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Sermons by the Rev. Bob Olmstead

Continuing Dr. King's Dream of Truth, Peace and Justice - The Rev. Bob Olmstead (text)

CONTINUING DR. KING’S DREAM OF TRUTH, PEACE AND JUSTICE

Rev. Bob Olmstead
Community and Interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
Palo Alto, California
January 20, 2008

“What joins Americans one to another is not a common race or ancestry (which only testify to the burdens of the past) but rather our complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”

(Lewis Lapham, Harper’s, January, 1992)

During most of the 10 years I was Senior Pastor of this church it was my privilege to work with the Community and Interfaith Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee and to host this event. Having welcomed and hosted such luminaries as Rev. Cecil Williams and the Honorable Willie Brown, it’s a bit daunting to stand in this role myself. I want to acknowledge Marjorie Moylan, Surlene Grant and Lillian Greer who founded this organization in 1986. And I want to acknowledge Patsy Moore, who worked with this organization almost from its inception, and who died unexpectedly late last year.

Patsy was white, like me. And so we stand symbolically for the principle point I hope to make this afternoon: that Martin Luther King, Jr. is not an African-American hero and pioneer - he is an American hero and pioneer, who was dedicated not just to freeing Blacks from the bonds of segregation and injustice, but who was also dedicated to freeing whites from the bonds of bigotry and hate. Indeed, Dr. King is more than an American hero and pioneer; he is an international and historical figure whose words and life have become part of the fabric by which all humanity tells its story.

I’m retired now and we live in the Sierra foothills. Our home is in Placerville, a town with about 8,000 souls; the hills around are dotted with smaller communities. Several public school teachers attend our church and around this time of year they ask me to come and tell the children - 4th graders, 5th graders usually, sometimes high-schoolers - about the Civil Rights Movement, about hearing Martin Luther King speak, and about marching with Dr. King - and 25,000 others - from Selma to Montgomery.

I tell them how brave African Americans tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were driven back by Alabama State Troopers wielding tear gas, riding horses, swinging heavy clubs;

– how Martin Luther King sent out a plea to the nation to come to Selma to help;

– how Rev. James Reeb came and was himself clubbed to death. ;

I tell them how I got off a plane in Montgomery, Alabama the day after Reeb’s death, not knowing how I would get to Selma; ;

– how Roman Catholic priests gave me a ride in their van; ;

– how a Black family offered to make space for my sleeping bag on their floor.

I tell them how desperately I wanted to call home to Oakland, California, to reassure my wife and my two small daughters that I had arrived safely and had a place to stay;

– and how the lady of the house - the apartment in the projects - put her hand on mine on the telephone receiver and said, “Please don’t. Don’t call out and say where you are. They listen in on all our calls. You can go home again. But we have to stay here after you leave and they will do things to us.”

I usually stop at that point and let the children ask questions. “What was she afraid of?” “Why were they trying to cross the bridge?” Almost always one of the children will ask (sometimes shyly), “Was this in America?”

I say, “This was in America and this was in my lifetime.”

The Freedom Rides began the year I graduated from high school. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took place while I was in college. When I was 19 I met Dr. King and heard him tell a group of Christian students (like me) that our generation was called to confront America’s most pressing issue: racial segregation in the South and racial discrimination everywhere.

Five years later the Civil Rights Movement had engulfed the Southern states. People were marching for their rights, especially for the right to vote, and the marching focused on Selma, Alabama. The entire nation was forced to take notice. “Come to Selma,” Dr. King implored.

After the second abortive attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, many of the streets leading out of Selma’s African American neighborhoods were barricaded by the police. Even short marches were thwarted. But on the day I arrived in Selma the barricades were mysteriously taken down and Martin Luther King led a march to the County Court House. By the time we reached the Court House, which housed the voter registration offices, all the offices had been emptied and the doors were locked. Life Magazine carried on its cover that week a photograph of Martin Luther King. Jr., Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Archbishop Iakovos, and Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO speaking from the Court House steps. The photo doesn’t show the crowd of marchers - maybe 200 of us - who stood below those steps listening to Dr. King’s speech.

If we were clergy we were asked to wear our clergy collars so everyone could see that we were ministers. That was supposed to count for something in the South. And they asked those of us with collars to stand on the fringes of the demonstration as a buffer between the demonstrators (mostly Black, mostly youth and children) and the white folks who were gathering in ominous numbers around us. The folks from outside our circle pressed so close I could smell their breath and feel their spit. They shouted vile sexual insinuations. They called out the names of the Black youths they recognized and said, “We’ll get you later.” Someone stuck his mouth close to my ear and said, “Rev. Reeb got what he deserved and we mean to do the same to you.”

And what did we do? We sang.

We sang freedom songs and we sang spirituals and we sang “We Shall Overcome.” Singing “We Shall Overcome” in a Selma street, in that press of bodies, was the proudest, scariest, more inspiring moment of my life. I felt the power of an idea, the power of a vision, the power of hope, the power of nonviolence, the power of the Dream.

Nobody registered to vote that day. But within a week President Lyndon Johnson came before the joint houses of Congress to propose a sweeping Voter Rights Bill. There were radios hung in the trees outside Selma’s Browns Memorial AME Church that night. The church had been packed for hours, the overflow was outside under the trees in the Alabama evening. And on that Alabama evening, Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States of America, with that Southern Texas drawl, concluded his words to the Congress with three words that electrified the crowd. He said, “We shall overcome!”

Lyndon Johnson was a white man. He was a Southerner. He was President of the United States and he said, “We...” “We shall overcome.”

I’m not going to take sides in the current debate over what proportion of credit goes to Dr. King or President Johnson. I want to focus on the importance of President Johnson speaking those three words: “We shall overcome.” They came at the conclusion of a passionate paragraph in which he decried the bigotry and the hate that led to white violence. He was proclaiming - perhaps inadvertently - that “we” shall overcome even that, that “we” will overcome the fear and insecurity that lie at the heart of white self-hatred. This was a goal far greater than any legislation; this was the greater goal Dr. King always sought.

When Martin was a boy he heard his father’s eloquent sermons. Martin heard the words of his beloved grandmother, who regaled him daily with stories from the Bible - stories rich with theology and meaning. At age five, young Martin announced to his family, “Just you watch. When I grow up, I’m going to get me some big words!” And he did. He marshaled more than enough big words to earn a Ph.D. from Boston School of Theology. But it was his mastery of certain small words - one in particular - that sets him apart from all the other great figures of American history. He spoke of love.

Four letters. Seldom found in political campaigns. Seldom found in historic crusades for justice, for mastery, for power. Four letters - love - this was one of the biggest words in Dr. King’s vocabulary.

This was not about romance, and there was nothing passive to it. Dr. King understood a fundamental religious insight. Love mirrors the power of the divine.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a heroic figure, an historical figure, a political figure, but most profoundly of all, he was a religious figure.

And in the religious tradition that nurtured and shaped him - Black American Christianity - the words of a Book stand central. And in the opening words of that Book the Divine Figure from whom all Creation issues speaks; and from the words God speaks all that is comes into being. “In the beginning . . . God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light . . . God said, ‘let there be moon and stars’ and there were moon and stars . . . God said, ‘let there be earth and sky and sea’ and there were earth and sky and sea . . . God said, ‘let there be living things, let there be life, let there be men and women’ and so they came to be.” And God said, “they are good.” And when the men and women failed to live up to and into that goodness, so the story goes, God sent a Savior; and this Savior is known as the Word, of God, an embodiment, an incarnation of the very Word, of creation itself.

Words. The creative power of words! When I was in school I had to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Perhaps some of you did, too. “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Those words have the echo of the Hebrew prophets; of George Washington’s farewell address; of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, “Ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And in that pantheon of words, by which America defines its better self, echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a dream. It is deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream - that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men (you know that Dr. King would include women if were speaking today) are created equal.

I have a dream that my little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .

When I visited Canterbury Cathedral in England I walked through the vast nave and up into the chancel where priests celebrate the Mass and then through the chancel to the High Altar - the “Holy of Holies” in this greatest of English cathedrals - and there beside the high altar where you might expect an icon of Jesus Christ or at least a portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury, there was instead a large framed photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 33 nations have issued postage stamps bearing Dr. King’s likeness. Is there any other American, living or dead, so honored in so many other nations? There is a Martin Luther King Middle School in Rome, Italy. There is a Martin Luther King Plaza in Sweden. (Tomorrow there will be one in Palo Alto.) On the hills of Galilee near Nazareth there is a grove of trees known as the Martin Luther King Memorial Forest. You will find memorials to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Samoa, Paraguay, the Netherlands, Spain and throughout Africa.

Dr. King was not just an American prophet. He was a universal prophet. He spoke not just for one era in American history; he spoke truth for the ages. He was not just a great African American leader. He was a leader for all of us, black and white and every other shade.

Shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. While signing autographs on a city street a young woman approached and stabbed a knife into his chest. The point came to rest against his aorta and doctors said if he had sneezed it would have ended his life.

While recuperating in the hospital he received letters from all over the world. He received a letter from President Eisenhower. He received a letter from Vice President Nixon. One letter he received read like this:

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth grade student at the White Plains High School. While it shouldn’t matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed you would have died. I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze. . . .

A white man wrote, “...you belong to us too, because we love you. Your voice is the only true voice of love today and we hear, we hear. . . .

The only true voice of love . . .
. . . that word again.

I was tempted to take these moments this afternoon to tell the story of Vernon Johns. Does the name ‘Vernon Johns’ mean anything to you? He was the pastor who preceded Dr. King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Vernon Johns organized boycotts, preached Black pride, and told his congregation to plant gardens so they could boycott Montgomery’s white grocers. When black boys were sent to jail on trumped up charges, when black girls were abused and the justice system showed them no justice, Vernon Johns fought their battles for them, often alone. On more than one occasion he protested so vehemently he was thrown in jail. He embarrassed the good people of his church, and on one of those occasions while he was in jail, his Board of Deacons (tired of all that he asked them to do; fearful that he was “moving too fast”); they fired him. They fired Vernon Johns and they went looking for a highly-educated, refined Black preacher. They found a 26 year old with a newly minted Ph.D. from Boston School of Theology. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a story!

I tell that story because for every Martin Luther King there are dozens of Vernon Johns who prepare the way.

They labor without recognition, without fame, and seemingly without success; but their labors are not in vain for they are absolutely necessary to the success of the great ones of history, the ones like Dr. King. And after the great ones come a multitude more Vernon Johns. Keeping the dream alive. Continuing Dr. King’s Dream of Truth, Peace and Justice. Henry David Thoreau said, “...if one advances confidently in the direction of his or her dreams, and endeavors to live the life which is imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.... If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them.”

Building the foundation beneath Dr. King’s dream of truth, peace and justice. Dr. King said, “...no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. ...This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is the time for vigorous and positive action.”

We could talk about health care now. You know Dr. King would have something to say about children going without adequate health insurance in the world’s richest nation. We could talk about war. Dr. King took much grief over a sermon he preached decrying the violence in Viet Nam. What would he say of Iraq? We could talk about immigration policies. Dr. King’s vision was all-inclusive. We could talk about economics. Dr. King died in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was championing the cause of striking garbage workers - not because the overwhelming majority were black, but because they were poorly paid. All around us the least and the last are being laid off once again.

Any of these is worth our tireless exertions and passionate concern. All these deserve our vigorous and positive action.

But I lift up something even more fundamental than these. I lift up the power of words. Is there not some child in your life to whom you could read for 15 minutes a day? Is there a school classroom where you can volunteer one day a week? Is there a local library with a reading program, a church in need of a Sunday School teacher?

Is there anybody in this room who could not sacrifice some time and some effort to read to children - so that they are weaned away from television and the decadent values of “popular” music? Where will children hear the words, that shape the souls, of the next generation.

– Truth

- Peace

- Justice

Don’t leave it up to anybody else.

I stand with a multitude - the world over - whose dreams were shaped by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard them in person; I read them on the page. No matter how poor or insignificant we may feel, we all speak words and the words we speak shape the universe for others. Don’t underestimate the power of your words.

A generation before Martin Luther King, Jr. the African American poet, Langston Hughes, wrote:

Holdfast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

We all speak words and the words we speak shape the universe, the very dreams, of others. Don’t underestimate the power of your words.





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Shomrei Torah - The Rev. Bob Olmstead (Text and Audio)

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Read and listen to the April 2, 2006 witness preached by the Rev. Bob Olmstead.

The readings were Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.


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“SHOMREI TORAH”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

First United Methodist Church

Palo Alto, California

April 2, 2006

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt - a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” {Jeremiah 31:31-34}


      Someone - reacting to the sorry state of the world - complained to the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, “It’s just one damn thing after another.” The poet replied: “No it’s not. It’s one damn thing over and over again.”

      Maybe that’s the difference between a liberal and a conservative! The liberal looks at life/history/reality and concludes, it’s just one damn thing after another - a series of new challenges; while the conservative looking at life/history/reality and concludes that it’s just one damn thing over and over again - a fundamental flaw in our natures.

      I’ve been trying to figure out for as long as I can remember whether I’m a liberal or a conservative. During the first year I was appointed here in Palo Alto I preached a two-sermon series; the first was titled “Why I Am a Conservative” and the second was “Why I Am a Liberal.”

      It was reported to me after the first sermon that someone said on the patio, “Now I know why I’m not a Methodist!”

      Gosh, don’t blame Methodism for my indiscretions . . .

      I said I’m a conservative because of what I know of human nature (including my own). And I’m a liberal because I believe in God, a God who is able to work miracles, including the miracle of transforming human natures.

      So where does that leave me? I’ll tell you this: it doesn’t leave me very comfortable being a Republican or a Democrat these days!

      I’m more convinced then ever that it boils down to those old categories we’ve ceded to the fundamentalists: sin and salvation and crucifixion and resurrection and damnation and redemption. Those are good words that have been co-opted by a diseased branch of Christianity until we are embarrassed to use them.

      So here goes with a couple of stories and a semi-conclusion. (By the way, I looked up what “emeritus” means. It means I get to preach for an extra ten minutes, so beware!)

      I told you about this before but I share it again. When I was serving Christ Church United Methodist in Santa Rosa, I was approached by a group of Jews who wanted to start a congregation. They did not want, nor did they ever plan, to build their own synagogue. They knew that owning property quickly became the preoccupation of any congregation, Jewish or Christian. They proposed sharing a facility with a Christian congregation, holding Sabbath services on Friday evenings, Hebrew School on Saturday mornings, and needing for an office for their rabbi.

      They would contribute to the upkeep of the facility, and we - like all Methodist churches - were struggling financially; so we struck a deal. That was 33 years ago. Those two congregations continue to share the church building, having rebuilt it together after a young man, high on drugs, set fire to the sanctuary in 1984.

      Each year we two congregations would hold two joint services of worship. I would preach at one - the rabbi at the other. When one such service ended, after I had preached about Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor and Nobel Prize winner, one of the Jewish men approached me. Without saying a word, he fixed his eyes on mine, turned an open palm toward me and slowly rolled up his sleeve. There on the tender skin of his inner forearm were a series of tattooed numbers. He said nothing - nor did he have to. What could be said? He was a concentration camp survivor, branded by human evil.

      When the Santa Rosa Jewish group grew to sufficient size and strength they were formally “chartered” as a Temple. There was a special worship service on a Friday night to which Jewish congregations from miles around were invited. A revered older rabbi came as guest preacher, and the congregation’s new Torah was blessed and installed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah is an ornate scroll on which the first five books of the Bible are imprinted. The Ark of the Covenant is a cabinet that stands in the front of every Jewish synagogue and in which the Torah is stored between services of worship.

      The old rabbi based his sermon on a passage from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah - the very same passage we read this morning. “ [Thus] says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . ” The rabbi drew attention to the Torah they had received, the scroll that would be taken from the Ark every week at Sabbath services. Their “new” Torah, he pointed out, was over 700 years old. For seven centuries it had been the treasured center of a Czechoslovakian synagogue. Nazis had burned the synagogue, taken the scroll from its cabinet, fired bullets through it and left it behind. The Jews were taken away to concentration camps. When the war ended, surviving Jews gathered these ancient desecrated Torahs - as many as they could find - and restored them by hand-weaving fibers to mend the holes where the bullets had entered. The new Santa Rosa synagogue was receiving one of these restored Torahs, along with their new name: Congregation Shomrei Torah - Keepers of the Torah - the People Who Keep the Jewish Law, the Jewish Way.

      And then the old rabbi preached - in a mixture of Hebrew and English - from the Jeremiah passage we read this morning. He said Torah has shaped Jewish life for 3,000 years. He said the Torah in their sanctuary had been horribly desecrated and lovingly restored. And said that their protection of the scroll ( Shomrei Torah) meant very little unless this “Law”, this “Way”, were written on their hearts, held deeply and safely within them, the path on which they walked their walk. That’s what it means to “keep Torah.”

      He was speaking to a group of prosperous professionals in Santa Rosa, California, in 1975 - some of whom still carried tattooed numbers on their inner forearms. No matter how they prospered, no matter how much they fit into California suburban lifestyles, these people knew what exile felt like.

      So we read the same Scripture text today - the fifth Sunday in Lent. Jeremiah was writing for a Jewish population about to be forced into exile. The Babylonians were at the gates. Jerusalem was about to be sacked. Solomon’s Temple would be pillaged and burned. The people were about to be driven from their homes and taken to a strange land, where there was no house of worship devoted to Yahweh and no place to put the sacred scrolls. The people despaired. But Jeremiah tells them that Yahweh will establish a “new covenant” with them. If they cannot carry the scrolls of the Torah into exile, He will write the Torah on their hearts.

      Story number 2:

      We’re active in Placerville’s Federated Church. Sometime in the 1920s the Methodists and the Presbyterians in Placerville decided to “federate”. Though we remain either Methodist or Presbyterian as individuals, we are one congregation with one building, one budget and one witness. (Don’t picture us as some “little” church, by the way. We have several hundred members, two full time pastors, plus other professional staff. Our worship attendance is about the same as this church, and our budget is 80% of yours. Oh, yes.) One Sunday, during Passing of the Peace, the mayor leaned over the back of the pew where I was standing and said, “I’d like you to come and speak at City Council Tuesday night.” I said, “Is there an assigned topic?” She said, “Yes; I’m planning to introduce a resolution making Placerville a ‘Hate Free Zone’ and there will be many people there in opposition. I’d like you to come and speak in favor.”

      Why did we need to proclaim that Placerville is a “hate free zone”? It seems that one little group of Christians have a panel truck on which they have painted signs saying things like “God Hates Faggots” and “Sodomy Is an Abomination.” It has a picture of two men kissing with one of those (circle with a line slashed through it) signs superimposed. For months they parked their truck next to a different elementary school each morning and told the children arriving for school that God hates homosexuals. On weekends they parked their truck on a freeway overpass where everybody on their way to South Lake Tahoe can’t help but see it. It was pretty hateful.

      So our mayor wanted to pass a resolution declaring Placerville a hate-free zone. City Council had to move the meeting to a larger hall to accommodate the crowd. Speaker after speaker - many of them pastors from small Baptist and evangelical churches - said some variation of this: The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. So if you tell us we are using “hate speech” when we denounce homosexuality, then you are saying that the Bible is “hate speech”. And we know that the government just wants to label the Bible “hate speech” so that police can come into our churches and arrest our pastors while they are preaching the Bible.”

      I thought, “well, that’s a novel idea.” But I looked around at all the people who were there that night because they earnestly and sincerely believed it. And I thought, here we are in a reasonably progressive town in northern California (the City Council passed the “hate free zone” proclamation unanimously); we are not in Mississippi, for instance. But I ended up wondering how many churches there are in our town (and across America) where the people are hearing that other message Sunday after Sunday.

      When our pastor in Placerville offered a Bible study on the “Rapture”, we had 40 people attend. Did they all believe the bizarre idea that true Christians will be “raptured” into heaven leaving cars driverless and children abandoned? No. They didn’t believe it. But they all had a family member, or good friend, or near neighbor who believed it and who was trying to convert them so they would not be “left behind” when the Rapture comes.

      Did you know that financial support for the contested Jewish settlements in “Greater Israel” comes largely from evangelical Christians who believe that as soon as Jews take complete control of Israel and rebuild the Temple it will precipitate the promised end of the world and bring about the Rapture? Do you realize that there are people who hold this belief serving in the Bush Administration in Washington?

      Do you think it will make a difference that five of our nine Supreme Court justices are staunch Roman Catholics - fervently supported by the same Baptists and Evangelicals who opposed John F. Kennedy’s presidency because he was a Catholic?

      What are the consequences of being tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

      This past week Carol heard a radio preacher talking about the evils Christian youth will face when they leave home and go to college. He named them. He said the three great evils a Christian youth will face are tolerance, diversity, and multi-culturism.

      Our pastor in Placerville is advising a group of teachers who are trying to write a school curriculum on tolerance - they have been told, by other pastors, that Christians do not value tolerance - that tolerance is a plot to undermine Christianity.

      We - people like us, liberal, tolerant Christians - are about to go into exile, and we are terribly unprepared. Our exile will not be like Jeremiah’s. We will still have our homes, we will be free to worship in First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto or Federated Church in Placerville. But increasingly it will feel like this isn’t “our” country any more.

      Let me give you one small example. We still call United Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Episcopalians the “mainline” churches. We are not mainline any more. We are sideline churches at best. A delegation of United Methodist Bishops met recently with President Bush. How many waves did that make? Did you even know? If we cling to this feeling that we are the “mainline” our witness will be ineffective. The country and the culture are not about to come back to us. Get used to it. A very different witness is needed. A different strategy is needed as we are increasingly marginalized.

      Write the “torah” on your hearts because the trappings of mainline Christianity don’t carry much weight in American culture today.

      Liberal enclaves - like Berkeley and Palo Alto - will continue to exist, growing more and more powerless by the day.

      We might actually have to learn how to speak Bible again. Not because we are forced to but because it is the language of our neighbors, or our government. How much serious Bible study is done at First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto? People in those “other” churches are studying Scripture daily as individuals, they are reading Scripture daily as family, and they are meeting one to three times a week to study Scripture in groups. We can’t hold up our end of the conversation because we can’t talk Bible to them. And they are not interested in talking psychology, tolerance, and enlightened science with us.

      They are fervently motivated and politically powerful because the Republican party happily panders to them - selling its soul for fundamentalist pottage.

      Are things really this bad? How bad is bad? Is this one damn thing after another or one damn thing over and over again.

      Maybe you’ve seen the Academy Award winning film, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Great film! It portrays those few months in the life of journalist Edward R. Murrow, when he took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early years of television. Remember the McCarthy years? (Some of us, at least, are old enough to remember the 1950s.) The fear and the polarization of America were worse then than now.

      I am currently about a third of the way through Taylor Branch’s 2,600 page history of America during the Martin Luther King years. I’m stuck right now in a long dreary recitation of how President John F. Kennedy appointed Southern segregationist judges one after another after another. Kennedy’s record on Civil Rights makes George Bush look enlightened by comparison. He considered Martin Luther King, Jr. a nuisance.

      This week I came across a photo of Blacks being kicked and clubbed by whites in broad daylight in the streets of a major American city. Birmingham, Alabama in 1963? Nope. Boston, Massachusetts, 1976. The courts had just decreed school bussing and Boston burst into riots.

      So you tell me, is it one damned thing after another, or is it the same damned thing over and over again?

      We are currently becoming a nation of tribes. There is very little consensus about anything. And that is uncomfortable - very uncomfortable - for those of us who somehow thought we were the center, the “mainline.”

      It will be hard to accept that we are not a part of a mainline church. It will be hard to accept being part of a long-term political minority in our own land. Am I giving up on activism? Not at all. I commend all efforts to wrest power back from this administration who govern by fear and manipulation and secrecy. What is it that the Bush Administration has to hide, that they are so insistent on secrecy and darkness? Let them hear the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “ For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” {John 3:20}

      Which brings me (finally) back to Shomrei Torah. Jeremiah’s people couldn’t understand how they could continue if their culture was forbidden, their institutions and infrastructure destroyed. How will we worship if we can’t go to the Temple? What if they won’t let us take our Bibles (Torah) with us. And Jeremiah says, “God will write Torah on your hearts.” You will take nothing into exile with you except God’s law written on your hearts.

      Finally, here is my semi-conclusion.

      We may well feel for the rest of our lives that we are strangers in our own land. We may become increasingly marginalized by a Right Wing Supreme Court and a Republican hegemony rooted in Old South Bibliolotry that co-opts the Bible and turns Christianity into something we should be ashamed of and maybe even afraid of.

      It would be well to consider what is really worth taking.

      Tolerance - while an absolutely necessary civic virtue - is not the foundation of Christian faith.

      Don’t be misled into believing liberal cliches like “the Bible is about love.” The Bible is not about love. . . . At least it’s not about human love. There is almost nothing in it about human love. It’s about Divine Love - a Divine Love so fierce and consuming that some have experienced it as wrath.

      Having used up even my extra 10 minutes, and having begun with the story of one rabbi, I conclude with the words of another rabbi. He said, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your heart breaks, the holy words will fall inside.”

      I suspect it is “one damned thing over and over again” - another way of saying that we live in a fallen world, where sin rules. But I have faith that there is a God, who writes the new Law on broken hearts, enabling us to survive exile, as a Covenant People.

       Shomrei Torah!



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Can 70 Donkeys Carry 10 Commandments? - The Rev. Bob Olmstead (text and audio)

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Read and listen to the October 9th sermon preached by the Rev. Bob Olmstead. Bob Olmstead was the Senior Pastor of First Palo Alto from 1993-2003.

The readings were Exodus 32:1-14 and Judges 12:13-13:1.


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Rev. Bob Olmstead
First United Methodist Church
Palo Alto, California

October 9, 2005

Exodus 32:1-14
Judges 12:13-13:1

Before surgery restored my hearing friends clipped advertisements touting “break-throughs” in hearing-aid technology and gave them to me. Now that I’m retired friends send me articles about slowing the onset of Alzheimers. The anti-Alzheimers articles all recommend doing cross-word puzzles. The articles don’t tell you, however, how to get the cross-word puzzles away from your wife. I get the sports section; Carol gets the cross-word puzzles.

No longer do I turn out a sermon a week - but I still read the news with the Bible in mind and I still read the Bible with the news in mind. And that’s sort of like a cross-word puzzle. How to make them “fit”! When Archer Summers invited me to preach on October 9 I was grateful for the chance to complete a puzzle and I immediately peeked at the lectionary - to see what Bible passages were prescribed for October 9.

The wrath of God! Congratulations!

Since that invitation we’ve had hurricanes Katrina and Rita and now an earthquake in Pakistan.. Insurance companies call hurricanes and earthquakes “acts of God” and the media has described them as “storms of Biblical proportions.” And the Bible readings for today are about the wrath of God.

Where to start?

Katrina or Moses?

Let’s start with Moses, OK? I’m going to assume you are familiar with the long story of which this morning’s lesson is a portion. Moses is born to a Hebrew slave woman, rescued and raised by a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh, fugitive after killing a supervisor, chosen by Yahweh/God to lead his people out of slavery and subjection in Egypt. He lifts his arm and the waters of the Red Sea part. The Hebrews cross safely to the other side and find themselves in a wasteland. Food is scarce. Water is scarcer. And about all Moses can tell the people is “God will provide.”

If you think this church has leadership issues, pity poor Moses. Mouthpiece for Yahweh/God. Moses spends 40 days and nights on a mountaintop taking dictation in the midst of swirling winds and dense fog. He was in the eye of the storm! That storm was of truly Biblical proportions!

But that storm was not about nature . . . except maybe about human nature.

That storm - on Mount Sinai - was about abolishing religion as it was known and practiced up till that moment in history. That storm was about abolishing the precepts of ethics and morality that had till them governed human interaction. Moses was in the eye of a storm infinitely more powerful than Katrina, because if those 10 commandments were given more than lip service they would precipitate a political/psychological tidal surge wiping out religion and morality as they were then known.

> One God . . . alone!
> Don’t kill!
> Don’t even envy!
> Be truthful in every transaction!
> Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for God and your neighbor.

There was nothing in the ten commandments about bless the crops or the nation or the tribe. There was nothing about keeping our sons and daughters safe or keeping our village safe. There was nothing about offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. Nothing! There was nothing to bring comfort, except, maybe, a crumb of comfort in those first half-dozen words: “I am the Lord your God...”

So Moses stumbles down the mountain carrying two stone tablets, half blind and mighty hungry after 40 days and 40 nights in the eye of the hurricane, only to discover the people dancing around a golden calf - doing what they’ve always done, trying to get God on their side, trying to manipulate God’s feelings, trying to cajole God into doing their will, singing, “Here God, I’ll give you this lovely piece of Aunt Martha’s antique jewelry if You’ll just get us out of this desert and let us go back to our nice quiet lives.”

And while Moses is still rubbing his eyes and trying to take it all in, he hears the rumble of God’s voice behind him saying, “Enough! I’ve had enough! Stand aside ‘cause I’m gonna wipe them out! I’ve had it with these people!”

Now to the newspaper. Some look upon the devastation wrought by Katrina and Rita and see in it the wrath of God, destroying New Orleans for harboring homosexuals. A New Orleans city official was overhead saying they’d been trying to clean up public housing for years and now God had done it for them. I’m going to take for granted that nobody in this room believes such warped and ignorant theology.

But how about the mayor of a small Mississippi town which was spared much damage? She looked at the houses still standing and she said, “God saw fit to save our little town.” If we do not believe God’s wrath brought the destruction, do we dare say “thank you” when our lives or livelihoods are spared?

I’ve been helping train Stephen Ministers at the church we now attend. Most everyone knows someone who knows someone in Louisiana or Mississippi. One white-haired woman who has seen her share of sadness and struggle, said, “I don’t like to hear hurricanes called ‘acts of God’. What does God have to do with the weather? I look at those people who gave up their jobs to go and help, I look at the people who risked their lives to save others - those are acts of God.”

Is God in the earthquake and the storm?

Is God in helping hands and hearts?

There are two brothers in the Exodus story: Moses and Aaron. Aaron is the liberal: thinking of others, helping them get what they want, concerned about their welfare, sensitive to their struggles and feelings. Moses is the conservative: uncompromising in his devotion to the Word of God, laying down the law.

But neither of them is the principal character in the story. The principal character is Yahweh. God. Who is angry! “Wrathful” is the word that’s used. The key to this passage is not Aaron and the golden calf; it’s not Moses and the tablets of stone. The key to this passage is that God changes his mind. Verse 14: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

Do we have a satisfactory answer to whether God sends hurricanes to teach us a lesson? I don’t know. I’m retired. Ask Archer! Or Katie! Here’s what I make of it, in no particular sequence and no order of significance.

God will go on working with us. Do we deserve it? That’s not the issues. God commits to us. God’s “laws” are not as important as the fact that God wants a relationship with us. God is like the spouse who forgives. That’s the story line of the entire Old Testament. That’s the story line of the entire Bible. God commits to us. God wants relationship with us. Just like the spouse who forgives.

I sure want to give thanks to somebody whenever I realize that day by day I have been spared. I have been spared hunger; I have been spared homelessness; I have been spared hurricanes, cancer, divorce . . . I have been spared.

I don’t think I have been singled out for blessings, any more than I think others are singled out for punishment. But I want to pray my “thank yous” and when I make my prayer in Jesus’s name, (you know, “...in Jesus’s name. Amen.”) then I have no choice but to add, “You are the Lord, my God; what do you want me to do?”

The novelist, Bernard Malamud, was asked what he thought about suffering, he said, “I’m against it. But, if it’s unavoidable let’s at least learn something from it.”

Mark Twain took it one step further, saying, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it - and stop there, lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again - and that is well; but also she will never
sit down on a cool one any more.”

So what have we learned?

America, despite its hubris, is not immune from the forces of nature.

Racism, in America, is still Ground Zero, the exact place any leader or any church ought to take its stand.

Former Defense Secretary, William Cohen, said, “Government is the enemy until you need a friend.” Well, Republicans have made it clear that they consider government the enemy. And Democrats have done little but say, “Tsk, tsk, what a naughty attitude.”

Republicans were not ready to help Americans in their need. Republicans are a disgrace.

Democrats will not state clearly how they propose to define the role of government. Democrats are a disgrace.

This is the opportunity for America to redefine and clarify the social contract. I hope one of the parties will step up to the plate. This is an historic moment.

Newscaster Eric Sevareid once said, “Civilization is only about seven meals from anarchy.” That’s an ugly truth.

Individuals will go to extraordinary lengths to lend a helping hand. That’s a lovely truth.

Government should be a responsible friend to those in need. That’s a forgotten truth.

Many of us have been boycotting WalMart for depressing wages and exploiting workers. Sixteen hours after Katrina abated, while the United States government was still trying to figure out how to make a phone call, WalMart loaded 1000 tractor-trailer trucks with merchandise (free) and delivered them to New Orleans. I’ve been reflecting on that.

Actor Anthony Perkins died of AIDS-related complications. He was heard to say that he believed AIDS was sent to teach people how to love and understand and have compassion for each other. Notice how he put that: “AIDS was sent...” “AIDS was sent to teach people how to love and understand...” Where do we find the verb “sent” in the Bible? God SENT his Son . . . God does not send the weather. God does not send AIDS. God sent his Son . . . and that trumps every other thing that could ever be said, including every other thing that is said in the Bible. That’s where a Christian always starts. Divine love trumps everything else.

Let’s jump from Moses to Abdon. How many of you know the story of Abdon? (I’ll tell you, this Archer Summers knows the Bible because this is one of the smallest stories in there and its only significance is its insignificance, which is the point, so to speak, as I get it, right now.)

Abdon appears in the book of Judges, which means the Hebrews have finally finished their 40 years in the wasteland and found their way to the promised land, but as yet they have no King David, no Jerusalem Temple, no major prophets. They are a loose confederation of tribes, eking out a living among hostile Philistines, and without much in the way of government. A succession of “judges” try to guide them in the paths of righteousness. One such “judge” is named Abdon, son of Hillel, of whom we are told, “He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys; he judged Israel eight years.” Then he died. That’s it!

That leaves a lot to the imagination! Forty sons. Phew! I thought it was hard raising four kids! Seventy donkeys. That’s a lot of barnyard exhaust!

But the Bible seems to think Abdon did OK, at least in comparison with the judges who followed him.

He didn’t build the Temple, defeat the Canaanites, or rule an empire. He was never called to the mountaintop. Abdon was only asked to remain faithful, to remind the people of their responsibilities and their calling, and to exercise such gifts as he had been given (which evidently included keeping 70 donkeys headed in the same direction)! I built my father’s memorial service sermon around a single sentence from Saint Bonaventure, who said, “A constant fidelity in little things is a great and heroic virtue.” Maybe that was Abdon’s virtue. A constant fidelity in little things.

What a woefully neglected word: virtue. “Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well.” That’s not my definition, but would you accept it? “Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well.” Virtue is different from commandments, which tell us what to do without making us feel like doing those things. A commandment works from the outside in, a virtue works from the inside out. (This discussion of virtues and commandments comes from an article by Barbara Brown Taylor in the July 26, 2005 Christian Century. She cites the writings of Paul Woodruff and Chuck Campbell).

Here’s the other half of that definition: virtue is a capacity cultivated by experience and training, largely in community, where habits that give rise to virtues are formed.

Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well. Virtue is a capacity cultivated by experience and training, largely in families and churches, where habits that give rise to virtues are formed.

I changed two words; did you notice that? I named the “communities” where the “habits that are give rise to virtues” are formed. Families and churches.

Where else but families and churches are the habits that give rise to virtues formed?

This the quiet everyday work of the church; this is the virtue of Abdon. A constant fidelity, transforming commandments into virtues, external laws into internal habits, habits of generosity and compassion and service and fidelity and sacrifice and hospitality and devotion and humor and reverence and hope. That’s what First United Methodist Church is about.

There are 90 Methodist ministers in Louisiana who cannot find their churches. They cannot find their buildings; their buildings are gone. They cannot find their people; their people are scattered, depending on the hospitality of strangers or distant family - who knows where?

Andre Dubos is an American writer. In 1986 he stopped to help a stranded motorist. He was hit by a car while helping; he lost one leg and the use of the other. He later lost his marriage. Looking back he writes, “We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after losses.” (Andre Dubos, Broken Vessels, 1991).

Two hundred seventy five thousand homes wiped off the face of the earth. A million people scattered. Most of them poor to start with, now having to learn that hard hard lesson: “We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after losses.”

Meanwhile, we are Abdon, with 70 donkeys - more than we need even if we have 40 sons and 30 grandsons. We are wealthy . . . very very wealthy. Surely I need not say more . . .



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“APRON AND UMBRELLA” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“APRON AND UMBRELLA”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

June 1, 2003

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”  (Luke 24:50-51)<


We call this Ascension Sunday.  The two Scripture lessons tell how Jesus led his disciples out of Jerusalem to the town of Bethany, where he blessed them and then disappeared into the clouds.  A pastor I know decided to illustrate this dramatic incident.  He carried the Christ candle down from the altar close to the congregation.  As the words of the lessons were read he snuffed out the candle and simultaneously members of the choir blew bubbles into the air.  A little girl in the front row pointed her finger at the bubbles and watched with the gaping mouth and rapt attention of a little child seeing something new and beautiful and unexpected.

 

            I suppose that’s how the disciples looked, and who could blame them?  Jesus disappears into the clouds!  That’s part A of the story.  Part B is the appearance of two angels in freshly dry-cleaned white robes.  “Why are looking up to heaven?” they ask.  Blushing, the disciples close their mouths, look sheepishly at each other, and go back to Jerusalem as they were told.

 

            It’s a sensational image; Jesus “lifted up, [until] a cloud took him out of sight.”  In England there is a church known as the Chapel of the Ascension.  Two feet stick down through the chapel ceiling. [1]   Can you imagine, week after week, coming for worship and looking up at two feet forever seized in plaster?  I wonder if the people of that congregation are similarly frozen in time, staring off into heaven when they should be looking at one another and listening for the spirit’s call to service in the world outside their doors?  They got Part A in their architecture; but do they have Part B or for that matter, Part C, which comes next week.  Pentecost, when the Spirit of Christ, the breath of God, the wisdom which is forever feminine in the Hebrew Bible, comes to fill them up and they discover that God “may have gone up with a shout” (today’s anthem), but now this same God has come back to transform these

followers into leaders, these listeners into preachers, these converts into missionaries, these healed men and women into healers. [2]  

 

            Part A – Jesus disappears into the clouds.

 

            Part B – the disciples get over their shock, look around, and return to Jerusalem.

 

            Part C – they discover that THEY are empowered to teach the things that Jesus taught, to live the life that Jesus lived, to do the things that Jesus did, to incarnate God’s healing presence in the world just as Jesus embodied it.        

 

Every journey begins with a leave-taking.  That’s why some never leave home.  Every journey begins with good-bye.  The disciples had to say good-bye to Jesus so they could begin their own journeys of faith and service and sacrifice and fulfillment and incarnation.

 

            So this is my “last sermon” before retirement.  People from all the congregations I have served are here this weekend.  I am profoundly moved that you care enough to come and share this precious moment.

 

            This being Ascension Sunday AND my final sermon before saying goodbye, Mark Shaull suggested that we rig up pulleys and wires and just waft me over your heads at the end of the service.  Luckily I have enough authority left to veto that! For I, too, am one of the shambling disciples returning to "Jerusalem” to await the spirit.  To see what new thing there is in store for me to do, what new thing there is for you to do.

 

            Part B!  Part B!

 

            Part C!  Part C!

 

            The Choir sang, “God Is Gone up with a Shout!”  But after all these parties Bob waddles off with a burp.

 

            Janet asked me what my three favorite Bible verses were.  I had no ready answer for that because I don’t think of the Bible that way – it is a vast sweeping saga with thousands of human characters bumping into the great mystery of God and then rubbing up against each other as they run to tell the story of their encounters.  It got separated into “chapters” and “verses” only centuries later.  But I thought about it.  And I came up with three verses.  When I was in Windsor I put Psalm 133, verse 1, on the church stationery.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  That’s my favorite.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  “Kindred” meant family ties and responsibilities that extended much farther in Bible times.  “Kindred,” in that sense, is an image for the Church.  It is my nature to look for ways to help people get along.  Divisions and rivalries and disagreements within a congregation have always caused me distress.  The Church has been a place of hospitality, caring, acceptance and encouragement to me, and I wish it could be that for everybody.  Hospitality is God’s grace with skin on, and the Church must first of all be a place of hospitality. 

 

            My third favorite Bible verse is frivolous, so I needed to come up with something more profound for the second.  I settled on the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  That sentence acknowledges the reality of darkness in this world, but it affirms the triumph of light. The verse is powerful instead of optimistic.  The darkness is recognized.  The light – of Christ, of love, of peace, of shalom, of faith, of the Church, of your grace-filled lives - shines in the darkness, and the darkness [will] not overcome it.

 

            My third favorite Bible verse is from Nehemiah, chapter 8, verse 10, and I save it for all proof-texters: “Then [Nehemiah] said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”  This is my rebuttal to all those who have made skinny the new religion and losing weight the newest Puritanical fad.  “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine . . . the joy of the Lord is your strength! . . . while you’re at it share the joy.”  The Bible says so and that’s my reply to those who take themselves too seriously, and especially to those who are judgmental of others.  John Wesley said “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion.”  Laughter and generosity are symptoms of spiritual health, and the joy of the Lord of life is our strength.

 

            Give . . . with joy! 

 

            In 1962 the Cabinet of District Superintendents met in a back room in June while Annual Conference was going on the auditorium at University of the Pacific.  Methodists never knew when their pastor left for Conference each year if it would be he or another one who would come back to them.  In 1962 I came back from Conference as the new and totally unexpected pastor of Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church in Oakland.  O.D. Jacoby introduced me to the congregation, then went back to sit down in his usual pew, and there I was, 22 years old and primed to preach my first sermon to a congregation who had never had a minister under 50.

 

            Strangely enough, I was confident in my preaching.  But serving Communion was a different matter.  All those hands held out to me, brown hands, white hands, men’s hands, women’s hands, hands creased and callused with hard work, hands trembling and frail with age, hands that had experienced so much more of life than I had.  I had no trouble writing sermons, but the hands unnerved me.  All those people, kneeling at the Communion rail, reaching out for that simplest and humblest of all religious symbols, the symbol that defines our religion even more than the cross: a piece of bread, broken and shared.

 

             It is Communion that looms before me today.  Not this “final sermon,” but the indescribable privilege of serving God’s bread to God’s people.  Holding the loaf for first a child, and then an elder, then a good friend, and then a complete stranger, watching those hands tear off a piece of the loaf, repeating the words that say so much: “The bread of life, given for you.”

 

A good friend of mine raised her daughter pretty much by herself.  When the time came for the daughter to leave home for college my friend cooked a special dinner and invited her daughter’s friends.  As she prepared the meal she wore a big baker’s apron on which she had stenciled special blessings and messages of love with a magic marker.  When the meal was over she took out a big pair of scissors, cut the apron strings and tossed the apron aside. She said something like, “You’re on your own now.  I’ve cut the apron strings.”  But then she had a gift for her daughter.  It was an umbrella; and on the underside of the umbrella where you could see it only when it was open and protecting you, she had written in bright nail polish: “I love you, Mom.”

           

I’m in awe of people who can think of things like that.  During my last sermon at Christ Church in Santa Rosa I took off that terrible pink and blue plaid sport coat I wore for 10 years and I tossed it aside.  But I don’t have a similar gesture now.  There is still Communion to celebrate and robe and stole are symbols of the remarkable privilege the United Methodist Church has bestowed on me, the privilege of serving as a pastor among the people of five churches and three Pacific Islander fellowships across 42 years.

 

            Every journey begins with good-bye.  Retirement begins a new journey for me, garden and grandchildren and God await me.  Part B and Part C of the Ascension story are still works in progress for me and for you.

 

            Insofar as a pastor fulfills a mothering role the apron strings are now to be cut, but I’m there in that umbrella because love never ends: my love for the people of Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church in Oakland, my love for the people of the Windsor Community United Methodist Church, my love for the people of Christ Church United Methodist in Santa Rosa, my love for the people of First United Methodist Church in Reno, Nevada, my love for the people of Tongan and Fijian Fellowships in both Reno and Palo Alto, and my love for the people of First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto..

 

            Blessings on you, and on your families, and on everyone you love, this day and forevermore.  Amen. 



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[1] Thanks to Rev. John McLaughlin for this reference and for the candle/bubbles enactment.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995.



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“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (II)” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (II)”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy . . .”  (Psalm 98:8)


             It feels odd to sing “Joy to the World” today, doesn’t it?  We mistakenly limit it to the category of Christmas carol when it isn’t that at all.  If you look at the small print at the bottom of the page you will note that it is based on Psalm 98:4-9.  The Psalmist and the hymnist (Isaac Watts) both saw God’s triumph reflected in nature.

            Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

            Let all their songs employ;

            while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

            reflect the sounding joy, reflect the sounding joy . . .

            No more let sins and sorrows grow,

            nor thorns infest the ground;

            he comes to make his blessings flow

            far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found . . . [1]

That’s a theology struggling to include the natural world: earth, thorns, animals, fields, floods, rocks, hills and plains.

 

            Let me share an extraordinary poem with you. 

 

            The cat has the chance to make the sunlight

            Beautiful, to stop it and turn it immediately

            Into black fur and motion, to take it

            As shifting branch and brown feather

            Into the back of the brain forever.

            The cardinal has flown the sun in red

            Through the oak forest to the lawn.

            The finch has caught it in yellow

            And taken it among the thorns.  By the spider

            It has been bound tightly and tied

            In an eight-stringed knot.

            The sun has been intercepted in its one

            Basic state and changed to a million varieties

            Of green stick and tassel.  It has been broken

            Into pieces by glass rings, by mist

            Over the river.  Its heat

            Has been given the board fence for body.

            The desert rock for fact.  On winter hills

            It has been laid down in white like a martyr.

            This afternoon we could spread gold scarves

            Clear across the field and say in truth,

            “Sun you are silk.”

            Imagine the sun totally isolated,

            Its brightness shot in continuous streaks straight out

            Into the black, never arrested,

            Never once being made light.

            Someone should take note

            Of how the Earth has saved the sun from oblivion. [2]

 

            Someone should take note of how the Earth has saved the sun from oblivion.

 

            Some say God could not exist without us.  We are the foils, the objects against which God splinters and is reflected; without us God would expand always into eternal nothingness.

 

            Sermons are supposed to have a point and I don’t know what the point of that is, just that it feels very significant to me.  It gives me the shivers down in that space where explanations don’t reach.

 

            During this past Lent I preached a series of sermons about words that have resonated deeply with my experience of life.  The series was interrupted when the war in Iraq began.  Today’s sermon revisits the sermon that was originally planned for that week.  I leave it up to you to see if these words about animals have any consequence in the light of war, hunger, drugs in our schools, and the general cussedness of human experience.

 

            Annie Dillard tells of walking around the corner of a house just in time to see a mockingbird fly lightly from the roof to the ground.  She writes,

 

"It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.  The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped.  His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air.  Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white banded tail, and so floated onto the grass.  I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight . . . . beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there." [3]

 

            Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.      

 

            Will it be enough in my retirement to just “be there” when beauty and grace are performed?  Or do I have to do something to justify my existence? (Or at least to be a good Methodist?)

 

            Yet another poem provides one answer to that question:

 

            You do not have to be good.

            You do not have to walk on your knees

            for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

            You only have to let the soft animal of your body

                love what it loves.

            Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

            Meanwhile the world goes on.

            Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

            are moving across the landscapes,

            over the prairies and the deep rivers.

            Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

            are heading home again.

            Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

            the world offers itself to your imagination,

            calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

            over and over announcing your place

            in the family of things. [4]

 

            The first lines of that poem are not what one usually hears in a Sunday sermon: “You do not have to be good.  You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

 

            Losing track of our “place in the family of things,” leads to all kinds of mischief – like wars, racism, and a deep despair.  Is that perhaps the real root of all evil?

 

            Thirty years ago, or more, I preached a sermon using the hackneyed example of our human superiority to the animals by virtue of our ability to reason, or maybe because of the ingenuity which came with opposable thumbs, or because we are the only species who make promises and covenants.  The illustration took human superiority for granted.  I was merely using it to draw attention to one of our human qualities.  A young woman named Barbara Hadley, who had barely spoken to me previously, was visibly disturbed when she came through the line to shake hands following worship.  In her distress she was admirably succinct.  “You’re wrong!” was all she said, and later she brought me a quote, a paragraph from a book I’d never heard of.  I want to read it to you, to see what you think.

 

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.  Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.  And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” [5]

 

What happens if we see the animals, the earth’s other creatures, as “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth”?  That question is taking shape in human consciousness. 

 

We’ve barely turned the page into a new century.  What will be the experience of someone born this decade and living four score and seven years?  War and the redistribution of wealth will continue to bedevil human experience as they have from the beginning of time.  The miraculous things that happen in hospitals today will be viewed as barbaric by those looking back from the end of this century.  And animal rights may prove to have been the most controversial, heated, and profound issue faced by humanity in the century to come.

 

I once had a poster on my office wall with a quote from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.  It said:

“Creation is not a hurdle on the road to God, it is the road itself.  We are created along with one another and directed to a life with one another.  Creatures are placed in my way so that I, their fellow-creature, by means of them and with them find the way to God.  A god reached by their exclusion would not be the God of all lives, in Whom all life is fulfilled… To look away from the world, or to stare at it, does not help a [human] to reach God; but the human who sees the world in God, stands in God’s presence … If you hallow this life, you meet the living God.

 

Such reflections do not tempt me to become a vegetarian.  I don’t think that’s the issue.

 

We will soon retire to our property on 7.5 acres of hillside and woods in the Sierra foothills.  One of the first things I will do is build a fence – not a huge fence around the perimeter to define “my” domain, but a small fence around a bit of fertile earth where I can grow tomatoes.  It’s the only way I know to live in peace with the deer and wild turkeys that will otherwise nibble my tomatoes down to the ground.

 

The animals do not live without killing and eating, nor do we.

 

We break the bread.  We drink the wine.  We do it with utmost reverence and respect, remembering that God sustains us by giving up a portion of Godself.  We break the bread.  We drink the wine.  We do it with utmost reverence and respect and thereby learn our way in this world, our place on this earth that we share with other creatures, other nations.

 



[1] “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts, The United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, TN, 1989.

[2] “The Significance of Location,” Patiann Rogers, Firekeeper: New and Selected Poems, Milkweed Editions, 1994;

thanks to Rev. Bob Moon for the gift of this poem – he knew I would like it!

[3] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper’s Magazine Press, New York, 1974.

[4] “Wild Geese,”  Mary Oliver?  Denise Levertov?

[5] Henry Beston, The Outmost House – a Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Rinehart & Co., New York, Toronto, 1928.

 



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“WHEE! LIKE SHEEP" - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

WHEE! LIKE SHEEP”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  (Psalm 23:1)

 

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

 


             I always found it hard to organize sermons during the first few months in a new parish.  People are forming their first impressions of the new pastor, and I felt like I had to say everything at once so folks would know how “this” fit with “that.”  Trying to say everything at once makes for bad sermons.  Now that we are down to the final few weeks I feel a similar pressure.  Addressing one issue leaves many things unsaid and there won’t be many more opportunities to say them.

 

            So this morning we have Mother’s Day, the 23rd Psalm, tomorrow’s janitors’ strike, the Good Shepherd, UN resolutions about rebuilding Iraq, a pastoral transition that will make changes in your lives and mine, a morally infantile President who proposes enlarging our arsenal of nuclear weapons, and a couple of things I want to say about this church – the past decade and the years ahead.  Mix all that together and it doesn’t make a coherent sermon.  So I’m going to talk about sheep.  

 

            Did you know that when sheep stumble in the mud and their wooly coats get waterlogged, they will lie on their backs with their legs in the air and bleat piteously – never even trying to get up?  They’ll lie there upside down in the mud till they die, unless their shepherd comes along and turns them back over.  So I read.

 

            I’ve never seen that, but I have seen a shepherd bring a flock of sheep into the pen at a livestock auction and set them to circling his legs – endlessly – each following the tail of the one in front of it, around and around and around and around . . . and around . . . while buyers bid on wooly lamb chops.

 

                Alice Jensen grew up on a sheep ranch and she says that sheep are not stupid, but the dictionary says:  sheep, (1) any of a wide variety of cud-chewing mammals related to the goats, with heavy wool, edible flesh called mutton, and skin used in making leather, parchment, etc. . . . (3) a person who is meek, stupid, timid, defenseless, submissive, etc.

 

Why does the Bible so often liken us to sheep?  We need to get the self-esteem-police out there to clean that up and protect our good opinion of ourselves.  Maybe the ancient peoples were meek, stupid, timid, defenseless and submissive, but we moderns are noble, kind, powerful, self-sufficient, creative and wise!  Right?

           

Somebody hearing Handel’s Messiah for the first time wondered if it was written by a sheep farmer because the choir kept singing, “We like sheep . . . we like sheep . . . we like sheep . . . ,” before finally finishing the sentence, “. . . have gone astray-ay-ay-ay-ay.”

 

            We, like sheep, have gone astray. 

 

            If you have email then somebody undoubtedly forwarded the following to you.  (More than one of you forwarded it to me.)

A philosophy professor stood before his class with some items on the table in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2" in diameter. He then asked his students if the jar was full. They all agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a box of tiny pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. As he did, the pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He asked the students again if the jar was full. Again, they agreed it was.  Now the professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Quite a bit of sand slid into the spaces around the pebbles. The professor asked them yet again if the jar was full? The students responded with a unanimous "Yes."  The professor proceeded to produce two [bottles of water] from under the table and poured the contents into the jar. The students laughed.  "Now," said the professor, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things, your family, your partner and your children. The things that if everything else were lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.  The pebbles are the other things that matter, your job, your house and your car.  The sand is everything else. 'The small stuff'.  "If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks.  The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, to clean the house, to give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the rocks first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities... The rest is just sand." [1]  

            Every day we fill up our lives with sand.  Television and radio, newspapers and magazines call out to us, selling sand.  “Buy this, drink that, smoke this, smooth away wrinkles…” They may not know my name, but they sure know where I live.  Too often I live in a fearful, insecure place where I believe what the ads tell me.  I believe that I will be happy, sexy, fulfilled and content if I buy their sand.  McDonald’s may not spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies, but they will give me the fastest cheeseburger in the Western Hemisphere.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray, following all those little voices calling out to us.

            Mother’s Day, known in the United Methodist Church as Festival of the Christian Home, is a good day to pay attention to the first rocks the philosophy professor placed in the jar.  “Your family, your partner and your children,” he said.  “The things that if everything else were lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.”

 

            That’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

 

            A Sunday School teacher asked if anyone in the class could recite the 23rd Psalm. “I can teacher, let me!” said a little girl, frantically waving her hand.  Her enthusiasm exceeded her memory, but the teacher gave her a chance.  She stood up, took a deep breath, and said, “The Lord is my shepherd.  That’s all I want.” [2]

 

            Not a bad summary of the 23rd Psalm.

