something that our country needs, and that they themselves will need in order to compete in the ever-shrinking global village.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. In accordance with the way that most Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — understand the Bible, there is no inconsistency or conflict with being a Christian and accepting the reality of the Big Bang, or that life began and diversified via the process of evolution. Our human drive to understand our universe more deeply, and the knowledge gained through scientific endeavor, are gifts from God — not something evil designed to confuse us or draw us away from God. It’s been said, rightly, that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways. I believe that’s correct — and that the Big Bang and evolution are two of those ways.

Reading the Fine Print (sermon 11/9/14)

fine print

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people… “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
– Joshua 24 (excerpts)

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One of the first things I did when I arrived here in town was to open a checking account and a savings account at a local bank. Since I knew I wouldn’t have a permanent address for a couple of months, I gave the bank my Ohio address as the official mailing address. Now I’m probably like you; I generally try to leave enough in my checking account for all the known expenses and a small cushion, and then put the rest in the savings account. But when I went back on the trip to Ohio to do the final packing and getting the movers all loaded up to bring my stuff up here, there were a series of additional unexpected expenses that I needed to cover. So, just as I’d always done in the past when this kind of thing happened, I hopped on my smartphone, onto my banking app, and just transferred a bit more money from savings to checking to cover things. This actually happened four times during the whole move process.

As part of the moving transition, since I knew I wouldn’t have a permanent address here for a couple of months, I’d instructed the Post Office to forward my mail here, to the church. And shortly after I got back here in town, I was in the office one day and I got an official-looking piece of mail from my new bank. It was a notice that I’d exceeded my allowable number of transfers from one account to another for the month, and that they assessed me a service fee of fifteen dollars for having done that. While that was annoying enough, this particular bank won’t send notices like this via email, so they’d sent this notice through the mail, first to my Ohio address, which took a couple of days, which then forwarded back here, which took a couple more days, and by the time I’d gotten the first notice, I’d already made the other excess transfers. Before it was all said and done, I ended up paying my new bank for four of those excess transfers before I’d even realized I had a limit on them – I never did in the past. In fact, I ended up being assessed more in service fees from my new bank in one week, than I’d paid to my old bank in thirty years.

I was not a happy camper. At first, I thought about going into the bank and complaining, but I knew that they would just tell me that those were the terms and conditions I’d agreed to when I opened the accounts. This particular bank has a lot of boilerplate fine print that you have to accept when you start banking with them. Honestly, I think there was more legalese to supposedly wade through just to open a bank account than it took for my ex-wife and I to get our divorce. Be that as it may, and as mad as I was – and still am – at my new bank for its ridiculous penalties, I knew that in the end, it was really my fault. I hadn’t read the fine print. I hadn’t paid attention to the full implications of our agreement, and I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself for the consequences.

Being aware of the fine print is what our Lectionary text from the Book of Joshua is about. The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ finally ending their wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, to occupying the land of Canaan under the military leadership of Joshua. First, the Book tells a story of the victories over the tribes of people whose land they were taking over. After that’s accomplished in the story, then we hear how all the land was to be divided among the tribes of Israel, and that the people settled down on the land had enjoyed many years with no opposition. Finally, we get to the part of the Book that includes today’s Lectionary text. Joshua is now an old man, he knows he doesn’t have much longer to live, and he calls the leaders of the tribes of Israel together for his final thoughts. It would have been something like George Washington’s farewell address to the American people when he retired from public life; Joshua would have been seen in a similar light to the Israelites. And once they’re all together, he tells them that they’re going to have to decide what god they would follow; either Yahweh, the God of Moses, or one of the other gods worshiped in the cultures surrounding them. There were a number of these other gods – we hear in the scriptures about Ashera and Ba’al, and there were others; and they weren’t just limited to the other cultures. Many of the Israelites themselves were sort of hedging their bets when it came to religion and were worshiping Yahweh and some of the other gods at the same time. Joshua tells them boldly that as for him and his family, they would follow Yahweh, but they were all going to have to decide for themselves. Surely, he tells them, they’ve seen firsthand the power and greatness of Yahweh, who, according to the story, had brought them success on the battlefield against all their opponents so they could occupy their land. But they also needed to know that Yahweh was a God who placed expectations on his followers. If these people said they followed God, but they didn’t really do what God expected of them, they would suffer the consequences. This God expected loyalty and obedience, he warned them, and told them he wasn’t sure they could actually pull it off, so he cautioned them to choose carefully. Joshua was telling the Israelites to read the fine print, to understand the terms and conditions, the consequences, of deciding to follow the God of Moses – our God.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on that aspect of following God. We want to focus on love, and mercy, and grace; and talking about the expectations that God has of us can sometimes rub us the wrong way. It can sound like we have to do certain things in order to earn God’s favor, or that we’re supposed to do good deeds to appease an angry God. It isn’t that at all, really; it’s just that God expects us to live with gratitude for what God has already done in our lives. And God wants that gratitude to show itself in every aspect of our lives – in our thoughts, in our actions. And that includes our finances.

