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Shaking on Dangerous Ground

October 11, 2009

Okay, you know the usual deal. Find the scripture and read it before listening to the sermon. This time, you can pass if you want. The scripture lesson is the Beatitudes. And I actually spend some time helping remember them, so, not reading it ahead of time is not crucial; but is always a good idea.

The week before this Amy used the story of Moses approaching the burning bush and being told he should take off his shoes because he was walking on Holy ground. She then invited people to take off their shoes to come forward for communion, which most people did. A good sermon and I kind of wanting to jump from walking on Holy round to shaking on Holy Ground because God is so overwhelming (sometimes) that we will shake when we read something like the Beatitudes because we KNOW we are not living the life they call for. Scripture is not always and should not always be a comfort. Sometimes it should make us shake.

So, read the Beautitudes (Matthew 5) and listen to Shaking on Dangerous Ground

May it be bread for your journey.


A Story

September 27, 2009

Amy read a story for her time with the children.
Yes you hear me take a deep breath before starting. It was at that point that I realized that I never made a final decision about about how to start the sermon. So, a deep breath was calming.

So I started with a quick review of the scripture lesson. Which is from Mark 9:33-40.

The story of Esther is a cool story. there were a few things I forgot to mention just because there was so much to mention. And I feared this would be really long and rushed. So I really tried to move and forgot stuff. Esther makes little pretense of being a history. It is a story with great literary devices that are well used. There are foreshadows, reversals, parallels. There is a building of suspense, and set backs all along.

I do remember to mention that story of Esther does not ever mention God, the Commandments, the law, the prophets or anything that is religious or faithful. What I forgot was that at some point people noticed there was no mention of God and other religious stuff. So a BUNCH of verses were added that talked about God and prayer and Esther sounds like a right proper religious heroine and morally pure person. You can read these in the Roman Catholic bible or our apocrypha. Eastern Star loves these verses and there mythos rests on this story (with the added verses).

er oops – yes I swap Mordecai name for Haman’s name. Sorry! Hope is not too confusing.

I point at the piano when I say, “the Evil Haman!” It was not planned to make a joke about the piano. I actually was thinking that I had been pointing in that direction when ever I was talking about Mordecai at the gate. And the haman organ joke just sort of came out. I was even surprised people laughed because it was a piano and not an organ.

GOSH! In listening to this again I wonder what I was thinking when I talked about Kings who are afraid to change their mind and about people who have a “defensive war” that is still a slaughter. It sounds almost current… and that would be bad…

Here is where to go for the sermon sermon podcast: A Story

Maybe I over identify with Esther, a leader who knows she only has a few skills and not always the ones needed for a situation. And yet we both find ourselves in such times that we have to lead using what ever we have to do well and be good. And this may be true for all people, especially parents, who find that they are in a position were they feel powerless and yet have to do something. I guess trusting God, whether named or not, is the only thing that has helped Esther and me. May it help you on you journey.

What Shall We Gather From Peter’s Story

September 13, 2009

This was a Gathering Sunday. A time when we invite everyone back from the quiet of the summer and gear up for the Church program year. It is the beginning of a new year of Sunday School. So the title, like the rest of the bulletin, uses the word ‘gather’. Possibly it is also a way to remind people that when ever we hear a story we have work to do to ‘gather’ something from it. It might also imply that there are several things we can gather, but the question is WHAT SHALL we gather? We have choices. Shall we read the story?

To do so go to Mark 8:27-37

This is what I gathered for this week at this time, in this place. More I can not do.

I start by pointing out the new frontispiece. It was gathered from people all summer long who brought in a bit of cloth to represent themselves in this bit of art. I think it is great.

Again, I think it is cool to take big chunks of scripture for preaching. I wish I had mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church and how they answer the question who is Jesus. I know they were here 2 weeks ago, but they are not forgotten. Who are they? You can check out the last sermon to hear more about them. My Anger But we have a nice selection of answers to the question of who Jesus is. Such diversity of opinion!

I realized the truth of the song, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” When I was younger than 10. There is sunshine, but… I was lucky to be taught that the sunshine is to be enjoyed but is not an entitlement.