 

It’s the first “rock” – even before family - to put in our jar.

           

The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I want.

 

A friend of mine, reflecting on the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm says, “’I shall not want’ can mean, ‘I’ll get everything I need.’  But it could mean, ‘I’ll stop wanting things I don’t need.’” [3]

           

The Lord is my shepherd.  That’s all I want.

 

            This same friend tells about helping out on his grandfather's farm.  He says,  “When I was ten or eleven I had a 15-foot bull whip that Uncle Everette had helped me make out of some strips of old horse harness.  I practiced until I could snap the head off a dandelion at its full length.  Besides this primitive weed-whacking, I had no real use for the whip…except for those two times a year [when we drove the sheep to their summer pasture] and I used it to strike fear into the heart of any sheep that even looked like it might step out of line.  Boy, was I the good shepherd.”

 

            Ah, yes.  Our second sheep-Scripture lesson for the day, from the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, and “I’m gonna whip everybody into shape!”

 

            Oops, that’s not what he says, is it?  “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11) 

 

            The Lord is my shepherd.  That’s all I want.

 

            We get to fill up our jar with rocks or pebbles or sand or water. The Good Shepherd carries no whip.  We get to fill up our jar the way we choose.  

 

            A colleague of mine, a nearby UM pastor, was disturbed when I announced my retirement so far in advance.  He said, “As soon as they know you are leaving you won’t be a part of their future any more.”  On one level that is true.  For the past several months I’ve been your interim pastor.  On another level that’s not true.  I will always be a part of the future of this church, by being a part of its past.

 

            Doug Norris is part of the future of this church by virtue of his sixteen years of ministry here prior to my coming.  Harry Peelor is part of the future of this church by virtue of his sexual misconduct; it happened 30 years ago but it cannot be swept under the rug as if it never occurred.  Marvin Stuart is part of the future of this church by virtue of his 22 years as pastor here before he became Bishop.

 

            So if I take a minute to look back over my 10 years here it is not an exercise in nostalgia, it’s an attempt to provide some perspective as you move ahead.  (I will admit to a catch in my throat when I say “as you move ahead,” rather than “as we move ahead.”)

 

            In the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, there are seven “letters” the author is commanded to write to the seven Christian congregations of Asia Minor.  He is commanded to dictate a message not to each church but to the angel of each church.  Once that was pointed out to me, it became a fascinating detail and it excited my imagination.  I decided I needed to identify and address the angel of this church.  Some of you who were here 10 years ago may remember that. 

 

            I prayed about it – I cleared my mind of other things and invited the angel of the church to appear before me.  What I saw was a stern older woman dressed in flowing robes and standing on the steps of a stately mansion.  When I came closer I saw that her gowns were patched.  I realized that her children had left home and the upper stories of the mansion were closed off to save on the heating bills.  She looked both stern and sad.

 

            Do you remember what I said to her?  I said: It’s OK to lighten up a little bit.

 

            Frankly, I don’t know all that much about angels.  Do they get old and die like we do?  Can they grow younger?  I feel like the angel of this church is the same angel, but younger, lighter, more playful, less judgmental and more inviting.  People tell me they feel a friendly spirit here, a sense of warmth and acceptance.  That’s good.  That’s very good.  I think the angel of this church listened.  I’m not talking about programs or budgets or remodeling or numbers or accomplishments or mission.  I’m talking about something more basic than that – the personality of our congregation, our spirit, the core relationships we share with each other and with those who come to join us.  I’m talking about the living angel of this church.  It’s something you and I and everyone here contribute to and it’s something more than the sum of those parts.  Call that something more the Holy Spirit.  Call it the Good Shepherd laying down his life for us.  For us.

 

            The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I want.

 

            Mother’s Day is a nice thing, especially for mothers.  I can’t hear of a janitors’ strike without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., for it was a garbage workers’ strike that brought him to Memphis, Tennessee, where his life was snuffed out (the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep).  Developing a new generation of nuclear weapons on top of our exorbitant military superiority is the dream of a moral madman. Rebuilding Iraq gives us an historic opportunity to do something right and something new.  In this world of ours the Church remains unique in its hopefulness, its blithe faith, and its visionary community.  And this sermon has gone astray-ay-ay-ay like a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

 

            So I am going to sum up with three totally unrelated illustrations.

 

            1)  Do not have your concert first and tune your instruments afterward.  Begin the day with God.  Begin the week with worship.  Get the center of your circle right and the circumference will take care of itself.   (Put the big rocks in the jar first.)

 

            2)  A true story I’ve been carrying around for years and it doesn’t fit any of these “last” sermons so I’m going to throw it in now.  Maybe you remember several years ago at the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., during the fourth round of the contest, Rosalie Elliot, then an 11-year-old from South Carolina, drew the word “avowal.”  In her soft, Southern accent she spelled it.  But did the seventh grader say an ‘a’ or an ‘e’ as the next to the last letter?  The judges couldn’t decide. They listened to tape recording playbacks, but the critical letter was accept-blurred.  Chief Judge John Lloyd finally put the question to the only person who knew the answer.  “Was the letter an ‘a’ or an ‘e’?” he asked Rosalie Elliot.  Surrounded by whispering young spellers, she now knew the correct spelling of the word. Without hesitation, she replied that she had misspelled it.  She walked from the stage and the audience rose and gave her a standing ovation, including 50 newspaper reporters, one of whom was heard to remark that Judge Lloyd had put quite a burden on an 11-year-old.  Had he? [4]   Is that what honesty has come to in our land?  Then the Church has a clear mission – to be a community of people where every 11-year-old finds it easy to be truthful.  Remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel address: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”  We of the Church must believe that!

 

            3) Vaclav Havel – a good politician, like Nelson Mandela, with a benevolent vision for all humanity – said “… the only genuine backbone of all our actions – if they are to be moral – is responsibility.  Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success.”

 

            Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success . . . that’s

the first rock to put in the jar.

 

            The Lord is my shepherd.  That’s all I want.



[1] Thanks to Karen Black and others for forwarding this.

[2] Thanks to Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Germantown, PA.

[3] Dr. Ronald E. Parker, Trinity United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA.

[4] Thanks to Rev. Don Shelby.



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“’SHALOM’ TO YOU NOW” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“SHALOM’ TO YOU NOW”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”  (Luke 24:36b)


 

            The disciples huddle together in a locked room, somewhere, scratching their heads, commiserating over his death, glancing nervously at the door fearing whatever may happen next since they obviously backed the wrong horse in the Messiah race.  Then Jesus appears in the room with them and his first word is “shalom,” . . . “peace”.  “Shalom be with you.”  “Peace be with you.” 

 

Every Sunday, week after week, year after year, we join hands at the conclusion of our worship services and we sing,

 

Shalom to you now, shalom, my friends.

May God’s full mercies bless you, my friends.

In all your living and through your loving,

Christ be your shalom, Christ be your shalom. [1]

 

Week after week we separate from worship by repeating the first words with which the risen Christ greeted his nervous disciples.

 

            Shalom to you now.    Peace be with you.

 

            “Shalom” is a rich Hebrew/Aramaic term meaning more than we mean, usually, when we use the word “peace.”  It means more than peace of mind and it means more than the absence of war.  Before his crucifixion Jesus promised to give shalom to his disciples, but he was quick to add, “not as the world giveth, do I give.”  (John 14:27)  Later in the first century Paul would call shalom the “peace that passes understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)

 

            So what is this shalom we so blithely offer each other every Sunday morning?  I need to give you a little linguistics lesson here – guaranteed to ruin my reputation for interesting and relevant sermons.

 

There are ten times as many words in English as there are in Hebrew.  Hebrew words do double-duty. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  They are all consonants.  No vowels. Shalom means several things depending on context, inflection and spelling.

 

Shalom – in Hebrew - would be written with three letters only – the Hebrew letter for our sound “sh”, the Hebrew letter for our sound “l”, and the Hebrew letter for our sound “m”.  SH-L-M.  Several dozen words could be built by adding spoken vowels.  We don’t really know what vowels Jesus used when he said, “shalom be with you,” because vowels were not added to written Hebrew until six centuries after Christ.

 

Add an “a” sound and shalom means “complete”; add an “e” sound and shelem means “he paid” (fulfilled his obligation). [2]

 

Confused?  It gets more complicated. There is no form of the verb “to be” in Hebrew – there is no word for “is,” no word for “be,” no word for “are.”  Our English translation renders Jesus’ words as “Peace be with you,” but he probably said “Shalom [is] you” or “You [are] shalom.”  Which is interesting because he was addressing a group of timid disciples, including Peter who denied him, and Thomas who doubted his existence.

 

You [are] shalom.

 

The word appears repeatedly throughout the Bible, in a variety of contexts – in the Prophets, in the Psalms, in the Histories, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse.

 

In some contexts it means friendship; shalom is the opposite of treachery.

 

In other contexts it means wellbeing: “do you have wellbeing, do you have shalom?”  It’s like saying, “How are you?”

 

In some contexts it means safety.  One dwells in shalom.

 

In other contexts it means salvation: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings of shalom.”  The angels announce Jesus’ birth by singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth shalom to all on whom his favor rests.”

 

In Psalm 122:6 we find the familiar phrase, “Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem.”  In English we translate it, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” But the Hebrews did not compartmentalize temporal peace and spiritual salvation.  They were inseparable.  You couldn’t have one without the other.  So Psalm 122:6 could just as well be translated, “Pray for the salvation of Jerusalem.”  It could also be translated, “Pray for the health of Jerusalem.”  Or it could be translated, “Pray for the completion of Jerusalem.” “…the fulfillment of Jerusalem.”  “…the perfection of Jerusalem.”  “… the wholeness of Jerusalem.”

 

Shalom be with you,” Jesus greeted his disciples.  “Shalom to you now,” we sing at the end of every worship service.

 

Peace, salvation, health, wholeness, completion, the perfecting of God’s creation and the fulfillment of God’s intention in us, in history, in nature, in time and space, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Peace be with you.    Shalom to you now.

 

We sing that every week.  Does that mean shalom is the unique characteristic of our congregation?  I can only say “our” congregation for another two months and then another will assume my post.  I will be your friend, but another will be your pastor.   This week he will attend a “Transition Workshop” sponsored by our Conference, just as I did in May 10 years ago.  The workshop leader (10 years ago) was Bud Phillips, author of a little book called Pastoral Transitions: from Endings to New Beginnings. [3]   He said church life is a three-act play.  People know their lines, the script is agreed upon, and the drama moves predictably.  But midway through the second act a new actor, whom no one has ever seen before wanders on to the stage.  He doesn’t know the lines, but he has a lead role to play.  Everybody stumbles around for a while, trying to make things work, trying to draw him into the drama already underway, while he tries to establish his unique role and draw upon his experience from previous plays he has appeared in.

 

There’s a lot going on here in this church.  But in a month and a half I’m going to wander off stage and Doug Monroe will wander on.  He’ll have a lead role, but he won’t have seen the script!  Should I tell him it’s all about shalom?

 

I sign off all my correspondence with “Sincerely, Bob.”  Doug Monroe signs off with, “In the pursuit of shalom … always!”

 

Don’t assume that’s going to make for a perfect match.   Because I happen to know that Doug’s current church sings a different song at the end of every worship service!  I served that same church for the decade before coming here, two of our grown kids still live in that community and Carol worships there when she goes back to visit family.  (In retirement I’ll get to visit family on weekends – an unknown concept for preachers!)  The people of First united Methodist Church in Reno – where Doug Monroe currently serves as pastor – don’t sing “Shalom to you now,” they sing,

 

What does the Lord require of you?

What does the Lord require of you…,

But to do justice, and to love mercy,

and to walk humbly with your God.

           

So let me tell you what I imagine.  I can just imagine, that this congregation who have sung “shalom to you now” for years and years, and a new pastor who is “in pursuit of shalom...always,” will have a knockdown drag-out battle, a major contest of wills, and a first falling-out over what to sing at the end of the worship service!  Will it be “Shalom to you now,” or “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly…”?

 

            I’ll be watching to see who wins!

 

            Though I must tell you that “winning” and shalom are incompatible.

 

            The poet Wordsworth caught a fleeting glimpse of shalom as something outside us:

 

            “ . . . and I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.” [4]

 

            Thomas Kelly found it not outside us, but deep within:

 

“On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”

 

            Shalom is a worthy “script” for individual lives and for a church.  It is unlikely to be realized in any human lifetime, so it provides fuel for meaning in every age and stage of our lives.  It cannot be achieved through human effort alone, but must call upon God’s presence in history and in daily life.  Political peace will be impossible without individual salvation, health, wholeness and completion.  Shalom is found both outside us, and deep within.

 

Shalom to you now, shalom, my friends.

May God’s full mercies bless you, my friends.

In all your living and through your loving,

Christ be your shalom, Christ be your shalom.



[1] Elsie S. Eslinger, 1980, No. 666, The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989.

[2] David Bivin, editor Jerusalem Perspective, via Rev. Anne Dilenschneider.

[3] …Center for Study of Church and Ministry, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1987.

[4] “Lines on the Expected Dissolution of Mr. Fox,” 1807



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“SALOME’S SPICES” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“SALOME’S SPICES”
Rev. Bob Olmstead  

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb."  (Mark 16:1-2)


 

A heart felt thanks to everybody wearing a hat today!  If it’s a new hat then, “Thank you!  Thank you!”

 

            You see, in the Middle Ages all baptisms took place on Easter Sunday.  That’s where the custom of wearing new clothes on Easter originated.  They were baptismal clothes, new clothes symbolic of a new life!  They were the outward and visible sign of a resurrection: the resurrection of the newly baptized convert.  So thank you for this reminder that Easter isn’t about spring buds and garden flowers.  It’s about new life in Christ.

 

            In the dugouts of World War II two badly wounded men were waiting for their buddies to return.  The one knew all too well that he wasn’t going to make it.  He said to the other, “Listen Dominique, you’ve led a bad life. You have little to return to. There are no convictions against me.  There’s nothing on the books against my name.”  He took his dog tags and identification papers and thrust them at Dominique.  “Take my name.  Take my life.  I give it to you.  Straight off, you’ve no more convictions.  Take it! … Go on, take it, and hand yours over to me – so I can carry all your crimes away with me.”

 

            Baptism once meant that same to people.  It was resurrection to a new life; it was the gift Christ offered, not simply the event Christ experienced.  And that’s why baptisms were always on Easter.  And it’s why they wore new clothes!  Paul’s words to the Colossians are deceptively simple: “You have been buried with him when you were baptized; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him….” (Colossians 2:12)  No matter who we were previously, we are free to live Christ’s life from now on; all we have to do is accept the gift that’s offered. “You have been buried with him when you were baptized; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him….”

 

            One of Mark Twain’s lesser books contains the story of an elderly black slave who falls asleep beside the Mississippi River.  The river is the boundary between Illinois and Kentucky.  During the night the river rises, jumps its bank and changes its course.  The man goes to sleep in Kentucky and awakes in Illinois.  He goes to sleep a slave and wakes up a free man.  Baptism means something much like that and it’s worth at least a new hat, not mention a new look!

 

            The Bible mentions Salome only twice, both times in the Gospel of Mark.  She was a disciple of Jesus, one of the forgotten females who followed Jesus but don’t get featured with the “twelve.”  The story cannot be told without these women, however, because the men would never touch a dead body.  (Besides, the men had mostly disappeared when the soldiers came for Jesus.)  The women hung around.  They stayed by the cross while Jesus died.  They were there to take down Jesus’ corpse and carry it to the cave offered by Joseph of Arimathea.  It was almost sundown and the Sabbath began at sundown and work was forbidden on the Sabbath – even women’s work.  So they were unable to anoint his body with oils and spices to prevent it stinking.  They saw to the rolling of the stone across the entrance to the cave and then trailed off to wherever they would spend the night, and the next day, the holy Sabbath, and the night following.

 

            When the Sabbath, Saturday, was ended, they were up before dawn and ready for the day’s unpleasant task.  There is a homely little detail in this story and it is the one I ask us to focus on this morning. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices.  That’s what it says.  They bought spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body.  The spices would be mixed in olive oil and spread over his corpse to disguise the odor of decomposition.  There may have been a ritual significance to this, but it was eminently practical.

 

            You’ve heard the other details many times, how they found the heavy rock rolled away from the entrance, how there was no stench of death in the cold damp air inside the cave, how the cloth in which they had wrapped the body was now neatly folded and put to one side.  But it’s an untold detail that intrigues me.  Where were Salome’s spices on Easter afternoon?  What became of Salome’s spices?  Did she tuck them away in a drawer in case Jesus died a second time – and stayed dead?  Did she store them in a canister on her kitchen shelf, did she use them to keep her bridal garments fresh, did she burn them in the outhouse after someone used it?  Where were Salome’s spices on Easter afternoon?!  Did she find the living Christ and use them somehow to anoint his life?

 

            Do you anoint renewed and risen life with every precious thing you own: time, thoughts, friendships, work, play, worship, talents, covenants.  These are our bag of spices, meant to anoint a risen Christ wherever we find him . . . now.    

 

Let me tell you a humble Easter story.  Tell me if you identify the Easter in it.  There is a United Methodist Church called Calvary in Lewiston, Maine.  Lewiston is a predominantly Franco-American mill-town, and hardly a hotbed of progressivism.  Ruth Morrison is the pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Lewiston, Maine.  The church building sits in an unpromising neighborhood, recently populated by Somali immigrants.  Recently arriving Africans were not welcomed with open arms in Lewiston, Maine.  So the Methodists, being good Methodists, invited their new Somali neighbors to a church supper because that is the way Methodists go about doing good deeds whether in California or Maine . . . and quite probably in Somalia.  Forty-five minutes past suppertime no Somalis had arrived.  Finally some Somali men showed up. They all ate tentatively and engaged in hesitant conversation until . . . another hour after that . . . the Somali women and children arrived.  The children quickly discovered a table of remnants from the church rummage sale – talk about typical Methodist! – old costume jewelry and the like, and pretty soon everybody, young and old, was playing dress-up.  The ice was broken.  A journey was begun.

 

            Christmas time came.  There was no new baby in the Methodist congregation for the annual holy family drama.  So they invited a Somali family with an infant daughter, and they accepted.  This built a bridge. In the spring the baby fell ill.  Pastor Ruth paid a pastoral call.  And then another, and as she was welcomed she became present to the family as they kept vigil with their very sick infant.

 

            When the baby died, Methodist men built a little coffin and the congregation mourned with their neighbors.  Their neighbors.  These Methodists were mill workers, remember?  It was the first of several coffins built and given to their friends, and then they helped kids with their homework assignments, and helped families make cultural adjustments to life in Lewiston, Maine. [1]

 

            The United Methodists of Lewiston, Maine, could have lamented the loss of their neighborhood church and moved to whatever suburbs they could afford.  Instead they opened their bag of spices – a church supper, a remnant table, their ability to craft coffins, and their precious presence in the lives of their neighbors.  They anointed the risen life of Christ in their here and now.

 

            In a previous century Phillips Brooks visited Bethlehem.  He returned and wrote a Christmas carol that has become a favorite of the generations: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie . . .”  Brooks wrote an Easter carol, too.  It’s not as familiar, but perhaps it should be:

 

            Stronger than the dark, the light;

            Stronger than the wrong, the right;

            Faith and Hope triumphant say

            Christ will rise on Easter Day.

 

            We can change the tense of the last line.  Christ rose on Easter Day and rises – lives risen – every day.

 

            Adam and Eve left the Garden of Life holding only a partially eaten and dying apple core.  Salome came to the garden of death holding her bag of spices only to find new life rising to meet her. 

 

            Stronger than the dark, the light;

            Stronger than the wrong, the right;

            Faith and Hope triumphant say

            Christ will rise on Easter Day.

 

            What’s in your bag of spices?  Take stock!  Are you anointing death or life?  Have you put on the new clothes of baptism and accepted the new life Christ offers?

 

            It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.  Don’t put Easter in the past tense.

 

            Stronger than the dark, the light;

            Stronger than the wrong, the right;

            Faith and Hope triumphant say

            Christ lives risen every day.

 


[1] Thanks to my friend, Rev. Bev Blaisdell (of Maine) for sharing this story.



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GOOD FRIDAY - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

GOOD FRIDAY
Rev. Bob Olmstead


 

            Death on a cross is death by asphyxiation.  It is agonizingly slow.  The weight of one’s own body hanging from its arms causes paralysis of the diaphragm.  Only by supporting his weight on his feet, pushing up with his legs to relieve the weight on his arms, can the crucified one take a breath.  Though paintings often depict Jesus with nails driven through his hands, it was more typical to drive stakes through the wrists, or even to use rope and simply tie the outstretched arms to the crosspiece.

 

            The stake driven through the feet made it excruciating to thrust up on them, using them to support the body’s weight while gasping a breath.  So the criminal would push his body up until the pain in his feet paralyzed his legs, then would sink down until the weight of his body hanging from his arms paralyzed his lungs.  Up, down, up, down . . . up . . . down . . . for hours.  A block of wood was sometimes placed beneath the criminal’s feet making it somewhat easier to support his weight and insuring that his dying would be prolonged.

 

            When the soldiers finished their job with the nails, when the cross was lifted up and dropped into the hole that held it upright, when the first stabbing agony of his long dying had been felt, Jesus spoke.  These first words Jesus spoke from the cross have echoed across the centuries, shaping our understanding of what civilized behavior means.  These are the words against which moral humans measure themselves, again and again.

 

            “Abba,” he said, “Father, forgive them.  They do not understand what they are doing.”

 

            How characteristic of him, this one we call the Son of God.  Thinking first of others, even in his agony, and knowing them better than they knew themselves.

 

            This first word Jesus addressed to God; now he looked side to side.  Two thieves hung beside him, one on either side.  The first spewed words of accusation and self-pity.  The second thief recognized Jesus’ innocence and he rebuked the first.  Then he asked Jesus to pray for him.

 

            Turning his head to look his neighbor in the eye, Jesus said, “Today, brother, you will be with me in paradise.”  Strangers until that moment, they shared a promise and were linked for all eternity.

 

            Having looked up to God and prayed for the soldiers who were guarding him, having looked side to side at those who were given as his neighbors in that moment, Jesus now looked down from the cross to those he loved: his mother, Mary, faithful to him throughout his unconventional ministry, loyal to him even as others questioned or criticized, strength for him through trials and tribulations, even to standing at the foot of the cross to watch his execution.  Perhaps she leaned for strength on one of the other women who stood with her – perhaps she leaned on John, the beloved disciple, whose companionship meant so much to Jesus.

 

            Jesus’ breathing was labored by now.  Thrusting himself upward with his legs, taking the pressure off his arms, off his lungs, added enormously to the burden of speaking.  Nevertheless he spoke to his mother.  “Woman,” he said, looking first at her and then at John, “behold your son.”  And to John, indicating Mary with his eyes, he said, “Behold your mother.”

 

            He gave them to each other, first fruits of a beloved community – the Church – we who are given to each other for all the years while we wait for the consummation of this sacrifice begun that day on Golgotha.

 

            Three words spoken from the cross – all fueled by compassion and concern for others – the soldiers, the thief, his mother and his friend.

 

            Then – and only then – he gathered up in himself the universal question that puzzles all humankind, the cry of the soul caught in the tenuous and vulnerable enterprise of life. Jesus howled to the heavens: Why?

 

            “My God!  My God!  Why have you abandoned me?”

 

            And the sky grew dark as if in answer to the human predicament, our loneliness amidst the blind forces of fate and nature, the alienation of the creature from its Creator, our estrangement from God.  As if in response to the darkening sky an earthquake rumbled across the land, graves split open, and the veil of the Temple was torn top to bottom, exposing the Holy of Holies.  No longer was divinity hidden behind a Temple shroud.  In and through Christ God no longer lived shrouded in the Temple’s mystery, but out amidst the graves and crosses and soldiers and families and disciples and crowds.

 

            Only then did Jesus look to his own needs.

 

            “I thirst,” he said.

 

            If ever you doubt the humanity of Christ, think of those two words.  “I thirst.”

 

            This was no disembodied spirit, second person of the Trinity, pretending to live in our temporal world.  This was the thirst of a human being, prone to the limits and the needs of flesh and blood.

 

            Jesus’ eyes are glazed over now and he no longer sees his mother or his friend or the thieves.  His lips move, and with the little breath left in his lungs he whispers, “It is finished.”

 

            What did he see on the inner landscape of his mind at that moment?  What is the “it” now finished?  His earthly life?  His work of salvation?  And what precisely was that, is that?  That question has preoccupied the minds and hearts of Christians for 2000 years.  Whatever it is, it is finished.  It is complete.  Jesus, and the God to whom he whispers, are satisfied.

 

            The fire of his life flickers brightly for one last brief moment and Jesus mouths his final words.  No shout is necessary.  He speaks to One so close as to be almost the same as he is.

 

            “Abba, father, into your hands I give my spirit.”

 

            And with that he died.

 

            We call this Friday “Good” as in the old English expression for Holy.  This is Holy Friday.  We don’t explain it.  We engage it.

 

            The cross has been made central for you, brought down to the floor level where you can come close.  All who wish are invited to kneel or stand by the cross to offer your own personal prayers.

 

            While others are at the cross in prayer we will sing the Taize chant: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom,” and then the ages old chant, “Kyrie eleison,” which means “Lord, have mercy.”

 

            If you have no words for your prayer, simply come to the cross and breathe, and let each breath be a gift to the One who suffered there.  And then go forth to remember what a great gift each breath we are given truly is.



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“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (V)” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (V)”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

 

“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)

 

 “’Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?  Enough!  The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Get up, let us be going.  See, my betrayer is at hand.’  Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs…” (Mark 14:41b-43)


            More than three million people have died in the war so far.  Three million people, most of them civilians! [1]   That is more fatalities than in any conflict since World War II.  I refer, of course, to the civil war in the Congo, in Africa, a war that has been going on for four and a half years and continues to this day. Where is the U.N.?  Where are the Marines?  Where are the protestors filling the streets of the world’s capitals?  Why no peace marches and prayer corners for the past four and a half years while more than three million perished?  . . . silence.

 

            There will always be wars and rumors of wars . . . Jesus said that.  We ignore most of them, most of the time, pacifists and militarists alike.

 

            Many years ago I found a reference [2] that moved me deeply.  I’ve shared it in every parish and on several other occasions; I know I’ve shared it here.  I told it when I gave the Protestant prayer at my daughter’s high school baccalaureate service – back before prayers and baccalaureates were outlawed in public schools.  It comes from a book called The Great Hunger by Johann Bojer.

 

            The story goes like this: In a small and isolated Scandinavian village more than a century ago, almost everybody made their living by farming.  Mostly they raised the food they needed for their families, with a bit extra to sell or trade for other necessities.  The village farmlands were fenced and neatly cared for, and the villagers looked out for each other.  All but one man, who lived alone, with only a large dog for company.  The dog was known to be vicious and the man was assumed to be the same. Peer Holm was the man’s neighbor, a widower, a father whose little girl was the light of his life.  You can see what’s coming: one day the dog escaped the fence and killed the little girl.  The village went into mourning.  The dog was destroyed, the dog’s owner was shunned, neighbors turned their backs to him, refusing to speak even if they met him in the village store.  All agreed, they would sell him no seed corn for his next year’s crop.  Spring came.  The village fields sprouted with the bright green of new corn.  All the village fields but one; the dog’s owner had no seed to plant.  Then one day, neighbors noticed tender young corn sprouting in his field.  Who had broken the ban and provided him the seed?  It was his neighbor, Peer Holm, the father of the girl.  He said, “I did not do this for Christ’s sake, or because I loved my enemy; but because...I felt a vast responsibility.  Mankind must arrive, and be better than the blind powers that order its ways; in the midst of its sorrows it must take heed that the god-like does not die.  The spark of eternity was once more aglow in me, and said; Let there be light... Therefore I went out and sowed the corn in my enemy’s field, that God might exist.” [3]

 

            That paragraph contains the essence of the New Testament.  It had a profound impact on me.  I am convinced that this is how Christians are called to act.

 

            While still in college I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a student conference.  While still in seminary I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.  I was much taken by his doctrine of non-violent resistance to evil and by his call to love our enemies.  But Martin Luther King was killed.  Shortly thereafter the idealistic Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.  I put in a short stint as campus minister at UC Berkeley and watched as peace marches turned into rock throwing, hate spewing, experiments in anarchy.

 

            It was the night that Martin Luther King was killed that I came across these words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

 

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.  Therefore we must be saved by the final favor of love which is forgiveness.

 

            I was walking home from a night of watching rioters pulled from paddy wagons at the Oakland jail.  The air held whiffs of tear gas, the sidewalks were littered with broken glass, the city streets were finally strangely quiet, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still dead, and a shop owner had propped Niebuhr’s words against a bowl of flowers in his shop window.  I was now out of seminary where Reinhold Niebuhr had been required reading.  I hadn’t much liked him as a student. But his words clicked that night and over the years I have gone back to his writings and discovered a strange solace in his astringent realism.

 

            Niebuhr became pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit in 1915, ministering to a congregation of workers in the automobile industry.  He was there throughout the 1920s, engaged in ministry on the urban frontier, exposing him to poverty, racial violence and savage labor-management conflicts. [4]   In this crucible he saw human nature as something divided against itself, capable of goodness and unselfish love, capable of violence and evil.  He came to the conclusion Christians are called to practice unselfish love (like Peer Holm) but that “love” is not sufficient for the restraint of evil. Unselfishness is properly the highest ideal for individuals, but the highest ideal for society seems to be justice, maintained by force when necessary.

 

            Throughout the 1930s Niebuhr observed a world tormented by militaristic dictators like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.  He concluded that Christian pacifism was irrelevant in such a world.  War is a sign of our sinful natures, he wrote, but it is still necessary to defend the weak and restore justice even when that requires military force.

 

            It is a paradox I feel very deeply.  I’m a pacifist at heart, but I think it is immoral to stand by if others are being bullied. 

 

            Behavior like that of Peer Holm indeed draws God into the world.  It is profoundly Christian to behave like that.  But I have concluded (like Niebuhr) that nations cannot behave like that.  That is for individual Christians, or perhaps Christian congregations to do.  I’ll draw a parallel.  Opposition to abortion is strongly rooted in the Roman Catholic faith.  Roman Catholic are called to forbid themselves abortions.  But I don’t think that deeply rooted unique moral stance should be imposed on society as a whole.  Women who are not Roman Catholic should have a choice.

 

            Pacifism is a similarly Christian moral stance.  It may be the only way we can be loyal to our Lord, as individuals.  But I don’t think we can try to force society as a whole to turn the other cheek.

 

            The Christian faith is rooted in a story of crucifixion and resurrection, not in an ideal of perfection.  Christian hope is not rooted in the perfectibility of humans.  It is rooted in the redeemability of humans.  Christian faith is grounded in a constant cycle of crucifixion and resurrection.  God can take our very worst and redeem it, make something good out of it.  That’s the Christian story.

 

            That leads me to ask what good might come out of the historic convulsion we’re in right now.

 

            For instance . . . a new UN might come out of this.  More people in more parts of the world are thinking about the UN these days than at any time in recent history.  Most are demanding its involvement merely as a means of impeding America’s spreading world hegemony.  Maybe there are a few who are willing to propose reforms to the UN to make it an effective instrument of international law. 

 

            Quite a few of you were in our Great Decisions class when our Afghani guests said that the U.S. would do a better job than the U.N. at rebuilding Afghanistan.  He gave two reasons: America has the resources and the UN gets so bogged down in bureaucracy that it gets little done.  That was not what we idealistic humanitarian internationalists wanted to hear! 

 

            But if, indeed, this is a crisis, then this is a time when some people need to be willing to think the unthinkable.  Halliburton and all those other industries that contributed so lavishly to the George W. Bush campaign are lining up for contracts to rebuild Iraq.  That is an unconscionable conflict of interest!  It is also true that they would undoubtedly do a better, faster, more efficient job of it than any “international” consortium cobbled together by the UN.  Which is more important?  To make the rebuilding multinational as a matter of principle . . . or to get the job done so folks have food and water and houses and electricity sooner rather than later?

 

            I know many of you are ready to leap off your pews to counter that!  It would be a dramatic – if unscripted – introduction to Holy Week to see me challenged in the pulpit.  But I’m not proposing one way or the other.  I’m saying now is an historic opportunity to envision something new, and that will come from people willing to think the unthinkable and envision something other than our current “two sides of the argument.”

 

Whatever comes out of this will not be perfect.  History is largely a saga of unfinished business. [5]   It is my hope that the UN will be seen as “unfinished business” – a product of the 1940s, still reflecting the 1940s, and inadequate for this first decade of the 21st century.

           

Resurrection can come of this.

 

            Some of you know that I waste way too much time rising and falling with the San Francisco Giants.  Did others of you notice that three brothers threw out the season’s opening pitch at Pacbell Park this year – the Alou brothers, Felipe, Manny and Jesus.  Forty years ago those three Alou brothers played all three outfield positions for the Giants on opening day.  They were joined later by two more Hispanic players: Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal.  They were from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; they spoke almost no English, but the team manager, Alvin Dark, forbid them to speak Spanish while they were in uniform!

 

            This year, on opening day, 40% of the Giants roster speak Spanish . . . and Felipe Alou is the manager.  Baseball isn’t the world.  But 40 years is a very short time, a very short time, in the sweep of history.  And we are growing closer together.

 

            Twenty-four years ago last month Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated at the altar of his church for naming the military “death squads” who terrorized dissenters in his country.  Shortly before his death Archbishop Romero said:

 

It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view.  The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.  No statement says all that could be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith.  No confession brings perfection.  No pastoral visit brings wholeness.  No program accomplishes the church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about.  We plant seeds that one day will grow.  We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

            We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that this enables us to do something and do it very well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way – an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.  We may never see the end results.  But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own. [6]

 

Today is Palm Sunday.  Many sermons will be preached today comparing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the Marines’ triumphal entry into Baghdad.  On the skin of the earth Baghdad and Jerusalem aren’t all that far apart, but there is a great difference between a donkey and a tank.  Some sermons will emphasize the cheering crowds, others will emphasize Jesus’ humbleness.  The story will be twisted this way and that way to suit the purposes of the preacher.

           

Jesus didn’t lift his arms in the gesture of a victorious politician.  He didn’t flash “V” signs at the people beside the road.  He knew people’s tendency to get carried away with the moment and he knew what lay ahead, for him and for them.  Within days the crowds now shouting “Hosanna!” would be shouting “Crucify him!”  Such is the way with crowds.

           

He would die.

 

            And out of his death God would make a resurrection.

 

            We are entering Holy Week with Jesus – remember that it is not a story of perfection.  It is a story of violence and redemption, of crucifixion and resurrection.  The Christian story is not the same as “The Little Engine That Could.”  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.  The Christian story is the story of crucifixion and resurrection. The fulfillment of life we yearn for, the Kingdom of God we catch strive for, the impossible possibility of unconditional love is not something we will accomplish – solely – through education, rising standards of living, or any other human endeavor.  Jesus lived the life we yearn for, Jesus lived God’s image and he was crucified and he would be crucified if he came again.  The point is that God was able to make something good and god-like even out of that, even out of the crucifixion.

 

            God can make something good out of the historical moment we are caught up in now.  Out of the raw violence and misguided motives, out of the crass greed and outright lies, God (with our help) or we (with God’s help), can make something new, something better, something we probably haven’t seen before.  It won’t be perfect. 

 

            Individuals can climb fences and plant seed in their enemies’ fields.  Christians are called to live such lives.  And societies can be better than they have been, though perhaps – indeed probably – never perfect.

 

            I’ll quit, and leave us these words of Reinhold Niebuhr to ponder during Holy Week:

 

            Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.


[1] As per the International Rescue Committee, a private aid group based in New York City.

[2] Johann Bojer, The Great Hunger, referenced in a sermon by Rev. Bob Moon.

[3] Thanks to Rev. Bob Moon for this reference.

[4] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Life in the 20th Century, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2000.

[5] Philip Gourevitch, “The Optimist” (profile of Kofi Annan), The New Yorker, March 3, 2003

[6] Thanks to Rev. Kim Smith, Trinity United Methodist Church, Berkeley, Ca; via Dr. Ronald Parker, Epworth UMC, Berkeley.



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"WORDS TO LIVE WITH (IV)" - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (IV)”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin.”

(Psalm 51:1-2)


 

            Sue Miller and Ann Tyler are two of my favorite novelists.  I’ve read all that each has written, some of it twice.  I find more theology in their novels than in the heavy-lifting tomes from seminary days.  They write about ordinary people living ordinary lives amidst the ordinary intricacies of families and friendships, where holiness is buried under the laundry and daily faithfulness constitutes heroism.

 

            One mother in one of the novels, cleaning up one more time for yet another grandchild’s birthday party or maybe it was a wedding reception, asks herself, “…how often could a person celebrate?  How many weddings, christenings, birthdays could she applaud, for heaven’s sake?  What was the purpose of it all?”

 

            Yes, well, that is the question, isn’t it?

 

            Let me tell you how I prepared for today’s sermon: I got out all the Christmas cards and Christmas letters you sent me last December.  It was quite a stack.  I re-read them all.  The first Christmas I was here, I said, “Put me on the list to get your Christmas letters.  I want to hear about your distant grandchildren, your third cousins, vacations in Hawaii, lost jobs and found joys.  Thank you for sending them.  The people in those letters are the answer . . . they are the purpose of it all.

 

            The woman in the novel thinks, “All that merriment!  She would have to be so cheery!  She wondered what would happen if she simply didn’t bother.  If the girls started one of their quarrels and she just let it happen.  If the moment for the toast came and went and she just slugged her drink down in silence.

            “Still she made out her grocery list.  Went to the store.  Baked the cornbread ahead for the stuffing … gave both parlors a good going over.”

 

            Tell me about heroes!

 

            “Still she made out her grocery list.  Went to the store.  Baked the cornbread ahead for

the stuffing … gave both parlors a good going over.”

 

Sue Miller’s Family Pictures is a long novel about the Eberhardt family.  They are a web of expectations, love, conflict, tension, competition, sacrifice, surveillance and sanctity.  There are six children and the third child, Randall, is autistic.  He never looks anyone in the eye, he makes strange noises, he rocks back and forth and screams if anyone interrupts his routine.  He is the source of constant tension and tender concern. The other five kids grow up around him, sometimes helping with his care, often resenting him deeply.  David Eberhardt, the father, is a psychiatrist: wise, kind and rational.  Lainey Eberhardt, the mother, is emotional, erratic and fiercely protective of Randall, sometimes to the detriment of the others.  Dr. David Eberhardt tacks a picture of Sigmund Freud to the kitchen wall.  Though he does not insist, he counsels putting Randall in an institution where he will get consistent care and so the other five children can grow up in a more “normal” environment.  Next to the photo of Freud Lainey tacks up two glossy postcards.  They stay there above the toaster for years, growing tattered and grease stained.

 

By the end of the novel each member of the family has gone his or her own way.  One of the sons is a minister, another is alcoholic, David and Lainey are divorced, Randall is dead.  The family home has been sold and Nina, one of the daughters, is helping her mother pack up to move out.  They come across a box of family photos.  They pause to paw over this random record of birthdays, vacations, graduations, and family outings.  When they return to packing, Nina pulls down her father’s old photo of Freud.  She pulls down the two postcards her mother tacked up beside them so long ago.  She looks at them and sees that both depict the Annunciation.  The word is used just that once in the entire long novel, but I think it’s what the entire long novel is about.  Annunciation.  You know the story even if you don’t remember the word.  We hear it every year just before Christmas.  The Angel Gabriel salutes the maid Mary and announces that God is about to entrust a life to her and she should name him Jesus.  The word only appears once in the novel, but the novel is about the consequences of accepting family members and special friends as gifts from God.

 

In “real life” our brothers and our sisters, our parents and our special friends, our colleagues at work and those who are given to us when we join a church are not introduced by angels with radiant wings.  But if we believe in Annunciation then they are no less gifts from God.

 

Nina (in the book) tosses the greasy images of Freud and the angels on top of the box of family pictures (you may remember that is the name of the novel).  And this insight suddenly comes to her!  

“…out of the blue I understood that the family photograph held the answer.  That it was really a portrait of a kind of reckless courage, a testament to the great loving carelessness at the heart of every family’s life, even ours.  That each child represented such risk, such blind daring on its parents’ parts – such possibility for anguish and pain – that each one’s existence was a kind of miracle.” [1]

           

That paragraph brings me to my knees every time I read it.

 

            Perhaps you identify with that as a parent, but remember that each of us was also once the product of blind daring on our parents’ parts; we embodied such possibility for anguish and pain.  Our existence is a kind of miracle.

 

Dr. Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry at Harvard and author of several widely read books, says, “The more I live and the more I try to do my work as a psychiatrist, the less impressed I am by all of those psychological theories that try to tell us what causes what, what leads to this or what precludes that.  Humans do indeed move along in response to various psychological urges, “drives,” and necessities; but at every moment in our lives we are open to new possibilities and are capable of turning in surprising directions.  Accidents, unexpected incidents, creative encounters – all of those developments and much else that is mysterious or elusive or hard to pin down in words make up what in the end (and only then) any of us gets to call his or her “life.”

 

Accidents,

 

Unexpected incidents,

 

Creative encounters . . .

 

Alongside those I place two words from our Christian vocabulary: annunciation and providence.

 

Annunciation (the announcement of a sacred relationship that is entrusted to us), and

 

Providence (in which our future and God’s benevolence are mixed into one).

 

When I started a file for this sermon I tossed in another quote from a quite different source. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, unmarried (though engaged), who came to America in the 1930s to teach in one of our leading seminaries.  With the rise of Hitler in his native Germany, he returned home to confront the evil that was gaining popularity in his homeland.  He started his own little seminary of sorts, training pastors who were willing to stand firm in their opposition the Nazis.  Pastor Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and ultimately executed by the Nazi authorities.  His advice to pastors is collected in a little book called Life Together.  He tells them: “It is never yours to complain about the souls in your care, to God or to each other.  It is your job to commend them to God.” [2]

           

It should come as no surprise to you that pastors gripe to other pastors about parishioners (who don’t read the same books we do, who take their kids to soccer practice instead of Sunday School, who don’t give as much money as we think they should, who won’t volunteer to teach Sunday School, who hold contrary political opinions, are preoccupied with personal concerns, and wish that “church” came at a more convenient time than Sunday morning).

 

            “It is never yours to complain about the souls in your care, to God or to each other.  It is your job to commend them to God.”

 

            Maybe when somebody joins the church we should send out birth announcements.  We should all be notified that a new soul has joined our community and it’s not just chance or happenstance.  They represent the powerful possibility of Annunciation.  They may be part of God’s providential care for us, or we for them.    

 

            Our Christmas letters, shared with friends, are really sacred scripture, revealing God’s movement and mysterious presence.         

 

            “…how often could a person celebrate?  How many weddings, christenings, birthdays could she applaud, for heaven’s sake?”

 

As many as she is given, would be my answer.

           

“What was the purpose of it all?”

           

To welcome each as an Annunciation, God’s angel hovering in the wings, naming someone who comes into our lives in a providential way.


[1] Sue Miller, Family Pictures, Harper & Row, New York, 1990.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together



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"WORDS TO LIVE WITH (III)” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

                                                       

WORDS TO LIVE WITH (III)”

Rev. Bob Olmstead


“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,
to go around the land of Edom;
but the people became impatient on the way”  (Numbers 21:4)

 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

but may have eternal life." (John 3:16)


 

            Some few things I have read left a lasting impression.  Not all of them made sense, like these opening paragraphs from a little dog-eared book on my shelf called The Third Peacock [1] .  It begins with this modest sentence, “Let me tell you why God made the world.”

 

“Let me tell you why God made the world.

            One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations.  From all eternity, it seems he had had this thing about being.  He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be.  And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, ‘Really, this is absolutely great stuff.  Why don’t I go and mix us up a batch?’  And God the Holy Ghost said, ‘Terrific, I’ll help you.’  So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Ghost put on this tremendous show of being for the Father.  It was full of water and light and frogs; pinecones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them.  And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, ‘Wonderful!  Just what I had in mind!  Mazel tov!  Tov!  Tov!  And all God the Son and God the Holy Ghost could think of to say was the same thing.  ‘Tov!  Tov!  Tov!’  So they shouted together ‘Tov meod!’ and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing.  And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum.  Amen.”

 

                        A good friend told me about that book once while we were camping.  Both of us had expensive cameras that we aimed at flowers and hillsides and cloud formations.  We paused in one of our hikes and my friend confided that he did not always use film while photographing.  He said that with a camera between his eye and an object he saw more clearly.  He wasn’t interested in pictures; he was interested in seeing.  (Only later did we discover this was Zen photography!)  We went on to talk about the things there are to see, how did they get here, what do they mean, what lies behind it all, what are we seeing in those rare moments when we really see.

 

            That’s when he recommended The Third Peacock.  It was written by an Episcopal priest named Robert Farrar Capon, who goes on to say,

 

“Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other.  Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange [pudding] we might choose to call him.  Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.

 

            Why do I like that so much?  It drives people of a rational or scientific bent daffy.  Which, of course, is one reason I like it!  Religious language is designed to lead us into realms where reason cannot follow.  Reason is a wonderful thing, it’s a useful thing.  Using our reason we can map the human genome and build bigger bombs to destroy humans.  Reason is one of the gifts with which we are endowed by our Creator, but it is only one of those gifts.  We have other endowments.  Faith, for example.  Faith leads us into realms where reason cannot follow.  And faith has its own special language which religion supplies.

 

            The Nicene Creed, which we recited together this morning, is another good example.  It’s as nice a piece of non-sense as you will ever hear or dance to.  (Creeds should be understood as music, not as explanations.)

 

            . . . maker of heaven and earth . . .

            . . . eternally begotten of the father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made . . .

            . . . for us and our salvation he came down from heaven . . .

 

and then the narrative: . . . became truly human . . . crucified . . . suffered death . . . rose again . . . ascended into heaven . . . seated at the right hand . . . .

 

            . . . Holy Spirit . . .

            . . . spoken through the prophets . . .

            . . . apostolic church . . .

            . . . baptism . . .

            . . . forgiveness of sins . . .

            . . . resurrection of the dead . . .

 

            I love the feel of those words on my tongue. I especially love to be one voice in a congregation speaking those words with hope and anticipation - with faith - not reducing them to rational explanations that fit inside the limits of human reason.

 

            Religious language – theology at its best, liturgy and worship – is more like music than science.  Do we feel any need to reconcile Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with the 2nd law of thermodynamics?  Then why should we feel the need to reconcile the Trinity with the Big Bang theory?  The purpose of religious language – of religion itself - is to connect us to realms and realities that change our perspective and transform our lives.

 

                        Sometime in seminary or shortly thereafter I read a volume of sermons by David Roberts.  He published only the one volume before his untimely death. The rest of the sermons have faded from memory, but in one he said something that stayed with me.  He said,

 

“I spent twenty years trying to come to terms with my doubts.  Then one day it dawned on me that I had better come to terms with my faith.  Now I have passed from the agony of questions I cannot answer into the agony of answers I cannot escape.  And it’s a great relief.” [2]

 

            I don’t ever expect to find “proof” of God’s existence or of Christ’s divinity.  I have as many doubts as anybody.  But at that primordial fork in the road where we must decide whether to organize our lives around our doubts or our faith, I choose to follow my faith.

 

            . . . that there is a God;

 

            . . . that God cares, worries, weeps, laughs, welcomes, judges and loves;

 

            . . . that Jesus is all those things they say about him in the creeds that I don’t understand but which I let play in my heart and soul and life like music;

 

            . . . that there is significance to what I do, eternal significance perhaps;

 

            . . . that whatever I do I do it in God’s sight;

 

            . . . that I should offer up all that I do to God, or to Jesus;

 

            . . . and that in God’s good time God will make something good out of all of this.

 

            Remember how Robert Capon opens The Third Peacock“Let me tell you why God made the world.”  It’s an invitation to settle in and listen to a story that is able to render this world spiritually significant.

 

            Creation – all this stuff of which we are a part, rocks and trees and goats and history and clouds and relationships and spiders and Beethoven and evolution and cancer and science and free will and oceans – existed first as an idea in the mind of God, was given body – form – being – through the work of Christ, and is choreographed – choreographed! – by a Holy Spirit.

 

            Believing that is not a matter of science; it’s a matter of faith.

 

            In his famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the late Joseph Campbell says, “Stories can render the modern world spiritually significant.”  The meaning of life, Campbell claims, is not found in rationality and logic, not in rules, doctrines, beliefs or explanations, but in stories, images, metaphors, which are able to render the world spiritually significant. [3]

 

            In the beginning . . .

 

            Once upon a time . . .

 

            Let me tell you why God made the world . . .

 

            We get to choose which story we take part in.  Faith puts us in God’s story and casts history in a different light.  With faith we can hear and perhaps heed this counsel one pastor offered his people this week:

 

Do not be afraid to live among people who love the sword, who speak with iron hearts.  You have been sent to make gentle this wounded world, to live in peace among those who are afraid, to bear healing to those who are captive to the spirit of pride and violence.  Do not despair because of the oppressors, those who judge and despise, who will not listen, who do not know how to join with neighbors. Rejoice, for you have been given to them, to shine light into the darkness of their world. The Holy Spirit sustains you, so that you may dwell as healers among fearful men.

            Bear your outrage lightly; do not cling to it.  Let it lead you toward compassion, not anger.  Pray that you may not be defeated by vengefulness, eaten by the appetite for power, destroyed by the spirit of destructiveness. Anger is not your weapon; it is your enemy.

            The spirit of violence seeps into the world.  But you radiate Good News, you breathe gentleness into the air that all others breathe, you establish trust on the earth.  Be broken hearted.  And through the cracks let light shine . . . the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. [4]

 

            The final quote for this sermon surprises even me.  I cut it out of a magazine article many years ago.  Maybe at the time I meant to find fault with it.

 

“As to whether the faith is useful, I do not care.  It is obligatory upon me and that is enough.  My covenant with the Lord does not include the right to bargain for special favors and I am content.” [5]

 


[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Third Peacock, Image Books / Doubleday, 1971

 

[2] David E. Roberts, The Grandeur and Misery of Man, Oxford University Press, New York, 1955.

[3] Thanks to Rev. Richard Corson for this reference.

[4] Rev. Steve Holmes, forwarded via Internet from Grady Knowles, CA/NV UM Board of Pensions.

[5] George Reedy, “Christians, Why Do You Still Believe in God, in the Promise of the Cross?,” Harper’s (yellowing in my file, but without a date).



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THE HEAVENS ARE TELLING… - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

THE HEAVENS ARE TELLING…”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge."

(Psalm 19:1-2)

 

“…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom."

(I Corinthians 1:25)


 

            During the American Civil War opposing armies battled in the open fields.  When armies of the North and South were to meet, folks would make up picnic baskets and rush to the nearest hillside for a good vantage point.  Newspaper accounts of the time report battles so fierce that spectators had to flee the smoke.

 

            Now we sit on our sofas in the comfort home and watch bombs drop on Baghdad, a little tag on the screen reminding us that the action is “live,” while commentators repeat the obvious over and over again, and a banner runs across the bottom of the screen with news from the Pentagon, the oil wells, the aircraft carriers, from peace marches, from Washington, New York, Kuwait City, San Francisco, Basra, and back to Baghdad.

 

As the information flows across the screen my mind wanders to a conundrum I’ve never been able to figure out.  Is human intelligence and creativity a blessing or a curse?  Our bombs are “smart” now.  Is that progress?

 

            Ten years ago I preached two sermons back to back.  The title of the first was “Why I Am a Conservative.”  The title of the second was “Why I Am a Liberal.”  I don’t have to go back and re-read them; I can summarize each in a single sentence.  I am a conservative because of what I experience and see of human nature.  I am a liberal because I believe in God.

 

            I don’t want to believe that the building of bombs and the making of war and the taking of territory and the tribalization of attitudes are hard-wired into human nature.  But even Jesus said, “There will always be wars and rumors of wars.”  Perhaps aggression is a uniquely male characteristic.  A case could be made for that.  But jealousy, greed and selfishness are universal to genders and cultures.  I would prefer not to believe that, but the evidence is there.

 

            My hope is rooted in God, not human nature.  We are creatures, not rulers – not even of ourselves.  How regularly we forget that!  Though jealousy, greed and selfishness are part of human nature, so is the possibility of opening to divine grace.  Christian theology has named that dynamic the redemption of souls; if you prefer to call it the transformation of our natures I won’t quibble.  Our natures can be redeemed when they are open to divine grace.  That has been the heart of Christian transformation through the ages – it’s different from thinking that we humans will someday get it right if we just apply ourselves hard enough.

 

I don’t know what you think when a worship service contains a creed beginning with those two words: “I believe…”  Is it merely an exercise in mental gymnastics?  When I hear “I believe in the Holy Spirit” I think of the law of unintended consequences; is this the garb in which the Holy Spirit enters our realm of power and politics?

 

            A speech by Dr. Robert Muller is making the rounds of the Internet. Muller is a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations.  He witnessed the founding of the UN and recently surprised his listeners by pointing out that we are living in a miraculous and hopeful time in history.  He says, “Never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war.”  Previous wars have been protested once they began.  This time it was the legitimacy of war itself that was protested.

 

            He goes on to assert that America’s will to war is in the process of creating a second superpower, “the merging, surging voice of the people of the world.”

 

            I believe in the Holy Spirit….

 

            Buried in the back of yesterday’s paper (which is where you will usually find reports of the Holy Spirit) was a small article about international humanitarian agencies already preparing to enter Iraq with food and medical supplies.  Such humanitarian personnel usually enter battlefields under the protection of victorious armies.  But the international humanitarian agencies have refused the protection of American forces because they do not want to be associated in people’s minds with America.  That is real news about America’s future.  Another world is taking shape behind the lines.  God really does work in mysterious ways! 

 

In one of our Great Decisions classes Bob Medearis pointed out that George W. Bush is the first of the last four U.S. presidents who did go to the UN before going to war.  His father did not do that before the previous Gulf War and Bill Clinton did not do that before bombing Kosovo.  The UN is back on the world’s radar for the world to see, and think about, and reform.

 

The UN hasn’t changed much since 1946.  Why do France and Great Britain still wield veto power on the Security Council?  They were the powers of a past era.  What would it take to bring the Islamic world to an appropriate place at the table – with veto power on the Security Council if that is the way power is to be measured?  America, Europe and the Soviet Union were given Security Council vetoes, reflecting their dominance of world affairs in 1946.  President Truman insisted that China be given the same authority so the Asian world would be represented.  How do we get Islam – the Muslim world – to the table?  Perhaps the merging, surging voice of the world’s people can effect reforms giving the UN more authenticity and power.

           

God is not dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit.

 

We watch “live” coverage of a war which gets reported as if it were a sporting event, we listen to endless commentary filling empty spaces when nothing “exciting” is going on, words flow across the bottom of the TV screen with comments from this general, communications from that embassy, news from this front, information from that source.

           

What if the words streaming across the bottom of the TV screen were from the Bible?