This week, you’ll all be getting some information in the mail about our stewardship campaign. When you get it, and you read through it, I’d ask you to really think about Joshua’s words to the Israelites here. Are we considering the full implications of our saying that we’ve chosen to follow God? Are we prioritizing our finances in a way that pleases God? Are we giving enough to support God’s purpose for this congregation? Are we giving at a level that’s needed to reach out to the community beyond our own doors and draw them into our church family? Are we giving enough to have adequate programming for our youth? Are we simply trying to maintain the status quo, or are we giving at a level that allows the church to grow? That’s what it all really comes down to, because the simple, hard truth is that there is no such thing as a church maintaining the status quo – if a church isn’t growing, it’s dying. If a church, we aren’t stepping up to the challenge of reaching out to new people and growing, and being willing to support the church financially at a level that allows that, then we’ll end up being just a congregational dead man walking – a continually shrinking social club waiting for the last surviving member to turn off the lights and lock the door behind them when they leave. We’ll become an asterisk in history, another sad memory of another congregation in the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery that folded.

Some pastors are squeamish about talking about the financial needs of the church. I’m not one of them. We need money in order to do what we do here, in order to live out God’s purpose for us being here. Maybe these words sound harsh. Maybe they are harsh. But harsh or no, it doesn’t make them any less true, or any less important for us to think about as disciples – followers – of God through Christ. Remember, Jesus himself talked a lot – a LOT – about using our money in ways that pleases God. Someone once did the math, and calculated that if a pastor preached about financial stewardship through the year in the same proportion as the amount of time Jesus taught about it, there would be 17 sermons a year about this subject – a full third of the year. You’d run me out of town if I did that. But you get the point. The way we use our money is important to God.

All that we have has come from God, and with the intent of using it wisely. So when you get your stewardship campaign information, please consider it carefully. Consider the question that Joshua asks us, across the ages: what god do we serve? Do we take the financial gifts that God has entrusted to us, and serve other gods with them? Financial stewardship isn’t just giving to help meet a budget. It’s actually a spiritual discipline that expands our ability to trust in God, rather than trusting in our own bank account balance. Pray about how you’ll support the church next year. Pray for God to help you see your financial priorities in different ways; ways more aligned with being a child of the Kingdom of God.

If we step out in faith and increase our financial support of the mission of this church, God will bless our efforts. Not in the crass way that “prosperity gospel” preachers claim; God isn’t going to shower you with riches, fame, and fortune if you give to the church. God won’t send you $1000 next week if you give him a hundred today. But through the discipline of giving faithfully, through the trust that we place in God by putting our money where our mouths are, over time we really will experience the deepening of our faith, and a deepening of our experience of God in our lives. That’s what God promises us. And that’s a promise that we can all take to the bank.

Thanks be to God.

Uncle Brother

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A picture from Dad’s 70th birthday two years ago: My brother Harry, Joel, me, brother Chris, cousin John, and Dad

My uncle Joel is dying.

Joel is my mother’s only sibling. He’s only seven or eight years older than me, and I always basically considered him and my cousin John, who’s about a year and a half older than me, to essentially be my two older brothers. He’s been battling cancer for some time now, and he was recently told that his treatments hadn’t been successful. Last night, he started home hospice care.

This really hurts.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our relationship over the years. When we were younger, Joel and John were just close enough in age that they did a lot of things together – camping, hunting, fishing, going to ball games. The age difference between Joel and me was just over the threshold where doing things like that could be difficult, with the younger one being just a little too young and a drag on the activities. Sometimes, I think that my youngest actual brother thinks I didn’t get how he felt when I didn’t want him tagging along; I actually got it completely.

family pic

I don’t have a clue what year this picture dates to – but that’s me at the far right, and Joel in the center, and John sitting at the left

We did do some things together, though. In the summers of my high school years, I worked for the family coal mining company alongside my father, and Joel, and my grandfather – Joel’s father. Even though it was just a summer job, it gave me some of my greatest memories. In fact, just last night I was just telling a small group of parishioners about those times. It was hard work, but what I did, and most importantly, who I was doing it with, will be with me forever.

The other thing that Joel and I did together was to reenact Civil War battles. He’d gotten into Knap’s Battery, a local reenacting group, probably when I was a senior in high school. It intrigued me, and I joined the same group about the time I was completing my first year of college. For probably eight years or so, Joel and I were part of a group that dragged full-scale, authentic Civil War cannons around the eastern half of the country, reenacting battles, doing living history encampments, and being part of the occasional movie or television commercial. There were an awful lot of great memories to come out of those years and all those events. I stuck around in the group for a couple of years after Joel lost interest and left, but it was never really the same without him. Again, the fact that I was doing these reenactments with my “older brother” was more important than the actual events themselves.