 

Some of the words are from the Bible.  “Tigris” and “Euphrates”.  The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are found in both the first and the final books of the Bible, in Genesis and in Revelation.  The Tigris and Euphrates appear in the Garden of Eden and they reappear in that eternal city where there shall be no more tears.  The fertile grasslands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are where the Garden of Eden was located.  That’s where Mesopotamia, now called the “Cradle of Civilization,” was located. Baghdad was a city in Babylon long before Jesus came on the scene.

 

            We’re bombing Eden.  Again!  Troops are trampling through the Garden.

 

            The stories of Adam and Eve, the Garden and the snake of temptation, are stories of alienation and sin and estrangement and banishment and grieving and loss.  Of all the stories in the Bible these make the most sense to me.  Once we lived – or maybe might live - in harmony with nature . . . with each other . . . and with God.  But our reality, generation after generation, is so different.  Bombs will not break down the doors of Eden to readmit us.  Something in our very natures will have to be redeemed.

 

            An environmentalist who visited Kuwait after the last Gulf war, got close to the ground and observed that ants were carrying grains of sand – one by one, grain of sand by grain of sand – to cover the devastation of oil spills and flaming oil well fires.

 

Here, where it is spring, trees send up sap, azaleas bloom, bees visit, seeds stir beneath the warming earth.  And in Iraq ants will carry sand grain by grain to cover up the oil spills and restore the environment.  Halliburton will do it faster with bulldozers . . . God would get the work done with ants.

 

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge."

 

So proclaims the Psalm.  Even if we pollute the atmosphere of earth with smoke and fire, bombs and burning oil wells . . . the stars still shine above the smoke and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

 

            Such are the thoughts I think while sitting on the sofa watching war on CNN.  God has no particular need of us.  The ants will go about their work.  And should this whole planet disappear the stars would continue to shine.

 

            That is a depressing thought if we think we are at the center of the universe or at the apex of evolution.  But if God is at the center . . . if we exist by the grace of God alone . . . then what? 

 

            I can’t say it any better than Norma LaComble said it Thursday night at our prayer vigil here in the sanctuary.  She lighted one of the candles you see stuck in the sand on the altar today, she came to the microphone and she said simply: “God, I know you love me, and I know you love all the other people, and it must make you very sad to see what we are doing to each other tonight.” 

           

 

Jesus sits on the hillside across the Kedron ravine from Jerusalem.  He weeps, just as he wept from his friend Lazarus.  And through his tears he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would that you knew the things that make for peace.”

 

I see the protesters in the streets of San Francisco; are they the ones who know the things that make for peace?  I see quiet vigils on the steps of churches; are they the ones who know the things that make for peace?  I see the familiar visages of Donald Rumsfeld, Condie Rice, Colin Powell; are they the ones who know the things that make for peace?  Do any of us?  Really?

           

Saint Paul looked at the life of Christ and said, “…the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”

 

God’s wisdom is expressed in the Cross and living the wisdom of the cross is foolishness.

 

You can take that two ways.  Living the wisdom of the cross

is foolishness so we might just as well quit.  Or: living the wisdom of the cross is foolishness so get used to it . . . but keep it up.

           

Pastor Maggie’s community-wide witness through all of this has been an inspiration, and especially Thursday night when some of us gathered here in the sanctuary to light candles and to mark the opening of war with prayers, both ancient and spontaneous.

 

She told of working with Honduran refugees in Central America.  People hounded off their ancestral lands, fleeing soldiers, living hand to mouth in jungles or refugee camps, unable to take even their meager possessions with them, they would do three things when settling into a new (and often temporary) location.  They would elect a construction committee; they would elect an education committee; and they would elect a joy committee.  They would not let circumstances drive them to despair.  They would not allow joy be taken from them.  The joy committee scheduled dances and celebrated birthdays and marked the holidays that shaped the people’s lives – even in exile.

           

She reminded us to keep the joy committee active.

           

She read the simple suggestions of Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches:

 

“In the gloom of war, let us be guided by the light of faith and let it shine forth through our words and actions.

-         open the doors of our sanctuaries so that all who wish may enter for prayer;

-         keep a candle burning for peace on every altar, and some kind of light shining in the windows of our homes and offices;

-         be the light of reason and conscience as Muslims and persons of Arab and Southeast Asian ethnicity are threatened by acts of hatred and racial profiling, reaching out to all our neighbors, defending our nation’s ideals of religious freedom and racial justice.

Thus we bring light into a world living under the shadow of war.”

 

            And finally she paraphrased the prophet Micah:  “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”



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“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (I)” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WORDS TO LIVE WITH (I)”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“…in the presence of God in whom he [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. … Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”  (Romans 4:17,22)


 

 

“You are accepted.  You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask for the name now…. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”  (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations)

 

“All is grace . . .”  (George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest)

 

“Man is born broken.  He lives by mending.  The grace of God is glue.” 

(Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night)

 

 

            When I left Reno to come to Palo Alto I gave away a lot of my books rather than pack them up and bring them.  Many more have taken their place during my decade here and I’m planning to take no more than 10% of my books into retirement.  After all, there are libraries!

 

            Contemplating which books I might want to keep with me makes me realize how seldom I go back and re-read even portions of books once read. Most books are like meals, nourishment for the day, necessary but not memorable.  There are a few, a very few, containing passages or paragraphs, perhaps a sentence or two, that gave shape and definition to who I am.  I thought I would share those paragraphs with you this Lent in a series of five sermons called “Words to Live With.”  But, as usual, life intrudes.  Was it George Lennon who famously said, “Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans"?            

 

I have never felt I needed to comment on whatever was in the news each week, but the imminent resumption of the Iraqi war, calls for some kind of comment from the pulpit, even if it’s little more than why I’ve said so little.

           

I find myself at odds with almost all my friends, my Bishop, my most trusted colleagues in the United Methodist ministry, my wife, my partner in ministry here, and the great majority of you.  That leads me to question my opinion about the U.S. role in the world and whether we should resume the war with Iraq.

 

            I will say first that I have a deep dislike of the Bush Administration.  One reason for retiring is that I want to be far more partisan than I feel is fair for a pastor to be.  I think that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice/Ashcroft policies are appalling.  But (to quote Thomas Friedman), “Some things are true even if George W. Bush believes them.”

 

            I am not convinced that we need to rush into full-scale military aggression right now; neither am I convinced that “peace” means anything more than neutrality and denial.  Who will confront the thugs and the tyrants of this age if we do not?  The UN, to my great disappointment, has shown little interest in confronting thuggery.

 

            Recent war in Rwanda took two million lives.  Two million lives.  We could have stopped the slaughter.  We did nothing.  The UN did what little it could.  Would you call that peace . . . because we avoided a “military solution”?

 

            In my opinion – and this is just my opinion – we (you and I) are just as responsible for those lives lost in Rwanda when we did nothing, as we will be for the lives lost in Iraq when we wage war.

 

            Of President Bush and those who support the war I would ask if we have the guts and the fortitude to enter into long-term “nation-rebuilding” after the war is “won”?  Our record in Afghanistan is less than encouraging. Of my wife, my Bishop, my friends, my colleagues and those who oppose the war I would ask if you will feel personally responsible for the lives lost should it turn out that Saddam does have bio-terror weapons and uses them in some near or distant future?  Will you take responsibility for that?

 

            Left-wing intellectuals and right-wing isolationists joined forces to prevent the U.S. from going to war in support of Great Britain in 1939, 1940, 1941.  Massive anti-war demonstrations by students threatened to close down America’s universities if America sent troops to Europe.  Personal pacifism is a deeply Christian response to the violence of history.  If practiced on the national level – by those nations with the means to enforce order - it consigns innocent others to tyranny and persecution.

 

            Some years ago I heard Saul Alinsky ask the question: “If the ends do not justify the means, what does?”  I’ve pondered that question ever since, and I don’t have an answer for it.  For those who support and promote the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, I have dozens of questions. For those who support non-intervention or the just-war philosophy (which would limit the exercise of our power to pure self-interest and protection) I have just as many questions.

 

            So I have thought it best to say little or nothing, to simply raise my questions and my doubts about the position held by whomever I’m with – which in my case is 99% opponents of re-invading Iraq.    

 

I think we are in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between two evils.  War is always evil.  Sometimes it is the lesser evil.

 

            And now I wonder if there any way to link these troubled thoughts with the words I originally intended to share with you today?

 

            I think I will go ahead and share them, and let you judge whether they have relevance for the world of power and politics that impinges on us.

 

            I was still in college when I read a short French novel titled The Diary of a Country Priest.  The young priest in the novel has little to recommend him except sincerity.  He is never going to be a bishop, nor does he aspire to be.  He wants only to serve his little village, and to see every soul there turned trustingly toward God.  The villagers, of course, want a priest who will be popular with the youth, who will perform their baptisms, their weddings and their funerals, and otherwise leave them alone to make money and whoopee.

 

            When the young priest is driven to despair by the lethargy and unconscious cruelties of his parish, he bicycles to a larger town nearby where he can speak with an older and more experienced priest.  In response to the young man’s frustrations the older priest says, “You’ve got to set things straight all the day long.  You’ve got to restore order, knowing that disorder will get the upper hand the very next day, because such is the order of things, unluckily: night is bound to turn the day’s work upside down – night belongs to the Devil.”

 

            I was 19 when I read that.  I did not want to believe that disorder “is the order of things.”  I was preparing to go to seminary after college.  I was going to set the Church on its ear and make this world “a better place,” if not a perfect place.  I did not want to hear that once I got a problem solved it would reappear again the very next day.

 

            I wonder how many hundreds of times that paragraph has come back to me!  “You’ve got to set things straight all the day long.  You’ve got to restore order, knowing that disorder will get the upper hand the very next day, because such is the order of things, unluckily: night is bound to turn the day’s work upside down – night belongs to the Devil.”

 

            Methodists, I find, don’t want to hear that. We’re the activists of the Christian world.  “Well, what should we do about it?” is the Methodist mantra.  As if, by our doing, we could accomplish what God has failed to accomplish from Eden on.

 

            Which brings me to a second line of dialog.  Again, in college I read the plays of Eugene O’Neill.  They are unrelentingly bleak and the quotation I return to is from a play called, Long Day’s Journey into Night.  It’s about alcoholism and family cruelties and existential despair.  In the midst of which one character says, “Man is born broken.  He lives by mending.  The grace of God is glue.”  In one sentence O’Neill’s character captures the central message of the Christian Scriptures, the essence of St. Paul’s writings, and the heart of Jesus’ teachings. “Man is born broken.  He lives by mending.  The grace of God is glue.”

 

            Which returns me to the final words of The Diary of a Country Priest.  The older priest sends the younger one back to his little village, urging him to carry on day by day, setting things in order again and again, but not postponing his joy until everyone else - everyone under his care - finds the peace and faith that he has found.  The country priest learns to take satisfaction from daily faithfulness, from small successes, from hopeful beginnings that may or may not come to fruition.

 

            His work is cut short by increasing stomach pains, loss of appetite, and the reality of cancer.  He faces his death stoically, a friend at his bedside.  Together they wait for a neighboring priest to come and give last rites. It becomes clear that the other priest will not arrive in time, and the companion reports: “The priest was still on his way, and finally I was bound to voice my deep regret that such delay threatened to deprive my comrade of the final consolation of Our Church.  He did not seem to hear me.  But a few minutes later he put his hand over mine, and his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him.  He then uttered these words almost in my ear.  And I am quite sure that I have recorded them accurately, for his voice, though halting, was strangely distinct.

 

            “’Does it matter?  Grace is everywhere. . . .?’

 

            “I think he died just then.”

 

            I’ve lived with those three words ever since – trying quite unsuccessfully to plumb the depths of what they mean: “Grace is everywhere.”  Those three words shaped my theology and they have shaped me.  “Grace is everywhere.”  My eyes are not always discerning enough to find it.  But I shape my life by searching for it.  Nancy Mairs took a few more words to say something similar: “We, like the rest of creation, are in God, of God, and God is unfailingly present as Whatever Happens Next.”

 

            Which brings me, finally, to the words I meant to open this sermon with but which I shall use instead to close it.  After my first year in seminary I was appointed pastor of Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church in Oakland. For the next three years I was a full time pastor while continuing to take classes toward my seminary degree.  (The only way to go – in my opinion!)

 

            The congregation was largely working-class blue-collar African-American.  I formed an adult Sunday School class to study and discuss the sermons of Paul Tillich – a theologian who was “required reading” in seminary.  These were the ‘60s: the week Stokely Carmichal first used the phrase “Black Power” we discussed it in that class; it was the time of the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers’ office storefront was in the next block, opposition to the War in Vietnam was heating up, our church was one block from the Oakland/Berkeley boundary and we could sometimes smell the residues of Saturday night tear-gas as our Sunday School class met – to discuss Paul Tillich’s dense sermons.  One of those sermons I have returned to again and again, and quoted more than once in every parish.  You’ve already heard it here.  The title of the sermon is also its punch line: “You Are Accepted.”  This is much more than three words, so hear me out.

 

We cannot transform our lives unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace.  It happens; or it does not happen.  And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.  Grace strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life.  It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.  It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us.  It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the cold compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.  Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted.  You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.  Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"  If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before.  But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

 

 

______________________________

Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, Image Books, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1954; The Macmillan Company, Paris, 1937.

 

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, in The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Random House, New York, 1933.

 

Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1948.



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“FAITH WITH FOLDED ARMS (isn’t)” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“FAITH WITH FOLDED ARMS (isn’t)
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?’”  (Mark 2:8)


 

            Did you hear about the parents who wanted their children to be free to choose whatever language they preferred when they were old enough, so they didn’t expose their children to language till they were 15?

 

            Neither did I . . . but I do know of parents who want their children to be free to choose whatever religion they prefer when they are old enough, so they don’t expose their children to religion.

 

            The human brain is primed to absorb vocabulary, syntax –  the miracle of language – during three critical years from age 2 to 5.  Keeping a child free from language during this critical time of life forever impairs his or her ability to conceptualize and communicate.

 

If we do not offer children a religious language, a vocabulary of faith, they will be forever impoverished.  The vocabulary of Christian faith was once heard in schools, in media and in the marketplace.  Even those of us with a liberal rational tolerant faith – who seldom speak of or to God in our homes - could take for granted that our children heard the rudiments of a Christian structure from cultural sources.  That is no longer true.

 

            I grew up in a very small New York town.  The town library was Mrs. Purdy’s house.  The ground floor held shelves of books; old Mrs. Purdy and her older blind mother lived on the second floor.  I can’t remember how it began but for a time, as a boy, I climbed to the second floor once a week and read to the librarian’s blind mother.  I was told to read her the Psalms out of the Bible.  I would begin reading a Psalm – not just the 23rd, but seemingly any Psalm – and after a few words the old blind woman would join in and say the words along with me.  She had the Psalms memorized. 

 

            Looking back I wonder what those Psalms meant to Mrs. Purdy’s mother.  In seminary I learned to recognize editorial redactions, to analyze the literary couplets, and to date the probable historical references in the Psalms.  Mrs. Purdy’s mother, her name now long forgotten by me, recited them with a smile on her blind face as if she were caressing a velvety fabric.

 

            We don’t memorize Bible verses in Sunday School any more.  We offer explanations.  We encourage discussion.  May you never be old and blind, but can you imagine that there might be circumstances where you will need something more profound than explanations?

 

            Maggie and I both gave up including creeds in worship services years ago. Too many people complained that they didn’t believe this line and they didn’t believe that point and so they couldn’t say the creeds.

 

            I wonder what you think of the creeds with which we opened worship this morning.  First we said a creed developed by the Korean Methodist Church – a modern church – in the 20th century.  Then we sang the “lesser doxology” – always called the Gloria Patri when I was growing up – words from the 3rd or 4th century. The Chancel Choir sang another ancient creed, to music composed by Mozart

 

            If the Gloria Patri is sung in my room while I am comatose or on my deathbed, I know that I (whatever “I” means at that point) will recognize it, but I wonder if there is a child in this church who has ever heard it before.

 

            Here is the starting point for this morning’s sermon.  (I’m sure you are happy to know that I’ve finally gotten to the starting point!) This is actually the starting point of my life’s work!  Here it is: Reason asks the questions, but reason cannot supply the answers.  Let me add a qualifier. Reason can supply answers to some questions, but not to life’s ultimate questions.  What is the deepest meaning of this life?  Is history random or purposeful? If there life beyond this life?  What should I do with my life?  Why?  Most of the “why?” questions don’t surrender to reason, rationality, though they often yield to religious imagery.

 

            Reason asks the questions, but reason cannot supply the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

 

Anne Lamott is almost a local.  She grew up in Marin County, started drinking when she was a teenager, grew alienated from her mother, got into drugs, lost her father to a brain tumor, became sexually promiscuous - mostly with married men – and then she found Jesus.  I’ll make that sentence easier for you by putting quotation marks around the last two words.  After alcohol, alienation, drug abuse and promiscuity she “found Jesus.”  There – that makes it easier, doesn’t it?

 

            Anne Lamott’s friends are poets, feminists, writers, peace marchers, highly educated . . . liberals.  The Metropolitan Church in San Francisco recently invited Anne Lamott to speak at their evening service.  She agreed.  Then she had to figure out what to say.  Among other things she said, “I know that God is not an old man or woman in the sky, but possibly a drag queen-golden retriever mix….  I know that when I was drunk and stoned and having tiny little boundary issues with men, sometimes several times a day, I staggered into a little church where I was no longer sure of one single thing, except that I was lost.  The people were civil rights activists, and the music was beautiful, and that turned out to be enough.  After a year in that church, I started to call God “Jesus.”  I wish that this did not worry people so much.  My friend Neshama calls God “Howard,” as in “Our father/mother, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name,” and this does not seem to worry people.  When I was still afraid to call God Jesus, I called him my Higher Power, or for the sake of brevity, my old H.P.  Then I started to think of Him as my old Hewlett-Packard, and that worked, and it worried people a lot less than this Jesus business...”

 

            This “Jesus business” worries us a lot.  We are embarrassed by people who called God “Jesus.” They aren’t our kind of people (whatever that means!). And besides - we are skeptical of all that stuff about Jesus in the creeds.  Do we really have to believe all that?

 

            Well, this “Jesus business” has been a thorny issue since the first century – all this stuff about “resurrection,” “Son of God,” “salvation,” “co-eternal with the Father,” “atonement,” “very God of very God,” “sacrament,” “second person of the Trinity,” “fully divine and fully human.”  These words are problematic to fastidiously rational people like us, but let me tell you: they were problematic to people long before “science” became the norm for highly educated white people of European descent living in the northern hemisphere.  (It’s really a local problem!)

 

            Winifred Gallagher discarded Christianity back in her college days.  Twelve years in Catholic schools gave her the idea that faith was about judgment, sin and guilt.  While researching American Buddhism as a journalist, she began sitting in Zen meditation.  Then she interviewed leading rabbis and Jewish mystics and she got a new perspective on the Jesus she had rejected.  During her stop in San Francisco, she met the Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral.  She confessed she still had trouble with most of the Christian creeds.  “Good heavens, who doesn’t have trouble with creeds!”  Rev. Jones responded.  “I look at creeds as chapter headings for a love story.  Our creed is the first word, not the last word.  It helps us into the mystery.” [1]

 

            Rationality, for all its benefits, can be a defense against entering into the mystery of life – its deeper realms.  The 18-year-old college freshman, recently liberated from hometown Sunday School demands “proof”.  If you can’t prove it to ME, then I hereby declare it to be untrue.  Which translates, “I am the center of the universe and I am the measure of all truth, and if God refuses to make himself small enough to fit into my 18 year old brain, then by-golly I’ll show Him!  I won’t believe in him!”  Science, too, has created many small minds. 

 

            Creeds usually begin with those weighted words: “I believe.”

 

            I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

 

            Oops, wait a minute! . . . I don’t believe in the virgin birth, therefore I can’t say the Apostles Creed.     /folded arms/

 

            Western rationalism limits “belief” to a mental exercise, something that happens from the eyebrows up.  “To believe” in a religious sense means to “give our heart to.”  Faith means giving our hearts to possibilities we have no rational proof of.  That’s what faith is.  Doubts go right along with it.  Always!  Faith is always accompanied by doubts.  But instead of a God small enough to fit inside your skull, faith makes you larger in response to the mystery of God.

 

Scientific inquiry and technological invention was sweeping England and Europe during the 18th century. Religion was fighting a rear guard action.  Fundamentalism had not yet been invented, but it was soon to come.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was often asked to declare himself on the authority of the Bible.  Over the course of years he developed what has come to be called the Methodist Quadrilateral.  Scripture, tradition, reason, experience.  To find answers to life’s ultimate questions we use those four resources:  Scripture, tradition, reason, experience. 

 

            I can hear the sigh of relief in a congregation like ours: “Oh good, I can go on appealing to reason and to my personal preferences (I mean experience!) and still be a Christian (or at least a Methodist)!”

 

            That’s true.  But, you know, there are two other tools in your spiritual toolbox – perhaps rusty from lack of use. They are Scripture and tradition.  They have the capacity to break you open and shed light on your personal experience; they can lead you into realms of the heart, instead of limiting you to what your mind has figured out.

 

            An Orthodox priest was invited to lecture at Yale Divinity School one day.  He gave a dry talk on the development of the creeds.  How well I remember lectures like that.  At the end of the lecture an earnest student (it could have been me), asked, “Father Theodore, what can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?”

            The priest looked confused.  “Well, you just say it.  It’s not that hard to master.  With a little effort, most can quickly learn it by heart.”

            “No, you don’t understand,” continued the student, “what am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed – like the Virgin Birth?”

            The priest continued to look confused.  “You just say it.  Particularly when you have difficulty believing it, you just keep saying it.  It will come to you eventually.”

Exasperatedly, the student, a wonderful representative of the ‘60s pleaded, “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?”

“It’s not your creed, young man!” said the priest.  “It’s our creed.  Keep saying it, for heaven’s sake!  Eventually, it may come to you.  For some it takes longer than for others.  How old are you?  Twenty-three?  Don’t be so hard on yourself.  Eventually, it may come to you.  Even if it doesn’t, don’t worry.  It’s not your creed.”

 

            Are you growing into a larger and fuller faith, or are you fending off life’s deeper mysteries with the folded arms of rigid rationality?

 

            I believe in one God, the Father almighty; who made heaven and earth, and all things visible and invisible.  I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us humans and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made human.  He was crucified also under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried.  And on the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God: and he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.  And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son… I acknowledge baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

 

            Kathleen Norris calls creeds “another strange way of speaking in tongues.”  Precisely.  I like that.

 

We will never get everything all figured out.  We can stand rigidly with folded arms – like the scribes who witnessed Jesus’s healing, or we can be like the paralyzed man’s friends: determined to find their way into Christ’s presence.  Which do you choose to be? 

 

We have to give our hearts to something before that something is fully clear to us.  That’s faith.  It comes with all kinds of doubts – always.  Don’t fold your arms against all doubts and die in that position.  Faith without doubt is dead; but doubt without faith is death.

 

It’s OK to let the vocabulary of our faith wash over us and enter into us.  Give your heart to the images, even as your mind raises objections.  Allow yourself to grow into the mysteries and truths that live within the ancient, yet familiar, words.  Be patient.  Be open.

           

Tennis great, Arthur Ashe, was given a tainted blood transfusion from which he contracted AIDS.  When he discovered he was going to die he wrote his autobiography and in it included a letter to his young daughter, Camera.  It is one of the finer documents of the last century.

 

Dear Camera, have faith in God.  Do not be tempted either by pleasures and material possessions, or by the claims of science and smart thinkers, into believing that religion is obsolete, that the worship of God is somehow beneath you.  Spiritual nourishment is as important as physical nourishment and intellectual nourishment… Do not beg God for favors.  Instead, ask God for the wisdom to know what is right, what God wants done, and the will to do it.  Know the Bible.  Read the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount, and everything else in this timeless book.  You will find consolation for your darkest hours.  You will find inscribed there the meaning of life and the way you should live.  You will grow into a deeper understanding of life’s meanings.



[1] Winifred Gallagher, Working on God, The Modern Library, New York, 1999.



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QUOTIDIAN MIRACLES - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“QUOTIDIAN MIRACLES”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“…if the prophet commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said was, ‘Wash, and be clean.’?”  (II Kings 5:13)


 

            We heard of two healings today, one more familiar than the other.  Jesus stretched out his hand to a man with leprosy and the man was healed, “made clean” if we are to translate precisely.  (Mark 1:40-45)   The Old Testament story of Naaman (II Kings 5:1-14) is less familiar.  I don’t understand why it’s not told more often because it’s a classic.

 

            Naaman was the Donald Rumsfeld of his time.  Secretary of Defense for a powerful king.  Something of a bully; big military establishment at his command.  But he has leprosy, which was the AIDS of his day.

 

            After Naaman’s army overran Israel he brought home a Jewish slave-girl as a gift for his wife.  The slave-girl can’t help but notice Naaman’s disease and she tells Naaman’s wife about Elisha, a Jewish prophet who heals people of their sicknesses.  Naaman’s wife tells Naaman, Naaman tells the King of Aram, the King of Aram faxes the King of Israel and says, “I’m sending my Defense Minister across the border to visit your prophet, Elisha.  He’ll be coming with four billion dollars and six armored tank battalions.”

 

            The King of Israel hears “six armored tank battalions” and tears his hair with anxiety.  But Elisha gets wind of it and sends a telegram saying, “Not to worry, King; just send him along to my house.”  So Naaman pulls up with four billion dollars and six armored tank battalions in front of Elisha’s little suburban bungalow.  Elisha is busy making brunch so he sends a messenger to the door and the messenger says, “Go wash in the River Jordan seven times and you will be healed.”

 

            Naaman blows a gasket!  He wants the prophet, not some messenger!  Naaman wants fireworks, not a nice dip in the muddy little Jordan! There are bigger rivers where he came from!  Naaman wants . . . a MIRACLE!  With discreet understatement the Bible says, “He turned and went away in a rage.”  A servant (who must have been one brave servant) approaches Naaman and says, “Father, if the prophet commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you as ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

 

            Give Naaman credit.  He swallowed his pride.  We went humbly to that little Israeli stream called Jordan, washed seven times, and found healing.

 

            What constitutes a miracle?

 

            I ask you to consider the female Oncideres beetle.  With a brain the size of a speck of dust, she holds three thoughts and she must keep them in proper order.  First she has to find a mimosa tree.  No other tree will do.  When she finds a mimosa tree she must climb it for her second thought is to lay her eggs, which she does by climbing out on a limb, cutting a longitudinal slit with her mandible and depositing her eggs beneath the slit.  Her third and final thought concerns the welfare of her offspring.  Beetle larvae cannot survive in live wood, so she backs up a foot or so and cuts a neat girdle all around the limb, through the bark and through the cambium layer.  It takes her about eight hours to finish this cabinetwork.  When the cambium layer is severed the tree limb dies.  Wind knocks the dead limb from the tree, the larvae feed and a new generation of Oncideres beetles emerge.

 

            And consider this: mimosa trees live only 25 to 30 years in their natural state unless they are pruned.  Mimosa trees pruned by the Oncideres beetle flourish for up to 100 years.

 

            Lewis Thomas calls that an elegant example of a symbiotic partnership. [1]   I call it a quotidian miracle.

 

            Do you know the word, “quotidian”?   The dictionary says it’s an adjective meaning “daily, recurring every day, anything that recurs daily.” 

 

            I could have titled this sermon “Everyday Miracles.” Seminary professors tell us to preach sermons using the simplest words possible and never to use words of more than three syllables.  I’ve offered the same advice at preaching workshops.  But I like “quotidian.”  I like words in general.  Words are quotidian miracles.  I force air from my lungs, past delicate little strings in my throat; vibrations travel through the air and bounce up against a membrane in your ear.  At the speed of sound you think the same thoughts I’m thinking – maybe about beetles, maybe about God’s grace.

 

            Is that any less miraculous because we can explain it? 

 

In the Bible, miracle is something different from our conception of miracle as a disruption of natural law.  The Biblical writers had no conception of “nature” as a realm of ordained laws somehow separate from God’s intention.  Rather, God sustained creation, and God’s will was expressed in natural events, whether it was the coming of spring rains or the birth of a child.

 

            Our dictionaries, however, say “miracle” is a noun meaning “an event or action…thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God….”

 

            Why does an act of God have to be supernatural?  Cannot an act of God be natural, everyday . . . quotidian?

 

            A little boy was walking down the street with his grandmother.  He said to her, “Has anybody ever seen God?”  She replied, “Son, sometimes it seems I don’t see anything else.”

 

            The Oncideres beetle and the mimosa tree are an elegant example of symbiotic partnership and an illustration of evolutionary adaptation.  The tiny brain of a beetle contains three microscopic thoughts.  She has three bits of awareness – bits of awareness – three.  And they have to pop into her awareness in the proper sequence.  How many bits of awareness do we have and how many combinations and permutations can we make of them?  Yet, as we are to the beetle so God is to us.  However many bits of awareness we have, they are closer to the beetle’s three than to God’s infinity.

 

            If a thousand years pass in the blink of God’s eye, might not evolution be precisely how God gets God’s things done?  It is we who want “miracles” on demand, suspension of the natural order, zizz boom bah, right now, overturn the laws of nature, and only THEN will we call it a miracle!

 

            Twelve years ago Saddam Hussein set the oil fields of Kuwait on fire.  Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist, was sent to the Persian Gulf early in 1991 with a governmental scientific team to view the war-induced decimation of land animals, sea creatures and bird life.  She watched ants move clean sand grain by grain in order to cover the black crust caused by the oil spill.  She concluded that all creatures have their own kind of awareness.  I conclude that God has less need for humans than we prefer to think.  If we could get that through our thick skulls, it would be a miracle!

 

            A friend here in our church shared a letter from someone many of you know (so I am going to change the names).  The correspondent went out to lunch with a friend who was bubbling over with a story to tell.  It seemed that her second daughter (we’ll call her Julie) had just moved. Friends and relations turned out to help.  At the end of the day, Julie came to her mother with a long, stricken face and held out her hand.  The diamond from her ring was gone.  That diamond was from her grandmother’s engagement ring, from the mother of the woman telling the story.  She cried and she started praying which intensified over the hours.  At one point she cried out, “Lord, I want a miracle.  I want Julie to find Mother’s diamond.”  And of course Julie found the diamond and Marie is convinced that her prayers did it.  She’s giving daily prayers of thanks for that miracle.  Well, our correspondent writes, I guess I can’t say that isn’t true, but I have such a doubtful reaction to the whole thing, and more than anything I think that the world is falling apart and Marie’s whole attention is on a diamond.  If miracles are to be handed out and asked for, it seems as if there are more important things.

 

            What do you think?

 

            I tell people, “If a diamond is what you’re worried about, go ahead and pray for it.  God is more likely to transform your prayers than return a diamond, but who am I to say!”   

 

Is finding a lost diamond any more a miracle than a beetle with three thoughts, pruning the mimosa trees generation unto generation?  I’m more impressed with the beetles.

           

Some years ago a sentence from an airline magazine jumped off the page at me.  It was about a mother welcoming her son home from the war in Vietnam.  A friend tells her, “That’s what miracles are, baby – all the tears you never shed.”

 

            A woman offers prayers of gratitude and praise when a lost diamond is found.  I wonder, did she offer prayers of gratitude and praise on all the days when it was never lost?  That’s what MIRACLES are, baby – all the tears you never shed.

 

            I read most everything that comes before me – airline magazines, bumper stickers - there’s anger on the nation’s bumpers these days – much of it in the name of peace.  But this week I saw a bumper sticker message that was new to me.  It said, My Other Vehicle Is My Imagination.  I got stopped at several traffic signals behind that car, and as I sat there waiting for the lights to change I wondered where that driver’s imagination took him.  I wondered if any creatures other than humans possess the miracle of imagination.  Every human child has this gift.  If it isn’t lost it gets translated into music, art, literature, scientific exploration, and inventions.

 

            My other vehicle is imagination.  Imagination is a miracle.

 

            Former President Jimmy Carter visited our church a couple of years ago to autograph copies of his childhood memoir.  The Georgia of his childhood was about as poor as Americans ever experienced.  But his hard working father and his idealistic mother gave him a unique childhood in which his imagination thrived; as an adult he was able to imagine himself President of the United States.  In his recent speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, Jimmy Carter said, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil . . . but no matter how necessary, it is always evil, never a good.  We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”

 

            War kills so many children and destroys so much imagination.  If there is one single criticism to make of our current U.S. administration, it is their utter lack of imagination.  George Bush is Naaman with his four billion dollars and his six armored tank battalions, but without Naaman’s healing dose of humility.

 

            Jesus taught the first disciples to taste God’s essence in a broken piece of bread, a shared sip of wine.  From this we should learn that the quotidian and the spiritual do not exist on separate planes.

 

            I close with this poem of Wendell Berry.

 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light.  For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.



[1] Lewis Thomas, “The 7 Wonders of the World Updated,” This World, October 30, 1983.



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HOW TO BE HUMAN - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

HOW TO BE HUMAN
Rev. Bob Olmstead

           

…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)

 

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered at the door. … In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  (Mark 1:32-33,35)


 

            Notice the rhythm in Jesus’ life.  Proclaiming God’s message is his vocation, but people make other demands on him.  “Heal me! Heal me!”  He responds to the people, exhausting himself.  There are more at his door, but he takes care of himself, rising before dawn to enjoy the solitude he needs, refreshing himself in God’s company.

 

            What do we need to be fully and satisfyingly human?

 

            Remember, some years ago, when the Japanese Finance Minister said that Americans can't build a decent car because American workers are lazy.  That precipitated a great hoo-ha.  How dare a foreigner insult Americans!  (It turns out that he also thought Americans couldn't understand Japanese and he was amazed when his comments got translated.)

 

            While politicians postured, one brave columnist pointed out that we have labored long and hard to create and protect leisure time and we should not try to work like the Japanese.  Japanese work habits are unhealthy and are devastating to family life.  (The columnist also pointed out that German workers get six weeks annual vacation, twice as many paid holidays still make better cars.)

 

            What is work?  at does it mean?

 

            The popular bumper sticker reads, "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go."  That is the attitude of many.  Work is not satisfying.  It's just necessary.  It makes purchasing possible -- food, toys, shelter, entertainment, even companionship.

 

            Remember Peter Piper and his peck of pickled peppers? It’s out of date.  The rhyme now goes like this:

            Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

            But perspicacious Polly Perkins purchased Peter's product

                        and peddled pickles to produce a pretty profit. [1]

 

Market capitalism in the nursery school!  Most of us are more like perspicacious Polly Perkins than we are like Peter Piper -- we peddle pickles somebody else produced.  We don't get the satisfaction of producing something ourselves. 

 

            Marxism has been largely discredited, but before we bury Karl Marx we need to acknowledge that he was correct about at least one thing: when workers are alienated from their work, when they are mere cogs in a machine or a system, when work holds no personal meaning because workers have no investment in what they produce -- then trouble is brewing, for the individual and for the system.  We are denied an essential ingredient in what it takes to be satisfyingly human.  Meaningful work.

 

            Marx made the mistake of reducing everything in life to this one insight.  He saw everything through an economic peephole.  Meaningful work is necessary, but not sufficient for satisfying human living.

 

W.H. Auden says, "...those who try to live by Work alone, without Laughter or Prayer, turn into insane lovers of power, tyrants who would enslave Nature to their immediate desires ..." [2] The desolation of Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism is mute testimony to this truth.  Maybe Marx was right in his assessment of work's importance; he was dead wrong to deny the importance of the religious element of satisfying human life.

           

Here is Auden on prayer:

... the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan't quarrel, so long as they don't call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, for that "entity" can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable -- an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful. [3]

 

            That is a rich understanding of prayer -- "... when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice ... [that] always says something new and unpredictable, obedience to which involves a change of self ....."

 

            To be truly human requires a relationship with a Will other than our own, a Will which expresses purposes larger than our own selfish desires and needs!

 

While speaking of prayer, Auden goes on to say,

I do not believe there is such a thing as a 'random' event.  “'Unpredictable' is a factual description; 'random' contains, without having the honesty to admit it, a philosophical bias typical of persons who have forgotten how to pray .... I must now openly state my own bias and say that I do not believe in Chance; I believe in Providence and Miracles....’”

 

            How life changes when we listen for the whispers of a Will that reveals occasions as the working of Providence and Miracle instead of mere chance!  To pray is to be open to insights like that, even though they change us by revealing a Will which is not our own and Purposes which are greater than ours.

 

            Prayer [religion], too, can be corrupted if it is declared the sole source of meaning and satisfaction, if it becomes the peephole through which all of life is viewed.  That is the corruption of Fundamentalism.  If Communism was the corruption of work without prayer, then fundamentalism (Protestant, Islamic, whatever) is the corruption of prayer without play.

 

            Auden says that prayer without Laughter and Work "turns Gnostic, cranky, [and] Pharisaic."  (If you don't know what Gnostic and Pharisaic mean, just focus on the cranky.  That about sums it up.)

 

            Auden uses the term “carnival” for the kind of laughter and play he means.  Carnival is the release of roles and responsibilities.  In the Middle Ages, Carnival was the great equalizer.  Popes and Kings were mocked, parents acted as silly as their children, and no one had to stick with the gender he or she was born with.  At Mardi Gras (in the Middle Ages) everyone participated in Carnival; the shops were closed, the churches locked, while young and old, men and women, children and adults, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, powerful and weak, wise and foolish took to the streets in costume.  Everything that was important and powerful and sacred got laughed at!  By laughing at everything, everyone ended up laughing with each other.

           

Carnival celebrates the unity of our human race as mortal creatures, who come into this world and depart from it without our consent, who must eat, drink,...belch, and procreate if our species is to survive....  We oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be [so] problematic to ourselves.  The Carnival solution of this ambiguity is to laugh, for laughter is simultaneously a protest and an acceptance. [4]

 

            "Laughter is simultaneously a protest and an acceptance" . . . of the ambiguities of our human existence.

 

            People who cannot laugh, especially at themselves, are either dangerous or depressive.

 

            But Carnival needs to be joined with Work and Prayer if human life is to be fully satisfying.  The Hippies of the 60s and early 70s tried to live Carnival when time and society seemed to have forgotten how.  But they neglected work and prayer.  The Hippie carnival soured, became ugly, grubby and, ultimately, pornographic.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

            In John Updike's novel, Roger's Version, Pastor Lambert asks, "Why does life feel, to us as we experience it, so desperately urgent and so utterly pointless at the same time?" [5]  

That is the question of the "modern" human.

 

            In Updike's novel Pastor Lambert himself has lost touch with a clear sense of a Will other than his own (with prayer).  Therefore his "work" becomes meaningless and his play is joyless.

 

            Auden's answer to Pastor Lambert, and to us, is that satisfying human life – (I call it “how to be human”) - requires three elements: meaningful work, prayer (relationship to a Will that is not our own), and a healthy sense of carnival to help us laugh at the ridiculous ambiguities of the human condition. 



     [1] Glasbergen, New Woman magazine.

     [2] Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1978); introduction by W.H. Auden.

 

     [3] Ibid.

     [4] Ibid.

     [5] John Updike, Roger's Version, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986).



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“WHITHER THE LIBERAL CHURCH: (OR WILL IT JUST WITHER?) - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WHITHER THE LIBERAL CHURCH:
(OR WILL IT JUST WITHER?)”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. … They were amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’…”  (Mark 1:21,27)


 

            Seven people.  Five men and two women.  Six Americans and one Israeli.  Five whites and two persons of color. Did the one who came to America from India practice Hinduism?  One Jew for sure.  One African American.  Much more than seven people really.  How many people did it take to put the Columbia into space?  How many engineers, secretaries, politicians, dreamers, computer programmers, mechanics?  Space travel is one of the supreme accomplishments of the modern age.  And those seven people, men and women of various faiths and ethnicities are heroes of the modern age: the age of science, cooperation, experiment, and new geophysical frontiers.

 

            Seven families struggling with the mystery of death today.  No different really from two families here in Palo Alto. A youngster on a bike.  A teenager in a car.  Two families changed forever.  The struggle of every age, modern or primitive, in space or suburb. What is the meaning of life in the face of death?

 

            Thousands on the march in the streets of our city yesterday.  A president pursuing his own grim course.  A paralyzed international agency.  Nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, guided missiles, anthrax germs, UN inspectors, defiant dictator, incessant TV coverage . . . .

 

            Is there a God?

 

            How would we know?  How would we know if there is a God? And whether this God cares for human life?

 

            If there is a God how are we expected to respond?  Is anything expected of us? Do we have a relationship with this God?  Might we?  Do we want to?  Do we have a choice?  Where would we find the answers?

 

            An Episcopal Church in New York City has a signboard out front that says: “Open Door, Open Minds, Open Hearts”.  Everybody in this room would cheer if we put that sign out front of our church.  Right?  Open Door, Open Minds, Open Hearts.  That’s us. That’s who we aspire to be.

 

            That would be a welcome invitation to someone raised in a closed-minded hard-hearted church.  Such a person, if he or she still cared about “church” at all, would bring a great knowledge of the Bible through the open door and would find open minds and open hearts here.

 

            But what would that sign mean to someone who never went to church as a child, who was raised in a family with no religious curiosity or practice?  Open Door, Open Minds, Open Hearts.  So?  That could describe a bowling league or the Sierra Club.  Well, actually not.  A bowling league would soon tire of somebody who never practiced and the Sierra Club isn’t open-minded at all.  They have a clear purpose and they would like to convince everybody of it!

 

            So what does it mean for a church to be “open-minded”.  It means former fundamentalists will feel comfortable.  It means people preferring Christianity-lite won’t find anything challenging here.  It will satisfy those wanting a less-filling faith, but those wanting more flavor will have to look elsewhere. [i]

 

            For the last 30 years the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Congregational Church, and the Episcopal Church have experienced steadily declining membership. We were once known as the “mainline” denominations.  Meanwhile churches with rigid ethics and a literal understanding of the Bible have grown in size and influence. [ii]

 

            Some 12 or 14 years ago I worked out in the YMCA in another community. A young guy sat behind the counter; he took my towel and pushed a flier across the counter toward me.  It advertised a popular right-wing speaker who was coming to a local church.  With a smile I said, “No thanks, my politics run in the other direction.”  With no hint of a smile he snarled, “What are you? A liberal?”  I’d never heard the word pronounced quite that way before, filled with hostility and contempt.

 

            Introvert that I am, I said nothing, went home and looked up “liberal” in the dictionary.  It originally meant “suitable for a freeman”.  For example a “liberal education” was suitable for a freeman (an aristocrat usually), but not for a slave or a serf or a convict.  “Liberal” – “suitable for a freeman.”

 

            The dictionary gave eight more definitions of “liberal”: they include – in order – “giving freely, generous; large or plentiful, abundant; not restricted to the literal meaning; tolerant of views differing from one’s own, broad-minded; of democratic or republican forms of government, as distinguished from monarchies, aristocracies, etc.; favoring reform or progress…especially reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual . . .”

 

            MY GOODNESS!  I HOPE I’M A LIBERAL!

 

            When did the word become a slur?

 

            And what is the future of the liberal church – denominations and congregations that favor giving freely, that are broadminded and tolerant of views differing from one’s own, not restricted to literal meaning, favoring reform or progress … especially reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual . . . ?

 

            Why are fewer people coming through our open doors to find our open minds and open hearts?

 

            Could it be because open mindedness is not enough?

 

            Dr. William McKinney, president of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, recently said of the Church – our kind of church, “It is time to stop focusing on decline and recognize that we are not only at the end of a period in our history – we are at the beginning of a new time.”

 

            We are at the beginning of a new time.

 

            The liberal church is no longer in the mainstream of American culture.  Being a Methodist no longer puts us in the mainstream.

 

            My generation didn’t want to impose religious dogma on our children, so we didn’t.  Maybe we brought them to church, maybe we didn’t.  The grown children of my generation, by and large, have nothing against the church, they just find it irrelevant.  It doesn’t play a meaningful role in their lives.

 

            That doesn’t make them bad people.  It doesn’t mean they are going to hell.  It doesn’t mean they don’t have issues, questions, problems.  But the liberal church is not perceived to have unique or worthwhile answers.  Open minds and open hearts they find in many other places.

 

            Why the Church?

 

            I remember interviewing a candidate for the United Methodist ministry.  I liked him a lot.  He told me he didn’t believe in the Virgin Birth.  He didn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Christ’s body.  He didn’t believe in the miracles, at least not the way they are described in the Bible.  He would have fit right into the Methodist ministry, but I decided to play the contrarian and I asked him to spend 45 minutes telling me what he did believe and what he intended to preach on Sunday mornings.  Well, he believed in love, and people getting along with each other, and peace, and respecting other cultures, and finding the truth in all religions, and universal health care.  I suggested he try for a job with the Democratic Party or maybe writing verses for Hallmark cards.  I asked him why he wanted to be a United Methodist minister.  He said he wanted to help people.  Help them what? I asked.

 

            The Church once knew the answer to that.  It was to save their souls and help them get into heaven.  What’s our purpose now?

 

            To make disciples for Jesus Christ.

 

            This will not prepare them for the American mainstream.  Discipleship is hard, it requires discipline, and it makes one different.  We should be upfront about that with the children, with our teenagers, and with anybody who says they want to become a “member”.  Discipleship makes you “different”!

 

            We are in the business of making disciples.

 

            We are in the business of making theologians.  A theologian is a specialist who has the necessary tools to think about God.  A liberal theologian is a specialist who knows how to think about God without closing her mind or turning his back on science, technology, democratic institutions and other fruits of the Enlightenment. 

 

            We are in the business of teaching the Bible – not as science, but as the mythic, ethical, symbolic, moral, narrative wellspring revealing human fulfillment. [iii]

 

            We embody a sacramental lifestyle, modeled in baptism and Communion and then carried into home and workplace.

 

            We remind each other that we are followers of Jesus and we help each other find his footsteps because he is out there in this modern world of ours.  That’s where he lives.

 

            Open mindedness is not enough.

 

            We are in the business of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

 

            We are making theologians.

 

            We teach the Bible.

 

            We embody a sacramental lifestyle, modeled in baptism and Communion.

 

            We help each other follow Jesus.

 

            That’s what we do.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

           

 

 



[i] The flaw is to assume that “everybody” knows what Christianity is all about.  Americans used to be Christians (unless they were Jewish).  Used to be.  Now the world has come to our doorstep.  Our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s classmates, often know nothing about Christianity. 

 

[ii] I think it is because liberalism is too optimistic and optimism is disproved by experience.

 

[iii] By and large the Church resisted the Enlightenment – lumping the new ideas together in the concept of “modernism” – since they sapped the Church’s authority.  The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility came only after the Enlightenment and in reaction to it.  The rise of Protestant fundamentalism and its insistence on an infallible Bible came only after the Enlightenment and in reaction to it.

            The liberal Church sought to integrate Christian faith with the evolution of science and the science of evolution, with the idea and the ideal of democratic self-government, as well as with the insights of psychology.



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A RECONCILING CHURCH: WHAT OTHER KIND IS THERE? - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“A RECONCILING CHURCH:

WHAT OTHER KIND IS THERE?”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

(II Corinthians 5:16-21)


 

Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “All this is from God….”  Everybody from Osama bin Laden to George Bush seems to know what God wants these days, so there is a somewhat hollow ring to Paul’s words.  However, Paul’s words are found in Holy Scripture while Osama and George can manage nothing better than TV, so I opt for Saint Paul.  What is it, precisely, that Paul proclaims?  Hear it again: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

 

            Reconciliation is the work of God.  It’s what God does.  Because reconciliation is the defining work of God, reconciliation is the primary work of the Church.  And we are the Church – we are the Church – so reconciliation is our primary work.  God entrusted it to us.  God’s work: now our work.

           

Sin, in the Bible, means separation – separation from God, separation from each other. That is the condition known as sin.  Separation is the opposite of reconciliation.  So we are against it.

           

For reconciliation.  Against sin (separation).  That’s about it.  That’s as good a definition of the work of the Church as I know.  That’s what it means to be a Christian.  Being a Christian does not mean being a not-Muslim or a not-Jew or a not-Buddhist or a not-Hindu.  Nor does it mean being an American.  Being a Christian means taking on the work God entrusts to us, doing the work that God began in Jesus Christ: the work of reconciliation.  Overcoming separation (sin).  Bringing people together, with each other and with God.

           

For reconciliation.  Against separation.

           

Somewhere early on people got mixed up about sin.  Instead of seeing sin as separation from God (which could be cured by reconciliation with God), people started seeing sin as something someone did which made God so mad that God rejected them and therefore we should reject them too.  In other words, we should separate ourselves from them.  In other words, we should engage in the sin of separation in order to remain pure.

                       

This shift from sin as separation to sin as impurity led to the making of all sorts of rules about what was pure and what was impure, who was clean and who was unclean.  Reconciliation got pushed aside and largely forgotten.

           

Notice: Paul – our first theologian - did not write, “God was in Christ judging the world, counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of judgment to us.”  That is NOT what Paul wrote.

           

Why is it that those who claim to take the Bible literally get this exactly backwards?

           

God was in Christ, it says, in this Bible of ours - God was in Christ, who went by the very common name of Jesus while living an earthly life.  Along comes Jesus,  touching lepers,  healing on the Sabbath, hanging out with tax collectors, encouraging foreign women.  The evidence would suggest that he was more interested in reconciliation than purity.

           

Three years ago we, here at First United Methodist Church, passed a Covenant of Inclusiveness. At the bottom of our bulletins we proclaim ourselves a Reconciling Congregation.  That’s a really odd name.  Is there any other kind of church?  We have been given the ministry of reconciliation . . . like it or not!  Accept it or not!  Believe it or not!  Do it or not! We are a Reconciling Church. What other kind is there?!

           

When everybody knows that “church” MEANS reconciling, we won’t need that redundant adjective any more.  But we aren’t there yet.           

 

For the time being, we call ourselves a Reconciling Church to remind ourselves and others that we are intentionally embracing persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.  If our current society excluded lepers and Samaritan women we would include them in our ministry of reconciliation.  But for right now, in our society, sexual orientation is a primary focus of discrimination, exclusion, judgement, and condemnation.

           

Here is an important distinction.  “Reconciling” is not the same as “welcoming”.  Welcoming is good.  We want to be welcoming.  We post greeters at the front doors of the sanctuary every Sunday to shake hands with visitors and welcome them.  Some of our members are so EXTRAORDINARILY welcoming that they even SPEAK to visitors, sometimes inviting them to remain for coffee and showing them around a little bit, maybe introducing them to friends on the patio or pouring them a cup of Methodist coffee. 

           

Welcoming is good, I heartily encourage it, but it is not reconciling.  Reconciling is much more.  Reconciling is re-reading that Covenant of Inclusiveness that we affirmed by a vote margin of 10 to 1, and then seeking out those who are still separated from us.

           

Seeking out those who are separate from us. [1]

 

“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

           

We, here at FUMC in Palo Alto, do a pretty good job of welcoming. We don’t shun people who are gay or lesbian.  Some of our gay and lesbian members have significant roles and significant friendships within the congregation.  This is good.  We have rainbow banners out front; some of you wear your rainbow ribbon attached to your nametag every Sunday, and every Sunday our bulletin includes the words: We, as a Reconciling Congregation, welcome and seek to include all persons regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, physical or mental health or ability, family status or financial circumstances.

           

Whew!  This is good!  What more could we be doing?  (I’m a preacher; it’s my job to push you to do more.  More!  More!)

           

What more could we be doing?  The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us! What more could we be doing?

           

Our youth groups are thriving.  Great kids!  Great counselors!  Great fellowship!  Support their spaghetti dinner and talent show in three weeks; all proceeds benefit the Mid-Peninsula Opportunity Center.  Show up!  What if one of those 14 year olds discovers that his or her emerging hormonal attractions are consistently directed to not to persons of the “opposite sex” but to persons of the same sex?  Is our M.Y.F., is our church, a place where he or she could talk about that?

           

Somebody said, listening is love.  That’s why I’m such a fan of Stephen Ministry.  That’s why I spend hours teaching Stephen Ministers.  Tonight’s lesson – two and a half hours – is titled “The Art of Listening.”  Listening is love.  Are we ready to listen if one of our youth is not attracted to the “opposite sex?”

           

Imagine what it is like to be 14 years old (even in a community as liberal as ours) and to be attracted to somebody of the same sex.  Imagine that.  I’m not going to mince words: teen-agers are sometimes the cruelest people on earth.  They instinctively make it painful to be “different”.

           

“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."  That means Christian teen-agers too.

           

It’s a dream of mine that in a church like ours a teen-ager could talk about confusing and difficult sexual impulses and find compassion, understanding, acceptance, reconciliation.  One of the most profound forms of reconciliation is reconciliation with oneself when we find that we are “different” from most other people . . . and that it’s OK.

           

Some years ago a young man stopped me in the aisle of the church at the conclusion of the worship service.  He had a wild look in his eyes and he didn’t bother to introduce himself.  He said, “I want you to baptize me, I want you to baptize me right now!”  I tried to get him to slow down and catch his breath and allow me to catch mine, but he was very agitated and kept repeating, “Baptize me now, baptize me in the name of Jesus Christ, my name is not important.”  I said, “I’m not going to do that.  You have to come into my office and talk to me first.”  With reluctance he agreed.  We went into my office and to make a longer story short, he said that the Devil was torturing him with the terrible sinful homosexual desires, and if I would just baptize him in the name of Jesus Christ he wouldn’t be gay anymore.

           

I remember trying to calm him down.  I remember trying to put into words the good news that his sexuality was a gift from God, that God made him the way he was and God loved him the way he was.  He literally screamed when I said that.  He screamed, “Nooo!”  I tried again to say that God loved him as he was, but he leaped up and ran out of the room and out of the church.  I never saw him again.

           

What made him hate himself like that?  I worry that it was the Church.  Choosing purity over reconciliation.  It’s a dream of mine that the Church – this church – could be a place where anyone can leave self-hate at the door, can leave self-doubt, misunderstandings, genuine brokenness at the door.  A place where we experience and practice reconciliation: reconciliation with God, reconciliation with each other, and reconciliation with the hidden or rejected parts of ourselves.

 

“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

 

We are a reconciling church; what other kind is there?

 

Gordon Johnston is organist at an Episcopal Church in another community.  The church is named St. John’s.  Gordon Johnston tells about growing up in a deeply religious family, about his tortured adolescent years, about his effort to pretend attraction to a woman, about his years of therapy, about being excommunicated from his family’s church, and about the “gentle, persistent love” of God.  When the position of organist came open at St. John’s, he says, “I knew it was a place I could be happy.  I had played here as substitute organist frequently and knew of the open-minded, progressive attitude of this congregation.  I was delighted when the then-rector Allen Box offered me the job; but in a private interview before accepting the position I warned him that I was openly gay, and that if that was going to be a problem he should say so before I signed on the dotted line.  He said, ‘In this church, people are people.’  That was all I needed to hear, and I signed on.

 

“For my first five years [at St. John’s] I kept a careful distance from the religious life of the community, and viewed my work as my job, my employment.  I did not receive communion until more than five years after I first came here.  Over time, I came to realize that independent of my ‘employment’, the ministry of St. John’s was important to me.  This church is such a special place, and the loving attitude of open minds and open hearts is so important and yet rare.

 

“In 1995, when Gaston and I had been together for ten years, we asked [Pastor] Garth if he would bless our relationship.  He said yes, and we had a beautiful commitment ceremony here with about 150 people, music, scripture readings and prayers, and afterwards went into the Burke Room and had little triangle sandwiches with the crust cut off.  It was wonderful.  The following week our friend Bishop Baycroft sent Garth a letter informing him that if he ever blessed another gay couple he would be fired, and Bishop Baycroft sent a general letter to all clergy reminding them not to use unauthorized liturgies….” [2]

 

What more can I say?  “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."


[1] Thanks to Rev. Dr. Ronald E. Parker, Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, California, for the important insight on which this sermon is built.

[2] Gordon Johnston, “Telling the Truth about Gay Pride,”   St. John’s Church is in Ottawa.



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DID YOU HEAR YOUR NAME - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

DID YOU HEAR YOUR NAME?
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”   (Mark 1:9-11)


 

            This is a Sunday to remember the baptism of Jesus.  It is a Sunday for remembering the waters of our own baptism.  Most of us recall the breathtaking words Jesus heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

            I wonder how many baptisms I’ve performed in 41 years of ministry.  No matter how many times I ask that simple question – “What name is given this child?” – it profoundly moves me.   The very particularity of every infant, every baby, every child.  What lies ahead for this child now given a name?  What joys?  What suffering?

 

            Jesus and John stood in the River Jordan when the heavens opened.  The people who shared that day with them had deep associations with the River Jordan.  Their ancient ancestors had crossed that very river to enter the Promised Land.  The could probably quote from the prophet Isaiah, where God says,  "O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you..." {Isaiah 43:1b-2a}.

 

            I’ve been mulling that over.  Is it enough?  Is that all we can expect from God when it is our turn to "pass through the waters" of suffering or tragedy or trial?  "...Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you..."

 

            I'm sure Marvin Stuart knew Mel Wheatley.  Wheatley was one of our great preachers and one of our great bishops.  When Bishop Wheatley was a young preacher fresh out of seminary, he preached a sermon in which he tried to explain the enigma of human suffering.  After the service a parishioner greeted him at the door.  Perhaps she thought she was offering him a compliment.  "Oh, Rev. Wheatley," she gushed, "I don't think I ever knew what it meant to suffer until I heard you preach."

 

            We have all passed through the waters of some kind of suffering -- loss, illness, a child's despair, loneliness, unemployment, grief.  Many of us have prayed earnestly for help.  Is this all the help we can expect?  O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you..."  Wouldn't it be better if God did something -- part the waters maybe -- something to alleviate suffering or clear up our troubles.  If God has the power, and if God is as loving as we claim, then why does God let us suffer, saying only, "you are mine," "I know your name," and "I am with you"?

 

            Many of you knew Robert McAfee Brown while he taught in the religion department at Stanford.  He left Stanford, taught at seminaries, and retired here in Palo Alto.  His writings continued to appear regularly until his recent death.  Some years ago Bob Brown's granddaughter, Mackenzie, was born.  Things were not well with Mackenzie and she hovered precariously on the brink between life and death, sustained by tubes and technology in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital.  While his granddaughter's life still hung in the balance, Dr. Brown honored an invitation to preach, and his sermon was in the form of a message to his granddaughter, Mackenzie.  It was later published in a periodical to which I subscribe.  He tells Mackenzie how her parents slept on the hospital floor when no one knew if she would live through the night; how it seemed a sacramental laying on of hands whenever the male nurse lifted her up, tubes and all, to place her in her mother's or father's arms; how prayers were said over her, strangers donated blood, and a Black high school student known to her mother (a teacher) offered to donate a kidney if she needed one.  Then Brown wrote:

 

Finally, Mackenzie, you have affirmed the reality of love.  Would I be able to write these words if things were going badly?  I hope I could, but it would be a severe test.  "Why," I would be asking myself, "does all this happen to a tiny, newborn baby?" . . . If you live, Mackenzie, we'll all give thanks to God in whatever ways we think of God.  And if you don't live, we will refuse to be acquiescent and blindly accepting.  We'll have to believe somehow that God is present in the defeats as well as in the victories -- a God who has chosen to be as vulnerable as we are, who feels pain as we do, who would mourn your loss as we would. [1]

 

            A month later a letter to the editor appeared taking issue with Brown's theology.  It said:

 

Brown gives a picture of an all-loving but impotent God.  God is not seen as impotent if suffering ends, for Brown will give him thanks if all works out in life as he prays.  But if suffering is followed by death, all he can say in thanksgiving seems to be that God is present with us and mourns our losses with us.  A few Christians in their suffering might be consoled by this thought; but most...may be driven to despair because love without power is no relief. [2]

 

            Robert McAfee Brown seems to echo Isaiah -- affirming a God who knows us and who cares, who calls us by name, and promises to be with us.  The writer of the letter wants a God who will do more than that, a God who is omnipotent and who will use some of that power on our behalf. 

 

            I once listened to a young pastor struggle with the same question.  He was a probationer in our Conference and I was one of several "Elders" interviewing him to see if he was ready to be ordained an Elder.  He asked to open his interview with a discussion of "theodicy."  "Theodicy" is a fancy term for the same old question, "Why does God allow suffering to continue?  Why doesn't God do something to end suffering and evil?"

 

            The young pastor gave a explanation revealing that he had read many books and that he had an understanding of what others had to say about "theodicy."  But out of the corner of my eye I was watching an older colleague, John Moore.  Two of John's three daughters died in the Jonestown mass suicide with Jim Jones.  The young pastor's answer was a defense of God.  God is all powerful; or, as he put it, "God can do anything He jolly well pleases."  But God has chosen to limit Himself so as not to compromise our freedom as humans.  God could intervene at any time, defeat evil and end suffering, and someday God will.  But that would also end our independence and free will as humans.  When the young pastor finished, John Moore said, "In my experience, God is not all-powerful.  The power of evil is very strong."

 

            After the long and windy argument of a seminarian, defending God, the simple statement of a man who has lost two daughters: "In my experience, God is not all-powerful."

 

+  +  +  +  +  +  +  +  +

 

            Bernard Malamud, the novelist, was asked "What about suffering?"

 

            He said, "I'm against it.  But whenever we cannot avoid it, let's be sure to learn something from it."

 

            People who have lived through great loss or pain say they have learned to value the present moment, to claim the joys and challenges of each day as it comes.

 

            People who have "passed through the waters" of tragedy say that their priorities got straightened out and they have come to understand just why love is touted as the most important thing.

 

            Does that mean God sends suffering to teach us these lessons?  I don't believe that.  I'm not a puppet being jerked about on God's strings!

 

            There are important lessons to be learned, and suffering is sometimes the teacher.  But God does not send the suffering, nor is the "lesson" sufficient to explain God's seeming impotence in the face of our tragedies.

 

            Robert McAfee Brown did not let the letter written in response to his article go unanswered.  In his response he tells of an adaptation of Psalm 23 which he said over Mackenzie and to Mackenzie many times during her six-week hospitalization.

 

"Mackenzie, the Lord is your shepherd, your guardian.

You shall not want for anything...

Even when you walk through a valley of deep darkness,

     in the shadow of death (which is where you have been,

     Mackenzie),

You need fear no evil, for God is with you always...

The cup of life overflows for you.

Goodness and unfailing mercy will follow you all the days of  your life, however short or long,

And you will continue to dwell in God's house through all the years to come." [3]

 

            That echoes the conclusion reached by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his little book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  He wrote the book after the prolonged dying of his little boy.  He reviews all the places he looked for answers, including the traditional theological arguments that make excuses for God's inaction.  Kushner then concludes that God is not all-powerful; that in this life there are imponderable questions, there is inescapable evil and unspeakable suffering . . . and God suffers along with us.  We are not alone.

 

            Something is working itself out.  Creation moves toward some great fulfillment.  But it is not yet, and until it is we ride the tides of time and space in the company of the Creator, who knows and cares and calls to us with a message that is love.

 

            Kushner writes:

      Innocent people do suffer misfortunes in this life.  Things happen to them far worse than they deserve -- they lose their jobs, they get sick, their children suffer or make them suffer.  But when it happens it does not represent God punishing them for something they did wrong.  The misfortunes do not come from God at all . . .

      From that perspective, there ought to be a sense of relief in coming to the conclusion that God is not doing this to us. ...God can still be on our side when bad things happen to us.  God can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. ...Our question will not be Job's question, "God, why are you doing this to me?" but rather, "God, see what is happening to me.  Can You help me?"  We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted. [4]

 

            Life is not fair.  Life is life, a precious gift even in its darkest moments.  It does not last forever, which makes its moments more precious still.  Faith does not protect us from evil, and God gives no insurance against suffering.  We're in it together, you and I . . . and God . . . and our children and our aging parents and previous generations and generations yet to come.  We're in it together.

 

            God does not reach down and punish this man with an illness while saving that one from an auto accident.  God is found weeping at every tomb.  God is with us, and God suffers, too.  God is to be found rejoicing when lives are full and rich and courageous.  Our God is a God who nurtures and encourages us as we step boldly and faithfully into the stream of life -- to pass through the waters.

 

            Which brings us, finally, back to baptism.

 

            "What name shall be given this child?," we ask before the water is poured three times over her head.  "What name?"  And after that name is spoken -- a name for that one unique precious vulnerable human life -- he or she is baptized in the name of the Triune God: Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit.

 

            Baptism is the promise that we are known by name and that we will not go through life's trials alone.

 

            We will go through life's trials!

 

            We will pass through the waters.

 

            And as we call upon God's name, we will hear God calling our name -- the name given at our baptism -- asking us to join with the Divine Love in resisting the forces of evil and death, to be a part of the redemption of this world.

 

            We will not always prevail, you and I.

 

            In the final end God will triumph, but God's only power is love.

 

            God's only power is love.  And when our name is called, we can be a part of that power.

 

 

 



     [1] Robert McAfee Brown, "Dear Mackenzie: A message to my granddaughter," The Christian Century, March 2, 1994.

     [2] Langdon Baldwin, letter to the editor, The Christian Century, June 15-22, 1994.

     [3] Robert McAfee Brown, reply, The Christian Century, June 15-22, 1994.

     [4] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Schocken Books, New York, 1981.



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“MUSCULAR METHODISM” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

  “MUSCULAR METHODISM”

  Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” 

(Isaiah 60:1-3)


 

            On the Sunday nearest the Epiphany we almost always sing that lugubrious hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are . . . bearing gifts we traverse afar, ohhhhh star of wonder, star of night . . .”  It’s a star of wonder alright, at least it leaves me wondering about several things.

 

            Like, what did Joseph do with the gold?  Did he put it in a tax-free savings account for Jesus’ college education, or did he spend it on new tools for his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth?  They probably burned the frankincense to disguise the smell of manure in the stable, but what happened to the gold?  Mary maybe used the myrrh to ease the aches of donkey travel followed then by childbirth, but what happened to the gold?  I wonder.

 

            What did the wise ones – whether kings or astrologers there is some debate – what did they do after they got home, wherever that was, wherever they came from?  The Bible says they knelt at the manger, they offered Jesus homage and gifts, but then what?  Did they go home and forget about it, one more quest to check off the list, one more spiritual dalliance?  I wonder.

 

            They came from the “east” it says.  Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan – those are the lands to the east of Israel.  But when Joseph and Mary fled to protect Jesus from Herod’s henchmen, they fled to the west, to Egypt.  Why not to the east, where they already had supposed friends, three kings who knew them? Why not flee to one of those three lands?  I wonder.

 

            You aren’t going to like this, but those three ineffectual kings (or astrologers or whatever) could be symbols for us, rich Christians in Palo Alto.  We bring expensive gifts.  We support a magnificent choir and pay a high priced preacher and worship in an exquisite sanctuary, but how powerful is our impact on our community?  Is anything changed because of us, because we have seen the Christ?  I wonder.

 

            Peter Cartwright was one of early Methodism’s most colorful leaders and irrepressible characters.  In the early days of his frontier ministry in backwoods Kentucky, there was a tavern owned by a notorious bully.  His loud and repeated boast was, “No preacher gets past here”; he ran several preachers out of the Kentucky settlement.  Cartwright was riding his Methodist circuit one day . . . he was near the settlement . . . he knew of the boast . . . but he kept on riding into the settlement.  The tavern owner was promptly notified and he sent word out to Cartwright to turn around or he would be beaten so badly he would wish he had.  Peter Cartwright never liked to be “ordered” by anybody – including several later Methodist bishops.  He got off his horse and met the tavern owner with fists raised.  Cartwright was a fierce fighter and he soon had the bully on the ground and was pounding him into submission all the while singing in a booming voice, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”  He made the tavern owner promise to stop interfering with preachers and their work, but he had to sing three verses of the hymn before the bully agreed. [1]   (You may have heard that Methodists are known for their singing.)

 

            That’s muscular Methodism, a far cry from the dainty version we practice today.

 

            Peter Cartwright used frontier tactics when Kentucky was the American frontier.  He preached to save souls.  Kentucky was a slave state.  Cartwright preached to the slaves – to save their souls.  And he came back to the whites and condemned slavery as vociferously as he sought conversions . . . in the early 1800s, in Kentucky.

Methodists played a major role in shaping America’s future.  Methodism was muscular.

 

            When Cartwright moved his family over the border to Illinois he discovered that Illinois was considering legalizing slavery.  So Cartwright ran for the Illinois General Assembly to oppose slavery.  He won and he served, chairing the state Committee on Education, working for better schools and better roads, helping to pass two prohibition laws and keeping Illinois anti-slavery.  After 18 years in the Illinois state government he ran for Congress.  He was defeated by an upcoming Republican store clerk and surveyor . . . named Abraham Lincoln.

 

            A Lincoln biographer says that Peter Cartwright and a Quaker, Ossian Ross, did more to win the battle against slavery in Illinois than any others.  Those “any others” would have to include Abraham Lincoln who went on to duplicate Cartwright’s efforts on the national scene.

 

            When Cartwright was 74 years old they held a jubilee in his honor.  The Governor of the state of Illinois said of him: “For as long as I can remember the name of Peter Cartwright has been a household word in our western country.  Bold, honest, earnest and untiring, he has stood on the frontiers of advancing civilization to proclaim the truth of God and history.” [2]

 

            I wonder why such words are never used about the three kings?  Why weren’t they bold, honest, earnest and untiring, standing on the frontiers of advancing civilization to proclaim the truth of God and history?  They had their chance.  They met Jesus.  They knelt down and worshipped the One in the manger.  But what came of it?  I wonder.

 

            Leonard Sweet speaks of “rescuing the future.”  He says the future is not fated but the product of choices we make.  He descries the passivity of Christians, who look on while the future is shaped by need, greed and creed. [3]

 

            I find it almost impossible to get church members to talk about God – we’re all so afraid that we might offend somebody.  We cannot even seem to find the language to speak of God to one another.  The result is predictable.  We are abandoning the future to those who are not afraid to speak up for what they believe and who are muscular in their evangelism.  They are taking control of the future because they are not so dainty in their religious convictions.  About the only people who don’t talk about God these days are mainline Christians.  Like us.

 

            If you would take a wee step in the direction of sharing your faith, you might ask someone, “When has God seemed near to you?”  Most people are able to answer that question.  It is entirely non-judgmental, it starts with where people are, and it takes their experience seriously. [4]   If you listen to them, maybe they will be interested in listening to you.  Remember: you do not have to convert them.  That’s God’s job!  Not ours!

 

            If doing is your thing then listen up!  Today’s Joy of Doing message is the first in a long series.  We are going to lift up what people in our congregation are already doing in the community to rescue the future.  And we are going to lift up ways in which this congregation can be much more involved – much more involved – in the life of our community.

 

            That’s it.  I’ve said what I want to say.  It’s time we put some muscle with our Good News.



[1] From Hal Luccock’s Endless Line of Splendor, via Rev. Don Shelby.

[2] Thanks to Rev. Bob Moon.

[3] Leonard Sweet, Soul Tsunami

[4] Ben Campbell Johnson, quoted in The Christian Century, Nov 20-Dec 3, 2002.



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“IT WAS TO OLDER FOLK” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“IT WAS TO OLDER FOLK”
Rev. Bob Olmstead  

“Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation’ … There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was of great age…."            (Luke 2:28-30,36)


 

            In the summer of his 90th year, Charles Eliot, the venerable president-emeritus of Harvard, made his way down the road from his Maine home at Northeast Harbor to a neighboring cottage where the young Shattuck family lived.  Mrs. Shattuck greeted him warmly and took him into the living room. After a brief conversation, Dr. Eliot asked permission to hold the Shattuck’s new baby.  Surprised by the request, Mrs. Shattuck nonetheless lifted her infant son out of the crib and laid him carefully in the frail arms of the eminent educator.  Dr. Eliot held the baby quietly, gazing intently into the child’s face.  Then with a little gesture he returned the baby to his mother and said, “I have been looking at the end of life for so long that I wanted to look for a few moments at its beginning.”

 

            Two old folks in this morning’s Gospel lesson - Simeon and Anna – do something similar.  They hold the baby Jesus in their arms and they see the beginning of new life – not just for Jesus but for many.  Simeon and Anna are minor characters in the cast, but an anthem has been written about them and I am going to ask our choir to sing it now.  The fifth verse is printed in the bulletin and everybody is expected to join in at that point, so watch Mark for your cue!

 

It was to older folk that Jesus came [1]

that they might know their place and learn his name,

And upset notions of whom God may choose

to change the world or celebrate good news. 

 

And this they understand who have been told

of Sarah who conceived when she was old,

and Hannah who found joy despite her tears,

and Naomi who blessed her later years. 

 

With Zechariah, zealous for routine,

ensuring what’s to come has always been,

they may disclaim an angel’s message too

declaring God intends to make all new. 

 

Like Simeon, resigned to failing pow’r,

old age might yet become the finest hour

for those who risk false claims that they’re deranged

by claiming God wants all things to be changed. 

 

It is not in the manger Christ must stay,

forever lying helpless in the hay;

it is by older folk Jesus is blessed,

who see God’s restlessness in him expressed.

 

“It is by older folk Jesus is blessed, / [and] who see God’s restlessness in him expressed.”              How strange.  By and large we do not accord to age the dignity and respect that other cultures render.  We are youth-oriented and have turned youthfulness into a fetish.

 

Many “older folks” are singled out in the Bible. Simeon and Anna, also Sarah and Abraham and Hannah and Naomi and Zechariah and Elizabeth.

           

Today we read the names of 45 of our church members who took their vows of membership 50 years – or more! – ago.   Some are among our most active and supportive members – have been for more than 50 years!

 

            In an Anne Tyler novel, Pearl, the heroine, puts on her hat and stares into the flecked mirror above the bureau in her bedroom.  She leans closer and slowly traces the lines on her face: around her eyes, on her forehead, around her mouth, on her neck.  Then she holds up her hands to the mirror and looks at the wrinkles and spots reflected there.  The author says of her: “Pearl’s age does not surprise her.  She’s grown used to it by now.  You’re old for so much longer than you’re young, she thinks.” [2]

 

            Advertising tries to deny that reality, holding out vain promises of prolonged youthfulness.  What’s wrong with being old?  We’re old for much longer than we’re young.

 

            Now that I have announced my retirement I am frequently asked: “What do you plan to do in your retirement?”  Do I have to DO something to justify being alive?  I would like to practice being instead of doing.  Having spent my years as a human-becoming, I want to be a human-being.  That’s heresy, of course.  Books on aging stress the importance of taking on new tasks, of maintaining a youthful “attitude,” and keeping abreast of current events.

 

            Oh?

 

            There is a difference between things that are eternal and things that are merely futuristic.  Old people have often mastered the difference, but ours is a culture that values people for appearances and accomplishments.  We are supposed to produce, achieve, have and keep.  It’s tough to gain respect for being what you are, for inner quietude, for what you have learned, for a solid center of accumulated wisdom.

 

            I was appointed pastor of Shattuck Avenue United Methodist Church in Oakland when I was 22 years old.  The majority of the congregation was over 60; they seemed like a different species from me.  But I dutifully set out to call on each of them.  They taught me something.  We have two ears and one mouth.  That’s so we can listen twice as much as we talk.  Many of those elderly Oakland parishioners had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  I took to asking, “Where were you during the Earthquake?”  I got the gift of a fascinating composite first-person oral history of an earth-shaking event!  Others of those elders in North Oakland were African Americans.  They were not in San Francisco in 1906.  They had lived another reality and they were eager to tell me about it.  What a blessing I received from those older folks.  Talk of the San Francisco earthquake or the Jim Crow South led to talk of the families they started and work they did, children and grandchildren, gains and losses, joys and tragedies, successes and failures.  I learned the history of our nation and our neighborhood.            I wove these personal stories into funerals and memorial services.  People still tell me they appreciate that. And I always want to say, well it really isn’t very hard – all you have to do is take the time to listen to older folks.

 

            Somebody called old people “God’s glorious sunsets.”  A sunset is something to be savored; we have to slow down and pause for awhile to appreciate it.

 

            In many Native American cultures it is the old women who weave the baskets without which the tribe can gather neither water nor harvest.  In China parents work and it is the grandparents, living as part of the family unit, who raise the children.  In “primitive” cultures the elders are the story tellers, giving people knowledge of themselves, their history, their common values.  The older folks often pass along spiritual traditions.  But in America we segregate “the elderly” and treat aging as almost shameful.  Something to be denied or covered up.

 

            Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a monumental personage of the 20th century.  When he was a Soviet dissident and acclaimed novelist the media portrayed him as heroic.  When he came to America and turned out to be politically conservative the press marginalized him.  Now he is old and lives again in Russia.  In a recent interview he said, “I do feel that for humanity – not society but for humanity – moral authority is a necessity.  The course of world history and world culture shows us that there are, and should be, moral authorities.  They constitute a kind of spiritual hierarchy which is absolutely necessary… In the 20th century, the universal tendency … was to destroy any hierarchies so that everyone could act just as he or she wants without regarding any moral authority…”  

 

            I suspect that sheds light on our attempt to isolate older people, keeping them comfortable but marginalized.  Age is associated with moral authority.  And the great effort of the 20th century was to destroy – or at least to isolate and minimize – moral authority in the name of individualism, in the name of personal freedom, in the name of self-help, in the name of personal autonomy – all those shibboleths of 20th century western culture.

 

            After returning to Moscow Solzhenitsyn wrote a prose poem titled “Growing Old”:

 

            “How much easier it is then, how much more receptive we are to death, when advancing years guide us softly to our end.  Aging thus is in no sense a punishment from on high, but brings its own blessings and a warmth of colors all its own… There is even warmth to be drawn from the waning of your own strength compared with the past – just to think how sturdy I once used to be!  You can no longer get through a whole day’s work at a stretch, but how good it is to slip into the brief oblivion of sleep, and what a gift to wake once more to the clarity of your second or third morning of the day.  Your spirit can find delight in limiting your intake of food, in abandoning the pursuit of novel flavors.  You are still of this life, yet you are rising above the material plane… Growing old serenely is not a downhill path but an ascent.” [3]

 

            Is it OK to “abandon the pursuit of novel flavors”?  Sounds un-American.  Of course Solzhenitsyn was Russian . . .

 

            Mary Oliver wrote a beautiful poem about autumn.  The last lines especially seem relevant here.

 

            Look, the trees are turning their own bodies

            Into pillars of light,

            Are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon

            And fulfillment,

            The long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away

            Over the blue shoulders of the ponds,

            And every pond, no matter what its name is,

            Is nameless now.

            Every year everything I have ever learned

            In my lifetime leads back to this:

            The fires and the black river of loss whose other side

            Is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.

            To live in this world you must be able to do three things:

            To love what is mortal;

To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;

And when the time comes to let it go, to let it go. [4]

 

            Mary Ella Stuart used to say, “Old age isn’t for sissies.”  She was right.  There are tough challenges.  It helps if some of life’s lessons are learned in advance.  Or better yet, practiced in advance so they don’t have to be learned under the duress of declining health and energy.  Five simple rules for happiness in old age are these:

 

~          free your heart from hatred

~          free your mind from worries

~          live simply

~          give more

~          expect less

 

It helps to learn those lessons before old age makes them necessary.  And who do we learn them from?  Usually we learn them from older folks!  What goes round comes round.

 

            The Internet offers regular doses of humor about growing old: how our wild oats have turned into prunes and All Bran and if God wanted me to touch my toes, He would have put them on my knees.  We have probably seen supposed prayers by older people asking forgiveness for talking too much or offering advice too freely.  But I want to conclude with a prayer written by an older person that goes deeper than that.

 

            “Eternal God, I thank you that I am growing old.  It is a privilege many have been denied.  Awareness of this mercy gives fresh wonder to every day you give me breath.

            I thank you for the joys I now can grasp because age has pried my fingers loose from trivial things – for simpler life; for swallows skimming over sunlit meadows; for unhurried moments to nourish faith on thoughts of your past mercies; for sacred instants when all things that once seemed disjointed fall into place and the sad things of earth are swallowed up in holy joy.

            Thanks to you for the faith of others which strengthened my own.  Thanks for those who have gone before me, marching with dignity through advanced age.

            O God in heaven, hear my prayer for all who are growing old.  Grant us awareness of the beauties of life’s autumn, a time of fulfillment and harvest.  May age be seen as part of your design for the world and for us, so that the years may rest less like a burden and more like a benediction.  Let reluctance to leave this world be not a dread of death but a tribute to life.

            Spare us from self-pity that shrivels the soul.  Though our wrinkles multiply and bodies tire, may there be no withering of our spirits.  May every day witness some rebirth of beauty, some eager exploration of a new, unspoiled hour with glad expectations of finding treasure there.  Grant us grace to stand the pain of encountering a new idea without flinching.

If our appetite for food should fade, may our eyes still savor tenderness in others, consume the dawn, feast on starlight, and nourish our souls with the wonders of your world.  Like Job, may we see that the order of the planets is more significant than our sores.

Though our money may be limited, let us be spendthrifts with love and squanderers of kindness in the healthy exercise of bending down to help someone up.

            And grant us daily some moments of living on tiptoes, lured by the eternal city just beyond the hills of time.  Amen.” [5]

 


[1] John Bell, “It Was to Older Folk” from the collection “God Comes Tomorrow,” GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60638.

[2] Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

[3] The New Yorker, August 6, 2001

[4] Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”

[5] borrowed some years ago from the newsletter of Shoreview United Methodist Church



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“PREPARING THE WAY” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

PREPARING THE WAY” DARE TO TRUST
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’  Then the angel departed from her.”  (Luke 1:38)

 


            I wonder if Mary had any idea what she was getting into?  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Wow!  Wouldn’t you think she might have been skeptical?

 

            This Advent I’ve suggested it takes a bit of daring to prepare the way of the Lord.  Dare to hope. Dare to rejoice.  Dare to trust!  Trust may be hardest of all.

 

            An Arizona businessman tells this story:

            In our house it has been the custom for years to open the presents on Christmas morning.  We have four children and they make this day a joyous occasion.  The younger ones believe in Santa Claus with all their hearts.  They know that sometime on Christmas Eve Santa will leave a pack of gifts….  We have a rule that requires that the first child awake on Christmas morning must arouse the rest of the family and it is forbidden to go into the living room where the tree stands until the whole family can enter together.  The Christmas my son, David, was 7, he came down the hall to our bedroom about 4:30 on Christmas morning…. His face was radiant,…his speech was going about 90 miles an hour.  “Daddy!  Mother!  Daddy!  Mother!  Get up!  Come quick!  Come quick!”  We wiped the sleep from our eyes.  His mother looked at me and I looked at her and we knew what had happened.  The rule had been broken and our 7-year-old had discovered the new bicycle that he had been wanting for two years.  Somehow we felt cheated and disappointed, but it was Christmas and we didn’t scold him.  We got out of bed and put on our robe and slippers.  He took us by the hand and led us down the hall – we stopped at the girls’ room and then awakened his younger brother, John.  And then, with all the family in tow, David led us through the darkened living room to the eastern window and he pointed through the window – oblivious to the bicycle which he had not even noticed under the tree with all the other presents.  He pointed his little finger to the eastern sky and he exclaimed in hushed awe: “The Star!  See the Star!  The Star of Bethlehem!  I’ve seen the Star!”

 

            Oh, for the eyes of a 7 year old . . . and the faith of a 7 year old.  David missed the bicycle and “saw” instead the mystery and promise of Christmas.

 

            “I’ve seen the star!”

 

            Two weeks ago I read a Howard Thurman poem about the gifts of Christmas.  I’d like to repeat the opening of it.

 

            I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas;

                        Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine:

            The quiet hopes that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams:

                        The best of all good things for those I love,

                        A fresh new trust for all whose faith is dim….

 

            Wouldn’t that be nice if we could give the gift of a “fresh new trust” to those whose faith is dim; wouldn’t it be nice if somebody were to wrap up a “fresh new trust” and stuff it in our stocking or put it under our tree or in our hearts, or wherever we carry that precious fragile thing . . . trust.

 

            Cynicism and distrust are the poisons of adult life. 

 

            Children seem to start out with a trusting nature.  When does trust begin to erode, to tarnish, to slip away?  When do caution, distrust, cynicism take its place?

 

            …we share a secret with a friend, then hear that secret rumored back from one we never told it to.  A friend betrays a friendship and we learn to distrust friendship.

 

            …we join the church, we serve, we give, we sing, we work together, and then discover that church people can be as narrow-minded, unkind, peevish and hateful as any others.  The church turns out to be only human and we learn to distrust the church.

 

            …we give ourselves in love, we share life with another as fully as we know how, and then discover that the one we love is loving another.  And, deeply hurt, we learn to distrust love, we withhold love, lest we be hurt again.

 

            …we put our faith in God, we pour out ardent prayers, and only silence meets us in return; nothing is changed.  We feel let down, abandoned, and we lose our trust in God.

 

            …a son holds out his arms; he gets a slap instead of a hug from a mother whose brain is clouded with alcohol.

 

            …a girl wants her Daddy’s love and get abuse that leaves her confused, wounded, distrustful.

 

            “Man’s inhumanity to man,” is a phrase familiar to all and an experience familiar to many. Borders, boundaries, passports, armies, navies … all bear testimony to our failures of trust and trustworthiness.

 

            Do we dare trust the taxi driver wearing a turban, the neighbor with an accent, the pastor’s hug, the angel’s promise?

 

            Let me tell you of another star, found not in the heavens but in the ocean.  The starfish.  It is neither a fish nor shaped precisely like a star, but most of us have seen them at the ocean’s edge. Loren Eiseley tells of living in a seacoast town for a time.  Unable to sleep he walked the beach daily as dawn was breaking.  There were others on the beach in those early hours; they came to harvest the starfish that washed ashore during the night; they threw them in buckets and brought them to the markets to sell to tourists.  Eiseley was a paleontologist, his field of expertise was evolution and this gathering of the helpless starfish seemed to him no more or less than an example of the natural process at work – the strong overcoming the weak.  But one morning Eiseley was up and out on the beach earlier than usual. In this hour of the pre-dawn he discovered a lone figure walking along the beach, gathering starfish and hurling them back out to the sea, beyond the breaking surf, beyond the reach of those who would come later.  Morning after morning, if he came early enough, Eiseley found the same person on the same errand of mercy, no matter what the weather or the day of the week. One day Eiseley approached the man and asked him, “What is the point?”  The man replied, “At least some will live.”

 

            Eiseley named this person “the star thrower” and he titled a book for him: The Star Thrower.  In his introduction to the text Eiseley tells how this man’s behavior contradicted all that he had learned and taught about evolution and the survival of the fittest.  Here on the beach at Cozumel Eiseley found one who was strong reaching down to save the weak.  He goes on to wonder, “Is there, in the vastness of this universe, a star thrower at work?  A God who reaches down to lift up the weak, a God who overcomes death, a God whose nature, in the words of Thomas Merton, is ‘mercy within mercy within mercy’?”

 

“That is what we hope and pray is coming in the future.  This is what we look forward to in Advent – the God who threw the stars at creation, and faithfully in covenant throws them still; a God who comes into the world through Jesus, born in a manger, and by means of this weakness lifts the world; a God who is raised under the suffering of the Cross and by that means, raises the world through resurrection, into life abundant and eternal.  This is the good news of Advent, not a good news without its tragic underside, but because of it, we can truly say, not only is it the worst of times, it is also the best of times, for we do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming, even Jesus Christ our Lord.” [1]

 

            It is interesting to note that this Jesus whom we call the Christ chose for his disciples Judas, who betrayed him, and Peter, who denied him.  He trusted his mission to them and to the others.  Judas ended up hanging himself.  He was unwilling to trust Jesus and Jesus’ way of love, Judas took things into his own hands and ended up hanging himself.  Peter, who vehemently denied ever knowing Jesus, became the rock on which succeeding generations built their church.

 

            “I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas . . .

                        A fresh new trust for all whose faith is dim.”

 

            Can we at least admit that war is not inevitable?  To hold out for alternatives that recognize the world’s evil, yet attempt to break the circle of violence in response to it?  If we find a way to build on trust it will not make peace inevitable but it will make peace possible.  Much work, much effort, much faith, much trust will be required.

 

            To those of you who look out the window and see only the darkness of hurts you have suffered at the hands of others . . .

 

            To those of you who look out the window and see only the promises that have been broken, the slanders told . . .

 

            To those of you who look out the window and see only the human failings of the Church . . .

 

            To those of you who look out the window where once you stood and prayed and who hear only the silence of an empty universe . . .

 

            . . . to you I announce the Star of Bethlehem and I remind you of the angel who came to Mary with a commission straight from the Divine.  And she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

 

            Not all saw the star then and not all see the star now.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  Not all hear the angel when one speaks to us.  But that doesn’t mean we lack a divinely appointed task.  To see the star, or to hear the angel, you have to trust that the One who first threw the stars against the Universe, and who throws them still, has come, is coming and will come in Jesus Christ, to lift up the weak, to give them, and us, another chance at a world as loving as God envisions it.

 

            Hurts can be healed and love is worth the risk.  Prayers are not always answered to our satisfaction, but praying can change us when we are the ones in need of changing. Peace can be practiced until we get it right, though it won’t come easily.

 

            The Church can sometimes reveal a moment of God’s glory and in that moment nudge, pull, push, call us poor sinners toward that glory.

 

            Be a star thrower. Give someone a chance at life.  What counts at Christmas (and every day) is not the bicycle; what counts is the Star, seen by the child and found again by those who dare to hope, who dare to rejoice, and who dare to trust. “The Star!  See the Star!  The Star of Bethlehem!”

 

            “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

 

 



[1] Dr. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Woodside Community Church; formerly Dean of Memorial Church, Stanford University.



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“PREPARE THE WAY” DARE TO REJOICE - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

 “PREPARE THE WAY” DARE TO REJOICE
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”  (Isaiah 61:1)

 

“Do not quench the Spirit.” (I Thessalonians 5:19)


 

We speak of a “school” of fish, a “herd” of cows, a “flock” of sheep, and a “gaggle” of geese.  Whereas a gathering of people is known as a committee.

 

            I think I prefer the company of larks, for a gathering of larks is as “exaltation.”  An exaltation of larks.

                        M.J. Cartledge-Hayes writes:

            I’ve never seen a lark.  I’ve seen lots of red-winged blackbirds and my fair share of robins and sparrows.  A cardinal once chose to spend one winter in my backyard, as did a blue jay once: but I’ve never seen a lark.

            I’d like to.  Actually, I don’t think one would be enough.  I’d have to see ten, or thirty, or however many it takes for them to warrant their proper group name: an exaltation.

            I think I can imagine what they would be like.  They’d swoop through the air, flutter from tree to tree, trill out of pure joy, sing their excitement over this day, this hour, this moment.

            People, I’ve noticed, are never referred to as an exaltation.  When we group together, we’re called a committee, or a circle, or a congregation….

            A few times though…I’ve been part of an exaltation.

            Just before Christmas last year, a very friendly baby was baptized in our church.  Halfway through the ritual, she noticed the minister’s left ear.  She touched it with an inquiring finger.  She tweaked it.  She yanked it.  She wiggled it.  And all the while, she smiled at it.  We in the congregation smiled too – at her, and at each other.  For a moment we were an exaltation. [1]

 

            Such a simple thing.  Why would it cause us joy to see a baby tweak the minister’s ear?  It would have been a pretty sour congregation not to have smiled at that.  Just for a moment in time people let down defenses and smiled, even chuckled – together – at an unembarrassed child exploring and discovering the marvels and mysteries of being alive in this world.

 

            An acquaintance who wrote a column in the Reno paper, told about his friend “Dwight.” Dwight got cancer, underwent terrible treatments and realized, while lying in bed one day, that there were many things he had intended to do for which there might not now be time . . . like learning to play the violin . . . and taking up photography.

 

            When Dwight was well down the road to recovery he set out with great zest to make the most of his days.  He decided it was not too late to take up photography.  Taking the simplest camera possible, Dwight shot two rolls of film in one night while cruising downtown Reno.  When developed, his 48 photographs looked like “outer space.”  On the advice of his friend, Dwight tried to get at least a partial refund from the store that had sold him the film and developed the photos.  “Sorry,” they said, “Not our fault.”

 

            “Look at this.”  He spread the pictures across the counter.  Most were totally black; a few had flashes of orange, usually in a corner.

            “What is it?” asked the manager….

            “It’s downtown.  I shot it last night.” … Finally the manager asked Dwight if he had the camera with him, and Dwight brought it in from the car.

            The shutter opened and closed.  There didn’t seem to be any light leaks.  The film advance worked.  You can’t be Ansel Adams with a 110 camera, but it should take pictures.

Dwight was aiming the camera around the room idly when the manager laughed and pointed at him …. He was holding the thing backward, looking through the viewfinder in reverse and taking pictures of his nose from ½ inch away.

            [His friend says] I would have been humiliated.  But Dwight, to whom every day is a gift, is past that.  He pondered the information awhile, nodded, then asked to borrow a pen.  He scribbled something on the orange part of a picture and handed it to the manager as we left.

            “To John,” it said.  “You taught me everything I know about photography.  Thanks.” [2]

 

            A Roman Catholic contemplative, says, “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” [3]

 

            Karl Barth – whose systematic theology fills 27 volumes and to my knowledge contains no chuckles – said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

 

            Did you know that for a time our Puritan ancestors in Europe and New England outlawed Christmas carols?  It was against the law in certain American colonies to sing Christmas carols!  Only Psalms could be sung in church.  For a brief time Christmas was outlawed, since Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible.

 

            People have recently tried to turn Advent into a season of penance, fasting and sacrifice.  Christians are urged to spend the four weeks preceding Christmas in quiet meditation, lighting one more purple candle each Sunday leading up to December 25.  But some subversives with happy hearts snuck in a pink candle for the third Sunday of Advent.  It is known as the Gaudate candle and this is Gaudate Sunday and gaudate – for those of you who have forgotten your Latin – means “dare to rejoice.”

 

            Dare to rejoice!    Gaudate!

 

            Several summers ago I stopped for a bite to eat in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  Close to the community college campus was a vegetarian diner staffed by students and decorated with a profusion of plants and vines.  The walls were plastered with paintings of Hindu saints dancing and twirling and embracing in brightly flowered pantaloons and vibrant saffron saris.

 

            I can’t remember ever seeing a Christian saint in flowered pantaloons.  Most Christian saints are pictured in deep distress.  I wonder how many of those wholesome college kids grew up in North Carolina Christian churches where they heard lots about “sin” and “sacrifice” but little about joy.  Gaudate!  Dare to rejoice.

 

            Liberal Christians have abandoned the emphasis on sin and sacrifice, but still focus on suffering. We make war, injustice, hunger, abuse and deprivation the focus of our gospel.  How could a responsible Christian rejoice in a world so filled with pain and suffering?  Well, if we don’t rejoice – in the face of pain and suffering – then we have turned our religion into something just as sour and forbidding as those who focus on sin and sacrifice.

 

            Remember the Enya folksong?:

My life goes on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentations,

I hear the real, though far-off hymn

That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear its music ringing,

It sounds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?
What though the tempest loudly roar

I hear the truth it liveth,

And though the darkness round me close

Song and light it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to the Rock I’m clinging,

Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

 

            I don’t understand why that isn’t in the Hymnal.  It is blunt orthodox Christian theology. It would fit perfectly in the Advent section of hymns.  I hear the real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.  (That was the title Paul Tillich chose for his concluding volume of sermons – “The New Creation.”)  We sing the new creation despite earth’s lamentation.

 

Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul.  Joy is the echo of God’s life in us, remember?  How can I keep from singing?          

 

Last week I proposed that we prepare the way of the Lord by daring to hope.  I quoted a character in a Barbara Kingsolver novel who tells her sister, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

 

Those who baptize their hopes – think about that please – those who baptize their hopes, who offer them to Christ so that Christ will live through their very hopes, discover the song of a new creation echoing in their lives.  Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.

 

Jesus announced his calling by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”  (Isaiah 61:1)  Those words had already been around for 600 years; they had not been fulfilled. But Jesus didn’t let that break his spirit.  The good news of God’s justice is coming . . . still.  Do not quench the Spirit, Paul admonishes the Thessalonians in today’s epistle.  Dare to rejoice!

 

Jesus never said, “You made your bed. Now lie in it.”  Jesus said, “Pick up your bed and walk.”

 

And John Wesley told the original Methodists, “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion.”

 

Christians dare to rejoice in the midst of a world damaged by sin, war, greed and tragedy.  This, too, prepares the way for the revealing of God’s kingdom of reconciliation, joy and peace.  We have to live it, not just promote it.

           

Dare to rejoice!  Live the gracious life!  Receive God’s gifts with gratitude.  Light a pink candle.  Transform your homes and neighborhoods with your joy.  Don’t let the sourpusses rule this world.



[1] M.J. Cartledge-Hayes, Alive Now, Nov.-Dec., 1984.

[2] Cory Farley, “Takes Time to Become Another Ansel Adams,” Reno Gazette Journal, November, 1987.

[3] Abbott Marmion



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“PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD”
DARE TO HOPE
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ … See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

(Isaiah 40:3,10-11)

 

            I knew Howard Thurman only during his final years; he was a tall distinguished black man with an air of poise and wisdom.  I had read his books in college and appreciated his biography.  On one or two occasions I was part of a large congregation that heard him speak.  Once, he led a retreat I took part in.  That afternoon he read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud, beginning to end. The opening verses of Mark we heard this morning.  Thurman read with the simple drama of a man whose grandmother was a slave, who never owned a pair of shoes until he left for college, who founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, who went on to long years of service as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, who knew both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

 

            Howard Thurman wrote a poem every Advent, had it printed on his Christmas cards, and sent it out to his many friends around the world.  One such Advent poem reads like this:

 

I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas;

            Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine:

The quiet hopes that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams:

            The best of all good things for those I love,

            A fresh new trust for all whose faith is dim,

The love of life, God’s precious gift in reach of all:

            Seeing in each day the seeds of the morrow,

            Finding in each struggle the strength of renewal,

            Seeking in each person the face of my Brother.

I place these gifts on my altar this Christmas;

Gifts that are mine, as the years are mine.

 

            I had always read line three with emphasis on the two words “quiet hopes.”  But this year I saw a different emphasis: the verb “to flood.”

 

            I love children’s books.  During those years when our children were grown and we as yet had no grandchildren I had no one to buy children’s books for.  So one year I bought children’s books for our adult friends: one book in particular.  It was called “Noah’s Ark.”  It had no words.  Just page after page of sumptuous watercolors depicting the familiar story of a floating ark filled with teeming life.  One of the pictures gave me new insight into Howard Thurman’s poem, especially line three: “The quiet hope that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams…”  In the picture in the child’s book Noah’s ark is completed – it’s huge – clumsy – filled with teeming life – and it’s still on dry land propped up with timbers.  It is stranded.  How will Noah ever get it to the sea?  Impossible!

 

            He has to wait for the rains.  The rains will flood the land and float his clumsy ark.

 

            “The quiet hopes that flood the earnest cargo of my dreams…”

 

            We all have dreams.  At least I hope we all have dreams!  But what shall save them, move them, enliven them, float them?  What shall flood the earnest cargo of our dreams and set them to moving?  Hope “floods” our dreams and sets them free to sail.

 

            I looked up “hope” in Frederick Buechner’s Theological ABC and I didn’t like what I found.  See “Wishful Thinking” it said.  I mean something more than “wishful thinking” when I speak of hope, but I looked up the reference anyway.

 

            “Christianity is mainly wishful thinking.  Even the part about Judgement and Hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept.

            Dreams are wishful thinking.  Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking.  Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking.

            Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on.

           

            One of the most remarkable books I ever read is Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovaly.  She is a Hungarian Jew.  During World War II she and her husband were piled into the cattle cars of a long train and taken to concentration camps in Poland.  She never saw her husband again.  Before the war was over in 1945 she made a daring escape and traveled across much of war-torn Europe, on foot, living hand to mouth, in constant danger, finally making it back to her native Hungary which was then a Soviet Communist satellite.  Eventually she remarried.  Her second husband was executed in one of Joseph Stalin’s purges.  Let me share the first two paragraphs of her book.

 

            Three forces carved the landscape of my life.  Two of them crushed half the world.  The third was very small and weak and, actually, invisible.  It was a shy little bird hidden in my rib cage an inch or two above my stomach.  Sometimes in the most unexpected moments the bird would wake up, lift its head, and flutter its wings in rapture.  Then I too would lift my head because, for that short moment, I would know for certain that love and hope are infinitely more powerful than hate and fury, and that somewhere beyond the line of my horizon there was life indestructible, always triumphant.

            The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.  They made my life a microcosm in which the history of a small country in the heart of Europe was condensed.  The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story….

 

Paul Tillich was one of those old German theologians with the long sentences.  This is a bit dense but worth contemplating:

 

“… nobody can live without hope, even if it is for the smallest things which give some satisfaction even under the worst of conditions.  Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself… Where there is genuine hope … that for which we hope has already some presence, in some way the hoped for is at the same time here and not here.  It is not yet fulfilled and it may remain unfulfilled.  But it is here, in the situation and in ourselves as a power which drives those who hope into the future.”

 

          Codi is a figure in a Barbara Kingsolver novel.  Codi struggles with uncertainties about her purpose in life, especially as she watches her younger sister, Hallie, live out her heart’s deepest desire.  Hallie is a self-taught expert on dealing with garden pests; she leaves the U.S. to go and plant cotton in Central America among poor farmers who are trying desperately to make a living. The sisters carry on a sporadic correspondence, Codi giving vent to her dissatisfactions, Hallie celebrating her sense of fulfillment.  In her last letter home, Hallie writes:

 

“Codi, here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.  Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.  What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness.  Enough to eat, enough to go around.  The possibility kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.  That’s about it.  Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.  I can’t tell you how good it feels.  I wish you knew.  I wish you knew how to squander yourself.” [1]

 

            The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

 

            Genuine hope begins when I choose to live out that part of God’s hope that is possible in the present – right here, right now.  If I want the poor and dispossessed to be a real part of the future story, then I can begin to make the concerns of the poor a part of my life and take action now.  If I want a loving world, then I need to live in this world as lovingly as I can.  If I dream a world of green parks and clean water, then there are things I can do and choices I must make today.

 

            Most of the people I talk to these days are puzzled by the paradox of the Christmas season.  We prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace by singing hymns about peace on earth, while a Christian president prepares us to go to war.  Two people have told me in the past two days they simply don’t watch or read the news any more.  It causes them despair.

 

            Flo Wegner sent me a “Christmas Quiz” called “How well do you know what the Bible tells us about the Christmas story?”  Twenty-seven questions, true/false and multiple choice.  Question 17: What is the “heavenly host” (that appeared to the shepherds)?

A.            The angel at the gate of heaven

B.             The angel who invites people to heaven

C.            The angel who serves drinks in heaven

D.            An angel choir

E.             An angel army

 

The correct answer is E.- an angel army.  And the point we overlook – if we don’t know that the heavenly host was an angel army – is that the angel army came announcing peace.  The army of heaven came announcing peace on earth.  That’s the point of the story about the angels and the shepherds.

 

            But when?  I don’t know.

 

            But that is the hope that Christians live in.  That is not what Christians hope for.  That is the hope that Christians live in - running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.

 

            One of our colleague Methodist congregations is making the news these days – Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley.  I happen to know the pastor pretty well.  Sometime in the fall he sat down with the Worship Committee and said, “How shall we celebrate Advent this year?  What could we do that’s special to anticipate the coming Christ Child?”  They thought.  They tossed out ideas.  One woman said, “I keep coming back to that line in a Christmas carol: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’  Maybe we could do something with hopes and fears.”  So they did.  They invited everybody in the congregation to bring some symbol, some representation of a hope . . . or of a fear.  An architect in the congregation built scaffolding along the sanctuary walls and hooks with wires from the ceiling to hang their hopes and fears on.  The pastor kept announcing that people should bring their hopes and fears to church during Advent.  He suggested that greeters at the door – instead of saying ‘welcome, we’re glad you’re here’ – would ask people for their hopes and fears.  He acknowledged that some visitors would turn around and run while others would burst into tears. 

 

The project grew.  People told their friends.  The local press picked up the story.  Our national Methodist news service posted pictures on the Internet.  Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent, people brought paintings, sculptures, letters, and imaginative symbols of their hopes and fears, enough to cover one entire wall of the sanctuary, hang from the ceiling and overflow into the narthex.  In an interview with the press my friend, the pastor, says, “This is just the first week, we expect many more.  But so far there are more fears than hopes.”

 

            Does this, perhaps, explain why the world is the way the world is?  We are more in touch with our fears than with our hopes.  Too many people inhabiting their fear, living in their fear, running down the hallways of their fear touching the walls on both sides.  Does this explain the sorry state of the world? 

 

And does it suggest the role of the Christian in this world?  We are the ones who still respond to the army of heaven, who came announcing peace.  We are the ones who live in our hope.  The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

 

            As you come forward to receive God’s simple gifts of bread and wine this morning, I ask you to reflect on what you most deeply hope for - that one thing you hope for above all others.  And then, having received God’s sustenance – the bread and the cup - reflect on what it will mean to you to live inside that hope.

 

            And before you leave this morning ask God to give you the courage to squander your life . . . living inside your hope instead of your fear.

 



[1] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, HarperCollins, New York, 1990.



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Hanging of the Greens Service

HANGING OF THE GREENS

Rev. Bob Olmstead, Rev. Maggie McNaught, Rev. Stephen Black

Church Carman, guitar;  David Parsons, organ

Jerry Johnson, children’s song leader

Sunday School staff
Worship Team


A child's way of being in the world is one of movement, exploration. This runs contrary to most "traditional" worship services. Accordingly, we like to occasionally offer worship services that a child can experience as active and fun. We hope this is such a worship service. But we hope this service is meaningful to people of all ages. So we invite you to open yourself, trying to see and experience God in this service of worship through the experience of a child. For, as Jesus said, "to such belong the kingdom of heaven."

 

SHOFAR SOUNDS IN THE BACK OF THE SANCTUARY

 

YOUTH ENTER SINGING  “PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD” (from Godspell)

 

CHILDREN JOIN PASTOR BOB IN THE CHANCEL

Which is set with sofa, rocking chair, coffee table – a “living room”

 

BOB GETS THE BIG BIBLE AND READS THEM THE STORY:       MARK 1:1-8

            “In the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

BOB EXPLAINS IT IS TIME FOR US TO GET READY -  TO “PREPARE THE WAY”

 

            If somebody comes to visit at your house, your mom and dad do something special.  If your grandma and grandpa, or your cousins are going to stay for a few days, you put clean sheets on the bed and fresh towels in the bathroom.  If you are going to have friends come for a sleepover, you buy some special snacks that they will like.

            Jesus is coming to stay with us.  That’s what Christmas means.  It’s time to get our houses ready for him.  It’s time to get our hearts ready for him.

 

CONGREGATION SINGS “PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD” – No.207 (4 part round)

Worship Team decks the sanctuary with green garlands

 

HANGING OF THE GREENS (Bob)

           

            We call our church the “House of God.”  We have to get the House ready for Jesus.

            In the cold cold countries when snow covered the ground, some trees were still green.  People cut some greens and brought them into their house and put them by the fireplace.

            Christians saw their neighbors do this.  They said the evergreen trees reminded them of everlasting life – the gift of Jesus Chris.

            We get ready for Jesus by putting up greens. Every time you see green branches in the wintertime, think LIFE.  Jesus is God’s life in our world.  Jesus shows us the way to everlasting life.

 

THE SYMBOLISM OF THE HOLLY AND THE IVY (Bob)

 

            Did you watch the Olympics?  What did the winners get?  They got a medal to hang around their necks.  Long ago, the winner of the race got a wreath of laurel to wear on his head.  The early Roman Christians put laurel in their windows to show that Jesus Christ was the winner – the victor – in their homes.

            In old England and France, holly and ivy took the place of the laurel.  Look at the leaves of the ivy.  They are shaped sort of like a heart.  The heart-shaped ivy leaves of the ivy can remind us of the holy spot where God set foot on earth, where God’s heart is revealed.          

The red berries, mixed in with the evergreens, remind us of the blood that was shed to earn us our joy.  Jesus is God’s footprint on earth – but Jesus suffered.  Eventually the holly wreath with its thorns and red berries came to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.

 

CHUCK CARMAN AND ENSEMBLE SING “THE HOLLY AND THE IVY”

While children add sprigs of holly and ivy to the greens through the sanctuary

 

Children pull a red wagon bearing a 3 foot high poinsettia down the aisle.

Bob places it in the ‘living room’

 

THE LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA  (Maggie)

 

            The brilliant tropical plant known to us as the poinsettia, has a different name in the Latino nations of Mexico and Central America.  There, it is known as the “Flower of the Holy Night.”

            The legend of this flower is told in many ways, but they all sound something like this (from Mexico). 

            An orphan boy named Pedro had to work all day even though it was the day before Christmas.  When he finished running all his errands on Christmas Eve he counted his pennies.  It made him very sad.  There were hardly enough to buy his evening meal.  “Come with us to the cathedral,” urged his friends.

            “No,” answered Pedro, “I have no money to buy a gift for the Christ child.”

            “Ah, take this,” suggested one of his practical friends, pointing to a weed by the side of the road.  Pedro wasn’t sure, but hesitantly he plucked the stringy weed and climbed the steep hill to the church.  Inside he made his way to the altar with its Mexican manger scene.  Kneeling in the straw, he reverently laid his humble gift in front of the figure of the Christ child.  Then he bowed his head and prayed humbly and sincerely.

            As he prayed that Jesus would understand and would accept his poor offering, Pedro became aware of a murmuring from the vast congregation that filled the church that night.  He opened his eyes and stared in amazement.  In front of him he saw a dazzling and beautiful scarlet flower where he had placed the dried weed only moments before. 

            His humble offering had been miraculously transformed into a thing of beauty! 

            He was seeing a poinsettia, a many-pointed star.  Some people say it reminds them of the Star of Bethlehem.