If he wasn’t the “hanging out together” older brother when I was little, he was the cool older brother, and the advice-giving older brother. He said something once to me during the only time we ever got into an argument while at a Civil War reenactment that I won’t share here; it was almost a throwaway comment in the moment but it’s been a critical piece of wisdom that’s stuck with me all these years since. And during the time in my teens when I first sensed a call to the ministry, and in the struggle over whether to do that or to proceed with the original plan to study architecture, his words were cool-headed wisdom at a time when both cool heads and wisdom seemed to be in short supply.

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A young me sporting a goatee and mustache, courtesy of Joel and his mother’s eyebrow pencil

Joel was the very next family member that I came out to after my parents. I didn’t really expect him to care, but it was important to me to be able to tell him in person – something that I was upset about not having the opportunity to do with my cousin John or even my own actual brothers. When I came out to him, I mentioned I was in a relationship with George. Joel and George had met back in January at my ordination, where George had played the violin as part of the service.

As we spoke on the phone the other day, he was talking about putting together a get-together, a celebration of his life with family and close friends, while he was still here. He said he wanted music to be a part of the event. “You know my guitar instructor George; I want him to play the guitar. And I know another George, who’s probably the best violinist I’ve ever heard. It would mean a lot to me if he’d be a part of our team here; do you think he’d be willing to do that?”

Beyond the fact that George was honored to be asked to play, this was a major sign of approval and acceptance, from someone whose acceptance is very important to me. And I thought that in his own way, maybe Joel’s invitation to George was his way of signalling to anyone else in the family who may have an issue with George or our relationship, they’d just have to suck it up and deal with it. George was OK in Joel’s book. He was part of the team.

I’m traveling back to Pennsylvania tomorrow to visit with Joel. I don’t know how much time he has left, but whatever it is, it’s way too damned little.

Trick or Treat

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Halloween in Toronto

Last Thursday evening, I slipped up to Toronto for an all-too-short weekend visit (remember that in my line of work, my “weekend” is Friday and Saturday) with my boyfriend George, who lives and works there. The trip itself takes about four hours – three and a half, if you get lucky and don’t hit traffic or a backup at the border crossing. This time, the trip was uneventful, and the border guard was satisfied asking just a few simple questions. I think  the best thing that I have going for me at the border is the unorthodox reality of the situation: a gay Presbyterian minister with Ohio plates but who actually lives in New York, who’s traveling across the international border to visit with his world-class violin-maker boyfriend. Really, if I were an international threat trying to unobtrusively slip across the border, would this be the cover story I’d come up with?

I was actually about five minutes away from George’s place when I received an incoming call from my mother. I was trying to work my way through downtown traffic and couldn’t take the call just then, but somehow I knew in my gut what the call was going to be about. Once I got to the condo, I returned the call and my worst fears were confirmed – bad news about my uncle, who has been battling cancer for some time. I’ll be making a separate blog post about this in the next few days. For the moment, though, suffice it to say that I was very upset when I got the news that his treatments and surgeries had not been successful, and even more upset when I got to speak with him by phone the next morning.

After that phone call, I told George that what I really wanted to do was to just go somewhere to see or hear something of great beauty. He suggested walking around a particular neighborhood that was very picturesque, so we hopped the subway and enjoyed walking through the area in the sunny crispness of the late morning. George had his camera, and we were going to take a picture or two with it or my phone, but in the process of walking and me trying to clear my head, we both forgot. I can’t even remember the name of the place we were, but it was very nice and helped me to feel a little better.

After that, we took the subway and a trolley to the Roncesvalles area, a neat bohemian neighborhood on the west side of town that at least historically has been considered Polish Village. I’d said that I wanted to see or hear something of great beauty. I hadn’t said anything about eating something of great beauty, but we managed to do that when we stumbled across Cafe Polonez, a nice, reasonably-priced little restaurant featuring, as the name suggests, Polish cuisine. Since I’m always on the hunt for a great cabbage roll or pierogi, we stopped there for lunch. We sampled both of those Polish delicacies, and they were fantastic. A good cabbage roll is a work of art. These were the cabbage roll equivalent of a Michelangelo charcoal study.