            God can transform our humblest offerings.  God can make something beautiful out of anything we offer with sincerity and trust.  God can take any portion of our lives, and any portion of our wealth, and make of it a blessing for the world. 

 

*HYMN – “IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER” – No. 221

While the Worship Team brings in 3 foot diameter wreaths for pulpit and lectern.

 

THE SYMBOLISM OF WREATHS (Bob)

 

            When you go way up north – in Canada or Scandinavia – the winter nights are long.  It gets dark soon after lunch and it stays dark until after breakfast the next morning.

            People in Norway and Denmark used to take a wooden wheel and put candles on it.  They would light the candles and pray to the god of light would turn the wheel and come back again.

            During Advent we remember living in the dark and waiting for God to send the true Light of the World.  Jesus is the Light of the World.

            That’s why we light candles on the Advent wreath.  But we don’t light the Christ candle till Christmas Eve.  God sends light into our darkness in the person of Jesus Christ.

            Maggie will tell you more about the Advent wreath.

The round wreath reminds us that God’s love surrounds us.

The round circle that has no beginning and no end reminds us of eternal life.

            Let me tell you a poem:

 

            The circle of a girl’s arms

            has changed the world,

            the round, sorrowful world

            to a cradle for God.

            O, Mother of God

            Be hands that are rocking the world

            to a kind rhythm of love:

            that the incoherence of war

            and the chaos of unrest

            be soothed to a lullaby;

            and the round sorrowful world,

            in your hands,

            a cradle for God.

                        (Ann Weems)

 

THE ADVENT CANDLES  (Maggie) 

 

            Long before electricity people used candles to light their houses at night.  In Medieval Germany, the Lutherans put candles in their Advent wreaths.  When there were four Sundays till Christmas, they lighted one candle.  They let it burn all week.  When there were three Sundays till Christmas, they lighted two candles and let them burn all week.  When there were two Sundays till Christmas, they lighted three candles and let them burn all week. On the last Sunday before Christmas, they lighted all four candles, to remind them that Jesus was almost there.

You can do this at home.  The candles can be lighted every evening as your family meal begins.  You can read something from the Bible and open your Advent calendar and talk about Jesus and how you are making your heart ready for him. 

            Jerry is going to teach us a song you can sing while you light the candle.  Let’s see if we can learn it so we can sing it at home.  (Everybody can sing it because it’s in the bulletin.)

 

ADVENT SONG  -  WHILE WE WAIT  (words by Bob Olmstead, tune by Jerry Johnson)

 

Light one candle while we wait

While we wait, While we wait

Light one candle while we wait

For Jesus the Son of God.

            This is the candle of love

            This is the candle of love

            This is the candle of love

            For Jesus the Son of God.

Light one candle while we wait

While we wait, While we wait

Light one candle while we wait

For Jesus the Son of God.

 

LIGHTING THE FIRST ADVENT CANDLE  (Maggie and the children)

 

THE COLOR PURPLE  (Bob)

While attention is drawn to the Advent installation by Artist-in-Residence, Paul Artac

 

            Long ago everybody wore the same color clothes, sort of tan or gray.  Unless you were very rich.  Only a very few people were rich enough to afford the dyes that made clothes colorful.  And only kings and queens could afford purple dye, which was the most expensive of all.

            So when people saw somebody with purpose clothes they knew it was the king or the queen, or a prince or princess, or a bishop of the Church.

            Purple is the other color of Advent.  See the purple in our new Advent art?  And watch next Sunday – Pastor Maggie and I will wear purple stoles.

            Purple reminds us that Jesus is more important than kings and queens.  Even though he is a baby, he is the most important of all.  He is a new kind of king!  He rules only in our hearts.

           

THE CHRISTMAS TREE  (Bob)

 

            What have we forgotten?

            Why we’ve forgotten the most familiar “green” of all -- the Christmas tree!

            There are so many legends about how the Christmas tree became a tradition; I don’t know which one to tell you. 

Some say it all started when a monk named Wilfred was trying to convert the Druids in ancient England.  As he was speaking a giant oak crashed to the ground and split into four sections.  From its center grew a young firtree, pointing its green spire toward the sky.  Since the Druids worshiped oak trees, Wilfred recognized a sermon when he saw one and he said, “This little fir tree shall be your holy tree tonight.  It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir.  It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen.  See how it points toward the heavens.  Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.  Gather about it, not in the wilderness, but in your homes.  There it will be surrounded with loving gifts and rites of kindness.” 

            Another legend says that Martin Luther was out walking in the winter’s darkness when he was struck by the beauty of a little evergreen firtree.  He brought it into his house and decorated it with candles -- a reminder that the Light of the World was once more on its way, and he commanded Lutheran families to do the same each Advent season hence.

            Some say the first Christmas tree decorations were red apples and bright candles; a reminder of our original sin and our salvation in Christ, the Light of the World.

            In past years some of you helped us make “chrismons” for our church tree.  “Chrismons” are many symbols of Jesus Christ.  We have some here.  Why don’t you go and decorate our tree now?  Take a close look at the chrismon before you hang it on the tree.  How does it remind you of Jesus?

 

SOLO (OR ENSEMBLE) – CHRISTMAS TREE SONG

While children put the chrismons on the tree

 

            (Bob):            Our house is now ready!

                        Are your hearts ready?

            (Maggie):        How do we get our hearts ready?

            (Stephen):        With prayer and with giving.

 

JOYS AND CONCERNS OF OUR CONGREGATION  (Stephen)

 

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION  (Stephen)                                        

THE LORD’S PRAYER

 

THE OFFERING IS RECEIVED

 

THE ADVENT CALENDAR IS EXPLAINED  (Bob)

And Advent calendars are given to every child

 

            This is the first day of Advent.  See the little window in your Advent calendar?  You can open it up and see what’s inside.  Maybe it tells you a Bible verse to read today.

            Every day between now and Christmas you can open one more window in your Advent calendar.  Then you can do something to prepare the way for Jesus to come into our lives – which is the way he comes into the world.

 

PRAYER OF DEDICATION  (Maggie)

 

*SONG             PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD – No. 207        

 

*PEACE BLESSING  -  SHALOM  -  No. 666

The children make the recessional and encircle the sanctuary – all hold hands for the singing

 

*ALLELUIA  -  No. 186 (vs.1)

 

 



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“WILL THIS BE ON THE FINAL - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WILL THIS BE ON THE FINAL?”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me … just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

(Matthew 25:32-35,40)


 

            I was in my third year of seminary and my second year in the ministry when I got a call from the mortuary a few blocks the church.  Could I hurry over right away?  A young woman was there; her husband was dead.  The mortician had assumed a “closed casket” since the man had been killed in a plane crash, but now the widow was hysterical and insisted on seeing his body.  Would I come and help?

 

            I was a ripe old 23 and felt like I was still learning to tie my own tie and neither my experience nor my education had taught me what to say – or do – in moments of hysteria.  But I went. I stood with my arm around the young woman as she viewed the mutilated remains of the man she loved.  And then we went into a small side room to talk.  She screamed.  I listened.  She wept.  I listened.  She screamed some more, saying, “He’ll go to hell!  He’ll go to hell!  He never knew Jesus!  I’ll never see him again!  He never took Jesus as his Lord and Savior!”

 

            I don’t know how long we took; it seemed like a long time to me.  I tried to draw out her memories of this man – her husband.  She would tell me things about him and then she would be wracked with sobs, returning again and again to her refrain: “He’s damned to hell because he never confessed Jesus as his Savior.”

 

            Slowly the pieces of their story came together.  Her parents were fundamentalist Christians.  They disapproved of her husband.  He drank.  He smoked.  He partied.  He didn’t attend church.  When she insisted on marrying him anyway, they told her she had to save his soul.  He loved to fly airplanes.  On weekends he delivered small planes, flying them from factory to their new owners.  He flew one of them into the side of a mountain.  He had lots of friends.  He brought down-on-their-luck friends home for dinner, or for a week, or months.  He rescued animals and brought home strays.  He loved to fly.

 

            And his widow was convinced he would spend eternity in hell because he never confessed his belief in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.

 

            The funeral was scheduled for that Saturday.  I went home to search for words, for what to say at the funeral of a young man who drank too much, who rescued animals, who spent too much time in bars and too little time in church, who opened his home to needy friends, and whose wife, whose parents, and whose in-laws would be present to hear the words I chose.

 

            At his funeral I read the same Bible verses that you heard this morning.  From Matthew 25.  It’s called the Final Judgment.  The FINAL judgment.  Humanity stands at Jesus’ feet and he separates the sheep from the goats.  On his right hand he puts the sheep, with praises and promises of an eternity of joy in God’s presence.  On his left he puts the goats, condemned to an eternity of loneliness. 

 

How did he know the sheep from the goats?  On what did he judge them?

 

            “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 

            “Lord, when did we see you hungry…or thirsty…or a stranger…or naked…or in prison?”

 

            “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.”  [Matthew 25:34-40]

 

            Drinking, smoking, playing cards and going to church don’t show up on the final exam.  The final exam – the Final Judgment  - consists of what we do for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger . . . .

 

            I said that to those gathered at the young man’s funeral: that is how he will be judged.  And that is how you will be judged.  And that is how I will be judged.

 

            Was that too simplistic?

 

            Was I too judgmental of the young man’s in-laws?

 

            What will your grade be on Jesus’ final exam if those are the only questions?

 

            Remember school days?  Somebody always asked: Will this be on the final?

 

            Well, yes, Jesus is telling us what will be on the final.

 

            But it’s a take-home exam.  And not only that, it’s open-book!  You can look up the answers any time you want.  I’ll even remind you where to find them: the 25th chapter of Matthew, verses 31-46.  And it’s perfectly OK to cheat by discussing it with your neighbor.

 

            I’ve always tried to stay away from partisan politics from the pulpit, but I don’t know how to say what I say next without being partisan (by that I mean favoring one political party over another).  One of the key distinctions, it seems to me, between our two dominant political parties is whether Matthew 25 applies to the government or only to individuals.  Will America be put to the judgment of Matthew 25?

 

            Feed the hungry.

 

            Clothe the naked.

 

            Care for the stranger. (Does this mean undocumented aliens, immigrants, people who don’t speak English?)

 

            Care for the sick.

 

            Visit those in prison.  (We have lots of opportunity because America has more people in prison than any other nation on earth.)

 

            Richard Nixon, while President, proposed a guaranteed annual income – not just welfare but a guarantee of a minimum income for every family in America.  Richard Nixon!  The political pendulum has swung so far to the right that the most liberal congressman today is now to the right of Richard Nixon. The idea of sharing America’s wealth with the hungry, the naked, the homeless, and the lonely has dropped off the legislative agenda.

 

            I lament living in a land where people profess Christian piety and then ignore the clear message of Matthew 25 that we will be JUDGED finally and eternally by how well we treat the “the least of these” our brothers and our sisters.  I would be far more sympathetic to those who want to call this a “Christian nation” if I heard them proposing national policies to feed the hungry and care for the sick.  Whether our responsibility to the poor is a matter of individual conscience or government policy is the key political debate of our generation.

 

            Whether our responsibility to the poor is a matter of individual conscience or government policy is the key political debate of our generation.

 

            Beginning in January you will be hearing about the proposed Mid-Peninsula Opportunity Center – a single facility located between the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Town & Country Shopping Center – where the many various services helpful to the “homeless” will be concentrated.  A single building with everything from job counseling to hot showers.  It is the brainchild of Jim Burklo and Palo Alto Urban Ministries.  Our church has long supported Urban Ministries and our church will be challenged to support the building of the Mid-Peninsula Opportunity Center.  The Opportunity Center will offer much more than a handout. It will offer the option of a new beginning, and support along the way as folks get their feet on the ground and a chance for a job.  The churches of Palo Alto will be asked to come up with a million dollars to go toward the $4 million cost of building the Opportunity Center.

 

. . .  Of course we can!

 

            The poet W.H. Auden once mused, “We are here on earth to do good for others.  What the others are here for, I don’t know.”

 

            Hmmmm.

 

            To the long list of questions I intend to ask Jesus when I meet him, I would add these:

 

-          Should I give money to somebody with alcohol on his breath?

-          How much leeway should I give someone with a prison record?

-          What about people who “work the system” and go from handout to handout?

 

In my line of work I face questions like that every week.  I spend time wondering about these

things.  But Jesus’ final judgment is pretty clear and uncompromising:

 

-          feed the hungry

-          clothe the naked

-          care for the sick

-          visit those in prison

-          reach out to the stranger

 

As with many of Jesus’ teachings there is a twist to this.  It is for our sake, not just for those who receive our generosity.  He is telling us how to recognize the face of God. Forget the sunsets and the beautiful prayers: if you want to see God look into the faces of the poor and the neglected. That is where you will see God’s face.  “As you responded to them,” Jesus says, “you did it to me.”  It is in learning to give, that we discover God.

 

We will never find God if we cannot look into the faces of the poor.  That’s where the goats got it wrong.

           

We are here on earth to do good for others.  What the others are here for, I don’t know.  Jesus is their judge, not me.  I don’t have to know what everybody’s here for.  But I do know what will be on my final exam.

 

            One question.

 

            Did I recognize and acknowledge Jesus when I saw him?

 

            He showed up in my life again and again,

 

            In the hungry

 

            In the stranger

 

            In the lonely

 

            In the sick

 

            In prisons.

 

            Jesus’ face was so clear, so present, so easy to recognize!

 

            One question: did I recognize him?

 



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“AFTER THE ECSTASY, THE LAUNDRY” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“AFTER THE ECSTASY, THE LAUNDRY”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. … the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.”   (Matthew 25:1-4,10)


 

            One day David Mazel’s rabbi asked how things were going for him in life.  Mazel replied, “O.K., Rabbi, but it wouldn’t hurt if they got a little better.”  His rabbi replied, “How do you know it wouldn’t hurt?”

 

            No matter how much we have, we wish for a little more, don’t we?

 

            Dusty Baker wants more respect.  Peter Magowan wants more credit. One day they may both wish they had been satisfied with what they had.  Republicans will read more into Tuesday’s vote than is really there.  Democrats . . . well, Democrats are justified in wishing things were a little better.  Ask someone about their religious life and most will answer, ‘It’s O.K., Pastor, but it wouldn’t hurt if it got a little better.”

 

            How do you know it wouldn’t hurt?

 

            A biography of Michelangelo is titled, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”  An anthology of spiritual insights is titled it, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” [1]   It’s rooted in an old and famous story from Zen Buddhism.  A young man gives up everything to seek enlightenment.  After long searching he finds a monastery led by an enlightened abbot; it promises to provide the enlightenment he craves.  For years he subjects himself to the abbot’s authority and he devotes himself to meditation and to prayer.  The monastery is poor, the food is simple, the monks have to fetch water from the stream and chop wood for their winter fires.  Finally the young man thinks he is on the verge of a great break-through in meditation and he asks the abbot, “Teacher, what does one do after enlightenment?”  The old abbot pauses not all and answers, “Fetch water, chop wood.”

 

            After the ecstasy, the laundry.

 

            Genuine religious conversion, call it enlightenment if you like, illuminates what we do, invests our ordinary moments with sacred worth, enables us to see farther and to perceive ourselves in the great flow of life – God’s life – divine life – from which this life derives its true meaning and value.  We still have to do the laundry.

 

            When we make ourselves the center of things we are doomed to disappointment.  When six outs from World Series victory isn’t sufficient, when personal agendas cast a pall over life’s joys, when everything is going O.K. but we’re still dissatisfied, still restless, still hoping things will get “a little better” – well, that is disappointment, is it not?  Because we are looking for “more” when we should be searching for “deeper”.

 

            A good friend, once my secretary, has struggled for years toward ordination as a United Methodist minister.  She’s a single mom, already in her 50s, and for years has suffered a crippling lack of self-confidence.  It hasn’t been an easy path.  But she has been certain of her call to serve in this unique way, and this summer she was ordained.  That moment at Conference, when the Bishop placed his hand upon her head and said, “Take thou authority to preach the Word and administer the sacraments…,” must have been a moment of ecstasy for Bev.  In an email she told me, “When I got home from Conference the first thing I did was phone my parents to tell them about it since they had wanted to be there . . . the second thing I did was take my garbage to the dump.”

 

            She says, “Everything is the same, I do my chores, I make the same mistakes and everything is different, the seeds of transformation are planted and watered…”

 

            The seeds of transformation are planted and watered.

 

            Lots of you remember Bob Hamerton-Kelly, Dean of Memorial Church on the Stanford campus for many years, active in this congregation for several years following that, now pastor of the Woodside Community Church.  Bob once told his Stanford congregation:  “We need not turn our own spiritual lives into some huge project so that our relationship with Christ becomes like a burden we carry around with us, something ‘to be worked on.’  It grows secretly.  We water it with the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we water it with the preaching and fellowship and teaching of the church, but it grows, and as we water it and as it grows, so we try to remain alert for the times of harvest that come to us…”

 

            A Christian Century editor tells how, “on a rainy Saturday I stood on the front porch of a Habitat for Humanity house with a man I had never met before.  We were volunteers who had come to unroll sod, plant bushes and sweep a driveway to make the front yard of a new house look more like a home than a construction site.  As we waited out the weather under the shelter of the porch roof he began talking.  He observed that, although its timing was inconvenient for the work we had planned, we sure needed the rain.  Then, not bothering with a segue, he went directly to his main concern and asked me if I was saved.  When I told him that I believed I was, he asked for the date, time and description of my conversion.  It is for moments like these that I think about making up my own version of the Saul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus story.  But it wouldn’t be true.  I was baptized as an infant, raised in a faith tradition I was taught to love and respect, and gradually grew into the theological convictions I strive to live.  Every day the conversion continues as I am changed by human encounters, the natural world and countless experiences that provide new insights into the nature of God.  My fellow Habitat volunteer was an outspoken pacifist, a good neighbor and a self-avowed Christian who knew with certainty the moment Jesus called his name and entered his heart.  He knew where he was, what he was doing, what he was wearing.  He was not impressed with my metaphor for the converted life.  (If you consider a flower unfolding petal by petal over days, how can you mark the precise moment at which the bud ‘converts’ to being a flower.)”

 

            Every day the conversion continues….

 

            That’s what we all want to hear, right?  We, who have never experienced a mountain-top mystical rapture or a dramatic conversion. But I have to ask, did you listen to the punch line of the three previous

illustrations?

 

Ø         Can you honestly and confidently say that the seeds of your transformation are planted and watered? 

Ø         Are you alert at all times for the times of harvest that come to us? 

Ø         Is the conversion of your soul like a flower unfolding petal by petal until it ‘converts’ to being a flower?

 

            To say that spiritual enlightenment or religious conversion sends us right back to fetch water, chop wood, to do the laundry and take the garbage to the dump, does NOT justify lazy spirituality or a failure of conversion.

 

            If our souls are to be converted moment by moment, petal by petal, laundry load by laundry load, we will need to be especially attentive to the disciplines and practices and rituals by which our souls are returned moment by moment, petal by petal, laundry load by trip to the dump, to God.

 

            A seeker met regularly with a spiritual mentor.  One day the seeker asked, “What can I do to come closer to God?”  The spiritual guide replied, “What can you do to make the sun rise?”  Seeing the irony in the question, the seeker persisted, “Well, then why should I bother with these spiritual disciplines?”  The mentor replied, “So you will be awake and alert when the sun rises.” [2]

 

            Ten bridesmaids went out to meet the bridegroom. It was their task to sing and dance and light his way to the bridal chamber.  Some were prepared for his delay.  Some were not.  When the sun rose, when the bridegroom came, when the moment of the soul's encounter was upon them . . . some were prepared and some were unprepared.  Some welcomed the rising of the sun, the coming of the bridegroom, the encounter with Christ.  Others had to scurry about asking others to loan them the oil to light their lamps.  They had nothing with which to welcome the bridegroom, the sun, the Christ, the soul’s encounter.

 

            One spiritual director suggests doing three things every day: 

 

Ø         pray every day,

Ø         practice gratitude every day,

Ø         take life-affirming action every day.

 

These are pretty simple, I will admit.  It’s doing them every day that proves not so simple:

 

Ø         pray every day,

Ø         practice gratitude every day,

Ø         take life-affirming action every day.

 

Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion, shared this experience.  He writes, “I remember one evening with my wife and daughter at a hotel in the Bahamas.  We were under the stars, the hour was late, way past ten o’clock, and Camera, my daughter, was still up, but what did she care?  She was happy after a day in the sun and the sea, and now she was dancing to the music of a calypso band with a girl her age she had just met.  My wife, Jeanne, was happy, too, talking easily to the wife of a musician she had met earlier in our stay, and liked at once.  I was with them, but alone.  As I sat in an armchair watching my little daughter dance and my wife’s face sparkle with life and joy, a wave of emotion, like one of the waves of the ocean a few feet way from us, washed over me, and I started to cry.  I cried quietly, but Jeanne turned her face and saw me.  The smile left her face but it quickly returned, not the same kind but another, because she knew I was crying out of sorrow but also out of joy, and that the joy was so powerful that it hurt.  My joy was that I was there, on that beach under those stars listening to the music and watching the two people I loved more than anyone or anything in the world, and I did not want that moment of perfect joy ever to end.”

 

            “My joy was that I was there…”

 

            How simply and how eloquently put!

 

            “My joy was that I was there…”

 

            We have occasional moments like that.  Mystics call it being one with the universe. Christians are likely to say something about feeling close to God.

 

            Arthur Ashe named it a “moment of perfect joy” that he wanted never to end.

 

            But, of course, it did.  The moment did not last forever.  There was still the laundry, and garbage to take out, and his little girl would grow up, and if you remember, Arthur Ashe died all too young.

 

            Kathleen Norris makes an interesting comparison.  She says, “Both laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems the more useful of the tasks.  But both are the work that God has given us to do.” [3]

 

            When life is lived right, when our lives are lived with balance, they feed off each other, indeed they nourish each other.


[1] Jack Kornfeld

[2] Told by Barbara Troxell, as reported by Rev. Gayle Pickrell, Christ Church United Methodist, Santa Rosa, CA

[3] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries, Paulist Press, New York, 1998.



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“DON’T DIE DISAPPOINTED” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Don't Die Disappointed”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“… I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”  (Deuteronomy 34:4)

 

“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

 

            Farmers have a large reserve of sayings about the foolishness of people who aren’t farmers.  My uncle used to say, “People who want milk should not sit on a stool in the middle of a field and hope a cow will back up to them.”

 

                Fair enough. If we want something we’ll probably have to work for it.  That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it.  Sometimes we’ll be disappointed.

 

            Moses worked extraordinarily hard.  Think about the trajectory of Moses’ life.  Born to a slave woman in Egypt during Egypt’s radical birth control program that consisted of killing male Jewish babies.  Saved by a midwife who put him naked and squalling in a flimsy basket of dried grass and sent him drifting down the river.  Rescued by a princess who raised him in the palace of his people’s persecutors.  Watching his people’s oppression and poverty from a position of privilege, knowing that his mother must be one of the degraded laborers who passed the palace daily on their way to the brickyards.  Moses gave way to homicidal rage, killed a man, then fled to the hills to live as a shepherd far from the palace, far from the city, far from his people.  A voice spoke from a bush that burned with unquenchable flame.  A voice commissioned him to lead his people into freedom, to a promised land flowing with milk and honey.  Moses confronted Pharaoh, eluded the Egyptian army, shepherded his people through the Red Sea, got lost long years in the desert, dealt with the people’s endless complaints, dealt ultimately with God’s complaints about the people, kept the people moving, kept the people hoping, holding before them the vision of a Promised Land. 

 

And when that Promised Land finally – after a lifetime – came into view, Moses got word – not from his doctor, but from the Lord God Almighty – “Sorry, Moses, your time’s up!  You don’t get to go there.”    

 

“… I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”  (Deuteronomy 34:4)

               

Nelson Mandela spent 25 years in prison for espousing equal rights and majority rule in the old Union of South Africa.  Twenty-five years in prison!  He was an old man when he was freed.  He was soon inaugurated as the first president of the newly democratic nation of South Africa.  During his term he faced all the intractable problems of an impoverished economy, the lingering legacy of racism, and the day to day disappointments of governing any nation.  His term in office has ended but Nelson Mandela still travels, reminding nation after nation of the ongoing necessity to abolish racism.  In a recent speech he said, “Now I’m near the end, and I want to sleep for eternity with a broad smile on my face.”  Even after all he has been through, Nelson Mandela knows he won’t live long enough to see racism abolished.

               

Moses never set foot in the Promised Land.  Nelson Mandela knows that racism is still a blight.  Did Moses die disappointed? Will Nelson Mandela die disappointed?  Or can they sleep for eternity with broad smiles on their faces?

           

Let me offer you some significant words from a great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.  He said, “. . . the ending of our lives would not threaten us if we had not falsely made ourselves the center of life’s meaning.”

 

            The ending of our lives would not threaten us if we had not falsely made ourselves the center of life’s meaning.

 

            I learned that lesson from an old woman in my first parish.  I don’t even remember her name now.  I was a senior in seminary and about to be certified as knowing absolutely everything.  I knew this woman was poor; it was evident from her surroundings.  She lived alone in a little house that was nothing more than a converted garage behind somebody else’s house in one of Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods.  The ceilings were so low I worried I would bump my head if I stood up straight.  We sat at her kitchen table.  She had called and asked if I would pay her a visit.  She told me things about her life, losses and hardships she’d suffered.  Then she opened her purse and took out a check.  It was already made out to the church.  We were trying to raise money to paint our rather run-down inner city sanctuary.  She put the check on the table and pushed it across to me.  She said, “I want to donate thing to help us paint our church.”  It wasn’t that big an amount, but it was a whole lot more than she could afford.  I knew that!  So I pushed it back across the table to her and I assured her that she didn’t need to give so much; we were delighted just to have her be a part of the fellowship.  I probably said something dumb, like “we should be helping you, not the other way around.”  She calmly pushed the check back to me and she said, “Pastor Bob, I want you to let me give.  Let me be a part of something bigger than myself.”

 

            When I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s words in a book my head said, “Yes”.  At that old woman’s kitchen table my heart said, “Yes”.  I was unexpectedly in the presence of somebody far wiser than I, somebody who knew what life’s true meaning is all about.  “Let me give.  Let me be a part of something bigger than myself.”

 

            That was a major hinge point in my ministry.  I no longer felt embarrassed to ask for money or for service. But at an even deeper level I learned that I serve along side great people, on behalf of something that is bigger than all of us.  I serve alongside that woman – whose name I have forgotten.  I serve alongside the saints whose names are familiar to us all.  I serve alongside the One whose name and whose life were given to this faith that claims us.

 

            Getting that church on the corner of Shattuck and 63rd Street painted, back there in the ‘60s, wasn’t all that much and I happen to know it needs painting again, for such is the way of the world.  It’s a bigger thing that that congregation with its all white Official Board and its all black M.Y.F. painted its sanctuary with gifts from white folks and black folks alike, who soon took on all the humdrum responsibilities of church life together and in the process learned to look past skin color and discover each other’s humanity.  The task of ending racism isn’t complete, but we were a small part of something much bigger.

 

            One incident from that first parish in North Oakland in the 1960s reminds me of another one.  1968 was a year of riots in America’s inner cities.  The pastors in Oakland drew up a plan to do what little we could if there were disturbances or riots in Oakland. We were teamed up, one black pastor and one white pastor in pairs.  Wearing our clerical collars, we were to take an assigned position somewhere in the city to be a “presence” if violence broke out.  In a most humble and ineffective way to “be” the presence of Christ on an Oakland street corner.  My partner and I were assigned to the “dock” at the city jail, an underground location where the paddy wagons pulled up to disgorge people who were being brought to the jail after their arrests.  We were to stand there in our clerical collars and observe, letting the authorities know that they were being watched as they transferred prisoners from paddy wagon to jail.

 

            That’s where I stood the night Martin Luther King was killed.  We were visiting friends in the suburbs, heard the news, drove home, I put on my clerical collar and descended into the bowels of the city.  There was rioting that night, hundreds of people were arrested.  Many were already bloodied as they were taken from the paddy wagons and hatred hovered over the dock like a dense fog.  Sometime in the night – toward morning – I walked home along streets strewn with broken glass, people’s shoes, the odor of burning.  In a shop window someone had lighted a candle, placed a flower beside it, and propped up a small card with these words:

 

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;

therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;

therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;

therefore we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.

Therefore we must be saved by the final favor of love which is forgiveness.

 

            I realized that night just how small and insignificant one life can be.  Everything I had dedicated my efforts to seemed to be going up in flames.  But those words [1] , drawn from Scripture – faith, hope, and love – reminded me that I was still part of something much larger than myself. On a night of rioting and hate, I could be a small reminder of Christ, of the faith and hope and love and forgiveness which are the pulse of Christianity, a pulse that is pushed by the heartbeat of God.

 

            It is said that a king who had great wealth and power left behind him an unexpected message when he died.  They found a slip of paper on his desk with these words: “I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness that have fallen to my lot.  They amount to fourteen.” [2]

 

            He had wealth.  He had power.  He had responsibilities.  What did he lack?  He seemed to have no sense that he was a part of something larger than himself.  When we put ourselves at the center of things, when our happiness is constructed of accumulations, when our energies are based on personal success, material prosperity, or getting ahead – then we might want to stop and ask: “ahead of who?”  (That’s bad English, I know. It should be “ahead of whom?”)

 

            Those who are alone at the top are . . . truly alone.  And they die like that king – disappointed.  But Moses and Mandela, whose lives were given to something much bigger than themselves, something which cannot be accomplished in a single lifetime, they are the ones who can sleep for eternity with broad smiles on their faces.

 

            What are you giving your life to?  Is it big enough?  When you are “near the end” will you look back with a sense of disappointment, or with a broad smile?

 

                The ending of our lives would not threaten us if we had not falsely made ourselves the center of life’s meaning.  That’s a message for the beginning and the middle of our lives, too, for that is where we “make” the center.

 

                Teach that to Sara. (Sara Elizabeth Norris, baptized during the service).  It is the meaning of her baptism.  She is a part of something so much bigger than herself.  Help her connect with it.  (I know you will!)

 

            Sometimes what we do for the Church seems small, but remember that our denomination is involved with feeding and educating and healing more than a million children in more than 90 nations daily.  We’re a part of that.

 

            Sometimes the “street corner” where we spend our daily lives seems insignificant, but remember you are the one called to be the presence of Christ that day on that street corner.  In that home, that office, that classroom.

 

                If we want milk we shouldn’t sit on a stool in the middle of a field and hope a cow will back up to us.  If we want the satisfaction of a well lived life we shouldn’t wait passively for happiness to come to us.  If we don’t want to die disappointed we need to ask now if we are giving ourselves to something bigger than we are.

 

                Don’t make yourself the center of existence.  Be a part of something bigger: peace making, music, a career that benefits others, your grandchildren’s spiritual development, art, international understanding, preserving the environment, family, the Church.

 

            Ultimately, the only thing big ENOUGH, is God.

               

 


[1] Also from Reinhold Niebuhr, as it turns out

[2] Rev. Don Shelby



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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE 10 COMMANDMENTS? - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE 10 COMMANDMENTS?”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

(On World Communion Sunday our Fijian Fellowship, our Tongan Fellowship, and our English-speaking congregation worship together.  (We are one church with ministries and worship services in three languages on Sundays and every day of the week).  The Scripture (Exodus 20:1-20) was read in Fijian.  The Communion liturgy was conducted in Tongan.  Four anthems were sung: one in each language and one by our children’s choir.  The following sermon was in English.)

 

“…You shall have no other gods before me … you shall not make for yourself an idol … you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God … remember the sabbath day … honor your father and your mother … you shall not murder … you shall not commit adultery … you shall not steal … you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor … you shall not covet your neighbor’s [possessions] …”   (from Exodus 20:1-20)


 

Were the Beatles popular in Tonga or Fiji in the 1960s and the 1970s?  They were more than popular here.  They were godlike.  They sang a song called “All You Need Is Love.”  People believed them.  I believed them.  And they were wrong.  Love is not enough.

 

Two popular theological books during that time were John Robinson’s “Honest to God” and Joseph Fletcher’s “Situation Ethics.”  I cut my theological baby teeth on those books – I tried my best to believe them, because they made religious life easy.  Each, in its own way, discarded the absolutes I grew up with.  “Law” and “rules” became dirty words.  The 10 Commandments were tossed onto the garbage heap of history.

 

In college, the very secular college I attended, I was required to write a paper on the 10 Commandments for Freshman English.  In seminary, the 10 Commandments were passed over as a relic from a previous age.

 

The 10 Commandments went the way of the flag for us supposedly “enlightened” people.  The opposite was true in Tonga and in Fiji, but individual autonomy and personal independence became the goal of child raising for educated Americans of European descent.

 

And so we have Enron.

 

“Rules” and “honor” and “tradition” did not apply to those executives we now see in handcuffs and courtrooms.  They were not bound by the pettiness of moral laws like “you shall not steal,” “you shall not lie,” “you shall not covet.”

           

The most important question for the primitive Jewish nomads of the 12th century B.C. was “How are we to live our lives before God?”

           

The 10 Commandments shaped their response to that question and turned a band of fugitive slaves into an enduring nation.

 

            The God of Exodus was not a cuddly spirit living within our hearts and telling us to be everything we can be.

 

            The God of Exodus was a mighty moral force capable of bringing the universe into being and living entirely outside the mobs of puny humans who couldn’t seem to figure out what was expected of them, who required rules – commandments – plainly set forth and written in stone.

 

            You shall have no other gods before Me.

 

            You shall not steal.

 

            You shall not kill.

 

            You shall not commit adultery.

 

            Honor your parents.

 

Modern liberal Christianity has rebelled against all that. We want our children to hear of nothing but unconditional love.  But that’s Beatles, not Bible.

 

One of our past seminary interns exceeded my tolerance quotient for the phrase - “God’s unconditional love.”  I asked her, “What if that isn’t true?  What if God’s love has conditions?”

 

I ask you the same thing.

 

The southern legislator who introduced legislation to require the posting of the 10 Commandments in local post offices and classroom walls was misguided primarily because posting the rules on the walls isn’t going to be very effective.  But we smug enlightened California liberals who laughed at him are MUCH MORE MISGUIDED if we think rules are unnecessary, if we promote personal autonomy at the expense of public morality, and if we think children will become moral/ethical creatures without being instructed.

 

P.D. James, the British mystery writer, worries that contemporary liberalism has made autonomy its only god.  It denies that we are obligated – obligated – to any ends, whether given by religion or nature, by families or peoples or traditions that we have not chosen utterly for ourselves.  The result, she contends, is a terribly fragmented and secularized social world.  The result is a social and political and economic calamity.

 

I came across an old “Question Man” column that I cut out of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago.  At The Embarcadero in San Francisco the question was posed, “What advertisement promises are you susceptible to?”  Ted Weinstein, 29, public affairs advocate, Russian Hill, replied: “The health club pitch.  It’s the most implicit promise – you’ll be healthier and look better.  It sounds nice, until you realize you have to show up and work out.”

 

Maybe churches ought to add that to their advertising.  “Experience God’s unconditional love . . . but first you have to show up and work out.”

 

Are those ancient 10 Commandments sufficient for today?  Well, have you mastered them?  Come back when you follow all 10 and we’ll talk about what comes next.

 

Hear them once more:

 

God shall occupy the center of your attention.  That’s number one.

 

Do not bow down to material things.  Number two.

 

Do not make God weary with numerous petitions for unimportant things.  (Because that’s taking God’s name in vain.)

 

For one seventh of your life let nothing come between you and God.

 

Honor your father and your mother; keep the traditions.

 

Do not kill.

 

Do not commit adultery.

 

Do not steal.

 

Do not lie, gossip, or speak badly of others.

 

Ignore advertising; you already have enough.  Don’t covet!

 

This world would be a lot better place if more people were trying to follow the 10 Commandments.



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One nation sits astride the known world - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“A 2000 YEAR OLD SERMON”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:3-5,12-13)

 

            A certain superpower acts threateningly to protect its own interests throughout the known world.  It has little interest in the history or culture of other peoples as long as they support and protect open trade.  Military expenditures make up a major portion of its gross national product.  It brings the latest technology and communications to the far reaches of the globe.  Its army and navy bases are positioned throughout the world.  The senate meets and debates but power rests with the leader.  The superpower of which I speak, of course, is 1st century Rome.  In the 1st century Rome’s authority extends from the fog of northern England to the desert sands of western China.

 

            Philippi is a smallish town in Macedonia, a part of Greece, administered from Rome.  The people of Philippi are neither particularly rich nor particularly poor; many of them are retired military veterans living on generous pensions from Caesar. A century and a half earlier a noted general came out of Macedonia: Alexander the Great.

 

            In the fifth decade of this “first century” a curious appearing but intrepid evangelist came through the area.  His name was Paul.  His traveling companion was an amateur historian named Luke.  Luke’s later text, divided into two “books,” has come down to us through the centuries as the third and fifth books of our New Testament, known as Luke and Acts.  A composite of letters Paul wrote back to the little congregation he and Luke founded in Philippi is the New Testament book of Philippians.

 

This little church in Philippi has neither sanctuary nor priest, neither pastor nor Bible.  They meet in somebody’s house.  Perhaps the house of Lydia, a woman Paul mentions in his letters and Luke in his book of Acts.  They share a meal each time they gather for worship.  They tell their personal stories of conversion, salvation, transformation, and faith. 

           

They carefully preserve the letters Paul sends them: hand-written, hand-delivered by one of their members who is a traveling merchant.  They bring one out each Sunday morning to read it aloud.  It provides their sermon.  They hand it to one of the few church members who can read, perhaps Lydia herself, and she reads it aloud:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:1-13)

 

            If we are to believe Luke’s brief history, the congregation by this time would be in tears, speaking in tongues, shouting their praises and renewing their faith.

 

            Are you aware that these earliest Christians had never heard any of Jesus’ teachings?  Contemplate that for a moment.

 

            The earliest Christian congregations knew nothing of what Jesus taught or what he did while he was alive – only that he had been crucified, resurrected from the dead, and was expected to return at any moment to establish a new world order in which baptized Christians would be the first (and perhaps only) citizens.

 

            Period.

 

            That’s it!

 

            It didn’t take long for questions to arise, discussions to be held, bishops elected, conferences convened, and factions created.

 

            Paul wrote his later letters as an attempt to answer some of the questions that were being raised. One theme runs through all of them, early and late: trying to keep the peace in the congregations he founded.

 

            Paul was convinced that Jesus would return to reign before he (Paul) died.  And his early letters reflect that.  As his death grew imminent, he had to revise his theology to explain Christ’s delay.  And his later letters, like Romans, reflect that.  As the earliest Christians grew old and died somebody said, “Maybe we should write down what we know about Jesus’ life and teachings.  Pretty soon there won’t be anybody left who knew him.”  Only then did the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke get compiled and written, and only a generation later the Gospel of John.

 

            Later still the author of the little book of James found it necessary to remind people that “faith without works is dead” – meaning that it wasn’t enough to have faith in Christ’s return; they needed to pay more attention to how they lived their lives while waiting.  James will be the U.M.W. study for this year.

 

            (The first Christians believed that they would share in the bodily resurrection of Christ, not that their souls would leave their bodies and go to heaven – but that’s for another sermon.)

 

            The point I want to make this morning is that the earliest Christian sermons had nothing of Jesus’ teachings about morality or ethics.  The first sermons made three points: God was in Christ and raised Christ from the dead, Christ would soon return, so get baptized and wait to enter the Kingdom of God on earth.  When the wait turned out to be longer than expected the sermons changed.  A new element was added – how to treat each other while waiting.  There was no mention of Rome’s foreign policy, no condemnation of Rome’s war on the Picts in Scotland, no mention of Rome’s depletion of the gold mines on the outskirts of Philippi to finance their newest weapons of war and maintain Rome’s high standard of living.

 

            That world was going to end.  And these pitiful little Christian congregations would have had no influence on Rome’s policies anyway.  Rome took no account of them.

 

            It’s been almost 2000 years.  Rome’s empire vanished.  Other superpowers rose and fell.  We are citizens of the current superpower. 

 

            In the circles I move in I meet few people who are still waiting for Christ’s return.  Ask most Methodists what Christianity is all about and you will get a sermon on good behavior.  Listen to modern Methodist sermons and you will learn that if this world is to improve we are going to have to do it ourselves.

 

In this modern American superpower there is a church steeple on every village green, church ads in the subways and on TV, and a prayer is offered – “in the name of Jesus Christ” – when the newest Caesar is sworn in at 4 year intervals.

 

            How did we get from there to here?  And how does that 2000-year-old sermon sound today?

. . . Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  . . . Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

            That is a 2000-year-old sermon; it leaves me with these conclusions:

 

Ø                  the world is not much improved from then till now; power still prevails and evil still abounds;

 

Ø                  the problem lies in human nature and while universal education and a decent standard of living are instruments of God’s purpose, it will take an infusion of divine grace to transform human nature;

 

Ø                  good works are good and should be continued even at the cost of personal sacrifice, but they are not going to bring peace and justice in this world;

 

Ø                  expecting Christ’s return, and living in hope for that return, makes more sense than most of us are wont to admit.

 

Before Constantine Christians could not serve in the Roman army.  After Constantine only Christians could serve.  That is quite a change!  The Christian Church began as a small group awaiting the downfall of Rome; the Christian Church became a defender of Roman power.  That’s quite a change!

 

Caesar wanted to subdue the Picts in Scotland; George Bush wants to subdue Saddam in Iraq.

 

            How should Christians respond?

           

I see two paths: the path of the Christian saint and the path of the Christian citizen.

 

            The Christian saint says, “I will do no harm.  No matter what evil surrounds me, I will not stoop to violence or war.”  The Christian saint is a pacifist, refusing to justify the sufferings of the innocent, or resort to violence to impose one’s will.  The Christian saint refuses to participate in the way of the world.

 

            The Christian citizen says, “I will not stand by letting others fight my battles for me; I will meet force with force if necessary, choosing the lesser of two evils in this very imperfect world. For my inaction leads to the suffering of innocents too.” The Christian citizen is not blindly supportive of everything his government proposes, but he or she does serve nation, sometimes in the military.  The Christian citizen knows our side is never entirely right and that no war will be a war to end all wars.

 

            And Paul would say let none judge the others, at least within the fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are a community of Christian saints and Christian citizens, living in a common bond of expectation and hope that a new community will one day dawn, a new community instituted of God and not dependent on human good will or subject to human sin.

 

Does that sound like pie in the sky bye-and-bye?  It does to me.  Yet that is precisely what has enabled Christian people to experience deep joy and great endurance while undergoing times of terrible travail.

 

We wait with hope.  And we need each other while we wait.

           

John Updike called the Christian faith “an improbable wager on an impossible possibility.”  It wasn’t any easier to have faith in the 1st century than it is in the 21st.     

 

Vincent Van Gogh wrote to a friend: “Hope for better times is not a feeling, it is an action in the present.”  Expanding on that, my friend adds, “Just so, hope, like faith and love, is a way of living and of responding to God and others, and to our own lives, a way that is determined by and grounded in the love of God that we see in Jesus.  And when we live that way, we not only become parables of faith, hope and love for others, we literally change the world.” [1]

           

Or as that sermon proclaimed 2000 years ago

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, …: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. …  Therefore, my beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:1-13)

           



[1]   Rev. Richard Corson, First United Methodist Church, Campbell, CA.



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“WHO ARE YOU TO PASS JUDGEMENT - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WHO ARE YOU TO PASS JUDGEMENT?”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? 

It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they

will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4)


 

                I’m going to turn this sermon inside out and give you the process rather than the result.

 

                Some months ago I read the four Scripture passages presented for this day in the Common Lectionary.  One phrase jumped out.  That’s the way it usually is for me.  It’s right there on the cover of your bulletin: “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?”

 

                That gave me a title: WHO ARE YOU TO PASS JUDGEMENT?  I opened a file and started adding notes and quotes and thoughts and references.  I let it “steep” for several months – the way a tea lover lets tea leaves “steep” in hot water.  It steeped in my unconscious while I did other things, preached other sermons, and the world went on its way.

 

                Time passed.  Till this week came.  It was time to do some research on the passage, only to discover that my mind had confused this passage from Paul with another saying of Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37) They sound alike and I was glad to see Saint Paul take up the theme, because frankly, I always thought Paul was a little judgmental himself.

 

                My research turned up this: Paul writes his letter to the Christians in Rome.  That’s why it’s called Romans in the Bible.  What was going on in Rome at the time he wrote it?  Well, a new Emperor was on the throne.  He had just issued an edict allowing Jews to return to the city.  The previous Emperor had banished them.  That provides an important clue to understanding Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, especially his plea to “judge not.”  (No, wait, Jesus said, “Judge not…”  Paul said,  “Who are you to judge…?”)

 

                So picture: over here on this side of the sanctuary are a group of Jews (who accept Jesus as the Messiah).  You do know that the very earliest Christians were Jews, right?  They accepted Jesus as the Messiah who was promised to them in the Jewish scriptures.  They still considered themselves Jews – and these Roman Jewish Christians are especially strict because they have just returned from the hinterlands and it was their rigorous religious practice and faith that kept them going during their years of exile. Jewish traditions – observing the Holy Days, keeping a kosher kitchen - mean a lot to them!

 

                Picture still: seated over here on this side of the sanctuary are a group of Gentile converts, Roman Christians who were baptized after hearing Paul or Silas or someone preach the Gospel of universal salvation to anyone who confesses Christ as Savior.  What’s the big deal about kosher food and being circumcised?  Some of them brought bacon and pork chops for the potluck after worship.

 

                Further complicating matters, the two groups cannot agree on when to meet for worship.  The Christians who were and still are Jewish want to worship on Saturday, the Sabbath instituted when God rested on the seventh day of Creation.  It’s right there in the Bible!  The Gentile Christians prefer to worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day when Jesus was resurrected from death, to remember that they are instituting something entirely new.

 

                Welcome to the world of the early Church!  One congregation – great disagreements!

 

                Saint Paul writes to them:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat… Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?… Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike… Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.  Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.  (Romans 14:1-6)

 

                Now if I know one thing about preaching it is that people are no where near as fascinated as I am by what was going on back then – when the Bible was being written.  Here I am at the bottom of page three and I haven’t said anything relevant yet!

 

Where do I want to go with this sermon or where is it going with me?

 

I suppose I should say something about our drift toward war on Iraq. 

 

Most of my colleagues and closest friends are highly judgmental of the current Administration in Washington.  I find myself being very judgmental (in private) of my friends’ knee-jerk pacifism. 

 

I think they are naïve.  I doubt that Saddam will ever unleash his biological weapons on America, but I am convinced he is unprincipled enough to unleash them on other innocents in lands much closer to his own.  If we have the power to prevent that genocide I think we are morally obligated to do so.  By force if necessary.

 

But I am determined never to bless or justify war from this pulpit dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  So where is this sermon going?

 

The production of weapons for mass destruction – both nuclear and biological – is evil.  And evil needs to be opposed.  When I try out that line of thought on my wife across the breakfast table, she says, “Well, America has the biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons on earth and we have refused to sign the conventions against producing biological weapons.  Why is it evil for them and not for us?”

 

Hmmmm.

 

Judge not, lest you be judged.

 

Who are you to judge the servants of another?

 

Maybe this passage has more to say about current events than I thought.

 

Sometimes sermons come easily.  Sometimes they don’t.  This one was putting up a struggle.

 

What should I do if I disagree with Jesus?  Should I tell you about it or hide it from you?  “Judge not,” Jesus says, “lest you be judged.”  How do we get through life without making judgements? 

 

I find American liberals insufferably self-righteous, especially the United Methodist variety of which I’m one.  Will that get me thrown out of the club?  Does that disqualify me from this liberal pulpit?  Am I merely one more tired proof that we become more conservative as we age?  Am I going to write this sermon or is it going to write me?

 

That’s a very real question.  It’s what I love most about preaching.  It’s what I hate most about preaching.  Am I going to write this sermon or is it going to write me?  I have to write sermons and put them out there in front of you, not only in my name but in Christ’s name.  What is there in your life that won’t let you follow your own inclinations, but insists – insists – that you consider another way?

 

The key word in the question Paul asks is the third word: who are YOU to pass judgement on another?  Who are YOU?

 

If the Jewish Christians in Paul’s Roman congregation had been able to step back and say, “Look, I’m Jewish.  It’s woven into my identity.  It gives me hope, it kept me alive in exile.  It shapes who I am.”  If the Jewish Christians in Paul’s Roman congregation had been able see that about themselves, and admit that about themselves, they would have found it easier to accept that different forces shaped others.  They would have had less need to make everybody accept the importance of what they found important. If the Gentile Christians in Paul’s Roman congregation had been able to step back and say, “Look, I’m a Roman, a citizen, I’ve had a privileged place in this society and I tend to take my privileges for granted,” then they might have been more tolerant, more accepting, of their Jewish Christian brothers’ and sisters’ need to hang on to their Jewishness.

 

When I have a clear picture of who I am, when I am clear about the influences that shaped me, I can be more tolerant and accepting of others.  When I am unclear about who I am, I am likely to insist that I am right and EVERYBODY ought to see it my way.

 

Who are YOU to pass judgement . . . ?

 

Maggie McNaught preached two fine sermons last month about the United Methodist Social Principles.  I’m just wondering, how many of you have turned to the United Methodist Social Principles to see what they say about war.  Could I say – non-judgmentally, of course! – that if you didn’t, if you have not considered what the United Methodist Social Principles say about war, that means that being a Methodist is not a very big part of who you are.

 

So who are you?  Where do you turn, to whom, to shape your opinions and behavior?

 

Have you become who you are without even knowing how it happened?  Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s never too late to change that!  I’m here to remind you that at your baptism, or at your confirmation, you vowed – you vowed, before God and a Christian congregation – to let Christ shape your life.  That’s what this is all about folks.  Letting the Holy Spirit shape us and mold us and USE us.  Letting the Holy Spirit USE us!  Believing that God is active in today’s world in the form of the Holy Spirit, getting things done, and allowing the Holy Spirit of God to USE us.  That’s what being baptized means.

 

Am I writing this sermon or is this sermon writing me.  What’s writing your life?  If you say, “I am!, me and me alone!” that’s a less than Christian response.  If you say, “I don’t even know,” that’s terribly irresponsible.

 

Boy, do I sound judgmental!

 

And what does it have to do with Iraq?  And who am I to try to say?  I’m a United Methodist pastor appointed by the Bishop to preach the Gospel on the corner of Hamilton and Webster in Palo Alto in the year of our Lord 2002, from a pulpit supported by the faithful stewardship of United Methodist Christians who gather here with the doors open for all to hear, in a season when our nation is contemplating going to war.

 

And I keep telling Jesus I don’t know how to do that without being judgmental!

 

So I’ll share my quibble with both sides.  I think liberals and pacifists and the majority of Methodists with whom I spend my time are naïve.  I find them unwilling to take evil seriously, to name evil, to isolate it, to oppose it, and to take steps to eradicate it.  We liberals seem unwilling to accept the responsibilities of power.  We are embarrassed by America’s success.

 

Before both World Wars American isolationists and American pacifists protested in the streets against our going to war in Europe.  In both cases American armed might tipped the balance in the direction of the eventual outcome.  What would our world be like if we had withheld our power?

 

Liberals fail to acknowledge the evil in others.

 

Conservatives refuse to acknowledge the evil in themselves.

 

If liberals are naïve, American conservatives are all too willing to sacrifice long-term good for short-term gain. Saddam Hussein and all that he stands for should be named as evil and stripped of its power.  But I suspect that war on Iraq is a lousy strategy for accomplishing that goal.  We would win the war.  No doubt about it.  Then what?  We defeated Germany in World War I, we left them devastated and bankrupt and that led directly to World War II.  After World War II we spent the money to rebuild Europe, Germany and Japan – at great expense – and we turned enemies into friends. 

 

I hear the war drums.  I know that America can win the war.  Then what?  I’m listening for the Administration to commit us or at least ask us for the sacrificial giving that will be required to rebuild the area and turn enemies into friends.

 

Iraq is a modern industrialized multicultural nation.  Arabs and Kurds.  Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims.  A long tradition, dating back centuries, of tolerance toward its Jewish citizens.  Ruled by a madman and his tribe of henchmen.  Iraq probably has the best potential of any nation in the area of becoming our ally in the modern world.  How do we get from here to there?  Is war the best way, the only way?

 

There you have it: I’m highly judgmental of our Administration in Washington.  I find them shortsighted, unimaginative, and unworthy of their positions if they can think of nothing but brute force to make our way in the world.

 

And I am judgmental of knee-jerk opposition that is “anti-war” without recognizing the horrifying threat to humanity that the manufacture of biological weapons represents.

 

And Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another?”

 

And Jesus said, “Do not judge, let you be judged.”

 

To which I can only say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

And in case you are interested the United Methodist Social Principles say,

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.  We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities . . .

                We honor the witness of pacifists who will not allow us to become complacent about war and violence.  We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations . . .

                . . . the harsh realities of violence and war, … clearly frustrate God’s loving purposes for humankind.  We yearn for the day when there will be no more war and people will live together in peace and justice . . .

 



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“THE OLD RUSTY TOOL BOX” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“THE OLD RUSTY TOOL BOX”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“You shall let none of [the meal] remain until the morning’; anything that remains until morning, you shall burn.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand;

and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the passover of the Lord.”   (Exodus 12:10-11)

 

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;

… the night is far gone, the day is near.”

(Romans 13:8,12)


 

                Andrew and Thomas just read a familiar portion of our Biblical story: Yahweh’s instructions to the Hebrews on that fateful night before they made their escape from Egypt.  The Almighty shows an almighty attention to details, telling them what to eat, how to eat it, what to wear, how to stand, and what to do with the leftovers!

 

                Hear it again:

“You shall let none of [the meal] remain until the morning; anything that remains until morning, you shall burn.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the passover of the Lord.”   (Exodus 12:10-11)

 

                The point was that Yahweh was about to distract the Egyptian oppressors with a plague on their first-born sons and the Hebrews had better be ready to leave on very short notice.  So they ate standing up, loins girded, ready to go!  And when the signal came, they went!

 

                Don’t you ever wonder what they left behind . . . ?

 

                Carol’s brother and his wife have built a house outside Grass Valley.  Jeanne’s been living there while Buz finishes up his job with NASA at Moffett Field.  Summer has been a season of forest fires in the Sierra foothills.  One fire came close to their new home.  Fire fighters knocked on the door and told Jeanne to get ready to evacuate if the wind brought the fire closer.  Jeanne called us to say, “I’ve got extra dog food and the strong box in the car.  I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

 

                Extra dog food and the strong box of important documents. Think of what she would have left behind!