toronto cabbage rolls

Cafe Polonez cabbage rolls

Part of the reason for this particular visit was to be there for the city’s big Halloween celebration, and we were able to experience that later Friday evening. A number of blocks on Church Street, not far from George’s, are blocked off to traffic, and the street and sidewalks are packed with people in great, creative costumes and the people watching them. This was right in the heart of the city’s Gay Village, and never having experienced a Halloween there before, I wondered if the costumes (or potential lack of them) might be a bit over the top. In fact, with the exception of one costume that would have been considered R-rated, everything else that I personally saw would have been a solid PG-13. There were even a number of families with kids in the crowd. A few times, we caught some pretty good whiffs of weed as we walked through the crowd, but not as much as you’d typically encounter at an average college football game. George and I wandered around checking out the sights, then we stopped for a short break at Timothy’s, a local coffee shop on Church Street that’s one of our favorite stops. We sat outside enjoying our coffee and watching the throng, until I pointed out that I felt ten years younger walking through the crowd, but I was starting to feel like Statler & Waldorf just sitting there watching and commenting on it all going by. So we finished off our coffees and headed back out into the mix.

It was actually getting late by that point, so we started to work our way back toward the condo. As we did, I noticed at one point that there was a costumed couple walking immediately ahead of us. They were a good looking couple – a young Anglo guy and a young Asian guy, maybe in their mid-twenties, both dressed up as some kind of Roman soldiers, I guess, holding hands as they walked down the center of the street. And then there were George and I – A middle-aged Anglo guy and a middle-aged Asian guy, both close to twice their age, holding hands as we walked along right behind them. I couldn’t help but think about how, with the difference of barely more than twenty years or so, the reality of their lives was so different from the social and cultural soup that people our age have had to swim in. I envied these two young men. Their reality is a world that’s so much better than that of my own generation with regard to LGBT acceptance and inclusivity, and which must seem downright miraculous to the so-called gay-rights “trailblazer” generation just beyond my own.

All in all, it was a good trip. Of course, it’s always great to spend time with George. While it started with a disheartening phone call with terrible news, being able to do these things with him, sharing the time, the company, the conversation, and the experiences, helped me to start coming to terms with the bad news. But Sunday morning was coming all too soon, and now it was time to get home.

tooterturtlespin

If you don’t have at least a little bit of grey hair, you won’t get this reference.

“… Hello officer. Yes… Yes… Just visiting my boyfriend… Yes, I came up Thursday night…No, no alcohol, food, or firearms.”

“OK sir, welcome back to the United States.”

Ghosts (sermon 11/2/14 – All Saints’ Sunday)

 

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After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17

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When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:1-12

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They’re all around us, you know. The ghosts. Those people who were so much a part of the church, so much a part of our lives, who are gone now, but whose memory is still so very real to us. We still hear their voices, their laughter, sometimes even their complaining. Now, maybe years after they’ve died, we’ll get a whiff of their favorite after-shave, or their perfume; the smell of their favorite pipe smoke or lilacs like they used to have in their front yard, and immediately we’re back with them, so real that we feel like we could reach out and touch them. We can look at the church pew that they sat in, every Sunday for forty years, fifty years, and we can see them sitting there today, folding and creasing back the bulletin the way they always did; marking the hymns in the hymnal with extra offering envelopes. She was your favorite, or least favorite, Sunday School teacher. He always sang off-key in the choir, his big booming voice making up with passion what he lacked in talent, but he was there every Sunday, rain, shine, or snow. These incredible, wonderful, funny,  committed, and sometimes even irritating people who left such a mark on us; whose very being helped to shape us, to mold our faith to what it is today. People who will always have a warm spot in our hearts. These are our saints.

Of course, they’d probably laugh if they heard themselves described that way. But that’s probably a part of why they mean so much to us. The passage from Revelation that we heard today describes a vision where all of our saints are dwelling in heaven, in the afterlife, in the very loving presence of God. That should be a great reassurance to us, but the scriptural passage about them that I like even more is in the New Testament Book of Hebrews, where they’re called a “great cloud of witnesses,” those people who have completed their journey of faith and who are now watching us from beyond, encouraging us onward in our lives, in our own journeys.

In study after study, surveys have shown that one of the things that people want most out of life is to know that they’ll be remembered after they’re gone. That they made a difference in the lives of the people around them. Today, All Saints’ Sunday, we remember all those people who have meant so much in our lives who are part of that great cloud of witnesses. We recognize that they did indeed, matter. That they aren’t gone or forgotten. That they made a difference, a real difference in our lives and the way we understand the core of our very existence and our relationship with God.

This is a promise that we have from God, and one of the things that should give us the greatest hope. That death is not the end, it’s just a turning of the page, the beginning of a new chapter. It’s a promise from God that in time, we will be reunited with them. The Sunday School teacher. The choir member. The parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, dear friends. God says that they still live, they still love, and they still reach out and cheer us on. The message of All Saints’ Day is that we will all be reunited again, with them, in the very loving arms of God. And for that, we should all say

Thanks be to God.