 

                On the night of the Passover the Hebrews made their escape. But the Promised Land was a long time coming.  They wandered in the wilderness.  It wasn’t long before the people elected a delegation to approach Moses and tell him they were ready to turn back.  Maybe they had been an oppressed minority in Egypt, but they had homes, and kitchens, and clothes that hadn’t been slept in for weeks.  Their possessions were in Egypt.  Their memories were in Egypt.  Cemeteries with their parents’ bones were in Egypt.  All the familiar was in Egypt.  Maybe they could work out a deal: see if Pharaoh would let them come back long enough to gather up their “stuff” and bring it with them.  Like the photographs we’ve seen of refugees pulling overloaded wagons piled high with “stuff”, refugees leaving home behind but trying to bring their stuff with them.

 

                When my best friend’s father died he returned home to clean out his father’s workshop.  His father was a carpenter and a craftsman.  Like my father, his father was a child of the Depression.  He kept everything against a time when they might have nothing.  My found a secure box that was labeled “String too short to save.”  Sure enough, inside were bits of string too small to be of use for anything but still too good to throw away.  In another location my friend’s father kept a box labeled “Keys to lost locks.”

 

                I’ve thought about that many time.

 

                Keys to lost locks!

 

                I have a drawer full of them!  I brought them with me from Reno.  Some of them probably came with me from Santa Rosa or Oakland.

 

                Keys to lost locks.

 

                I’d like to expand our understanding of that tendency to keep keys to lost locks.  I’d like to use it as a metaphor for the things that once had meaning in our lives, but are no longer necessary or no longer fit; habits and thoughts and attitudes and ways of thinking about things that are no longer useful to us, but that we can’t bring ourselves to give up, and so we relegate them a box in our spiritual garage.

 

Someday we’ll clean it out!

               

I wonder what the interior of your garage would tell me about you?  Is it full of “stuff” you no longer have use for but can’t bring yourself to throw away?  Does that reflects the state of your soul, your mind, your spiritual life?

 

                Sometimes we are called to leave the familiar and set out for spiritual territory unknown.  We aren’t always given a lot of warning or time to prepare.  Life after divorce or the death of a spouse.  Life after the stock market tanks and our savings shrivel and our carefully made plans along with them.  Life after winning the lottery or getting an inheritance.  Life after the doctor says “six months.”  Life after graduation.  Life after deciding its time to get serious about living as one of Christ’s own.

 

                Do you think you can take all your “stuff” with you into these new spiritual territories?  The Hebrews were told to eat standing up, burn the leftovers, and travel light.

 

                What do you need . . . what do you really need . . . to travel through life?  Macrina Wiederkehr paraphrases the first of Jesus’ beatitudes to say, “Blessed are those who are…emptied of all that doesn’t matter, those for whom the riches of this world just aren’t that important.  … The reign of heaven is theirs.”

 

                “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting,” Meister Eckhardt wrote some 700 years ago.  God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.

 

                Anne Lamott says,

It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience.  But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.  And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough. [1]

 

                Life hands us these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty. Am I stretching the metaphor too far if I suggest these are the “lost locks” for which we still carry keys?  What if we took a fresh look at these rusty bent old tools?  Friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty.

 

What more do we need?  Really.  If we are going to move purposefully into our future we would do well to carry these, and little more. Friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty.

 

                The choir is back in the choir loft this Sunday.  Bart Cox sits among them as he has for more than 50 years.  Bart’s three daughters and two sons were raised in the fellowship of this church because Bart and Barbara saw to it.  All three of Bart’s daughters now have cancer.  Genetic testing shows a “bad gene” that runs in the family, a gene associated with breast cancer; nieces and granddaughters now have to be tested, with terrible choices confronting them if they too carry the gene.  Bart’s daughters are Andrea, Patricia and Mary.  Mary is the youngest.  Her loving and thoughtful partner, Carol, has created a pendant for all three sisters to wear.  It is an engraved gold star with each sister’s name and the inscription:

Strength + Faith

Love + Courage

Humor + Hope

= Recovery!

 

Andrea is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy but she found the time and inclination to send me words of encouragement after my surgery.  And after sharing the words of Carol’s inscription she added her own postscript: “Yes, it will be a great year.”

 

                Bart and his family are traveling light these days. Unimportant “stuff” has to be left behind in favor of strength and faith, love and courage, humor and hope.

 

                Some years ago Gail Sheehy wrote a book called “Passages”.  It was popular in book clubs and discussion groups.  It made sense out of our lives by identifying stages in life and identifying the different tasks that are required of us at different stages in our lives.  Many people get stuck while navigating life’s passages from one stage to the next.  They make vain efforts to appear “young” instead of accepting the responsibilities and opportunities of maturity.  They attempt to endlessly recapitulate past joys, instead of embracing the present and striding into the future.  They get “stuck” because they try to bring too much “stuff” with them and they can’t fit through the passage from one stage in life to the next.

 

                God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.

 

                When Gail Sheehy turned 50 she gathered a small group of highly successful women of the same relative age: a college president, a famous folk-singer, a prosperous CEO…  She asked, What have we learned?  What passage is confronting us now?  What do we take with us into the next stage of our lives and what do we leave behind?  They talked about relationships, some successful, some not.  They talked about family and career.  They talked about friendship.  One woman, a Black woman, introduced a profound note of wisdom the other had missed.  She said the biggest task at this stage in our lives is forgiveness.  She said, For so long I’ve blamed my parents for all the hardships I’ve had to overcome.  It’s time to forgive them and to let them be who they are.  It’s time for me to move on.               

 

Forgiveness lightens the burden we carry.  We move more easily and more blithely if we forgive others and let go of grudges and old hurts.

               

What are the tools you’ve been handed for making it through life?  Are they forgotten in an old rusty toolbox somewhere?

               

Hear Anne Lamott’s words once more: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience.  But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.  And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

 

                Hear the words of the New Testament:

 

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;

… the night is far gone, the day is near.”

(Romans 13:8,12)

 

                Notice!  Paul doesn’t say love one another because the day is far gone and the night is near. He says love one another because the night is far gone and the day is near. The day is near!  It’s a new beginning!  And it’s already getting away from us while we sit on our pile of “stuff” wondering how we’ll ever move it all.

 

                What if you had to pack up in a hurry and leave 99% of your “stuff” behind?  What would you take?  What would you leave behind?

 

                Take those few necessary tools out of the old rusty toolbox, shine them up and – more important – sharpen them.  Don’t wait for cancer or forest fire to lend a sense of urgency.

 

                The Hebrews had to escape their oppression in Egypt.  Most of us have to escape the oppression of prosperity.

 

                The Christian life beckons.  There is no way to embark upon it if you insist on bringing all your “stuff”.  Jesus travels light, and he is ready to lead us out.  So eat standing up, leave no leftovers, and be ready to go.



[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, Pantheon Books, New York, 1999.



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There and Back Again - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“There and Back Again:  J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings"
Rev. Maggie McNaught
Scripture Readings: Matthew 14: 22-33, Romans 10:5-15


 

          No one knows for certain exactly when hobbits came into existence but in coming across a blank page from an exam he was marking, Professor of Anglo Saxon John Ronald Reuel Tolkien scrawled his soon to be famous words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  From that point on a loving father began to create stories about the 3 foot 6 inch curly headed creatures who loved birthday parties, eating, telling jokes and laughing, that he happily told his own children.  Years later in 1937 the stories were published as a children’s book simply entitled The Hobbit. 

          What the children could not have known at the time they heard of Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the Lonely Mountain with the thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield is that their father had already been establishing the history, languages, geography, and cultures of the races of Elves, orcs, dwarves, and humans through two previous ages that spanned millenia of years in his work in progress known as The Silmarillion. Even as a youth, Tolkien was taken with Norse mythology and faery stories while creating two Elvish languages derived from Finnish and Welsh. Hobbits had only recently come to light.  But they were by no means of least importance.  For when Tolkien penned his fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, books written for adults, the hobbits were the central characters.

          The Lord of the Rings takes place during the Third Age of Middle Earth.  The ring that Bilbo Baggins had acquired during the children’s tale The Hobbit is now discovered to be the One Ring that the dark lord Sauron had fashioned to enslave all the races of Middle Earth to whom he had, in an earlier age, tricked into accepting lesser rings of power. Sauron had been defeated in battle and the ring lost for two and a half thousand years until it is found.  As the trilogy opens, Bilbo is tired and worn out and ready to leave his home, the Shire, to go and write the book of all his adventures.  He leaves all his possessions, including the ring, to his young coming of age nephew, Frodo while enlisting the aid of the wizard Gandalf to look in on his relative.  Gandalf has concerns about the ring’s true nature and eventually discovers that it is in fact a dangerous ring that works insidious evil on the innermost heart and soul of the one who bears it.  Furthermore, he discovers that the dark powers of Sauron have reawakened and his will is bent on retrieving the ring that once reunited with its master can wield an unstoppable power.  And already the forces of evil in the land are headed for the Shire to kill the one who possesses it.  Frodo, with the help of his three friends, Samwise Gamgee, Merry and Pip, flee the Shire to carry the ring to the Elves.  There in the land of the Elves, Frodo learns that it is his appointed task to take the ring back to Sauron’s stronghold to destroy it in the fires from which it was fashioned.  He does not go alone and the fellowship of the ring made up of volunteers from every race in Middle Earth surrounds him on the journey.  Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor, but who wanders in the wilderness.  Legolas, the Elf and Gimli, the dwarf.  But they are all together only until the end of the first book of the three.  When the fellowship is rent apart, Frodo and Sam are forced to confront the nightmare that is Sauron’s domain-- alone, weaponless, and in an increasingly weakened condition.  The others in the fellowship rush to aid the existing kingdoms in what will be the battle to end all battles against the genocide of men, dwarves, Elves, and hobbits.

          This heroic epic was in many ways, Tolkien’s life’s work.  He was still writing on it, reworking inconsistencies clear up until his death in 1973 and even then his son, Christopher, took over the job.  But The Lord of the Rings  might not have been completed at all were it not for a series of encounters that Tolkien had with another famous visionary and writer, C.S. Lewis.

          In 1925, Tolkien moved to Oxford to accept a position as the Professor of Anglo Saxon, a philologist by profession.  One year later C.S. Lewis took up his post as an English don at Magdalen College.  They met at an English faculty meeting.  Within a couple of years they were meeting in each other’s rooms, exchanging thoughts, ideas, and reading aloud their works to the other for encouragement and critique.  Oddly they had much in common.  Both had lost their mothers at an early age.  Both had known the tragic effects of the Great World War—losing several close friends in battle.  Both were interested in the imaginative power of myth and stories. These late night talks were crucial in the development of each other’s writing and in their later theological thought.  Tolkien was a strong Roman Catholic whose theological views deeply influenced the themes he chose to write about in the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In fact, Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, are acclaimed as the ones who convinced C.S. Lewis of the truth of Christian belief.  In one of their late night conversations, “Tolkien argued that human stories tend to fall into certain patterns, and can embody myth.  In the Christian Gospels there are all the best elements of good stories, including fairy stories, with the astounding additional factor that everything is also true in the actual, primary world.  It combines mythic and historical, factual truth, with no divorce between the two.” (1)  Lewis’ heart and imagination were captured. 

          Soon others began gravitating to Lewis’ rooms and engaging in depth of conversation—Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson.  Most of them were Lewis’ friends but together they decided to meet weekly to discuss theological, political, and social ideas and to read aloud their works to each other.  They dubbed themselves the Inklings for they had an “inkling of the eternal—of something mysterious and wonderful moving through the depths of their being.” (2)  What characterized the group were the twin ideas of a healthy suspicion of modernist views in which human reason was accorded an impossible autonomy and there was a blind faith in human progress,  while at the same time upholding the “romantic impulse” as they coined it—of appreciating and cultivating poetic imagination and the non-rational values of love, beauty, awe, and joy—the intangible things God inspires.

          For Tolkien, the Inklings enabled him to flesh out his ideas about imagination, fantasy, and sub-creation. Especially important is Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation.  While he is often accused of creating an escapist form of literature, out of step with the real world, Tolkien’s thinking was actually the opposite.  He sought to engage the reader in such a way that when he or she saw the meaning behind the myth, saw through the metaphors of the story to its essential reality, the reader was empowered to bring that awareness, that truth back to bear on his or her own life’s journey.  I think this is what is behind Tolkien’s choice for the title of Bilbo Baggins’ book of adventures, There and Back Again. We go to another location to see more clearly those things hidden from view or taken for granted in our own world—things that could heal our consciousness and our planet. Then we come back again with our perspectives altered so that choices to live differently are more apparent.

          Tolkien believed that being created in the image of God meant that creating, using our imaginations, engaging in fantasy, was a way to engage in meaning.  He valued looking at reality in a symbolic way.  But the worlds he created had to be as real as possible—using familiar landscapes—mountains, woods, stars, lakes, based on places that were quite real and dear to him, and adding the faery element—Elves and Ents and wizards with a solid sense of history, language, and place that “allow the hearer or reader to move from the details of their limited experience to survey the depths of space and time.” (3)  In other words to create a timelessness freeing the reader to absorb and reflect, consider and decide the larger purpose of living.

          The Lord of the Rings is essentially the story of the fall and of providential grace.  The land of Mordor in which the dark lord Sauron resides, is a ruined wasteland: foul swamps, toxic fumes, tortured beings.  If he obtains the one ring, the ruination of all of creation is assured.  But his is not the only power in the land.  When Gandalf tries to console a very scared Frodo whose innocence is being lost each second of the long journey, Frodo blurts out in adolescent agony, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish it had never happened in my time.”

          Gandalf responds, “ So do I.  And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us....There is more than one power at work, Frodo.  The ring was picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable:  Bilbo from the Shire!  Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it.  And that is an encouraging thought.”  (4)

          Glimpses of the Divine at work abound in the story though they are always subtle, inviting the reader to come closer.  Much like Jesus in his use of parables, the reader has to allow the story to unfold.  Though the strength of humanity has been weakened by corruption, overpowered by the greed for power, Tolkien has a whole host of elements in the story that embody grace and hope, love and joy.  That is intentional on his part.

          The Elves represent the mixture of humanity and divinity.  They are angelic, ethereal, sensitive to the presence of evil long before the humans in the story sense it.  Yet they gift the travelers with precisely what each individual will need in which to face their own demons and challenges with hope and encouragement.  They are reminders that goodness surrounds them. In fact, one the Elves greets with the age old  words “Do not be afraid.”—the sign of the angels.

          Gandalf, the Grey Wizard, points the way forward, leading them closer to the destination—the sign of the Star.

          Aragorn, the king in self imposed exile in the wilderness, is able to heal and so is Arwen his beloved—a sign of the Christ.

          The hobbits take nothing with them for the journey, trusting that what they need will be there—the sign of faith. 

          “For Tolkien, good stories pointed to the greatest story of all.  In other words, he wrote the gospel in his own words, the story of God coming to earth as a humble human being, a king, like Aragorn, in disguise, a seeming fool, like Frodo and Sam, the greatest storyteller entering his own story.” (5)

          It is no surprise that after almost 50 years since its publication, The Lord of the Rings, is still the most popular book bought in the UK, according to a recent survey.  The story connects with millions.  Even Tolkien himself had to hide during the 60’s because so many US youth came seeking him out, wanting to talk about the book.

          When I first read it as a teenager, I didn’t know I was reading the Gospel.  But the courage, faith, and magic of the story is still very much alive for me as well as others.

          When the movie of the first book came out in December at Christmas, I had other things to attend to so waited to go and see it.  But I didn’t get to the theater until March when my niece Rosanna was visiting.  Rosanna, a 13 year old, was also reading the books as she was visiting.  I recognized the signs.  She was completely captivated.  When she asked if I had seen the movie and I replied “No, not yet” she insisted that we go.  So we did.  Three times in one week.  A total of nine hours watching the same movie.  She was working it out.  And who was I to try and stop that? I knew Tolkien himself would have been moved.

          On the third evening we went, I sat down next to a mom and calmly turned to her and said, “Three times, one week.”  She looked at me and laughed and said, “Oh, that’s nothing.  Try eight times in two.”  I looked over at her son. 

          “How old are you?” I asked. 

          “Seven.” He responded.

          “How many times have you seen this movie?”

          He grew sullen.  “Only seven.  They wouldn’t let me see it the first time they went.”

          Then I leaned still further to chat with the daughter.

          “How old are you and which character do you like in the movie?” I asked, pretty sure of her response.

          “I’m 14 and I like Frodo,” she giggled.

          “So do I.  But why do you like this story?” I continued.

          “Because they gave Frodo something important to do.”  She said wistfully.

          I suspect that Tolkien would have treasured that response.  To think that a 14 year old would be thinking about the larger aspects of life and her place in the scheme of things.  And that I would be thinking, “Wow, what do we give 14 year olds that is important to accomplish?”  I keep thinking about Galadriels, the Elf Queen’s encouraging words to Frodo, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  If Tolkien’s books generate that kind of imagining, he would be gratified. 

          My niece and I still talk about the themes in the movie and the books.  We go there and back again talking about all the big Biblical themes like Life.  Death.  Sacrifice. Friendship.  Evil.  Purpose.  Joy.  Magic. Suffering.  Redemption.   And what they mean to her, how they influence her, how they are changing her view of herself and the world we live in.  I suspect she didn’t know she was talking about the Gospel.  I didn’t pull out my bible either just to prove to her that she was.  It was enough that she confided in me what her thoughts on these matters are during these late night conversations.  We were glimpsing God, on the lookout for grace, and imagining all the possibilities that Life had to offer.  As I understand it, that is the definition of abundant Life that Jesus came to offer us.  Sometimes it just needs to look and sound like a hobbit.

 

 

 

 

 

1.     Duriez, Colin and David Porter, The Inklings Handbook, Chalice Press, London, 2001.

2.     Wiederkehr, Macrina, A Tree Full of Angels:  Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, HarperSan Francisco, 1988.

3.     Tolkien, J.R.R., lecture “On Faery Stories.”

4.     Tolkien, J.R.R., The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954.

5.     Duriez and Porter, ibid.



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LABORERS IN GOD’S VINEYARD: Troy Perry - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

LABORERS IN GOD’S VINEYARD: TROY PERRY
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”  {Matthew 9:37-38}

 

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

{Psalm 119:105}

 

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  {Romans 8:1}


 

    Troy Perry grew up in Florida and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a minister.  After military service in during the Viet Nam War, he served in Baptist churches and then in the Pentecostal Church of God.  He was pastor of a church in Santa Ana, California when he owned up to a reality about his nature and his personhood.  He was homosexual.  He lost his marriage and his ministerial license.  But he did not lose his faith.

 

            Culture and church law told him he could be one or the other – homosexual or a minister – but not both. He refused to accept that.  In October, 1968, Perry placed an ad in a gay newspaper announcing a worship service to be held in the living room of his rented duplex in Huntington Park near Los Angeles.  Twelve people showed up: nine friends and three strangers, including one woman, one Jew, one person of color, and one heterosexual couple.  Little more than a year later, the congregation filled the 385-seat Encore Theatre in Hollywood for Sunday services.  In 1970 Perry formed what he called the “universal fellowship” and in 1971 they dedicated their first official church building.

 

            In the three decades since the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has grown to more than 300 churches in 13 countries with a membership between 40,000 and 50,000 people, mostly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people, their families and friends.

 

            Rev. Troy Perry has been invited to the White House on four different occasions.  The Metropolitan Church has official observer status with the World Council of Churches but has been denied membership in the National Council of Churches.  There is a Metropolitan Church in San Jose, as well as in San Francisco, but can you guess where the largest Metropolitan congregations are?  Texas!  Resurrection Metropolitan Church in Houston recently dedicated a new ten-acre property and averages almost 1500 people in worship attendance on Sundays.  Sunshine Cathedral MCC in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last year purchased an existing church (for $2.15 million) with a sanctuary that seats 850 and 250-seat chapel.

 

            Worship at Metropolitan churches reflects the wide variety of denominations and Christian traditions from which the gay and lesbian pastors have transferred – bringing their traditions with them.  In the Bible Belt, where the MCC is very strong, the preaching is evangelical/charismatic/Pentecostal.  In laid back California the preaching is New Age/Unitarian Universalist.  In all MCC churches the warmth of congregational fellowship is the most conspicuous characteristic.

 

            At the Millennium March on Washington in April, 2000, Troy Perry addressed more than three quarters of a million people and repeated his familiar refrain: “I believe that we don’t owe an apology to anybody for who we are!  I believe that God loves me.  And if God loves me, I KNOW that God loves YOU!”  And then his tag line: “Remember, God didn’t create us so God could sit around and have somebody to hate!”

 

            Mel White, who began his ministerial career as a speechwriter for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson says, “[People] stumble into a Metropolitan Church and weep for the first six months – like I did.”  He says that MCC churches are “field hospitals” for the spiritually wounded.  White predicts that the majority of people stay with a Metropolitan Church until they get their bearings and then the majority will return to a church tradition they are comfortable with; probably the one they grew up in.

 

            Will that be true?

 

            I was just reading an account of a United Methodist pastor who had recent transgender surgery.  All above-board, legal, covered by medical insurance, preceded by extensive counseling and a year dressing as a woman.  He began his ministry as a man.  She wants to continue her ministry as a woman.  There is nothing in the Methodist Discipline that would prohibit this, but her bishop has suspended her without pay.  Conservatives in our denomination condemn her surgery, saying it contradicts God’s express purpose in first creating her as a man.

 

            That line of reasoning could be extended to suggest that God intends me to be deaf, having created me with the genes that led to this condition, and therefore I should not avail myself of the surgery which may restore some of my hearing tomorrow.  It feels to me like the line of reasoning used by a Methodist Bishop whose last name was Wright, when he told his sons – named Orville and Wilbur – to stop tinkering in the garage because flight is reserved for angels.

 

            Carol and I have two friends who have changed their gender.  We first knew one as a woman, now he is a man.  The other, a teaching colleague of Carol’s, we knew for years as Dick.  Now we knew her as Diane.  Gender is one of the primary identifiers by which we know each other. It is asking a lot, but not the impossible, when a friend or a colleague or perhaps even a pastor asks us to know them now as they truly know themselves, even though it’s different from the way we knew them before.  In 1966 I let my hair grow long.  How long?  Oh, about to my shirt collar.  People left the church!  They simply could not face a man with “long” hair.  They lost sight of me when I changed my appearance.

 

            The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches is not a “gay church”.  Its first message is salvation through Jesus Christ.  Its next message is that it’s OK to be who you are.  And for those who have struggled with sexual/gender identity issues for a lifetime, for those who have been told they are sinners condemned to hell - abominations, for those who have tried and tried to be what other people think they “should” be, “it’s OK to be who you are” is an extraordinarily welcome and liberating message.  People stumble into a Metropolitan Church and “weep for the first six months” just to hear it again and again: It’s OK to be who you are.  God did not create you so God would have somebody to sit around and hate.

 

            Will the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches continue to grow?  Will it someday be unnecessary because churches like ours have welcomed so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered persons into our fellowship?  I don’t know.  

 

Some new rainbow banners went up outside our church today.  The rainbow is important to g/l/b/t folks.  (Just when I got used to saying “gay/lesbian” “g/l/b/t” came along.  I must admit that I can’t see it or say it without thinking of a bacon/lettuce/tomato sandwich which was always a “b/l/t” where I came from.)  The sign of the rainbow means more than the ubiquitous “All Are Welcome.”  It means specifically that those who have been excluded because of their sexual nature are welcome here.  It’s been two years since we adopted our Covenant of Inclusiveness.  I’m am glad to see us taking the next small step in becoming inclusive. 

 

            Let me remind you of what we agreed to:

Ø      We believe all people are created by God in God’s own image, are infinitely and equally worthy, and are equal beneficiaries of God’s love and grace.

Ø      We believe that God’s vision for our world includes the church as a community that embodies love, grace, reconciliation, acceptance, peace, and justice for all people.

Ø      We declare our intention to be faithful to God’s vision and commit ourselves to the struggle to create a Christian community open to all of God’s children.

Ø      We affirm the full participation of every person in all aspects of our life together, in the church, in the family and in society.

Ø      We seek at this time specifically to address and advocate the needs and concerns of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in our church and in our society.

Ø      We strive unconditionally to enable and utilize the gifts of all people in all pastoral and lay capacities of the church.

Ø      We strive to open all benefits of the church to all people and will actively work to change current societal and denominational prohibitions regarding sexual orientation.

Ø      We repent of our participation in and/or passive acceptance of all beliefs that separate us from God, each other, and ourselves.

Ø      We commit ourselves to faithful discipleship, which we believe includes challenging the heterosexism present in the Church at large, in our own United Methodist denomination, and in our society.

Ø      We pray and hope that our affirmation of the wholeness of all people will bring reconciliation to all who find themselves in exile from the family of God because of any manner of prejudice, intolerance or lack of understanding.

 

            Most of us joined in the discussion, voted our conscience, and then forgot about it.  Oops.  It says we’ll do something about it, not just vote on it!

           

As he speaks around the world, Troy Perry lifts up these specific issues.  Maybe we could do something about them.

            Too many high students are taunted and branded as “faggots” and “dykes”.  Kids are notoriously cruel to those who are different, and way too many homosexual teen-agers are driven to despair and suicide.  Maybe we could do something about that.

 

            Faithful partners are sometimes denied access to their lover’s hospital room because no laws protect their relationship.  Two men, two women, may be faithful to one another for 20, 30, 40 years and then be denied the solace of each other’s comfort when one is dying because only a legal spouse is allowed to visit.  Maybe we should check into that.

 

            Too many people have been hurt by organized religion.  They have walked away from their spirituality because it was their very church or synagogue that branded them sinners and cast them out from the community of faith.  The astonishing growth of the Metropolitan Church is ample witness to the Christian faith of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered people.

 

            This sermon comes on a day when we read from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the first 11 verses of chapter 8.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” it begins.  THERE IS THEREFORE NOW NO CONDEMNATION FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST JESUS!

 

            Paul follows that with a joyous and woefully misinterpreted passage praising the joys of living in the spirit.  He contrasts it with living in the “sinful flesh.”  Oh boy; we are hearing English words mistranslating the original Greek.  Paul did not mean that our “flesh,” our bodies, are bad.  The word that gets translated “flesh” or “body” could better be translated “our entire unredeemed existence,” “our anxieties, alienation, distrust, hatefulness, misuse and abuse of life.”  To “set our minds” on these things is the way of death, says Paul.  He directs the early Christians to a new Spirit already at work in them.  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, (the one) who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

 

            Not just to buffed bodies, not just to young, healthy, pretty bodies, not just to heterosexual bodies.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  It really is as simple as that.

 

            I can’t help but notice the parallels between the ministry of Troy Perry and John Wesley.  Both discovered that a sizeable population of people were excluded from the mainline churches of their day.  For John Wesley it was people of the “lower class” in England.  For Troy Perry it is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people of today.  Both John Wesley and Troy Perry said, well alright, I’ll start a church with these people.  It will be made up of these very people.  Both John Wesley and Troy Perry were compelling evangelical preachers and organizational geniuses.  The church John Wesley founded became known as the Methodist Church and it is now bigger than any of the denominations that excluded the English lower classes.  The church Troy Perry founded is known as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches; it has grown to 50,000 members in just three decades.  Three years ago this week over 3,000 people filled roped-off streets for the public dedication of the UFMCC World Center a sleek, modern complex of buildings on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.

 

            Rev. Troy Perry plans to retire in two years, when he turns 65.  Like John Wesley (but unlike so many other charismatic “founders” of religious movements) he is determined to leave an organization that will continue to thrive and grow with a new generation of leadership.  Before he dies he hopes to legally marry his partner of the past 17 years – the man he calls “my other half.”

 

            The website of the Metropolitan Churches provides an extensive statement of their vision, purpose and priorities. Their vision statement opens, “The vision of the UFMCC is to embody the presence of the Divine in the world, as revealed through Jesus Christ; to challenge the conscience of the universal Christian Church; and to celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of each person….”

 

            It would be nice to think that the Universal Fellowship Metropolitan Community Church will fade away for lack of need.  But the need is very great.  And they are doing a great ministry!  In the finest Christian tradition their very existence is a judgment on the rest of us in the Church whose Table fellowship has not been welcoming of all, despite what our signs say outside.

 

Jesus said,

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  {Matthew 9:37-38}

 

Rev. Troy Perry went out into the harvest guided by Psalm 119:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

{Psalm 119:105}

 

May he say it till it needs be said no more:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  {Romans 8:1}

 

May that be our message as well.

 

 

“Gay and Mainline,” John Dart, The Christian Century, March 21-28, 2001.

“Interview: MCC Leader Troy Perry,” Mike Fitzpatrick, Instep, December 13, 2001.



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LABORERS IN GOD’S VINEYARD: Elias Chaucour - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

LABORERS IN GOD’S VINEYARD: ELIAS CHACOUR
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”  {Matthew 9:37-38}

 

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”  {Matthew 11:16-19}


 

            If I ask you to imagine a Christian pastor in the land of Galilee, what do you picture?  Do you envision a tourist visiting the quiet fields where Jesus himself walked and taught?  Or do you picture ruined villages ruled by Israeli tanks while fighter planes roar overhead?

 

            Elias Chacour is a Christian pastor in Galilee, in the village of Ibillin, not all that far from where he was born.  He is Palestinian.  Some of the olive trees surrounding Ibillin were alive when Jesus walked and taught nearby.  An elder from the church in Ibillin attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.     Elias Chacour’s family have lived in Galilee, tended the trees and worshipped in the village Christian Church for generations.  His father was a venerated Christian elder in the little village of Biram.  His mother could neither read nor write, but she often drew Elias – her youngest - onto her lap and as he fingered the doves and fishes of her necklace, she would recite the strangely beautiful words she had memorized:

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…

… the merciful

… the pure in heart

… the peacemakers….   

 

Israeli soldiers drove the Chacour family from their home in Biram when Elias was nine.  It was 1948.  Weeks later while playing soccer with friends Elias chased the ball into a nearby field; when he pulled on a strange twig sticking up from the disturbed earth it turned out to be a finger, attached to a hand, and then an arm.  Twelve of the Chacours’ neighbors were buried in one shallow grave, explaining gunfire they had heard the day before.  Elias’ father gathered the family for prayer that night and he prayed: “Forgive them, oh God.  Heal their pain.  Remove their bitterness.  Let us show them your peace.” 

 

Soldiers came and accused his father and his older brothers of being terrorists.  They fled the land they had farmed for countless years, they fled the village, they fled the nation.  They fled to Jordan where other Arabs called them “dirty Palestinians” and drove them away.  They lived through the summer by eating insects groveled out of the dirt.

           

After many months they returned to Galilee, to live the remainder of their lives as refugees.

 

            Elias remembered his father planting an orchard of fig trees.  He dug a hole for each tree by hand, carried buckets of water from the well to nourish them, to coax into growth and into fruition.  Israeli soldiers guarded the orchard with guns until the government sold it to a Jewish investor.  The new owner hired Elias’ father, at a pittance wage, to care for his own fig trees.

 

            After numerous petitions and pleas the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the people of Biram could return to their village.  It had now been several years since they had been driven from their homes.  The people of Biram made arrangements to return on December 25, Christmas Day.  They gathered on a hillside above the village on Christmas morning.  Suddenly one wall of their church exploded and the roof flew off.  Then one of the houses burst into flames.  As the villagers watched in horror, Israeli tanks fired shells into the church, into the houses, blasting down walls, setting fires.  Every house, every barn, every chicken coop was leveled.  It took five minutes.

 

            Elias was the youngest in the family.  His father arranged for him to be shipped to a Christian run orphanage in Haifa.  While other boys and girls from the refugee settlement fell into disillusion and despair, Elias went to high school in Nazareth, seminary in Paris, and was ordained a priest in the Eastern Rite Greek Catholic Melkite tradition – a branch of Christianity few of us have ever heard of. With all that education, what did he do?  He went back to Palestine, his native land.  He had been gone eight years.  His homeland was now called Israel.  The Israeli customs agent made him wait eight hours and tried to make him strip naked before agreeing to stamp his passport.  Elias rented a VW and drove to Galilee to visit Biram, his village, but once there found it difficult to park. It was filled with tourist buses, there to take snapshots of the “ancient ruins”: the walls of his church, the foundation of his house.

 

            He was appointed pastor of the Melkite Church in Ibillin, a dispirited little Galilee town of cinder block houses.  There was no community center, no library. The church was falling apart, reflecting the spiritual condition of the small congregation who worshipped inside.  Divisions ran through the parish and could be seen in the way people arranged themselves in the church on Sundays.  There were four distinct groups; each kept careful distance from the others, all with grim faces. The division in the church was between four brothers, one of whom was the town policeman; even the death of their mother had not brought them together in the same room.

 

On Palm Sunday of his first year as pastor of Ibillin, Elias Chacour looked out at the stony faces in the congregation. Dreary hymns were sung, there was a reading from the Bible, and then a sermon.  “The congregation endured me indifferently,” Father Chacour recalls, “fulfilling their holiday obligation to warm the benches.”  But before the service ended, he did something unexpected, even to himself.  He came out of the pulpit; he walked to the back of the church and he padlocked the door.  He came back to the front of the church and he told his parishioners, “Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian.  You are a people divided.  You argue and hate each other… If you can’t love your brother whom you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible?  You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced.  I have tried for months to unite you.  I have failed.  I am only a man.  But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity.  His name is Jesus.  He has the power to forgive you.  So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power.  If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here.  If you want, you can kill each other, and I’ll provide your funeral gratis.”

 

            He stood there for ten minutes in silence.  Try to imagine ten minutes – no one saying anything . . . . . . . . .

 

            It was the policeman who first stood up, faced the congregation and said, “I am sorry.  I am the worst of all.  I have hated my own brothers.  I have hated them so much that I wanted to kill them.  More than any of you, I need forgiveness.  He turned to Elias.  He said, “Father, can you forgive me?”  “Come here,” Elias replied.  They tearfully embraced, and soon the church was in a chaos of tears and embracing.  Father Chacour shouted to make himself heard above the din, announcing that Easter had arrived a week early and they should sing an Easter hymn.  He worked his way to the back of the church, removed the padlock from the door, and the congregation poured out into the streets of the village singing, “Christ is risen from the dead.  By his death he has trampled death and given life to those in the tombs.”  Some of them knocked on the doors of people with whom they had old grievances and asked for forgiveness.

 

            You think that is something?!  As the years went on Pastor Chacour continued to preach love and forgiveness for your neighbor – and he insisted that the Zionists who had robbed them of their lands, the Israelis who governed so unjustly, the settlers who destroyed Palestinian villages to build Jewish settlements were the neighbors – the brothers – they (the Palestinian Christians) were required to forgive.

 

            To anyone who would listen he would say, “We must remember that the Jews have suffered so much.  And we must not forget that the Palestinians are suffering so much.”

 

            Today Ibillin has a large library, a community center, a regional high school, and a strong Christian Church.  In the library is a sign in Arabic, which says, “God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races, their religions.  Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God.  Be attentive: Every time you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.”

 

Chacour has traveled in Europe and America where he says, “Palestinians are not anti-Semites.  How could we be?  We are Semites! We are blood brothers!”  Blood Brothers became the name of a  1984 book telling the story of his life and ministry.

 

When then Secretary of State James Baker visited Israel Fr. Chacour decided he should speak to him.  He approached the place where Baker was staying and knocked on the door.  Susan Baker answered and asked who he was.  He said, “I am another man from Galilee.”  She asked if he had an appointment.  He said, “No, I am like that other man from Galilee and I don’t make appointments.  I just make appearances.”

 

Susan Baker explained that she was hosting a Bible study group.  “Aha,” he said, “and what is your topic?”  When she told him it was the Sermon on the Mount, Fr. Chacour volunteered to guide the group through the study, pointing out that it was originally delivered in Aramaic and that was his native language.

 

Thus began a friendship with the Bakers.  But when Secretary of State Baker invited him to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  Chacour turned down the invitation, saying he could not honor a memorial that recognizes only one people as victims of holocaust.  And he asked Baker why there was no mention of the King of Morocco in the Holocaust Museum, since the King of Morocco stood nearly alone in the late 1930s and early 1940s by refusing to send Moroccan Jews to extermination camps in Europe.

 

Fr. Chacour has seen to the building of libraries and community centers throughout Galilee.  He has been taken to court more than 30 times, frequently for starting building projects without government permits.  He says, “It is much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

 

A college has been named for him, with a current enrollment of 750 students of whom 54% are Muslims. The faculty includes 22 Jews.

 

Elias Chacour has erected his own holocaust monument in Galilee.  It is two semicircular walls facing each other with engraved statements in Aramaic and in Hebrew: “This is a memorial for Palestinian martyrs; this is a memorial for Jewish martyrs.”  He calls the monument the Listening Post.

 

Four years ago in Southern California Chacour told a group: “If the Jewish holocaust lasted for four years – then thank God it ended after four years.  My Palestinian Holocaust has lasted more than 50 years and I see no end to it.”

 

But still he struggles to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who once walked the Galilean hillsides saying, “Love your enemies … do good to those who spitefully use you.”

 

I want you to remember three things as you come to the Communion Table this morning.

 

Elias Chacour and the Palestinian Christians of Ibillin come to this very same Table, partake of this very same bread, and drink from the same cup as we drink.  The covenant of the shared cup, sealed with Jesus’ blood, is not an individualistic one-way street linking your private soul with God.  It binds you to every other person at the Table, our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are obligated to them.

 

Second, I ask you to reflect on how difficult it is to be a Christian. We take it so for granted here in our privileged American solitude.  Think for just a moment of what it takes to be a Christian in Palestine, or Indonesia, or Pakistan, or Burundi, Africa where the Methodist Bishop returns to be with his people knowing that it is unlikely he will survive his term in office.

 

Third, I want you to hear the great and joyous faith of Christians like Elias Chacour, who know that by their own human efforts they cannot set the world aright, but who live their lives and risk their lives to carry into our world’s most troubled and violent corners, the power of Christ, which is perfected in weakness.

 

It is no ordinary nibble of bread and sip of wine we take this morning.  It is the very presence of God’s weakness, which is the only power that can redeem the world.

 

 

Blood Brothers, Elias Chacour, with David Hazard, Chosen Books, Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1984.

 

“Making Friends of Enemies: Reflections on the Teachings of Jesus,” Jim Forest, Crossroad Publishing Co., New York.



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“AMERICA IN THE NEW WORLD DIS-ORDER” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

"America in the New World Dis-order"
(What's a Superpower To Do?)

Rev. Bob Olmstead

How long, O Lord? Psalm 13:1)

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” 

(Matthew 10:41)


If my voice is mushy this morning it’s because I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  “America’s Role in the New World Dis-order: What’s a Superpower To Do?”  All in the next 12 minutes.

 

            Complicating things is this morning’s tempest in an American teapot over two words in the Pledge of Allegiance.  TV news shows little African American and little Asian American and (for all I know) little Arab American school children defiantly breaking the law by pledging allegiance to the flag . . . of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, UNDER GOD, indivisible, with liberty . . .  and justice . . .  for all.

 

            America somehow survived for 116 years without a pledge of allegiance.  But then in 1892 a Baptist preacher named Francis Bellamy penned the original Pledge.  He gave careful attention to every word.  It said, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

 

            Rev. Bellamy was a socialist (whose best-known sermon was titled “Jesus the Socialist”) so he yearned to include the word “equality” in the pledge, but he knew that would not be acceptable.  If women were “equal” they might have to be given the vote.  America was not ready for THAT!  So he snuck in “for all” and let it go.

 

            “My flag” was later changed to “the flag of the United States of America” so immigrant children wouldn’t think they could pledge allegiance to their old flags.  And in 1954 two more words were added: “under God.”  They were added during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower who famously said that it doesn’t matter what faith you have, as long as you have faith.

 

            “The 60s” were my 20s.  I came into adulthood with friends who were more likely to burn the flag than salute it.  Graduate students of my generation seldom said the Pledge of Allegiance while the Civil Rights Movement was spotlighting racial segregation and opposition to the War in Vietnam was escalating.

 

            Contrarian that I am, I examined the words of the Pledge of Allegiance and decided that I not only could, but would, say it.  I was pledging my allegiance to America’s ideals, not America’s policies.  Only two words in the Pledge made me uncomfortable. “Under God.”

 

            Those two words did not make me uncomfortable because I don’t believe in God.  They make me uncomfortable because I DO believe in God. The Bible is one long record of a nation that had a unique covenant with God; that nation’s failings led to the wrath of God.

 

            A nation under God stands under the JUDGMENT of God.

 

            A nation under God will not go around bullying smaller nations to make the world safe for oil companies.

 

            A nation under God will radically redistribute wealth, because wealth accumulated in the hands of a few is condemned again and again and again throughout the Bible.

 

            A nation under God – a redemptive God - could not possibly practice capital punishment.

 

            A nation under God pays little attention to how often “God” and “Jesus” get mentioned and talked about, and far more attention to how often Jesus’ teachings are put into practice as national policy:

 

            . . . love your enemies

 

            . . . turn the other cheek

 

            . . . if anyone needs your coat, give him your sweater too

 

            . . . the first will be last, and the last will be first.

 

            Frankly, I don’t expect to see that incorporated in national policy any time soon.

 

            The Bible says every nation is “under God.”  It’s a fine thing to acknowledge that.  But let’s admit what it means!  It means that every nation comes under God’s judgment.  Are we ready for that?           

 

The fact that we are “under God” – along with every other nation on earth – frightens me more than any other threat we face including the threat of terrorism.

           

I originally intended to open this sermon with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville.  He was a French scholar, what we might today call a sociologist.  Something of a journalist.  In the early 19th century he toured America, hoping to explain this vast incomprehensible country to Europeans. His volumes remain among the best descriptions of what makes America unique.

 

            De Tocqueville wrote home, “America is great because America is good.  But if America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.”

 

            150 years have passed.  Those words still ring true.                

 

So we might want to ask: are we becoming the world’s policeman or the world’s bully?  Brute force wins battles, but not wars.  Killing mice with cannons may kill a few mice; it can also bring down the barn.  What is our vision of the world after we “win” the so-called “war” on terrorism?  Is it a world other nations will want to live in, a world other nations can rejoice to be a part of?  Or is it a world cowed into submission by our superior military might?  Are we building a world with fewer enemies and more friends?           

 

Historians give Ronald Reagan credit for destroying the Soviet Union by escalating the arms race until the Soviet Union bankrupted itself trying to keep up.  Now the same strategy is being used against us.  Doesn’t anybody notice?!  In response to every terrorist threat we spend billions of dollars on bigger and bigger cannons with which to shoot the terrorist mice.  They have got us right where they want us.

           

What’s a poor superpower to do?

Have you heard of the National Institute of Health?  It’s the government agency that decides who gets the money our government designates for research into cures for cancer, Parkinson’s, AIDS, heart disease. Roughly one third of medical research is funded by private philanthropy, one third by pharmaceutical companies developing their own drugs, and one third by the National Institute of Health – the Federal government – our taxes.

           

There are two ways to look at that.  The National Institute of Health spends hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. That’s one way to look at it.  The National Institute of Health is a tiny tiny fraction of the national budget; it’s just a smidgen compared to what we spend on defense.  That’s the other way to look at it.  Most years the NIH budget is increased by a few percentage points.  3 percent.  5 percent.  Then the groups doing cancer research, AIDS research, coronary research line up to compete with each other to get funds to continue their work.

           

What if we set a national priority to increase the budget of the National Institute of Health not by five percent but by five times – quintupling what we now spend on medical research?  What if we linked the health budget to the defense budget, agreeing as a matter of self-discipline that we would never raise the Defense Budget without raising the National Institute of Health budget by the same proportion?

 

            What if, in addition, we worked on ways to distribute the benefits of our research – new drugs, new prostheses, new “cures” - to other nations: AIDS medications to Africa, for instance, where three quarters of the world’s AIDS victims actually live?

 

            We have such extraordinary wealth!  What are we, as a “nation under God,” called to do with it?                    

Our medical research could be a blessing to the entire human race, the whole world. A superpower in today’s world dis-order is called to lead by example, not just by force.  Wouldn’t sharing the wealth of our medical research set a good example?

           

Tribes once defended their territories and their way of life.  Tribes could live in the forests or on the great plains of the planet and seldom had to encounter other tribes.  The exponential growth of population makes that impossible now.  So nations took the place of tribes.  Tribes of similar outlook, ethnicity, and background agreed to live together and then defended their borders instead of their territories.  Europe is the prime example.  The French people here, the German people there, the British people over on their islands, the Italian people down on their peninsula.

           

Now that system is breaking down also.  National upheavals have turned 10% of the human beings on earth into refugees – living in lands with a foreign language, foreign customs, and foreign expectations.  The global economy has fostered great migrations of peoples: Turks flowing into Germany, Algerians flowing into France, Pakistanis flowing into England, Mexicans, Koreans, Tongans, Chinese, Arabs, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists flowing into America.  This is the world’s future, breaking into the present.

           

Because of our size, our wealth, and our history as a nation of immigrants, we – America – are in the best position to show the world how it’s done, how one nation can be put together, relatively peacefully, from many disparate component parts.

           

I once stood in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. with tears in my eyes watching group after group, family after family, individual after individual, stand up, line up before that great brooding figure of Abraham Lincoln to have their pictures taken.  The majority were not Americans.  They were Japanese, Indian, Portuguese, Latino, Chinese – you name it.  They wanted their picture taken with Abraham Lincoln.  And I remind you, Lincoln prosecuted that horrible Civil War not primarily to emancipate the slaves, but to preserve the Union.

           

That is an important principle. We must not divide the world into smaller and smaller nations with more and more borders and more and more armies and more and more bombs – so that the Serbs don’t have to talk to Croats, so that Albanian Moslems can be free of Macedonians.  That is not the future of humanity on earth.  It can’t be. But sustaining “one nation indivisible” from the many nations now flooding our shores won’t happen by happenstance.  It will happen only by intention.  And it will happen by practicing something our mothers taught us.  Politeness.

           

Why do we Christians have to be so pushy about things?  Is anybody listening to the quieter voices out there?  The Mercury News carried interviews with two local Buddhist leaders.  Both said the same thing.  They say the Pledge of Allegiance very proudly.  They are Americans.  But when it comes to the “under God” part, they quietly say nothing.  You see, there is no way to be “under God” in the Buddhist tradition.  Buddhists do not worship Buddha – he merely shows them the way to gain enlightenment.  Some Buddhists might say God is found within us, but there is no way to be “under” an “outside” God in the Buddhist faith.

           

Do we care? Isn’t it insensitive to coerce these gentle good loyal citizens into saying words that contradict their religion?

           

I know, that smacks of the dreaded “PC” word: political correctness.  Really it’s just plain old politeness.  Isn’t it possible to be a Christian and still be polite?  To be sensitive to a neighbor who is standing beside us?  Who is increasingly likely in this day and age to be a Buddhist or a Muslim or an atheist or a seeker?  Frankly, I am interested in making my faith attractive to others; that’s why I don’t ram it down their throats.

           

America is great because America is good.  And if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. 

. . . or

Just one more superpower with visions of grandeur, under the judgment of God and ripening for the wrath of God and the junk heap of history.

           

Which is it? Which will it be?

           

I shall continue to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United State of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation – which I tremble to realize is under God’s judgment - indivisible (I devoutly hope), with liberty and justice for all.

 

America is great because America is good.

           

That’s a lot to live up to.

 

            It’s worth the challenge. 



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Saint With Cigar - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

Saint With Cigar
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”  (Matthew 9:37-38)


 

The Pope gets to nominate saints, so I do too.  He tends to nominate Catholics; I’m going to nominate a Methodist.  Baseball fans of a certain age will recognize the name: Branch Rickey.  Painters of the Middle Ages painted saints with golden haloes.  When I design a church, Branch Rickey will get a stained glass window.  But no halo I’m afraid.  He’ll be holding a cigar, he was so seldom seen without one.

 

Wesley Branch Rickey was born December 20, 1881, in Stockdale, Ohio. His mother made sure the Methodist Church was a major influence in his childhood and youth.  After high school he enrolled in a Methodist college - Ohio Wesleyan University – and then got a law degree from the University of Michigan.  But baseball was Branch Rickey’s first love.  He returned to Ohio Wesleyan to coach the college baseball team.  In 1904 he took the team to South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame. When the team arrived at their hotel to check in, the hotel manager said, “I have rooms for all of you - except for him” -- and he pointed to the team’s catcher, Charley Thomas, who was black.

 

“Why don’t you have a room for him,” Rickey asked.

 

“Because our policy is whites only.”

 

Rickey responded, “I’d like to have Charley stay in my room. Can you bring in a cot?” After long deliberations, the innkeeper relented.  Rickey sent the ball players to their rooms. But when he got to his room Charlie Thomas was sitting on a chair sobbing. Rickey recounted later, “Charlie was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin, it’s my skin, Mr. Rickey!”  Years later those hands were the healing hands of a highly successful dentist, Dr. Charles Thomas. He never forgot his coach and Branch Rickey never forgot that experience.

 

Rickey went on to play professional baseball with the St. Louis Browns, then played one season with the New York Highlanders, known now as the New York Yankees, but a shoulder injury ended his playing career.  He was determined to stay in baseball and he became a general manager, some say the smartest baseball executive ever.

 

In the 1930s, as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey originated the concept of minor league farm clubs to develop talent for the major league teams.  He put together the St. Louis Cardinals “Gashouse Gang,” winners of the 1934 World Series and perhaps the most colorful team in baseball history.

 

Rickey loved his cigars, but he didn’t drink and he didn’t swear and he promised his mother he would never play baseball on Sundays.  He came to the ballpark on a Sunday only once, during World War II to promote buying War Bonds . . . but he left before the game started.

 

In 1942 Branch Rickey became General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Major league baseball at the time was like that hotel in Indiana -- for whites only.  Rickey announced that he was forming a Brooklyn team to play in the Negro League; they would be known as the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers.  He scouted African-American baseball players.  The whole thing was a smokescreen; he was looking for someone who could break the color barrier in the major leagues.

 

Alan Henderson, formerly mayor of Palo Alto, tells about Rickey visiting in his home.  Henderson’s father and Rickey had been college roommates.  Henderson relates, “Branch Rickey was a religious man, a non-drinking, now-swearing Methodist … [but] the only ‘preaching’ I heard him do was to expound on his belief that all men indeed are created equal.  Already, in the 1930s, he would comment about the great athletes playing in the Negro leagues and how they must be given the opportunity to play Major League baseball.”

 

Rickey always remembered Charley Thomas and that hotel in Indiana. Wesley Branch Rickey remembered the lessons of his Methodist Sunday School, and his namesake, John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement around a calling for social justice inspired and informed by vital piety.  Rickey also knew that the Dodgers needed the baseball skills of Black athletes and he wanted to attract African-American fans to the Brooklyn ballpark.  But it would not be easy.  Black soldiers fought in the U.S. Army, but they were segregated into their own units.  The desegregation of schools and the Civil Rights Movement were still to come.

 

On August 28, 1945, Branch Rickey met Jackie Robinson.  Rickey brought him into his office and lit up one of his cigars.  Robinson assumed he was being considered for an all-black team, but Rickey told him, “I brought you here to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers --- if you can!” Rickey was convinced that exceptional restraint would be required at the start, as racists tried to provoke Robinson to fight, proving that blacks didn’t belong in organized baseball.

 

For three grueling hours Rickey role-played an insulting fan, an opposing ball player, a vicious teammate. Finally, Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

 

Rickey replied, “Robinson, I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back!”  He reached into his desk and brought out Papini’s book THE LIFE OF CHRIST and he read Jesus’ teaching, “whomsoever shall smite thee on right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He read from Papini’s comments, “To answer blows with blows, evil deeds with evil deeds, is to meet the attacker on his own ground … Only he who has conquered himself can conquer his enemies.”

 

Rickey put the book down. He said, “Can you do it? You will have to promise that for the first three years in baseball you will turn your other cheek. Three years --- can you do it?”

 

Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and sent him to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal.  The Montreal manager asked Rickey, “Do you really think that a nigger is a human being?”

 

Before the 1947 season, Rickey met with the owners of the other 15 major league teams to ask for their support in promoting Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers.  All 15 voted against him.

 

And Branch Rickey did it anyway!

 

Immediately a petition was circulated among the Dodger players threatening to quit the team and including the statement that “separation of the races is part of the divine order.”  Rickey called a team meeting.  He did not propose sensitivity training.  He gave them a hellfire and brimstone sermon, after which the petition was torn up.

 

In 1997 every major league baseball club in America and Canada retired the number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson.  But when Jackie Robinson came to the major leagues in 1947 he became the focal point for a storm of hatred and abuse.  The real wonder is that he wasn’t assassinated.  There was talk of a revolt, rumors that the St. Louis Cardinals would refuse to take the field against the Dodgers. Hate mail from fans and excoriation from baseball executives were heaped on the both Robinson and Rickey.  It was a prolonged year of vicious attempts to break the resolve of the two men.

 

Ford Frick, the president of the National League, and normally a passive tool of the owners, issued this statement:

“I do not care if half the league strikes.  Those who do it will encounter quick retribution.  All will be suspended and I do not care if it wrecks the National League for five years.  This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another.”

 

It took its toll on both Rickey and Robinson’s physical health, but Robinson in his first year batted .297, hit 12 home runs, had 125 runs batted in, stole 29 bases and was named “Rookie of the Year.” Two years later he hit .342 was named “Most Valuable Player” in the National League, the same award Barry Bonds won last year. In his 10 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers Robinson helped them win 6 National League championships plus one memorable near miss when Bobby Thompson hit that home run in the 9th inning and sent the New York Giants to the World Series.

 

In later years Branch Rickey often returned to the Ohio Wesleyan campus to speak to students. Bill Stegall, pastor of our United Methodist Church in Redding, and whose career has intersected mine at several points, including six years when he was my Superintendent, belonged to the fraternity of which Rickey was a member. Bill says that after dinner at the chapter house, Rickey would take out his cigar, often leaving it unlit, and tell baseball stories … but always, always, working his way around to stories about Jesus and the importance of doing the right thing regardless of the cost.

 

At age 83 Branch Rickey was giving a speech at the Sports Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio. He had worked it around to the story of Jesus calling to Zaccheus when Rickey said, “I don’t believe I can finish the story.” Those were his last words.

 

Hank Aaron – the only baseball player with more homeruns than Babe Ruth - said, “I never paid any attention to the big leagues until Jackie Robinson.”

 

The young Martin Luther King, Jr. carefully noted the endurance of his childhood hero, Jackie Robinson.  Watching Robinson taught Martin King that non-violent protest can make a huge difference.  Martin Luther King said that Jackie Robinson showed him what moral superiority looks like.

 

Behind Jackie Robinson was a teetotaling, cigar-smoking Methodist layman, a shrewd executive with uncompromising principles, determined to follow Jesus and do what is right, no matter the cost.  We portray the saints in paintings and stained glass for future generations to contemplate.  That’s where I put Wesley Branch Rickey - cigar and all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Bill Stegall knew Branch Rickey from his college fraternity and did the research on which this sermon is based.  Rev. Gary Putnam preached a sermon based on Bill’s research; I have drawn upon it heavily. Additional quotes come from two newspaper columns: Donald Kaul’s “Talkin’ baseball in the ‘90s: The thrill is gone,” (San Jose Mercury News, April 6, 1997) and Alan Henderson’s “The man who brought up Jackie,” (Palo Alto Weekly, May 14, 1997).



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“WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID?”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1)  

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him.”  (Matthew 9:9)


            Bible stories sometimes leave me baffled.  Matthew sits there in his tollbooth, taking taxes.  Jesus walks by.  That’s what it says: “Jesus was walking along, [hmm, hum te dum tum, and] he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him.”

 

 

            That’s it?!  Did he call his wife: “Hi Hon!  I won’t be home for dinner tonight.  I’m going to follow Jesus.  Don’t wait up!”  Had he been reading What Color Is Your Parachute?  Did he just leave the last deposit on the counter?                      

 

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him.”

           

It took Abram two verses, instead of one, in the Old Testament, but pretty much the same story. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”

           

At least Abram took his wife along!

 

            Opportunity knocked for Matthew, and for Abram, and they didn’t say “Come in and make a case for yourself.”  They didn’t say “I’d like some time to think about it.”  They said, “Let’s go!”

 

            Business consultant get big money to gather the employees of a firm, take them on a retreat and them ask questions like, “What would you do if you were not afraid?”

 

            The aim is to loosen them up, get them to think more creatively, to act more decisively, to take more risks, to get over being timid, fearful, conservative, predictable.

 

            What would you do if you were not afraid?

 

            A woman was so afraid of dentists that when she got to the office she wrote down “wimp” for her middle name on the information form.  The receptionist played along with her, and announced “The doctor will now see the wimp.”  Four people stood up.

 

            “Be not afraid.”  Don’t you hear those words echoing off the walls of our sanctuary – they are repeated so often in the Scriptures.       

 

What are we afraid of, anyway? 

 

Failure.  Embarrasment.  Looking stupid.  You will notice that there is nothing real about any of those.  We aren’t talking grizzly bears, earthquakes or terrorist bombs.  We’re talking fear of failure, of looking foolish, of being noticed.

 

Maurice Charles is (or was) one of the pastors at Memorial Church on the Stanford campus.  After one more piece of anti-gay legislation passed by California referendum, he wrote to friends: “As I face a new day, somewhat saddened by this discouraging news, I have decided to protest in two ways: I will continue the wild adventure of loving authentically, in spite of the risk of knowing failure, disappointment, rejection, and the scorn of others.  I will continue to sow the seeds of justice and compassion while it is yet winter, delighting in this holy mischief, as if spring had already enveloped the world.”

 

I have kept his letter for several years because I appreciate the quiet courage of his choices.  “I will continue to sow the seeds of justice and compassion while it is yet winter, delighting in this holy mischief, as if spring had already enveloped the world.”  Maurice knows what it means to get UP when Jesus says, “Follow me!”

 

What would YOU do if you were not afraid?

 

A friend of mine has figured how to use the key that puts a pithy phrase at the bottom of every email you send.  So every email he sends ends with the admonition: Work like you don’t need the money; love like you’ve never been hurt; dance like nobody’s watching.

 

As soon as somebody’s watching I dance differently.  My feet get tangled and my brain signals “better quit or you’ll embarrass yourself.”

 

What am I afraid of?

 

America was shaped by politicians who dared do things differently and out of conviction.  Teddy Roosevelt said, “far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

 

Maurice Charles loving authentically and sowing seeds of justice and compassion while it is yet winter . . . Teddy Roosevelt with his bombastic daring and gigantic reach . . . courage has many shapes and styles.

 

Cardinal Newman, in the last year of his life, wrote in his journal: “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall not have a beginning.”

 

Insofar as the Bible is concerned Matthew’s life began when he got up to follow Jesus, and Abram’s life began when he responded to God’s challenge.  What they did before isn’t told.  It’s what they did with the opportunity God gave them that began their exemplary lives.

 

What would you do if you were not afraid?

 

John W. Gardner wrote: “You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you; a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.”

 

My friend Bev will be ordained this month, after a long and arduous personal journey out of a lifetime of debilitating fears.  She will serve small churches quite literally in the backwoods of Maine.  She sends along this benediction: “May you love God so much that you love nothing else too much; May you fear God enough that you need fear nothing else at all.”

 

You know the story of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Alfred Nobel invented dynamite.  He got rich perfecting ways of killing people.  When Alfred’s older brother died the papers bungled the obituary and reported that Alfred was dead.  Seeing how the papers described him, he decided he wanted to be known for something other than being rich and inventing a better gunpowder.  So he endowed the Peace Prize, saying, “Every one ought to have the chance to correct his epitaph in midstream and write a new one.”

 

Well, everyone has that opportunity.  That is the message of Christian faith.  Jesus is right here today with an invitation.  You can correct your epitaph in midstream and write a new one.

 

What would you do if you were not afraid?

 

I’ve seen the following attributed to Mother Teresa, Abel Muzorewa and Reinhold Niebuhr.  I don’t know who wrote it, but I pass it along:

 

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.

            Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of ulterior motives.

            Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make your vulnerable.

            Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds.

            Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs, but follow the top dogs.

            Fight for the underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building up, can be destroyed overnight.

            Build anyway.

People really need help, but often turn against you if you help them.

            Help people anyway.

If you give the world the best you have, you may be kicked in the teeth.

            Give the world the best you have anyway.

 

Think about!  What would you do if you were not afraid?



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Our Place in the Scheme of Things - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“OUR PLACE IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

            “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”   (Genesis 1:26-28)


 

            A serious drought hit the Pacific Northwest last summer.  Only by diverting more river water could farm crops in the Klamath Basin be saved.  But diverting more river water threatened the habitat of the area’s salmon and of an endangered species of suckerfish.  Without irrigation the farms might go bankrupt – and probably be sold to developers for tract housing.  Without water one more species of animal life – the shortnose suckerfish - might disappear from the universe.

 

            Does God care?

 

            What is the solution when wildlife habitat and human agriculture are at odds?

 

            There are three kinds of easy solutions: neat, plausible and wrong. So somebody said.  This sermon offers no easy solutions and no practical suggestions; it is not neat, perhaps plausible, and quite possibly wrong.

 

            I want to take a fresh look at the age-old question: What Is Our Place in the Scheme of Things?”.

 

            Michelle Malkin opens her newspaper column with the question, “Which is more important: Well-trained Navy pilots or well-rested toads?”  She wonders whether the tragic “friendly fire” bombing mishap in Afghanistan – when we mistakenly bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers – could have been averted had not so many military training exercises been curtailed by environmental concerns for fairy shrimp and the snowy plover.

 

            On February 4, this year, the Mercury News contained two articles that related to one another, though nobody seemed to notice.  A professor of science has developed a cheap source of white light, using the common LED.  It will provide inexpensive lighting in developing countries that do not have enough electrical energy to consistently power conventional light bulbs.  On a different page, in another section of the same paper that day, there was a long article about how the spread of artificial light – for example our effort to illuminate the entire Texas/Mexico border with bright fluorescent light, to deter illegal immigrants – is affecting the sleep patterns, mating patterns and feeding patterns of birds, fish, animals and insects.

 

            Should we care if fireflies no longer mate because they cannot find one another’s flashes in the glare of mercury vapor floodlights?  Should we care if mountain lions and big horn sheep are driven to paranoid schizophrenia by the presence of unnatural eternal day?

 

            Conservative columnist Ann Coulter writes: “God gave us the earth.  We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees.  God said, ‘Earth is yours.  Take it.  Rape it.  It’s yours.’”

 

            Well . . . that’s neat, plausible and wrong!

 

            But it’s not wrong on conventional moral grounds. It’s wrong because it’s stupid.  Even birds know enough not to foul their own nests.

 

            We need to sit up and take notice, however, because columnist Coulter is quoting the Bible.  In fact she quotes the Genesis passage we read for this morning’s lesson. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

 

            “Subdue” . . .“rape” – two verbs differing only in degree.

 

            What should we make of that?

 

            I tell you what I make of it.  The ‘degree’ is precisely what counts in this debate.  There are no easy solutions to this, no neat pat answers.

 

            Today many ethical people reject Genesis out of hand; if God isn’t telling Adam to “subdue the earth,” then God is telling Abraham to “possess the land.” 

 

            Twenty years ago or more I preached a sermon on the first chapter of Genesis.  I probably said something about the unique human qualities that set us above the animals: rational thought, memory, emotions, love.

 

            When the service ended a young woman shook my hand and told me I was wrong.  Later she brought me a quotation – a paragraph – which has stayed with me ever since.  Henry Beston [1] gave up his job and spent one full year living alone in a small cabin in the sand dunes on an isolated stretch of the Atlantic coast. His goal was to observe.  Nothing else.  What is this world like when we are not busy being busy?  He concludes:

 

            We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err.  For the animals shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth.

 

            Rereading that even now I notice a detail I have overlooked in dozens of previous readings.  It is the absence of a single letter – the letter d at the end of the word move.  He does not say that in a world older and more complete than ours [the animals] moved finished and complete . . . he says that in a world older and more complete than ours the animals move finished and complete….

 

            This “other world” – finished and complete – co-exists with ours.

 

            If, indeed, this parallel world (universe) is “finished and complete” does that mean it’s there like a ripe apple ready for us to pluck and eat, providing nourishment, energy and strength for us in our still growing, still evolving, still incomplete world – the world we are creating? 

 

What is our place – the human place - in the scheme of things?

 

            I admit to a personal affinity with the earth stemming from my farm background, from summers backpacking and from a feeling of health that comes when my feet are on the ground – literally.

 

            I can make a very personal emotional case for environmentalism. (I like nature, I’d be sad to see it disappear).  I can make an aesthetic case for environmentalism.  (Beauty depends on diversity; do we really want a world without beauty?)  I can make a utilitarian case for environmentalism.  (It’s stupid to foul our own nest, to use up resources that are non-replenishable, to tolerate the health problems caused by green house gasses, nuclear waste, carcinogens released in the atmosphere, and plain old everyday smog.)

 

            But when I think about family farms in the Klamath Basin, and the endangered shortnosed suckerfish, I come down on the side of the farmers.  In the great scheme of things we have the right to grow food to feed ourselves.

 

            In the great scheme of things nature does not seem particularly invested in preserving every life-form that evolution throws up on the face of the earth.  If a lion sees the last prong-horned antelope in existence and it is within striking range, the lion will gladly eat it.  Dinosaurs once ruled the earth.  They wiped out by natural disaster.  Humans can’t be blamed.  We weren’t on the scene yet.  Nature – evolution – does not seem to be invested in preserving every life-form.

 

            One of the things I like best about the Bible is that it refuses to be consistent.  Its inconsistencies and contradictions suggest to me that God is not yet dead, but still gloriously and confoundingly active and that God is still too big to be defined by any book – including the Bible.  The thought of a live and active God, like that of a live and active volcano, is both exciting and reassuring.  There are still surprises to come!

 

            I want to draw your attention to one of the most conspicuous inconsistencies in the Bible: God creates the universe twice.  Both versions of the Creation story are familiar to us.

 

            In the first God looks out upon a formless void where “darkness covered the face of the deep . . . [and] a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”            God then utters a series of creating words, beginning with “Let there be light…”  Over the course of six “days” God speaks the word for Light, for Sky, for Earth with its Vegetation, for Stars and Sun and Moon, for Birds and Fish and Sea Monsters, and finally on the sixth day, for Cattle, Creeping Things, Wild Animals, and Humans.

 

            Humankind was created in God’s image, according to this first Creation story.  Humanity was created male and female – from the start.  And humanity was told to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

 

            That’s what it says.

 

On the seventh day God rests.

           

Then comes a second Creation story, beginning in the middle of the fourth verse of the second chapter of Genesis.  This time, before any plants or herbs have sprouted on the earth, God takes dust from the ground and breathes life into it, naming the creature whose life is the very breath of God A-damah (which is loosely translated as “red dirt”.)

 

            Then God plants a Garden, in Eden – in the “east” - places this God-breath creature in it and gives it a different instruction manual.  The instructions say nothing about subduing the earth, nothing about having “dominion” over anything.  Adam’s instructions are to “till the garden and keep it”.

 

            The “authors” of the Bible, unable to decide between the two Creation stories, included both.

 

            There is a profound, but unspoken, truth in that.

 

            Lest either story become the justification for a “simple truth” - neat, plausible and wrong – put two inconsistent stories side by side and let humans grope toward the full truth, which is not yet formed . . . because we are a part of its evolution.

 

            Neither extreme in the environmental debate is right.  Which doesn’t mean that splitting the difference and ending up somewhere in the middle is right either.  (As I tell people in pre-marital counseling, if one of you wants to vacation in the mountains and other wants to vacation at the beach, Sacramento is a lousy compromise.)

 

            Think of the two stories again.  The first is a very masculine telling.  Things are created in order, in sequence. First this, then that.  At the end, at the climax, comes humanity.  “We’re Number One” and all that stuff that comes of sports and competition and capitalism.

 

            The second Creation-story is a more “female” telling.  There is no ordered sequence.  Everything is placed together in a garden; it is not hard to picture it as vaguely circular and at the center is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

 

            In the first story humans are made “in the image of God”.  In the second story they are told to avoid the very thing that will make them godlike – the “knowledge of good and evil.”

 

            Creation is ranked and ordered with a clear hierarchy in the first story.  Creation is more “diffuse” in the second story.

 

            In Genesis 1, the earth and all its creatures are handed over to humans, to use it as they please.  But in Genesis 2 they are to “till it and keep it” and much remains mysterious and hidden from them.

 

            In the first story humans are given power. In the second a significant power is withheld form them.  In the first humans are ranked “above” nature; in the second humans are in partnership with nature.

 

            In both stories the earth exists before humanity.  It is not an afterthought given to humans as a plaything.  It took form in the mind of God.  It is the product of God’s creativity. It has form and substance and value in God’s eyes quite apart from humanity.  (The “older world” of which Beston speaks.)

 

            When, from the very beginning, God created us “male and female”, God guaranteed that there will be no consistency – and that “neat, plausible” answers will probably be wrong.

 

            The Bible tells the story of Creation two inconsistent ways because neither one is complete.  There is no simple answer to the question of where humanity stands in the scheme of things.

 

            The male telling of the story and the female telling of the story are both necessary if the tale is to be told.

 

            We are facing an ecological crisis of enormous proportions.  Somebody has coined the term “de-creation” for what we are doing to the earth and atmosphere – our habitat.  We are fouling our own nest.  We are making ugliness.  We need to re-learn that the earth is a Garden.  We need to re-learn the meaning of that old verb – to “husband”.  We need to re-capture a feminine sense of living with, nurturance, harmony, ordered disorder.  Wanton destruction of forests, rivers, and other species is not good for the soul.

 

            But there is still room for the masculine principle, for that too is a gift from God.  We will colonize other planets.  The yearning to push past known frontiers, to discover what’s out there, to leave our mark on other parts of God’s creation – it will come.  It will come with a price, no doubt, but this too is of God, as much as the garden.

 

            Think of the hierarchy of created orders not in terms of a pyramid – with humanity standing like conquerors on top of a mountain of other species of plants and animals.  Think, instead, of a horizontal hierarchy.  Creation is still unfolding.  It is not complete.  Humanity has a unique role in the unfolding of creation, its movement toward a yet unfulfilled purpose.  Some say we are co-creators with God.  We might go even farther and wonder if we are the way in which God chooses to live and move and create and direct and evolve in this universe of God’s creation. [2]



[1] Henry Beston, The Outermost House - A Year of life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Rinehart & Co., Inc., New York, Toronto, 1928.

 

[2] This idea of developed by Professor John Haught in “God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution,” Westview, 2000.



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“THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH”
Rev. Bob Olmstead

A child-friendly service for PENTECOST DAY

 

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  { Acts 2:1-4 }


 

Ø      A 60 foot (by 3 feet wide) swath of red cloth came from the highest point in the sanctuary, swooping over pulpit and lectern, and out toward the front pews.   Ø      Following the organ prelude, liturgical dancer Noelle Morris – the Spirit of Pentecost – entered in flaming red garb and brought the “rush of a mighty wind”.  Accompanied by flute, she brought tongues of fire to the heads of various people in the congregation.  Members dressed in “Biblical” costume rose from their seats in the congregation and came toward the altar.   Ø      There followed a dramatic reading of Acts 2:1-21, accompanied in places by taped sounds of wind, and in other places by the “babble” of glossalalia – as various members of the congregation recited the Lord's Prayer in a second language that was familiar to them (French, Latin, Fijian, Italian, etc.)               Children!  Come and join me up here.     .  .  .   (the children came forward)   Have you ever been scared?  The disciples were scared.  Jesus was their friend.  Jesus was their teacher.  Then Jesus got killed.  But he came back and talked to them and told them not to be afraid; then he disappeared again.  He said, “You won’t see me any more.  Where I’m going you can’t come. But don’t be afraid because I’m going to send a Holy Spirit to keep you company.”               So the disciples got together and went to their room and closed the door and . . . waited.  They waited all day . . . and all night . . . and all the next day . . . and the next night.  They could hear a big party outside.  It was a holiday called Pentecost and everybody came to town to celebrate.                   Then the disciples heard a funny sound in their room. It sounded like the wind.            They were so surprised they all looked at each other.  And then they were even MORE surprised because they could see a tongue of FIRE over each other's heads.                And then they were not afraid anymore.  Somebody said, “Unlock the door!”  Somebody else said, “Open the door!”  And Peter said, “Let’s go out there.  I’ve got something I want to say!”               When they all got to the church – the Temple they called it – Peter went up on the steps  > climb chancel steps <  and when he got to the top step he turned around and he said, “Listen!  I have something to tell you!  This Jesus that you killed . . . God has raised him up and freed him from death!”               The other disciples explained to the crowd what Peter was saying.  The people from Egypt could understand them.  The people from Spain could understand them.  The people from Iraq, the people from Africa – they all heard the message in their own language!             That was the birth of the Church.  That was the first Christian sermon ever.  That was the first time the world got told about Christ.               So every year – on the anniversary of Pentecost – we celebrate the birthday of the Church.               What happens on your birthday?  You get gifts!  The Church got gifts on its first birthday.  Peter got the gift of prayer.   PETER:             Come over here, children, and let me tell you something.  Remember the Holy Spirit that Pastor Bob talked about?  The Holy Spirit was an invisible friend.  It was the Spirit of Jesus.  It was the Spirit of God.  It was a Holy Spirit that I could talk to anytime.  It gave me courage.  Knowing that the Spirit was with me, I found that I could pray – any time, any place.  I was given the gift of prayer.  To build a church you have to start with people who have the gift of prayer.  People like Ardath Bierlein.   Bob:  You may not know it, children, but Ardath and others, like Linea Stewart, pray for you.  (Ardath comes up and joins Peter.)  That’s right.  They pray for you.  And they pray for me.  And they pray for our church. They pray for our meetings, and our worship services, and our youth groups, and our Sunday School classes.   ARDATH PRAYS   THE LORD’S PRAYER   Bob:  Now Priscilla, she was given the Holy Spirit gift of hospitality.   PRISCILLA:       Come here, children.  See this key?  I had a big house.  This is the key to my house.  The other baptized Christians had no place to get together.  Most of them were poor.  They didn’t have nice houses.  So I invited them to my house.  God raised Jesus from the dead on the first day of the week – so I said, “Let’s get together on the first day of EVERY week.  On Sunday!  Come to my house.  We will eat.  And we will remember Jesus.  And we will pray together. If we are going to build a church we need people who have the gift of hospitality.    Bob:  June Nielson has the gift of hospitality.  She has opened her home to the families of people having surgery at Stanford Hospital.  She has provided a home to foreign students enrolled at Stanford – people from all over the world!  (June comes and stands with Priscilla).The Christians at Priscilla’s house didn’t just eat together and pray together and remember Jesus together . . . They talked about the people they knew who were sick . . . and the people who didn’t have enough to eat . . . and the people who were sad or lonely.  And they said, “Who will visit these people in the name of Jesus?  Who will bring them bread and friendship in the name of Jesus?” The people who volunteered were called deacons.  Stephen was a deacon.     STEPHEN:       Come over here, children.  See this bread?  It feeds the hungry . . . but it feeds the soul, too.  Jesus said, “Bread is my body, broken for you.”  Whenever we share some bread with each other or with somebody who is hungry, we are giving them Jesus.            The Conways – Michelle and Dan and Matthew and Benjamin – they are good deacons.  (The Conways come up and stand with Stephen).  Michelle helped organize the CROP Walk.  Hundreds of people from dozens of churches walked.  They raised thousands of dollars to buy food for poor people.  Some of you were in the CROP Walk!  Then the Conways told us about Heifer Project and we sent bees and bunnies and goats to poor people around the world so they can raise their own food and not be hungry.  Then the Conways got a Christmas tree and brought it to church and asked us to decorate it with socks.  Remember that Christmas?  We took all the socks to a homeless shelter and gave them to people who have no house to live in.  If I were going to build a church, I would start with some good deacons.   Bob:   The Holy Spirit gave some of the early Christians the gift of prayer, and gave some the gift of hospitality, and gave some the gift of service to the poor, and to some the gift of praise.  Mary Magdalene got the gift of praise!   MARY MAGDALENE:        Jesus did so much for me!  I was unhappy – really really unhappy.  I thought nobody loved me.  I had no self-respect.  But then Jesus showed me how much God loves me.  And I just wanted to praise God and praise Jesus all day every day.  I learned to love God back.  I learned to love other people and myself.  I was the first person who saw Jesus alive after the resurrection.  Imagine that!  The very first one!  I can’t keep it inside – my happiness, my joy. I have to praise my God and praise Jesus and praise the Holy Spirit for all they have done for me.  A church needs people who are filled with praise - like the choir, who share their gift of praise with us every Sunday!   Ø      CHANCEL CHOIR ANTHEM Ø      Come, Holy Spirit come; Let Thy bright beams arise,
Dispel the darkness from our minds, and open Thou our eyes.
Come, Holy Spirit come and open Thou our eyes,
Oh Lord, open thou our minds, oh Lord, open thou our hearts,
Amen
.   Bob:    There are so many gifts of the Spirit: prayer, praise, hospitality, service.  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, had the gift of eagerness.  Not just any eagerness.  She was eager to know about Jesus.   MARY:            Come over here, children.  Jesus came to visit our house.  That’s right, he came to our house!  I was supposed to help Martha in the kitchen.  But I couldn’t stay in the kitchen when Jesus was right there in our house!  I just had to talk with him and listen to him and ask him questions and learn from him.  If I was going to build a church I would start with people who are eager to learn about Jesus: people like Ross Trammell.  (Ross – a 4th grader, joins Mary).   Bob:     Barnabas came along later.  But he got a gift of the spirit. Barnabas, I’m going to let you tell about it.   BARNABAS:             By the time I was baptized there were churches in quite a few different places.  There was a church in Corinth and a church in Damascus and a church in Cappadocia and a church in Jerusalem.  And believe it or not – the church in Jerusalem was very poor. This was sad because Jesus’ family belonged to that church.  They didn’t have much money and their neighbors treated them badly.  While I was praying about the church in Jerusalem, I “saw” the church in Corinth.  I saw how rich and well off they were compared to the Christians in Jerusalem.  That was the answer to my prayer!  I went to the church in Corinth and I asked them for an offering that I could take to Jerusalem.  Your ability to give is a gift!  Giving is a gift!  The Church has been built by people’s offerings.  The ushers are here now - I invite you all to celebrate your gift of giving.   > OFFERING   Bob:    Jesus said to take his Spirit into all the world.  At that first Pentecost people from all over the world heard about Jesus in their own language.  Today some very special people called missionaries take Jesus’ message and ministry all over the world.  Paul was the first real Christian missionary.   PAUL: Come here, children.  Let me show you what I’ve got.  This is a map of all the places I went telling people about Jesus.  Jesus couldn’t be every place at once.  He depends on us to spread the Word – and the Spirit.  Some people go and tell others about Jesus.  Some people go and heal sick people, just like Jesus did.  And some people just go and do whatever the people need – in Jesus’ name.  The Church needs people with a sense of mission – people like Mary Lu and Allen Wood, who just go back from El Salvador where they were Volunteers in Mission.  They helped some poor people build a house for themselves there.  (The Woods join Paul in the chancel.)   Bob:    The Church is not built of bricks and stones and boards and pews.  The Church is PEOPLE, people who take the gifts the Spirit gives them and who put their gifts to work in Jesus’ name.   *HYMN -  “We Are the Church”                        - No. 558   >  THE SPIRIT OF PENTECOST (dancer Noelle Morris, assisted by the “disciples”) DISTRIBUTES FLAMES FROM THE ALTAR TO EVERYONE IN THE SANCTUARY   THE RED, YELLOW, ORANGE STREAMERS ARE WAVED AS WE SING:  “Many Gifts, One Spirit” – No. 114   BENEDICTION   “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”   As people exited all received a colorful envelope containing a printed “invitation” – the name of one of the gifts of the Spirit and an invitation to meditate on how that gift is present, or might be present in your life.   Birthday cake was served on the patio          



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BEING THE CHURCH IN A ‘POST-CHRISTIAN’ ERA /BEING THE HOME IN A POST-FAMILY ERA - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

Being the Church in a "Post-Christian" Era /
Being the Home in a "Post-family" Era

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“…he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem,

but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”

(Acts 1:4)


 

            What if the leaders of all the world’s great religions got together one day and denounced religious violence?  What if they unanimously agreed to make this clear and plain, with a bold statement to the world:

 

“Violence and terrorism are opposed to all true religious spirit and we condemn all recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion.”

 

            That would be big news, would it not – if the leaders of ALL the major religions renounced violence?  Apparently not.

 

            It happened this past January.  Pope John Paul II was there along with several Roman Catholic cardinals.  So was Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of Russian, Greek, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox Christians.   There were a dozen Jewish rabbis, including some from Israel; there were 30 Muslim imams from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.  There were leaders representing Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Quakers, Moravians, the Salvation Army and the World Council of Churches.  There were monks and gurus representing Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and native African religions.  Some of those attending did so at great personal and political risk.

 

            They convened in Assisi, Italy. They talked and prayed.  They unanimously agreed to condemn “every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion.”  They also said, ‘No religious goal can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man.”  They issued their statement on January 24, this year.  On March 4 the Pope sent a copy of the statement to every head of state in the world.

 

            You can hardly be blamed if you didn’t read about it.  It didn’t make the newspapers.

 

            Seven American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan that day.  That was news.

 

            Israeli troops killed 17 people in the West Bank.  That was news.

 

            Mike Tyson got a license to box.  That was news.

 

            Leaders of the all the world’s major religions joined together and denounced religious violence.  That didn’t qualify as news.  It didn’t get reported. [1]

 

            How does the Church make news?

 

            You got it!  Sex.  Scandals.

 

            Religious leaders oppose violence?  Ho hum.  Who cares!

 

            That is a fact of 21st century life.  The Church has very little influence on the world scene.

 

            I spent a summer in England.  I was one of three Methodist pastors serving a circuit of 15 small Methodist churches.  I preached in three different towns every Sunday.  And by Tuesday or Wednesday the people in those towns would send me newspaper clippings summarizing the sermon I had preached.  These were not earthshaking or controversial sermons.  They were edification and encouragement for the faithful who gathered there that day.  It was rather unnerving to think of a routine sermon as “news”.

 

            Routine sermons sure aren’t news in California!

 

            A boy asked his grandfather what he thought about current events.  Granddad replied, “hmmmmm, let me think . . . Your Grandmother and I got married first and then we lived together . . . every boy over 14 had a rifle that his dad taught him how to use and respect . . . closets were for hanging clothes, not coming out of . . . serving your country was a privilege . . . fast food was what people ate during Lent . . . having a meaningful relationship meant getting along with your cousins . . . draft dodgers were people who closed their front doors when the evening breeze came up . . . you could buy a new Chevy Coupe for $600, but who could afford one? . . . ‘grass’ was mowed . . . ‘coke’ was a cold drink . . . ‘pot’ was something your mother cooked in and ‘rock music’ was your grandmother’s lullaby . . . ‘Aids’ were helpers in the principal’s office . . . ‘chip’ meant a piece of wood . . . ‘hardware’ was found in a hardware store . . . and ‘software’ wasn’t a word yet! . . . and I’m only 56 years old!”

 

            We live in a time of rapid social change.   Duh!

 

            I don’t need to tell you that, but I do want to comment on two aspects of the change we are living through.  Right about the time I was in seminary perceptive Christian prophets announced that we were entering a “post-Christian era”.  Throughout the century just ended the public influence of the Christian Church has waned.  Notice, I said “the PUBLIC influence of the Christian Church has waned.”  The PUBLIC influence of the ordained priest or minister or rabbi has diminished dramatically. 

 

            Where once politicians confidently referred to this as a “Christian nation” (then winking and saying, “no offense to our Jewish brothers”), that simply cannot be claimed any more.  We are a secular state with a pluralistic culture; those who identify themselves as Christians make up a smaller and smaller percentage.

 

            On this Mother’s Day - or this Festival of the Christian Home as we Methodists call it – I want to raise the possibility that we are also entering a post-family era.

 

            I don’t want to make a case for that because I dearly hope I’m wrong. 

 

Writer William Saroyan wrote an autobiographical book titled “Places Where I’ve Done Time”.  I want to lift up two short sentences from that book.  He says, “Places make us.  First genes, then places.” [2]

 

            Places make us.  First genes, then places.  I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York in the 1940s and early 1950s.  If Saroyan is right then that, along with my genes, made me what I am and accounts for my similarities and differences from you.

 

            I find Saroyan’s insight intriguing, but I want to argue with him.  It was the Methodist Church in Shrub Oak, New York, that made me.  It was not just the town or the valley or the times.  And my family gave me more than genes.  My genes explain why I am 5’ 6” and why I am profoundly deaf, but they do not explain why I cherish the things I cherish.

 

            If it were my autobiography I might say, “Church and family make us; genes and church and family.”  But can I generalize from my experience?  It would be hard to make a case for that today when church and home seem to have less and less to do with making us who we are.

 

            That is what I mean by raising the possibility that we live in a “post-Christian era” and “post-family era.”  Church and family are no longer the primary places where people are made.  Are they?

           

The conservative and evangelical branch of the American Christian Church is attempting to re-assert a dominant Christian voice in politics and policy.  They are trying to define and sustain the traditional nuclear intact American family.  The conservative evangelical branch of American Christianity is not comprised entirely of white Republican southerners.  It has a powerful and growing parallel among first generation immigrant groups now making their home and livelihood in America.  Very few of these people find their way into churches like ours.  They are served by bilingual missionaries from Guatemala and Nigeria and Korea who are building thriving congregations in places like East Palo Alto.

 

            The conservative evangelical branch of American Christianity – both European descendants and more recent immigrants - is thriving and growing, while the liberal progressive branch of American Christianity – what once was called “mainstream” Christianity - has seen a decline of membership and influence for the past five decades.

 

            I quibble with the conservative evangelical emphasis on home and family life only because they place too much emphasis on form rather than on function.

 

            A survey was taken at the University of Chicago.  Graduate students were asked where they got most of their ideas about morality and religion. The majority said, “Through conversation with the family at mealtimes.”  We are not going to change that.  That is where morality and religion will be taught.  The family table has many shapes.  It can include others who do not fit the traditional definition of mother, father, son and daughter.  The key is the “table” – by which I mean that sacred place where people who share a deep commitment to one another – come together on a daily basis for sustenance, and where conversation is as central to sustenance as soup.

 

            My friend, who is one of the best listeners I know, was listening to a teenager, a teenager who was between homes and living at a Shelter.  She was soon to receive a foster home placement.  She said, “What I really want is someone to know where I am and to care where I am going.”

 

            Teenagers will tell you that is precisely what they don’t want, but don’t believe them for a minute.

 

            “What I really want is someone to know where I am and to care where I am going.”  I am 62 years old, and that is no less true of me now than when I was 16 or 6.

 

            “What I really want is someone to know where I am and to care where I am going.”

 

            That’s home and that’s church – when they are functioning.

 

            Secularism and pluralism are the cultural tide, and we had better learn – and quickly – how to be the Church in a post-Christian era, and how to be the home in a post-family era.

 

            That is not a matter of following every fad in order to retain our popularity in the current culture wars.  Reactionary though he was, I find myself in agreement with G.K. Chesterton who wrote, “It can be exalting to belong to a church that is five hundred years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to fashion; it is mortifying to belong to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.”

 

            The organ is no more sacred than the guitar and the guitar is no more evangelistic than the organ.  The real question is whether we intend to make the Church the central place that makes us, and that makes our children and our grandchildren, even though that is not true for the majority of Americans – even when that makes us and them unusual, odd, and out of step with their classmates.

 

            I am a great fan of public education.  I think universal public education is America’s greatest contribution to the world of practice.  I think universal public education – paid for by taxes – does more than free market principles to account for America’s prosperity and exalted place in the current scheme of things.

 

            On the other hand, I am captivated by the commitment of those who choose home schooling for they are people willing to say we do not approve of current cultural values and we are willing to make sacrifices to give our children the beat of a different drummer they might march to.

 

            Maybe you noticed: I slipped in the dreaded ‘s’ word.

 

            Sacrifice.

 

            Being the Church in a post-Christian era will require many sacrifices.

 

            Being a home in the post-family era will require many sacrifices. 

 

Family – by its very nature – requires sacrifice.

           

If the Church is to survive – and thrive – in a post-Christian era, it will not be because it goes huffing and puffing after every fad.  It will not be because it has regained political power.  Look at Israel and Iran to see the inevitable pitfalls of religious states.  Thomas Jefferson was right to insist on the separation of Church and State – that separation serves both best.  If the Church is to survive – and thrive – in the coming era it will be because it turns AWAY from mass culture and concentrates on transforming people through spiritual disciplines.

 

            . . . because it concentrates of transforming people through spiritual disciplines.

 

            If the family is to survive – and thrive – in a post-family culture it will be because it clearly decides that one cannot “have it all” (where would you put it?).  If the family is to survive – and thrive – in the coming era it will be because it re-establishes the table as the leisurely place where family gathers daily to sustain the body through bread and to make the people through conversation.

 

            Love does not create a marriage; marriage teaches us what a costly adventure love is.  Marriage and family exist not primarily to make us happy but to make us holy (though in the long run, of course, there can be no true happiness apart from holiness).

 

            We cannot expect the majority of people to accept the disciplines of Christian living or the sacrifices a modern family requires.  They are not for the timid.

 

            “What I really want is someone to know where I am and to care where I am going.” Do you hear that teen-ager out there?

 

            Who can answer that longing, except Church and home?

 

            We are in the right place – you and I - whether our culture knows it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] David Waters, “The Assisi Dialogue”, syndicated columnist for the Memphis, TN Commercial Appeal.

[2] Referenced by Rev. Dr. William Stegall, First United Methodist Church, Redding, CA.



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ALTAR TO AN UNKNOWN GOD - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

                                                                               

ALTAR TO AN UNKNOWN GOD

 

Rev. Bob Olmstead

First United Methodist Church

Palo Alto, California

 

May 5, 2002

 

CONFIRMATION SUNDAY

 

“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”  (Acts 17:22-23)

 

            So . . . we’ve been through Confirmation together.  I learned a lot.  Now I am supposed to convince you that it has some relevance to your life tomorrow morning when you go to school.  Or tomorrow afternoon when you are with your friends.

 

            Remember Paul?  We talked about him. Started off with the name of Saul, then changed his name when his life changed.  He is walking down the street in San Francisco – (actually it was Athens, Greece but let’s say it was San Francisco) – he sees a church and he reads the sign out front.  It says “The First San Francisco Church of We Don’t Know”.  (Actually it was a temple with an altar “To An Unknown God.”) That’s rather strange, isn’t it?  To worship a god you don’t know anything about?

 

            Whereas you know all about God now because you’ve been through Confirmation Class, right?  I could bring you up here, half at this microphone and half at the other, and ask you questions about God, or the Bible, or the Church, or Jesus and you’d know the answers just like that . . . right?

 

            No?

 

            But you still want to be confirmed?  What do you think this is? The First Palo Alto Church of I Don’t Know?

 

            What did Paul (Saul?) do back there in Athens, Greece, when he passed the church where people worshipped an unknown god?  Ruthie read it to us.  What did he do Ruthie?   .  .  .

 

            He went inside and he said, “I can see you are very religious, worshipping a god you don’t know anything about. So I’m going to tell you about God.

 

            Ok – now listen up!  For $200, what was our first Saturday morning Confirmation session about?

 

            It was about Jesus!  The second Saturday morning was about God.  That’s what Paul told the Athenians.  If you want to know about God – first look at Jesus.  That’s where we start.

 

            Now I want to talk to you a little bit about your baptism.  Most of you were baptized when you were babies.  Melissa, we are going to baptize you in a few minutes.

 

            Your families are here with you today, but in the middle ages young boys left their families to enter monasteries where they were trained as monks.  When they entered the monastery they were given a robe to wear.  The robes came in only one size.  So in the early years, a boy’s robe appeared to swallow him up.  But as the boy became a man he would grow into the robe till it fit.  But he wore the robe long before it fit, and when he wore the robe he looked like a monk, and he was expected to act like a monk, and he was a monk.

 

            I want you to think of your baptism like that.  You will be called up one by one and asked if you “confirm” the vows that were made for you by your parents or your sponsors when you were baptized.  I’m not going to ask if you remember everything we learned in Confirmation Class.  I am not going to ask if you know all the answers.  But I will ask if you intend to grow up to fit your baptism, just like those boy monks grew up to fit their robes.

 

            We are all here to help you.  That’s what this Sunday means.

 

            Confirmation means you are putting on your baptism. And you are doing it for yourself for the first time.  It won’t fit.  It will be too big for you.  No matter where you are in life, the Church will be there – to help you grow into your baptism.  We don’t know all the answers either.  We are here to help each other for as long as life lasts.

 

            Too many people think of God the way an airplane pilot thinks of his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.

 

            God is not a parachute – to be taken out in case of emergency.  God is a mysterious companion. You will need to walk with God and talk with God if you intend to grow up into your baptism.

 

            When my son, Tony, was just about the age you are now, he was easily distracted and he sometimes missed the school bus.  We lived out in the country and it was way too far for him to walk, so I would have to drive him to school.  We would drive into town and when we were about four blocks from the school, he would say “You can let me out here, Dad, you can let me out here!”  And I would say, “But we aren’t there yet…”, and he would shout, “That’s OK Dad, that’s OK – just let me out here!!!”

 

            Tony really worried about his “image”, and what his friends thought of him, and being seen with his bearded Dad, getting out of an old VW “hippie” van was . . . just . . . not . . . cool!

 

            One day he and I went to the grocery store together.  We got whatever it was we needed and started home.  I turned on the ignition, backed the van out of the parking space, turned the steering wheel, and the horn started honking.  It wouldn’t stop.  So I drove slowly through the parking lot with the horn blaring and people staring and finally I turned the ignition off and I turned around and Tony had disappeared.  He was lying on the floor behind the seat – hiding! He did not want to be seen with this father and this car!

 

            It’s pretty natural to worry about how other people see us. We see ourselves through other people’s eyes.  That’s especially true for teen-agers.

 

            Yesterday’s paper had an article about “alpha girls” who enjoy being mean to other girls – cutting them down for the way they dress or the way they talk or the way they look or how much money their parents make (or don’t make).

 

            Growing into your baptism means seeing yourself through God’s eyes.  Growing into your baptism means letting God tell you who you are.

 

            You are baptized.  Your baptism tells you who you are.   And that is what we are celebrating here this morning.  I’m not telling you who you are.  Your parents are not telling you who you are.  Your friends cannot tell you who you are.  Your baptism tells you who you are.  You are a beloved child of God.  Which means you don’t ever need to prove yourself, but you do need to express yourself.                      

 

An Indian boy was mistreated by some friends.  He was angry with his friends who had done him an injustice and he told his grandfather about it.  His grandfather said, “Let me tell you a story.  I, too, at times, have felt great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.  But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy.  I have struggled with these feelings many times.”

 

He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me.  One is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended…  But the other wolf, arrgh!  He is full of anger… He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.  He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great…  Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

 

The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”

 

The Grandfather smiled and said, “The one I feed.”

 

I’ve got two wolves inside me.  You’ve got two wolves inside you.  Which one will win?  The one you feed.

 

There is an old joke that ministers tell each other.  There were these three ministers in a small town.  All three churches had steeples and sometimes bats would come to live in the steeples.  So the three ministers got together to talk about how to get rid of the bats in the belfry.  The Lutheran minister said, “Ah, it’s a terrible problem.  We played loud music and even shot off guns to scare them.  They flew out but they came right back the next day.  We can’t get rid of them.”  The Baptist minister said, “We got rid of the bats for a longer than that.  We started some real smoky fires outside and we got big fans and blew the smoke up on the steeple.  The bats left and didn’t come back for a month.”  The Methodist minister said, “We did better than that.  I went up in the steeple, baptized those bats, then I confirmed them, and we haven’t seen them since!”

 

Why do you suppose ministers tell that joke to each other?  Because after you are confirmed we treat you as adult members of the church.  In other words, you don’t “have to” come any more.  And all too often, when your parents stop making you do things, you forget the vows you made – to yourself and to God.

 

Remember the vow I will ask you to make.  Will you grow into your baptism?  Will you feed the good wolf that lives inside you?  Will you feed Christ who entered your life when you were baptized?

 

Grow into your baptism.  Feed the Christ who lives in you.

 

Sometimes church will be downright boring.  A man told his pastor, “I figure I’ve heard almost 1,500 sermons and I can’t remember but 5 or 6 of them. It’s not worth it to keep coming to church.”  The pastor did a quick calculation in his head.  He said, “Over the past 30 years I’ve eaten more than 32,000 meals and I can’t remember but 5 or 6 of them.  But I needed the nourishment in every one to sustain my health and my strength.”

 

Try to worship even when you don’t feel like it.  Pray, even when you can’t think of anything to say; that’s the best time to pray anyway.  Read the Bible.  Pick good friends.  Be a part of the church – because we need you just as much as you need us.



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“THE FOURTH GOSPEL” - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“THE FOURTH GOSPEL”

 

Rev. Bob Olmstead

First United Methodist Church

Palo Alto, California

 

April 21, 2002

 

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42).

 

 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:1)

 

            Imagine a budding historian some thousand years from now, probably working on a distant planet but delving into documents generated in the little earth community of Palo Alto, California.  Among the papers are the archives of First United Methodist Church.  Our budding historian decides to write a doctoral dissertation on how First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto differed from nearby congregations in the early years of the 21st century.

 

            He narrows it down to five Christian churches: Menlo Presbyterian just a few blocks north, the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ a few blocks south on Middlefield Road, the Christian Science Church a few blocks to the west, and St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic Church in Los Gatos.  These are all Christian Churches.  They all use the same Bible.  Would you say we are the same as Menlo Pres, or the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, or the Christian Science Church, or St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic?

 

I think it’s safe to assume that a future historian could write a Ph.D. dissertation on our differences.  How would that historian describe us here today?  Who are we?  How did we get to be who we are?  Are the histories and interests and experiences of the people gathered in this room this morning the same as the histories and interests and experiences of the people gathered at the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ down the road?

           

Let’s say these five congregations – all vital, active, local groups of people – were told to write a new Gospel, to write up the life of Jesus Christ, revealing what is known about Jesus, what we have heard about Jesus, and what we think is most significant about Jesus.  One of these five new Gospels will be chosen and included from henceforth and forevermore as the fifth Gospel, following Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

 

            We go to work!  Menlo Pres goes to work!  St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic goes to work!  Ditto for the folks at the Christian Science Church and the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.  When all five groups have finished their Gospels will they be the same?  If you think so raise your hand . . .

 

            You mean five groups of Christians, no more than a few miles apart, interconnected by the remarkable communications network of the early 21st century, would come up with five different descriptions of Jesus and what is important about his life?!  Really!

 

            Why would we assume things were any different in the first century?

 

            If it should be (and I take nothing for granted) that you have read the four Gospels in the Bible, you may have noticed they are different from one another.  If you have read them more than once (a practice I heartily recommend) you may recall that Mark is the briefest of the four, and that almost everything that gets said in Mark gets repeated in Matthew and Luke, though Matthew and Luke both add materials of their own - birth stories for instance, resurrection appearances, some Jesus teachings the others seem to have forgotten or ignored.

 

            Then comes John, the fourth Gospel.  Jesus lives a different life in John.  His teachings are different, there are no Beatitudes, no Good Samaritan, no Prodigal Son.  It purports to be a biography of Jesus but three quarters of it takes place during one week - the last week of Jesus’ life. And according to John Jesus leaves long messages with the disciples, messages nobody else remembers or bothers to report.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Mark, Matthew and Luke don’t remember Jesus saying that.  “I am the Good Shepherd . . . whoever enters [the sheepfold] by me will be saved . . .”  Mark, Matthew and Luke don’t remember Jesus saying that.  John describes the Lord’s Last Supper differently and John describes Jesus’ death differently, and John describes sin differently, and John talks about the Paraclete, a Holy Spirit that God will send to guide and instruct the faithful after Jesus is gone. Mark, Matthew, Luke, they don’t remember anything about a Paraclete.

 

            Taking note of these differences some say, “Look at that!  Even the four Gospels can’t agree!  That just goes to show you can’t believe anything in the Bible!”  Which, of course, is utter foolishness but it seems to satisfy some very shallow minds.

 

            Others, taking note of these differences, say the fourth Gospel should be eliminated from the Bible.  Since Matthew, Mark and Luke agree on most of the details, theirs must be the “true Jesus”.

 

What a loss it would be if the fourth Gospel were removed from the Bible.

 

Here is what contemporary Biblical scholars believe about the Gospel of John.  It was written by or for a community of Jewish Christians.  They faithfully attended their synagogue, perhaps in Ephesus. They believed two things that set them apart from their fellow Jews.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  And they believed that the end of the world was at hand.  They were convinced that the resurrection and exaltation of Christ was the beginning of the end.  That’s pretty much what it meant to be a first generation Christian.  You were Jewish.  You believed Jesus was the Messiah.  And you believed that the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the exaltation of Christ ushered in the eschaton (which is a fancy theological term for the end of history as we know it.)

 

Now, I ask you, what would happen if a dozen people in this congregation became absolutely convinced that the world was about to end, and we better get with the program or we will all perish?  What if they stood up and interrupted my sermons, disrupted our Church Conference and nominated each other for all the positions on the Administrative Board?  What if they if they suddenly all volunteered to teach Sunday School?! 

           

Well, I don’t know . . . what would we do about them?

 

            In the first century it got them thrown out of the synagogue.  They were expelled!  And that’s why they wrote the Gospel of John.  “We’ll show you guys!!!”

 

            What is extraordinary is that under these circumstances they (or he, or she) crafted sublime religious poetry and profound Christian theology in which Jesus says things these people wanted their Jewish brothers and sisters (who expelled them from the synagogue) to hear.  In the fourth gospel there is no line between history and interpretation, between story and theology.

 

            Let me give you what I think is the key to the fourth Gospel.  It is the first three words.  “In the beginning . . .”  Does that ring a bell?  What are the first three words in the Bible?  “In the beginning . . .”  The author of John wants us to hear that echo and to hear it loud and clear.  Once somebody said In the beginning, the Jews from the synagogue would know precisely what followed: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” {Genesis 1:1-2}  Those are the first two verses in the Bible.  Now hear the first words of the fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life…” {John 1:1-4a}

 

            You are supposed to hear Genesis when you pick up John.  The author wants you to cast your mind back to that primordial moment when creation first came into being and to picture Jesus Christ right there beside God the Creator, deeply involved in the way things are made.  You can be sure the people who expelled them from the synagogue noticed the twist.  They had memorized “In the beginning…” from childhood and they were startled to hear something new added to the image of God the Creator – a companion who was there “in the beginning” and “through whom all that was made was made”.

 

            I ask you to let the poetic side of your brain approach those exquisite words, rather than the logic side of your brain.  Receive the words the way you receive music, let them enter your soul and touch your spirit before you take the hammer and chisel of logic and whack them apart.

 

            “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

 

            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life…” 

 

That affirmation is so sublime I defy anybody to explain it.  It can only be apprehended by faith, and the eyes of faith look through the lenses of human experience, historical accident, and cultural placement.

 

Let’s fast-forward fifteen centuries.  Books were copied by hand, word by word, one word at a time, one book at a time.  Few people could read; books were almost non-existent.  Imagine the labor that went into making one copy of the Bible!  How did people learn about Jesus?  The Church taught them.  You went to Church and the clergy told you what to believe about Jesus.

 

Then Gutenberg invented the printing press.  The printing press changed life in Europe more than the Internet changed life in America.  People had a reason to learn to read, so they did.  The Bible became available.  People began to read the Bible for themselves. And some of them said, “Wait a minute!  The Church is teaching us a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible at all.” So a great debate arose.  Which carried more truth – the bare words of the Bible which people could read for themselves, or the Church’s interpretation of what those words meant? What the Church taught became known as “tradition”.  The Bible itself became known as “scripture”.  The Protestant Reformation was fought over which should have more authority – tradition or scripture.

           

Fast-forward three more centuries.  On the heels of the printing press came the time known as the Enlightenment.  On the heels of the Enlightenment came the Industrial Revolution.  People who had lived on the same land from time immemorial were uprooted to labor in coalmines and steel factories.  Young men raised in villages with a few dozen farms now raised their families in city slums with over a million souls.  Souls that were largely ignored by the Church of England.

 

            Two brothers by the name of Wesley decided to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the huddled masses, the laborers and their families who were without health care, without schools, and without the security of a village.  John Wesley, along with George Whitefield, preached long sermons at the entrance to mines or at the gates of factories.  Charles Wesley wrote hymns at the rate of one or more a day.  They brought the message of God’s grace, and Christ’s sacrificial love, of the universality of this grace and love, to the grimy workers, without a place to take a decent bath, who were unwelcome in the stately Anglican churches. Then the Wesleys devised a "method” by which these untutored, uneducated, uncouth people could encourage one another to keep the faith.  And those who adhered to the “method” became known as “Methodists”.

 

            They argued over which had more authority: scripture or tradition?  The Bible or John Wesley’s sermons?  And Wesley’s answer to that question is why I’m a Methodist to this day.  He refused to reduce it to one, he expanded it to four.  It has become known as the Methodist quadrilateral.  Scripture.  Tradition.  Reason.  And personal experience.  You can learn portions of God’s truth through all of these.  Scripture.  Tradition.  Reason.  Experience.

 

            There are those who say, “But, ah, Scripture is primary.  The Bible can trump the other three.”  And, frankly, there are many people in this congregation all too willing to say, “Reason trumps the Bible, or my personal experience is the most important source of truth and I only believe the Bible if it accords with what I already believe.”

 

            It is the genius of Methodism to insist that each is a prism, a lens, through which to examine the others.  It is the genius of Methodism to insist that ours is an inclusive fellowship, in which people with conflicting opinions are joined in the fellowship of grace.  God’s grace.

 

            An elderly Methodist pastor friend of mine used to say, “The well of truth is deep, and neither your bucket or mine can drain it dry.”

 

            The Bible contains many lenses (or many buckets, if you prefer) through which to view that eternal truth which is too immense for any one person, or for any one culture, to capture.

 

            The fourth Gospel, which offers us a portrait of the cosmic Christ and the hope of an inclusive principle explaining or sustaining everything that is and ever shall be . . . this same fourth Gospel contains petty anti-Semitic language aimed at proving that the Jews who expelled them from the synagogue are all going to go to hell unless they got right with Jesus.

 

            If I want to believe “…the Word was with God and the Word was God…”{John 1:1} do I have to believe “No one comes to the Father except through me” {John 14:6}?  Those last words have been used to condemn others.  I do not hear truth in them.  Instead, I hear the hurt of people who have been persecuted, now lashing out at the brothers and sisters who have recently expelled them from the congregation.  I can understand their anger without agreeing to it.

 

The fourth Gospel contains the most sublime expression of the Christian faith alongside petty jealousies and human folly.

 

So what else is new?

 

If you want an infallible Bible or a perfect Church maybe you better try St. Basil the Great Byzantine Catholic or the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.  Maybe they have what you are looking for.  You won’t find infallibility or perfection here.

 

What you will find here is a tradition of openness.  A respect for reason and education.  A community of people with many opinions, some with great faith and some searching for a faith.  You will find a Bible that is taken very very seriously, though not always literally.

 

+  +  +  +  +  +  +

 

Carl Hansen says it well.

The truth that [Jesus] brought to the world is that all people are equally precious in the eyes of God.  He did not die for some, but for all, and our job as Christians is to continue to convey that good news by treating all people as precious, whether they know Jesus or not… One can be passionate in one’s Christian faith while respecting those who disagree and those of other faiths.  The critical issue is what we are being zealous about.  Are we being zealous about the dogma of our tradition, or are we being zealous to love others as Christ loves us.



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Free Gift for the first 5,000 - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Free Gift For The First 5,000”

Rev. Bob Olmstead

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability…”  (Matthew 25:14)

 


            Some local folks started up a savings-and-loan association designed to serve the local folks.  They happened to open their offices during one of those periodic swings in the economy when everything was coming up roses.  Population grew.  Land values soared.  Everybody wanted money – to invest in this and to invest in that, mostly one land development scheme after another.  The little local savings and loan association found itself handling millions and millions of dollars. They set their sights high and could hardly keep up with demand so they set their sights higher.  They decided on an “aggressive” investment policy – which means making money fast on highly risky, but highly profitable, projects.  They upgraded their image – moved to new headquarters and furnished it with the finest of appointments, hung art of the walls, sent for $72,000 worth of tailor made European suits and charged it to “administration”.  They all drove expensive cars – to “keep up appearances”.  High rollers knocked on their doors, offered deals, borrowed money.

 

            The boom busted.  In one month $11,000,000 in loans went unpaid.  So they took out loans to cover losses.  Need I go on?

 

            The directors wore their expensive European suits to bankruptcy court. The vice-president was charged with embezzling a million and a half dollars.  The Federal government took over to insure that depositors not lose their funds, but hundreds of widows and pensioners and farmers and local folks who invested in the firm’s stock – lured by its rapid rise in value – lost everything.  Everything.

 

            Am I talking about Enron in 2001?  No.  I’m talking about the Centennial Savings and Loan Association in Santa Rosa, California, in 1985.

 

            What do you think Jesus would say about that?

 

            If I read the parable of the talents correctly, Jesus was not very patient with a conservative investment policy . . . burying money in the ground . . . where it would be safe . . . every penny returned to the Master when it was called for.  “Here you have what is yours.”  The man gave back exactly what he had received.  And . . . the Master was not . . . too . . . pleased.  “You wicked and slothful servant . . .”, etc. etc.  “You ought to have invested my money,” the Master says, “and at my coming I should have received my own with interest.”

 

            Yes.  Well!  Do you suppose the directors of Centennial Savings and Loan – or Enron – had Jesus’ little parable tacked to the wall over their desks?  I somehow doubt it.  But why not?  Cannot Jesus’ story be interpreted as a blessing on aggressive investment policies – the attempt to make lots of money and to make it fast?

 

            Let me give a clear “yes” and “no” to that.  The story is a parable.  It is one of the many parables Jesus told.  And parables are not always about what they first seem to be about.  This parable seems to be about money. Is it really about money?  Yes and no.

 

            It is about much more than money, but it is definitely about money too.  The parable is about us . . . and all we have received.  Money.  Friends.  Skills.  Time.  Family.  Abilities.  Life.

 

            I was brought up on the old idea of nature’s frugality.  How the leaves fall from the trees and make humus in the soil and nothing is ever wasted.  But Annie Dillard says, Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place?  This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme … Extravagance!  Nature will try anything once…. [1]

 

            It’s true.  We are born into an extravagant world, set down in time amidst a veritable storm of riches.  We are not poor – not one of us – not in the things that count, for we are surrounded by beauty, by opportunity, by wonder, by mystery, by resources.  We have capabilities more wondrous than any could realize. The capacity for friendship.  The capacity for song.  The capacity to read and write. The capacity to make tools.  The capacity to function in groups.  The capacity to love.  But, like the magic penny, life’s richest gifts merely rot or disappear if clutched too tightly.  They are meant to be spent.  The reason so many of us feel poor, is that we try to keep these gifts instead of spending them.

 

            I want to tell you a story.  I have an almost identical story and I told it to you a couple of years ago.  These are the words of another pastor, who is usually in our sanctuary on Good Fridays when he visits his daughter. [2]   He says, In a former church I served there was a woman whose life had been one tragic loss after another.  She was now a lonely widow...  She struggled against the pain of a debilitating disease, yet made it to church every Sunday.  She lived in a little converted garage.  She wore the same shoes and dress week after week to worship. I did not know the source of her income, yet when there was a special offering to be made in that church, or a special need presented, hers was often the first gift to be received.  ...  When we launched a building campaign to erect a sanctuary for the church, her pledge was the first to be received and we could not believe the amount that she had pledged.  I decided to call on her and discuss it because I thought she had overextended herself this time.  When I brought up the issue, this is what she said to me: “Every morning I sit at this little table and I sing, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ as a kind of benediction to this little place.  Then I ask God to help me live from the heart, to do what the heart tells me to do.  I have done that for many years, and although I have lost much and had to relinquish loved ones, my health, my home and most of my possessions, I have discovered that the only thing I cannot lose is what I give.  Please do not take that away from me! Donald, listen to your heart and you will know why I am giving what I am.  Receive what I want to give….

 

            Let me tell you, people like that make us preachers humble.

 

            But I hold her up to you - not as a saint - but as a teacher.  A wise teacher.  In the midst of her seeming poverty she was able to sit at her table and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty … all thy works shall praise they name in earth and sky and sea.” 

 

Blessed are the pure in heart, said Jesus. She was pure in heart – not fixed on what might be or might have been, but clear in her mind and her desires.  She wanted to give of her resources to build something of lasting value. 

 

Jesus didn’t tell his parable to help the church with a building campaign or with its annual budget.  He told it to illustrate the core spiritual principle of joyous satisfying living.  Give.  Share.  Invest.  Put your talents to work!

 

            Long ago Carol and I decided to let the Church be our broker – because we wanted to invest in love, invest in faith, invest in hope.  We invest through the church.

 

            Beyond the Church, what are the alternatives?  Where are the communities that point to God and sanction pursuit of meaning and trust as legitimate enterprises – that have material resources to assist in the search- that provide regular occasions for confession of failure – that renew and inspire – that provide settings where children are nurtured – where family members can be buried – where births can be celebrated – where social issues can be debated and where conviction and energy can be generated to work for a just society?  Several institutions deal with one or several of these areas, but historically, the Church has demonstrated its ability to energize all these activities. [3]

 

            Where else but the Church?

 

            The country preacher was checking up on a farmer in his congregation to see if he was willing to support the Lord’s work.  He visited the man on his farm and like good country preachers do, he worked beside him in the field, and as he worked he confronted the farmer with some very direct questions: “If you had two farms,” he asked, “would you be willing to give one to God?”  “Why certainly!” replied the farmer, “No question about it. I only wish I were in a position to do so.”  The minister then asked, “If you had $10,000, would you give $5,000 to the Lord?”  Without hesitation the man responded, “How I’d love to have that kind of money!  I’d enjoy giving generously like that.”  Then the preacher put this question to his friend: “If you had two pigs, would you give one to the church?”  The farmer hesitated for a moment and then blurted out, “That’s not fair, Pastor!  You know I’ve got two pigs!”

 

            And I know something of what you’ve got . . . and what you don’t got.  I don’t need the results of this week’s Mercury News survey to know that a good many of you are less well off than you were last year.  More than one of you is out of work and living off savings.  Many of you were living on savings that used to pay 6% interest or dividends and now pay 2% (if that).  Half a dozen of our key young families have moved out of state in the past 18 months.  I know these things because you have told me.  And I know them because they are reflected in our church budget.  We asked all the groups in the church to reduce their budgets by 10%.  The church’s paid staff are working without any increase in compensation this year – BUT we have laid off no staff.  That’s a top priority for me.  We have got an excellent staff, to cut back now would only mean a cut in programs, participation, and a reduced future.  We want to be READY when our local economy turns upward again!

 

            You have been generous over the past several years.  We were able to build a reserve.  We will dip into reserves this year to keep from laying off staff, or ignoring maintenance, or defaulting on our apportionments.  How much?  That depends on this fund-raiser.  We haven’t factored a fund-raiser into our budget for the past four or five years.  But this year we did.

 

            Right after the offering today we’ll take money out of that offering and give it back to you.  Everybody here gets a $10 bill.  Men, women, and children, visitors, members and non-members.  If you are here you get $10.  What you do with it is your choice, your responsibility, your opportunity.  It is a gift to you from your Church.  Let it remind you of the many gifts that God has given you.  You can spend it, keep it, bank it, give it away, put it under your pillow, or put it to use. Nobody will check up on you to see if you return it.  It’s a gift!  Like life!

 

            We hope that while you have it you’ll make it grow and then give all of it back.  (Parents: we hope you will take this opportunity to explain stewardship to your children.) 

 

You could add a dollar bill and give back $11.  You could add another $10 bill and give $20 back.  You could add $10 to the original every Saturday between now and the first week of June and give $70 back.  You could buy flour and bake bread and sell the fresh loaves on the patio after church next Sunday.  Yummm.  You could offer advice in whatever field you’re an expert in.  Youth Director Stephen Black and I will cook a dinner for all of you, one night here at the church, with karaoke singing afterward.  I can’t remember if you have to pay to sing or pay to make somebody else sing but we’ll probably do both!

 

            Every Sunday through the first Sunday in June we’ll announce what several people are doing and a complete list will be made available so let us know what you’re going to do.  You’ll see many of the projects on the patio after worship on Sundays.  Please plan to return your multiplied talents no later than our June 5 Church Conference (when we celebrate the people who give time and wisdom to church committees and leadership).

 

            Is this basically a fundraiser for the church?  Of course it is.  Can it be a spiritual exercise?  You bet!  Let it be a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.  Let it be an occasion to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty!”  Let it free you up from impure mind which is focused on what you don’t have instead of rejoicing in what you do have.  And we all have the opportunity to give. 

 

It’s as true in April as it is in November: Gratitude is riches; complaint is poverty. 

 



[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

[2] Donald Shelby, formerly of First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, CA.

[3] Thanks to Rev. Dr. William Stegall, United Methodist Church, Redding, CA.



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Christ in Disguise - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

                                  

“Christ in Disguise”
Rev. Bob Olmstead  

 “…but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,

  to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,

and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:40-41)

 

 “When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there,

but she did not know that it was Jesus.”   (John 20:14)

 

A first grade Sunday School teacher was talking to her class about Easter.  She asked them if they knew what Easter was about. Several eager hands shot up.  The first child said, “That’s when we put lights on the tree and give presents.” “No,” said the teacher, “That’s Christmas.”  Another child said, “I know. It’s when we go to the park and shoot off fireworks.” “That’s the Fourth of July,” the teacher answered. Finally the pastor’s kid raised his hand and the teacher breathed a sigh of relief. The boy said, “Easter is when we remember how Jesus was crucified and put in a tomb and a big stone put in front of it. And on Easter the stone is rolled away and Jesus comes out, and if he sees his shadow….” [1]  

 

How about it?  Did the risen Christ cast a shadow?

           

Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb.  It was nearby, sundown was approaching, and the rich man was a secret follower.  There was even a gardener.  On Easter morning grieving Mary looks full in the man’s face . . . and doesn’t recognize him.  She asks where they have taken the corpse.  Only when she hears him speak her name does she recognize the resurrected Christ. (John 20:11-18)

           

Two men walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus are joined by a third – a man they’ve never seen before.  The three discuss the Bible and recent events in Jerusalem.  When they reach Emmaus the stranger prepares to go on alone but they invite him to join them for supper.  After all that talk it is only when he breaks bread that they recognize the resurrected Christ.  (Luke 24:13-25)

           

Their leader gone, several of the disciples return to fishing. An economic necessity I suppose.  A stranger stands on the shore in the light of dawn and points, showing them where to let down their nets.  They bring in their catch.  The man cooks their breakfast there on the beach; they know in their hearts who it is but they wait for him to speak before acknowledging it.  (John 21:1-14)

           

Do you notice a pattern? The resurrected Christ appears as a gardener up early to prune the roses, as a vagabond on the road to Emmaus, as a lone figure on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias offering fishermen free advice. 

 

            What’s the lesson here? Christ is teaching his friends that he will be with them always - as he promised - but it will be in the world at large and in the faces of strangers. [2]

 

I have read that Rembrandt painted multiple renditions of the mysterious meal after the walk to Emmaus when two disciples realize they are entertaining the risen Christ.  As a young man Rembrandt painted the scene several times, using his fabulous ability to create dramatic lighting effects – infusing the entire scene with mystery and magic.  As Rembrandt matured he painted the scene yet again, but he abandoned the special lighting effects; there is only the awakening reflected in the eyes of the suddenly aware disciples.  In Rembrandt’s final painting of this event you see the single disciple’s dawning recognition glimmering in the light of one eye at the very moment a servant offers a plate of food to the guest and appears to see nothing remarkable about him. [3]

           

Christ will be with us always - as he promised - but it will be in the world at large and in the faces of strangers.  Some will see it; many will not.

 

To understand the resurrection we must stop pouring over the coroner’s report and focus instead on the gleam of recognition in a disciple’s eye.

 

The little boy in the story may have been onto something.  If you have ever been up to watch the dawn then you know that shadows are longest just as the light first appears.
           

Easter is the dawn of a new light on the horizon of history, and it makes the shadows appear all the longer.

 

September 11 still casts its long shadow. Some lost loved ones, some found their jobs impacted.  Most of us gulped down tears of compassion, fed for a while on stories of human heroism and then went on about our business.  What other options were there?

           

Well, imagine if your ‘business’ was being a comedian?  That’s how Jon Stewart makes his living.  He’s a comedian.  That’s how he puts bread on the table.  I preach sermons; he makes people laugh.  What was he supposed to do in the days and weeks following September 11?  That question makes for a fascinating article in a recent New Yorker magazine.

           

He reflects on when it felt OK for people to laugh again.  He ponders how he felt making people laugh.  He ruminates about the role of laughter in a tragic world.  Jon Stewart, comedian, nine days after September 11, gave one of the finest sermons you will ever hear.  He appeared on TV, the camera focused on him sitting at his desk, his hands fiddling with a pen.  He explained that he was there because “they said to get back to work.  And there were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position, under his desk, crying, which I gladly would have taken.”  Then tears came to the comedian’s eyes and he said I’m here because “I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair.” [4] With that his voice broke and he had to pause for several seconds to compose himself.

           

I had to put down the magazine at that point.  “Easter!” I thought.  “Easter!  This Jewish comedian is talking about Easter!”

 

“I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair.”

 

Easter is not about daffodils.  It’s not about rabbits.  It’s not about ladies’ hats though I love them and would gladly encourage their wider use.  Easter is not about botany and the return of spring.  It’s autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and the days are getting cold and short.  But today is still Easter!

 

This year I found Maundy Thursday and Good Friday easier than today - Easter.  Because I am sad . . . I am profoundly sad about the state of the world and the rumors of war and renewed talk of nuclear bombs and news of priests preying on altar boys and the blunt fact of 130,000,000 hungry children.  The mood of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday matched my sadness, but Easter has come and “I want to tell you why I grieve, but why I do not despair.”

 

It’s because the light of Christ dawns over the horizon of our sad human history, and it is the beginning of a new day . . . for those willing to see.

 

When will the sun burst above the trees and all the dark places be brightened?  That’s not for you and me to know.

 

For you and me the Easter question is whether we will live in the shadow of death or the shadow of Christ.

 

It makes all the difference.

 

Palestinians and Israelis alike have chosen the shadow of death, each convinced that only violence will guarantee them the security and freedom they crave.  But I think of Sandy Olewine, a United Methodist missionary in Bethlehem, celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion this past Thursday night, just as a suicide bomber detonated an explosion killing 28 people who were at their Passover meal.  Sandy got up the next day and went to her task of teaching Palestinian children in a school that has been shelled by Israeli tanks.

 

Does she live in the shadow of death?  No, she lives in the shadow of Christ.

 

And so can we.

 

Teen-agers can turn to drugs or turn to family and friends: the shadow of death or the shadow of Christ.

 

Families can turn on TV or practice playing with each other: the shadow of death or the shadow of Christ.

 

Elders can remember how wonderful things used to be or work for the future that ought to be: the shadow of death or the shadow of Christ.

 

Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb and told the disciples, "I have seen the Lord.”  We who live in later times probably have not seen the risen Jesus, but we have seen his shadow.  And in that shadow there is such life that though we grieve, we need never despair.



[1] Thanks to Rev. Ronald Parker, Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, California.

[2] Ron Hanson, A Stay Against Confusion

[3] Ronald Goetz, Picture a Vanishing, The Christian Century, April 18, 1990.

[4] The New Yorker, February 11, 2002



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The Life of Jesus - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

The Life of Jesus
Rev. Bob Olmstead with supporting cast of children, parents and teachers

Matthew 21:6-9


(The Chancel was filled with gourds and vegetables and bolts of fabric and clay jars and vendors and their stalls.  A sign announced it as the Bethany marketplace.  It was filled with costumed people. The children sat on the floor in the front and each of the costumed ‘characters’ who came forward to speak spoke directly to them and also gave them something to touch: bread dough, copper coins, mud, etc.)

 

“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”  (Matthew 21:6-9)

 

            Long ago and far away, in a little land that seemed important to nobody but the people who lived there, an angel came to a young woman and said, “You will have a baby . . . and you shall name him ‘Jesus’.”

            Now ‘Jesus’ was a common name in those days, sort of like ‘Joe’ or ‘Jimmy’. It happened just like the angel said.  Mary had a baby and she named him ‘Jesus’.

            His daddy was a carpenter and in those days people lived wherever daddy worked.  So maybe Jesus helped his daddy carry wood.  I’ll bet his daddy talked to him and his mommy sang to him.

            And he grew bigger – Jesus did.  He grew up.  He grew up to be a young man.  His daddy said I want you to be a carpenter just like me.  And his mommy said I want you to be carpenter just like your daddy.  And all the people in the village said you are the oldest boy; you have to stay and take care of your parents when they get old and we will pay you to build tables and chairs for us.

            But God talked to Jesus and said I have something else in mind for you.  Come away with me and learn.  So when Jesus was about the age your brothers and sisters go to college, Jesus went away.  We don’t know where.  But he was gone a long time.  Ten years or more.

            When he came back he went straight to his cousin, John, and Jesus said, “I want you to baptize me.”  And he waded right out into the shallow river – the River Jordan – to be baptized by his cousin John.

 

 

MARY:

(Mary is making bread, punching down the dough and then kneading it, as she speaks to the children. She makes gestures with a floury hand.)

That’s my son, my boy Jesus, that people are talking about in the marketplace! He’s pretty amazing. All of my children are amazing, but Jesus is the one who is so sure of himself and what he’s here for. When he was a baby we didn’t live here. My husband had a dream that warned us that Jesus’ life was in danger and so we left the country. Some wealthy men came to see us; they said they’d followed a star that hung in the sky over our house! Can you imagine that? They brought presents for Jesus. I’ve saved all of them; well, the myrrh and the frankincense and most of the gold. Some of the gold we used to buy Joseph’s carpentry shop. The gold was a welcome gift, I’ll tell you. The frankincense and myrrh – well, I didn’t really know what to do with those gifts – they’re used as perfume for the dead. I just put them away.

Sometimes I’m afraid for my son. The things he says about God, and what he teaches his followers, makes the elders in the temple really angry. Lots of people listen to Jesus; why, people love to hear his stories much more than the lessons taught in the synagogue! You can see why the priests don’t really like Jesus. The priests are always telling us what we do wrong, what sinners we all are, how our actions aren’t pleasing to God, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. But Jesus! He tells us all how much God loves us, that we are each the apple of God’s eye, that more than anything God wants us to love God and each other!

I guess you can tell that I love my son! And it seems to me that lots of other people love Jesus too!

(Maybe Mary offers to let the children take a turn kneading the dough; or she sees something off-stage that she needs to go tend to; or she tells the children that she must finish her baking for the Passover celebration.)

 

 

            Jesus said to himself, I thank my mother and my father for keeping me safe and giving me a home, but God gave me my name and I must do what God wants me to do.

            He turned to some fishermen and he said would you like to catch people instead of fish?  And they said “Sure!”  And he met a tax collector and he said would you like to help me? Matthew said “I think I would!”  He talked to some women and he said would you like to be a part of our group?  And they said, “We would like that very much.”  And he came upon a some other people and invited them to join up and they said, “Good idea!  But first we have to take care of this other stuff.”  And Jesus said, Sorry, there will always be ‘other stuff’.  God’s stuff can’t wait.

            And everywhere Jesus and his friends went, people came out to hear him.  There were no schools big enough.  So the people had to sit outdoors on the ground, on the hillsides and beside a lake.

 

 

NICODEMUS:

Children come here! My name is Nicodemus. I am a Pharisee, which means I am a rabbi, a teacher who teaches and interprets the Law of Israel. Here’s my Law book (opens and holds up the Torah). We call it the Torah, which means Law. It’s written in the Hebrew language. See (shows the open Torah with the Hebrew script).
Well, it’s almost time for Passover. He’ll probably be back again. Jesus, I mean. I call him “rabbi,” because he’s good teacher. A GREAT teacher, in fact. But I worry about him. He’s been to Jerusalem for the last two Passovers. Neither time did he make a very good impression. The first time he came and turned over the moneychangers’ tables at the temple and talked about destroying the temple so he could raise it up. That sure did not please my friends on the high court. But that’s when he got my attention. I went to him to ask him about the wonderful things he was doing, like changing water into wine at a wedding feast for a poor family who had run out of wine for their guests. We had a great conversation about God, and God’s love. I’m an old Pharisee, and I learned a lot from him.
The second time he came for Passover, last year, he taught in the temple. It was a bold move. Some of my friends on the high court already wanted to kill him the previous year during that money changers episode. Then he started accusing them of not following the Law. Then the crowd started saying that Jesus was the promised Messiah. This made my friends on the high court really angry. They wanted to kill him and even planned to arrest him. I reminded them that if we arrested him we had to give him a fair trail, according to our Law (holds up the Torah). He hadn’t really broken any law. But they had already made up their minds. Fortunately, Jesus got away before they could do it.
Now it’s almost Passover again. Jesus is bound to be back. It will be good to see him again, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.

 

            Jesus didn’t just tell people about God’s love – he touched them with it.  He touched their babies and blessed them.  He touched their sore spots and healed them.  He touched their hurts until they were happy again.

            People said he could do miracles.  Jesus said this is what God is like.  Health and hope and joy and peace.  He said, really God is very close, not very far away at all.  He said don’t look to power to feel the will of God.  Because God is in you.  In the little ones.  In the poor ones.  In the ones who hunger and thirst and grieve and live peacefully with their neighbors.  All their neighbors!  Not just the neighbors who look and sound like them.

 

 

LAD:

(Motioning to the children) Hey come see! (showing the basketful of leftover bread and fish fragments) Look at all this leftover bread. Would you believe that this is the leftovers of five loaves of bread and two fish?! Guess how many people were fed? (lets children make a couple of guesses) Over 5,000!
My parents gave me a few dollars to go to the marketplace to buy bread and fish for dinner. I bought them alright. But as I was leaving to go home, I saw all these people gathering around, saying “It’s him! It’s him!” I got closer; it was Jesus with his disciples.” I was so excited. I had heard about how Jesus healed people and taught. And there he was, heading up this hill outside our town. Everyone was following; I followed too, with my bread and fish.
As we went up the hill, I managed to squeeze in next to one of his disciples, Andrew. We were all so excited to see Jesus that we forgot it was getting to be lunchtime. But nobody wanted to leave. Andrew told Jesus that I had five loaves and two fish. Jesus told everyone to sit down. I thought, “Oh, NO WAY are we going to be able to have a picnic of 5,000 people with my piddly little loaves and fish.” But I was happy to give them to Jesus. Jesus took them, prayed and then gave them to everyone else in the crowd. Everybody took some. As much as they wanted. And then the disciples gathered up these leftovers. I guess we were all so happy to be with Jesus that our hunger was filled. (pause; then offering to the children) Here, have some!

 

            Why wasn’t everybody happy?  Jesus healed the sick.  He fed the hungry.  He taught everybody who would listen how to behave.  What’s not to like?

            Well, he broke some of the rules.  These were unfair rules.  They made it possible for the people who were UP, to keep other people DOWN.  The rules favored the rich, and the educated, and the proper people.  They were pretty strict.  And Jesus wasn’t strict – except about love.  And forgiveness.

            So he just kind of ignored the politicians and the preachers and the soldiers.

 

 

JUDAS:

(counting copper coins  - pennies)

27 . . . 28 . . . 29 . . . 30!

The offerings are getting bigger and bigger. That’s good!  It’s more and more that we can give to the poor.

But when is Jesus going to DO something – instead of just talk?!

He says the Kingdom of God is very near.  Well isn’t it time to bring it into being?  Why can’t we push harder?  Is he for real or just another impractical dreamer?

I’m really disappointed.  I thought Jesus would get things done!  But nothing has changed.  Nothing has changed!

I’ll think it’s time to take things into my own hands.  If I can get the authorities to over-react then Jesus will have to PUT HIS MONEY WHERE HIS MOUTH IS.

The authorities are afraid of the crowds who follow him around . . . but if I were to INFORM them about when Jesus will be alone, and unprotected . . .

Yessssss . . . I think that’s what I’ll do.  And in the process I can get some MORE  [holds up the bag of coins] to add to this!

[ Judas gives each of the children a penny ]

 

 

            It’s amazing how many lives he touched.  He went from village to village.  He was available to everyone who wanted him.  He told the people parables about the kingdom of God.  And sometimes he was very very tired.

            He would go off alone - into the hills - to pray.  He needed that.  When they couldn’t walk from village to village they sometimes took a boat. And Jesus would lie down on the bottom of the boat and go to sleep.  He was that tired.  Unless his friends woke him up because they needed him – to calm an angry storm.  Even the wind and water seemed to obey his voice.

            Increasingly people said, this man is the Son of God.

 

 

Susanna:            Come over here, children and we will share living water with you.  I am Susanna, a friend of Jesus.

 

Mary:              And I am Mary, called Magdalene.

 

Joanna:              And I am Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward.

 

Susanna:            We are some of the women who also follow Jesus.  We walk with him as he travels through cities and villages telling others about the good news of the kingdom of God.  A kingdom where all of us matter whether you are poor or rich, sick or well, whether you’re a woman, man, or even a child.  Jesus teaches us that God truly loves each one of us.

 

Joanna:            And that God has compassion for us.  I once saw Jesus heal a man with a withered hand.  He hold him to “stretch out your hand” and that hand was restored.  Restored!  I had never seen anything like that before.  Jesus healed many people.

 

Mary:                          And he healed me.  I didn’t like my life.  I was angry at those who hurt me, who called me names, who treated me as if I were a leper—sick, sinful, someone to hide from.  No one would come near me.  No one called me “friend.”  One day I heard a new young rabbi teaching in this marketplace.  He called those of us who are poor, hungry, grieving, those of us who were hated by others—he called us “blessed.”  Blessed.  No one had ever called ME blessed.  But I felt blessed when I heard him right then.  A dam broke inside my heart.  And all that I hated about myself, about God, and about all the people in this village was gone—washed away.  Something new was born in me—a desire to love God and a longing to serve others.  I became a follower before night fell.

 

Joanna:              Yes, his message of abundant life is living water to a thirsty soul.  But my sisters, I worry.  The temple leaders look more and more angry with Jesus as they watch the number of his followers like us grow day by day.  Surely that is not a good sign.  Is trouble on its way to us?

 

Susanna:            Joanna, we aren’t called to live out of fear.  Jesus invited us to live out of love for all, including our enemies if they are such.  We can’t worry what the religious authorities will do.  Children, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this:  Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what Jesus is trying to get us to understand.

 

(then pass around the water jars for the children to touch.)

 

 

            Jesus taught like this for three years.  His will was so close to God’s will that whatever Jesus did was God doing it. And if we look real close at what Jesus did we can see what God does.

            Why wouldn’t everybody love that?! Well, some people want to go their own way, not God’s way. And they want to make other people go their way too.  They want to be in control.

            God told Jesus you’re going to have to face up to that.  Not everybody loves you.  But don’t turn your back on them. I’m sending you to Jerusalem.  And when the people who have hate in their hearts come after you, you act exactly as you have been teaching people to act.

            Turn the other cheek.

            Give away your coat and cloak.

            Forgive them seventy times seven times.

            So Jesus packed up his bags – there wasn’t very much really; he traveled lightly – and headed for Jerusalem.  Great crowds turned out to see him.  They lined the roads.  Even so he was able to hear the one voice, the voice of the one who needed him most.  “Jesus”! the voice shouted.  “Jesus – over here!  Come to me!”  And Jesus interrupted the important business he was on to find the one who was calling for him.  It was a beggar beside the road.  A blind beggar.

 

 

BARTIMAEUS

 

(Looking eagerly around)

Wow!

Look at that!

Look at this!

It’s a tree . . . I know it is.  And this is a bug.  I used to feel them but now I can see them!

What a miracle!

People told me he was coming to Jerusalem, so I stood beside the road.  I called out his name: Jesus!  Jesus!  And he heard me.  He came to me!
He asked me if I want to see.  Well, of course, I want to see.  He put something warm and sticky on my eyes.  He said my faith made me whole.  And everything became clear to me.

I can see YOU (looking at the children).  I can see each one of you.  You are all different.  And yet you are all children of God.  Just like me!

I needed a miracle.  And I called out to Jesus . . . and he came.  He came to me.

And he gave me what I need.  He gave me sight!

(He has mud for the children to put their hands in.)

 

 

            Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Jesus had stopped there?  He was surrounded by people who loved him, people who needed him, and people whose lives were better because of him.

But remember when his daddy said I want you to be a carpenter just like me?  And his mommy said I want you to be carpenter just like your daddy?  And all the people in the village said we want you to build tables and chairs for us?  Jesus heard another voice.  God talked to Jesus and said I have something else in mind for you.  That was still true.  So Jesus kept going.  He was on his way to Jerusalem.  That’s where we shall meet him today! 

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

During the children’s anthem, Jesus entered.

Youth lifted him to their shoulders and carried him out of the sanctuary.

The congregation followed with palm branches.

A donkey (a horse really) was waiting on the patio.

Jesus was lifted up on a horse and was led through the city streets with children waving palms and the congregation following.



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A LENT MIDRASH: Lazarus! Come Forth! - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

A LENT MIDRASH
Lazarus! Come Forth!
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)

 

“When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

(John 11:43-44)


 

          A computer chose the words and image on the front cover of today’s worship bulletin. You type in a Bible reference – John 11 for instance – and the computer generates a picture with a quotation from that chapter.  I wondered for a while if I should leave it there.  “I am the resurrection and the life” superimposed on the image of an empty tomb.  Isn’t that more appropriate for Easter, not now, mired as we are in the middle of Lent, all ‘alleluias’ excised from our worship services?

 

            The empty tomb on today’s bulletin cover belongs to Lazarus, who experienced resurrection, just a few days before Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered into the dramatic events culminating in another empty tomb, the one we celebrate on Easter.

 

            Is the story of Lazarus any less startling than the Easter story?  A man dead long enough to smell, summoned from the grave to live some more!  How much longer did he live, by the way?  It doesn’t say.  There are scattered reports of Jesus’ resurrection appearances before he ascended into heaven forty days later.  But what happened to Lazarus after his resurrection?  Did he live another forty days or another forty years?  There is only one more mention of Lazarus: he helped his sisters set the table when Jesus stopped by for a meal on his final trip to Jerusalem.

 

            What do you suppose Lazarus did with the years tacked on to a life once over and done with . . . and then jumped started all over again?  That is what I propose to tell you.

 

            John says that Lazarus had to watch out for those who wanted to kill him all over again.  But that’s John’s story, not Lazarus’.  Lazarus had first to get away from all the agents who offered him book contracts and movie rights if he would tell his story.  He had to extricate himself from evangelists asking him to stand and testify, and from merchants wanting to market Lazarus bobble-head dolls and coffee mugs and pot-holders with an image of him striding out of the tomb with grave cloths streaming from his arms and legs.  Artists conjured up images of his face, sometimes deathly green, sometimes glowing.  People wanted to touch him, as if he were a magic amulet.

 

            A reporter from Jerusalem News shoved a microphone in his face and asked – inevitably – “How do you feel now that you have been raised from the dead?”  And Lazarus looked the reporter and the camera dead in the eye and said . . . nothing.  The awful silence of one who knows the answers – but must wait for us to figure out the questions.

 

            Later that night the evening news broadcast live from an empty tomb, reporting breathlessly that a man – named Lazarus, believed dead - had come back to life.  Neighbors were interviewed.  They said that Bethany was a quiet neighborhood and they certainly never expected anything like this to happen here.  Magazine writers followed up in depth; they reported that Mary was considered quiet and religious, while Martha was a real cracker-jack who sold Girl Scout cookies, cooked dinners for the synagogue women’s society, and could always be counted on as a fourth at canasta. But Lazarus, well, nobody remembered him all that much, neither before nor after his resurrection from the dead.  Went to work every day.  Minded his own business.  Did what was expected of him.  All in all it was kind of an odd household, now that they thought about it: a brother and two sisters, none married, all living together, enough wealth to entertain occasional guests.  But no trouble ever.  Not even when they entertained the country rabbi from Galilee or Bethlehem or some out of the way place like that.  He’d come through with about a dozen students of his and Martha and Mary would put them all up, feed them and everything.  At least Martha would.  Mary never was one to spend much time in the kitchen.  Then Lazarus came down with that terrible fever.  Never did know what it was and they buried him right quick after he died.  Seems like the sisters took it awful hard. 

 

The Jews believe that a dead man’s spirit hung around for three days before departing and it was a full four days before Jesus showed up.  Those who followed Jesus to the graveyard that day say that he looked up to heaven and seemed to utter a prayer; then he shouted “Lazarus!  You come out!” 

           

And he did.  But except for that one dinner party when Jesus and his students came back days later, nobody’s seen Lazarus since.

 

+ + + + + + +

 

            Lazarus was in the back room of the house he shared with Mary and Martha.  Martha could not stop fussing over him, bringing him soup, or tea, asking if he was warm enough, urging him to eat.  Mary crept in asking her interminable questions: What was it like? What did you see? Were your afraid? Is there a God? Did our parents come to meet you?

 

            Finally Lazarus shut the door on both of them.  He wasn’t hungry and he couldn’t answer Mary’s questions.  He needed time to himself.  What had happened?  What could he remember?  It was all receding so fast.

 

            Yes, there was light.  But it wasn’t light at the end of a tunnel and it wasn’t a light he could look at.  It was much too bright for that.  Its source was hidden in the light itself.  But when he turned to look back he saw everything differently with this light cast on it.

 

            He realized he could see things as God sees them.

 

            And there was a sound; it filled his head and drowned out all other sound.  It was not the sound of a heavenly host praising God as he had been led to expect.  It was a sound that infused him with deep sadness.  It was the sound of weeping.  It filled the universe. And yet it seemed to come from a specific spot, a place, a person, not in heaven, but back on earth, from a man standing before the sealed entrance to a tomb.  He recognized the man, the man was Jesus.  Jesus was weeping for him, and the sound that came from Jesus’ mouth came simultaneously from all corners of the universe at once.  Lazarus understood then that he was hearing God.

 

            Lazarus could see Jesus standing there at that moment in time and he could see all that would happen next.  He could see as God sees.  Past, present, future – all were one.  All were experienced at once.  He saw the second empty tomb, the one from which Jesus rose.  He saw his land a generation hence; his people gone, dispersed by the Romans, never to return for nineteen centuries.  He saw the wars that scarred those centuries, he saw babies crying for milk, he saw six million of his descendants die in flames, he saw their descendants desecrate their memory by branding tattoos on the arms of Palestinians who had come to tend the orchards around Bethany.

 

            And the weeping went on and on until Jesus suddenly shouted his name and commanded him to “Come forth!”  Lazarus was startled, confused, fearful and perplexed but he hurried to obey.  And now he was alive again.  What was expected of him now that he had seen what he had seen?  Jesus offered him no clue, not even when he returned for an evening meal a few days later.

 

            So Lazarus kept to his room until he could puzzle things out.

 

            First and most obvious: he was still very much himself. He wasn’t given a new life; he was given his old life back again.

 

            But he had briefly seen things as God sees them.  And he had heard that sound – the sound of God weeping - filling the universe.  The sound still echoed in Lazarus’ ears and it threatened to undo him.

 

            He could not leave the room until he dealt with the sound, the sound of God sobbing.

 

            Lazarus had never been especially good with words.  Martha was the talker in the family.  Lazarus had never been particularly spiritual.  That was Mary.  She sensed things he never saw despite his dutiful attendance at synagogue and temple.

 

            Lazarus was who he was and it slowly came clear to him that he was intended to be that person.  To claim his own gifts, not clamor for another set.  To be dependable, steady, loyal and faithful. He had already been to heaven and back and that’s still who he was.

 

            He came out of the back bedroom and resumed his job.  The family needed his income.  But whenever he came close to tears he sensed God nearby.  The tears could be his own or those of another, in all of them he heard the echo of God.  Like so many men Lazarus had always been uncomfortable around tears.  He seldom gave in to his own and the tears of others made him feel that he should do something but he never knew what to do.

 

            Having heard God weep Lazarus was no longer frightened or ashamed of tears.  He wept for joy when he heard children laughing.  He wept in grief when he saw them suffer.  He wept for joy at the sound of crickets.  He wept in sadness when the Roman legions trampled the earth to dust.  Given the chance to pat a neighbor on the shoulder, he would weep for joy.  He wept in sadness when he saw the future.

 

            He still said little, except the usual pleasantries with people at work. 

 

But now he understood the silence of God, the silence of one who knows the answers – but must wait for us to figure out the questions.

 



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A LENT MIDRASH - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

A LENT MIDRASH
The Insatiable Thirst
Rev. Bob Olmstead  

“The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”  (John 4:15)

[ read John 4:5-42 ]


            The story of the woman at the well is much too dazzling for those of us with health and happiness.  The woman at the well was in darkness and despair and that enabled her to see.

           

So I would ask you to turn away from Jesus’ words of “living water” and bread that brings an end to hunger.  Focus instead on the trivial - the insignificant details of the story – that John throws in to set the scene in time and place. 

 

She came to the well at “the sixth hour” is what it says.  From what know of telling time in Bible days that made it noon.  She came to the well at noon.  Good wives and daughters were hard at work in their homes at noon.  They drew water from the well at daybreak and again at dusk.  Their men would expect fresh water for their washing and the day’s first meal.  She came to the well at noon. 

           

And she came to the well alone.  Palestinian women were never seen alone outside their houses.  Women always went to the well together to gossip, to commiserate, to enjoy the companionship that first century marriage didn’t offer. They came to the well for water and for words.  The water came up from deep within the earth; it had for generations, since “Jacob’s time” some said.  The words flowed out of women’s hearts and women’s experiences: shared histories of betrothal, marriage, childbirth, and the endless daily tasks with which a woman’s life was filled in first century Palestine.  Each day began and ended with a sociable women’s time around the well.

 

            What do these details tell us about this particular woman: she came to the well at noon and she came alone?

+ + + + + + + +

 

            She arrived to find a man already sitting there. Propriety called for her to cover her face. Propriety required her to draw water for the man when he rather rudely said, “Give me a drink”.  Propriety demanded that she then leave quickly, not strike up a conversation with a stranger, a man not of her village, a Jew, who just happened to be sitting there as if waiting for her.

 

            It was noon.  The woman was alone.  And she was brazen.

 

            Pay no attention to what Jesus said.  Listen only to the woman’s words.  She calls him “Jew”.  Was their venom in her tone? Sarcasm perhaps?  Or merely the cynicism of having seen life and known prejudice and the insurmountable barriers between people?  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

 

            And in response he calls himself a “gift from God”.  How many times had she heard that line before? From how many men?  Once, when young, when too young to know better, she thought men were gifts from God.  A man would provide the satisfaction she was searching for.  Five marriages had taught her differently.  Five marriages and now living with another, no better than the first five, but someone to hold her tight if he wasn’t holding someone else, someone to occupy the otherwise empty spaces of the house, someone to distract her from the hollowness of her days and nights.

 

            Don’t watch Jesus as he says what he says; look at the woman’s eyes.  They are the eyes of a woman who has had five failed marriages, each more disappointing than the last.  They are the eyes of a woman who comes to the well at noon because the other women shun her and shut her out of the morning and evening conversations.  They are the eyes of a woman too shamed to be ashamed of talking to a strange man in the noonday sun.

 

            Jesus speaks.  Pay no attention to what he says.  “Living water” is a mystery too deep for us to comprehend, we who have our health and our happiness.  Instead, notice the change in the woman’s tone when she responds.  He is no longer just “a Jew”, she calls him “sir” and says half-mockingly (but only half mockingly), “Sir, how will you get this water; you have no bucket, and the well is deep?”  And after Jesus says again what he has to say, the woman says simply, “Sir, give me [whatever it is you’re offering].”

 

            We can pass over the theological debate they entered into then.  Suffice it to say that a Samaritan female and a Jewish rabbi holding any kind of debate – much less theological – would have brought stares and stammers from anybody out in the noonday sun to see.  Which nobody was.  Except for the disciples who had hurried on to the nearest city looking for a fast food store where they could hustle up some lunch.  When they come back to find their rabbi comparing notes with a Samaritan – a Samaritan woman - on the relative merits of worshipping in Jerusalem or on Mount Nebo they nearly drop their Krispy Kremes.  Ignoring the woman - as any proper man would do - they offer the food to Jesus and urge him to eat so they can get back on the road and out of this foreign and unfamiliar territory. Jesus refuses the food.  He speaks, but pay no attention to what he says to the men.  Observe only the trivial details.

 

            The woman gets up to leave.  She leaves.  She leaves her water jar behind.  It cannot be the rudeness of the returning disciples that has driven her off.  She plans to return.  She leaves her water jar behind!  And when she comes back she brings others with her.  Other women who are practiced at giving her the cold-shoulder, at pretending she doesn’t exist.  Other women who do not welcome her to their morning and evening gabfests now return to the well with her at noon.  Why?  What – did – she - say - to them to make them abandon decorum and embarrassment and risk the wrath of their menfolk for leaving home and women’s work to rush to Jacob’s well in the glaring noonday sun?

 

It was not anything she said.  It was something they saw in her eyes.  A light, a sparkle that wasn’t there before.  It was something they heard in the lilt of her voice, an eagerness transcending the familiar words she used.  She told them nothing of what Jesus said.  Curious, isn’t it?  She told them nothing of what Jesus said!  Only that he “knew everything about her.”  They saw it in her face, her manner.  She had been known in a way she had never been known before, seen at a depth that surprised even her, loved in a way that made her comfortable in her own skin – no matter what others thought.

 

            They could see that she was changed and they wanted some of that good stuff for themselves.

 

            SO WHAT DID JESUS SAY to bring all that about?

 

            I have no idea what Jesus has to say to you.  All I can do is repeat what that woman told the others: “Come to the well and meet this man for yourself.”



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A LENT MIDRASH: Playing Second Fiddle - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

A LENT MIDRASH
Playing Second Fiddle
Rev. Bob Olmstead

“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him;

and Lot went with him.” (Genesis 12:4a)

 

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”  (Romans 4:13)


 

            He was only 26 when his uncle came and said, “We’re leaving; pack up your things.”  He reasoned with the older man, he protested, but in the end he went.  Lot never did understand.

           

His Uncle Abram’s flocks spread through the lush pastureland surrounding Ur.  The old man was prosperous but he had no sons; that was why he showered such wealth on a nephew.  And that was why Lot ultimately packed up and left with him.  He was the closest to a son Abram had, and his own prosperity depended on the old man’s generosity.

 

            His Aunt Sarai displayed her fiery temper when told that she should pack up to move. She had a sharp tongue but with great grumbling she followed her husband.

 

            Little did Lot know where their travels would take them nor how long they would last.  Little did Lot understand that his Uncle Abram held daily conversations with a strange new God.  Little did Lot realize that he would have to tend the flocks, make peace with the neighbors, and support his own growing family, while Uncle Abram would change his name to Abraham, spend decades leading family and flocks through desert wastes and Egyptian adventures, driving his wife to distraction with promises of a pregnancy long after she too old to conceive.

 

            When Abraham fathered a son with his concubine, Hagar, Lot saw the handwriting on the wall.  He was a nephew and no matter how dependable, it was the son in line for the inheritance.  And when Sarah herself gave birth, Lot knew the die was cast.  He might not be outcast like Ishmael, the concubine’s son, but he was now just hired help. 

 

            So he accepted Abraham’s offer to divide up the land where they were camping.  Possession was more than two thirds of the law in those days – it was the law!  The new neighbors were not all that friendly, but neither could they compete with Lot’s wealth if he kept half the flocks.  If Uncle Abraham, as he now called himself, decided to pack up and move yet again, Lot would stay.  This place was as good as any.  God never troubled Lot’s dreams.  He would settle down, tend his flocks, enjoy his wife and daughters and let them have the peace and security of a home.  Sodom was a bit wild for his taste, but his wife enjoyed its cosmopolitan attractions and with his new wealth Lot could arrange prosperous marriages for his daughters. 

 

            Uncle Abraham was a dreamer, a visionary.  Lot was a citizen – responsible, stable, reliable.  Had there been a church Lot probably would have joined, serving on committees and ushering on Sundays. Lot was the kind of man who coaches his daughters’ soccer team on Saturday mornings and chairs the outreach committee for the Rotary Club.

 

            And when their story gets told, whether in the book of Genesis or later in the New Testament, Abraham is the hero and Lot is the footnote, the tag-along, forever playing second fiddle.

 

            Which one are you the more like?  Abraham or Lot?  Abraham pushed the limits.  His faith in God was boundless. Through Abraham and his inheritance came a whole new understanding of our relationship to the eternal mystery we know by the name of “God”.  Lot settled in and settled down.  He was a good man, generous with his friends, cautious with his retirement funds, hard working and dependable.  He voted in every election and contributed regularly to United Way.

 

            Saint Paul lifts up Abraham as having such faith that he was saved without ever knowing Christ.  Of Lot St. Paul says nothing.  He was second fiddle.

 

            When a conductor of one of the great symphonies was asked to name the instrument he thought was the most difficult to play, he replied, “second fiddle.  I can get plenty of first violinists.  But to find one who can play second fiddle with enthusiasm is often a problem.  And if we have no second fiddles, there is no harmony and no symphony.”

 

            The Gospels tell us that only three disciples were invited to the mountaintop with Jesus.  The other nine remained in the valley.  Mystical revelations, mountaintop experiences, and dramatic calls to epic adventures like Abraham’s are by invitation only and most of us don’t get invited.

 

            A parishioner complained about the pastor’s constant harping on the theme of “drawing nigh unto God.”  She confessed that “I don’t want to get close to God.  I just want to get over in a corner and sneak into heaven quietly.  I don’t want to be a saint…” 

            “I cannot believe what I’m hearing,” the pastor exclaimed.

            “I can explain it easily,” she said calmly.  “When I started the ninth grade I set my heart on finishing high school with straight C’s.  And I did.  You see, if you fail you have to repeat and I wanted out.  But if you start making A’s people begin to expect things of you.  And it’s exactly like that with God.  If you’re too bad you’ll go to hell, and I don’t want that.  But if you’re too good, he’ll send you to India, and I don’t want that either.”

 

            Her confusion sprang from a twisted concept of who God is and how God acts.  She was on the right track by complaining about preaching that constantly compares us to the saints. No wonder we feel like C-class Christians!

 

            Jesus’ words, “I am the door: if anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9) is a problem for all those trying to enter through the wrong door.  Many Christians think they have to get in through the “Saints’ Door”.  And according to Oxford’s most recent edition of the Dictionary of Saints (1987), there are only 10,000 who ever got in that way.  The rest of us have to get in through the “Sinners’ Door”.

This is the door that Jesus holds open for us!  This is what it means to be saved by faith.

 

            If our calling is to family life, if our calling is to the ordinary responsibilities of good citizenship, if our calling is to play second fiddle to those who live on the horizons of the future, that does not mean we live any less in the presence of God.

 

            St. Francis de Sales said “doing little things with a strong desire to please God makes them really great.”

 

            Centuries ago, on the harsh coast of Scotland, a Celtic Christian convert, up well before dawn, would splash three handfuls of water over her face, saying: “the palmful of the God of life; the palmful of the Christ of love; the palmful of the Spirit of Peace; Triune of Grace.”  When she turned from this Trinitarian awakening to build a cooking fire in the family hearth, she would say, “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven.” [1]

 

            Such prayer recognizes the critical feature of playing second fiddle: all those ordinary tasks are done in the presence of God.  They are important.  At my father’s memorial service I quoted a phrase of St. Bonaventure: “A constant fidelity in little things is a great and heroic virtue.” That is a crucial thing for us second fiddlers to know.  All the seemingly ordinary things we do are done in the presence of God. “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven.”

 

            In the final lines of the Victorian novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot describes the effects of Dorothea’s life as noble, “though they were not widely visible”:

            “…the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

 

            The tragedy of Lot’s story is that he wasn’t ready when more was required of him.

 

            It seems God needed someone in the city of Sodom to provide hospitality for two angels who were out and about on God’s business.  Lot’s spiritual muscle had grown flabby. Lot thought only Uncle Abraham heard God’s call to fields of service and activity.  He couldn’t believe that after all these years, now that he was finally comfortably settled, he would be required to leave all that behind.  In a plot turn rated ‘R’ for excessive violence and explicit sexual scenes, Lot’s life ends in disgrace.  But strangely, the Bible lets us know, God’s transforms Lot’s disgrace into salvation for God’s people.  Will wonders never cease!

 

            The sight of airliners flying into the World Trade Towers reminded us that life is unpredictable – even in America.  Testimony after testimony has shown how “common and ordinary” people can rise to heroic action when it is required.  Police and firefighters were running up the stairs as the Towers collapsed.  We hardly know their names, these common heroes.  But don’t forget, these were disciplined men and women who prepared over and over again for moments like those.

 

            When we attend church regularly . . . when we engage in daily prayer and Bible reading . . . when we choose our friends from among those of our church community . . . we are practicing for the moments when more will be required of us than we ever really expected. For some of us it will be the response to a life-threatening illness.  For some of us it will be the moment we realize we work for a company whose accounting practices are irresponsible or illegal.  For some of us it will come when a call to arms is issued, or disaster destroys our home.  For some of us . . . well, I can’t predict what life will require of you.  Maybe it will ask you to continue playing second fiddle – with enthusiasm.

 

            Never forget: a constant fidelity in little things is a great and heroic virtue.    



[1] Esther de Waal, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary”, Weavings, Vol. ii, No. 3, May/June, 1987.

 



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LENT MIDRASH:What Happened to the Snake’s Voice? - The Rev. Bob Olmstead

LENT MIDRASH
What Happened to the Snake’s Voice?
Rev. Bob Olmstead

 

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”’”

(Genesis 3:1)

 

“The tempter came to him ...”  (Matthew 4:3)


 

After five days of creation the Lord God paused and took a deep breath.  Where previously there was nothing there was now an expanding universe.  Galaxies whirled through space.  Light, coaxed forth from darkness, brought cycles of night and day.  Motion and matter filled the void.  It was grand, and only God’s mind could comprehend it all.  Nevertheless, the Lord God’s focus had shifted to a minor planet circling a middling sun in the nether regions of the Milky Way.  Beneath God’s gaze it was evolving into a jewel. Oceans flashed in the morning sunlight, forests looked like emerald in the afternoons.  All sorts of creatures took shape, some elegant, others with faces none but their Creator could appreciate.  The place swarmed with life.

 

What was lacking?  The creation was intricate, it was beautiful, it was self-sustaining.  All it lacked was a creature to say ‘thank you’.  So, with held breath, the Lord God took a handful of humus from the earth and fashioned a creature that had neither claw nor fang, enlarging the brainpan just a little . . . and then a little more. Then the Lord God exhaled.  The divine breath entered the creature of clay; it stirred, it stretched, it looked around.  Gently God placed the naked little creature in Creation’s garden, saying, somewhat wistfully, “It’s all yours. You may eat of every tree of the garden; except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  That you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

 

The Lord God should have known: with consciousness comes loneliness.  The creature was lonely.  And so the Lord God divided the creature into two and in a moment of divine whimsy added sex for spice.

 

And then the Lord God rested.

 

The first human creatures kept busy.  Naming the animals, enjoying the sunsets, learning each other’s names.  The woman was the more daring of the two.  That is how she met me.  And who am I?  I am one of God’s companions.  I have many names; Satan is but one of them.  Am I an angel?  Of course!  Once an angel, always an angel. That can never be taken away from me.  God has to live with me and so do you.

 

I’m here with a question for you today.  What happened to the snake’s voice?  Haven’t you ever wondered?  Where is your curiosity!?  The snake talked to Eve in words as clear and human as any you can imagine.  Why no talking snakes since?

 

Just one of my many disguises, of course. Not to mention, one of my many successes.  It was the sound of my voice, not the appeal of the apple, Eve responded to.  And with that I learned something fundamental about humans.  If I can convince them that “it’s just a little thing, of no great consequence, and who will notice anyway”, if I tell people, “you deserve it”, I can start them down the slippery slope towards my control.  I no longer need the voice of a snake; I can use the voice of friends, leaders, even your own voice.  You think there is a vast difference between a little fudging on your income tax and the total depravity of Enron’s executives.  If you saw things from my perspective, you would see the difference is only of degree.  It is I who suggest the little thing – the juicy bite of an apple, the first successful cheating on your taxes, the initial taste of an addictive drug, and then I count on you to do the rest.  You see, I know you well.  Of course you will make excuses to others, but first you will make excuses to yourself.  That is when my work is finished.  For once you are willing to be dishonest with yourself, I have no need of further effort. You will do my work for me.

 

And what is my work?  It is to continue what the Lord God began. (That is why they call me diabolical.  How can I be blamed for improving on what God did?)  The Lord God says that He wants nothing more than your return, your friendship, your loyalty.  Then why, pray tell, did the Lord God cast you adrift?  I didn’t toss you out of the garden to sweat and toil in a world of estrangement and death.  God did that!  And now He says He wants you back!  Don’t expect me to explain that mystery.  I am only trying to keep God consistent.  He cast you out.  My sole purpose is to keep you apart.  

 

I must admit I never approved when the Lord God gave you consciousness; in my opinion that should be reserved for the heavenly host.  But once God gets an idea there is no denying it.  The great gift of consciousness made you like us. With just one caveat: you are not us.  You are the creature. God is the Creator.  You were to think God’s thoughts, to appreciate what God hath made, but not to usurp God’s power.  You are not gods.  Not even I can make that claim.  An angel only.  And you were created “a little lower than the angels”.  Don’t ever forget that!   . . .   Let me retract that.  That is precisely what I want you to forget.  I want you to forget that you are lower than the angels.  I want you to think of yourselves as gods. That is my strategy.  I want you to put yourselves at the center of the universe, for then, by definition, there is no place for God.

 

The snake was merely an appearance.  The first of many.  I left that body behind long ago.  It served my purpose and I discarded it as easily as a snake discards its skin.  I have taken many other forms since, and spoken with many other voices.  I whisper with the quiet voice of fear whenever you encounter those of different pigment or language.  I shout through demagogues to mobilize hatred in whole populations. Prejudice is a favorite tool of mine, and the language of racism is a native tongue to me. Both religion and politics serve my purposes well. True believers are blind to their own motivations. When your president speaks of the “axis of evil” he plays straight into my hands.  If you allow your leaders to convince you that you are righteous because of your nationality and others are evil because of theirs, then you will be entirely in my power.  I love all who see the evil in others.  It is the self-righteous – both conservative and liberal, it makes no difference to me - through whom I have done my most effective work.

 

In my most elegant work I have manipulated the mystery of sex and gender, making the differences between female and male a matter of argument and a battlefield of dominance and manipulation.

 

Because I have no soul I will never die.  But I can only live when I share the souls of others.  So far I have never lacked for body or for voice. [1]

 

I do my best work within the souls of those who do not know I’m there, the innocent, the self-righteous, the well educated, the willfully blind, those who recognize me only in others, a cosmic force. My work is weakened whenever I am recognized.

 

I can speak with the voice of sweet reason.  I can adopt the voice of science or religion.  I never suggest anything evil, you see.  I only try to keep you apart from God.  That is all it takes.  That is all I want.  Evil is merely a by-product.

 

Surely you must agree that the Lord God is a mysterious paradox if not a downright nut case.  Anything is possible for God.  If He wants you back so badly why not start again, put you back in the Garden, uproot that miserable tree that has caused so much misunderstanding, and then come visit for quiet conversations in the cool of the evening?  You tell me!  I don’t know the answer!

 

I only know the woefully inadequate gesture the great God makes to overcome the distance between you.  I was among the first to visit the one God sent to woo you back.  There in the desert we met.  Your translators have it quite wrong.  “If you are the Son of God …,” they have me saying.  Well I’m being misquoted.  (Dang reporters, never get it right!)  I did not challenge Jesus, saying “If you are the Son of God”; I said only “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I meant for him to feed the hungry, and later he would do that very thing and tell his disciples to do still more of it!

 

I’d never met a Son of God before.  Insofar as I know there had never been another.  I merely pointed out the great and wonderful things he could accomplish for humanity with the powers God had vested in him.  But Jesus refused to be God.  Bringing bread was not what God had in mind.  God was making himself small for you. [2]   God could overwhelm you, of course.  But in Christ, God was making himself small for you. So small that you can be authentic in His presence.  So that you can be yourself and enjoy God’s presence.  That’s all.  I couldn’t tempt him into being something more.

 

One of my few defeats.



[1] Thanks to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter for this insight.  (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Arthur A. Levine Books,  New York, 1997).

[2] Martin Luther, via Rev. Pam Abbey, Concord United Methodist Church, Concord, CA.