Gathered People, our community is the point of the day. We are who we are and we bring what we bring. If we are open to what others offer in the same way, we can do nothing but grow closer and deeper as a community and closer and deeper in faith. It is really all I want as a minister. I have simple goals.

I meant to say at the end, Our answer to the question of who Jesus is might not be right but it might not be wrong. Or it might be wrong but wrong in the right way. eh. I never promised you would have a rose garden with me.

Here is the sermon What Shall We Gather from Peter\'s Story


September 6, 2009

Does it bother anyone when I mention that do not know everything about scripture and I get confused? I mean it is true that I am not a know-it-all, and I find it ridiculous to think that anyone would. And it may be that everyone knows full well that a minister can not know everything and will never be confused, but even these folks may find it unsettling that their minister would admit it. I am human and, like the disciples, find that following Jesus is always a work in progress. Somethings I get and somethings I get later and somethings I get wrong.

Enough – I am using the microphone this week. After the miserable quality of last week I promised that I would replace the battery and I did. Much better sound and louder. You can even hear a baby make satirical comments. At least no one shouted that I am a liar.

I think I have mentioned before that getting these little bite sized bits of scripture on Sunday mornings is doing a disservice to scripture. I would like to repeat that now. Bite sized bits may be easier to swallow, but some things in scripture are meant to stick in our throats. They are meant to be hard to believe. And chunking scripture down for easy use should make us all nervous. Especially when we pare down a story, whittle away those bits that do not really ‘work’ for how we understand the story we are reading. O, I have done it too and will again. It is about always doing it that seems dangerous. But sometimes the point in the story is not in the story you are reading. We all love the story of the Prodigal Son. But when we read it as the third story in a trilogy as Luke presents it, (chapter 15) then there is something profound about the repetition and then the addition of the elder brother’s reaction.

So anyway, I was enjoying hearing the great sweeps of scripture and finally confirmed that there are two different huge feeding stories. And, in the big chunks of story I was getting realized that the second one is Jesus feeding gentiles. I found this very moving. I was not able to really convey this in the sermon, but wanted to. I still wish I could do so here.

Oh yeah. You should read the stories that I use for the sermon. Find them in Mark 7:24-37. Note that right after this is the feeding of the 4,000 gentiles (like I said!).

Little did I know at the time, but a visitor that we had this morning was a woman from Syria. As she was telling me this (in a charming accent) I was desperately trying to think if I said anything that would be offensive. She stayed for our fellowship time, so I am guessing not. And actually she was indicating to me she found it good to hear about another Syrian woman. It was only a day or two later that I thought how neat this all was. It is a reminder that Christianity is not an American thing and that people and places in the bible exist and have a life and history we will never know about. Unless we are lucky. I wonder know if she has found that her time in middle-eastern phobic America is a bit like the woman meeting Jesus. Now I am sad.

The sermon is in two parts, really. I wanted to make a connection with the feeding of the 4,000 that so struck me. A hymn separates the two parts to allow us to enter into communion. The hymn is “Be Known to Us in the Breaking Bread”. I love how the words “Be known to us in the breaking bread, but do not then depart; O Savior, stay with us and spread your table in our heart.” Second verse, not so much – but Hey in baseball batting .500 is considered REALLY good..

The two parts are thematic and speak to both our horizontal and vertical relationships as Christians. The first part, horizontal, lets the scripture speak to how we treat each other. The second part is about our (vertical) relationship with God, specifically about how God always reaches out to us. Here the scripture seems to be dealing with both. I love that. Some people come to worship looking to hear about living their life and some about living with God. Today I got to give both both views with one scripture.

I am constantly reminded in scripture that all people are one in God, with God, by God’s creation. I am reminded that all of us have God’s image. I often think about how just about every mystic has said that they have had a vision of the profound oneness of ALL creation. And I am constantly aware how WE divide people into us and them. Our politics seems to be built on the idea of us and them (and demonizing the ‘them’ in any way possible). I wish we could reject this dividing in politics, marriage, equality, genders, religion, relationships, etc.

If you want to hear the sermon click here: Boundaries
The sermon is really the first sermon, a hymn, the second sermon as lead into communion, a bit of music, and then a prayer of Thanksgiving. All this for the same low price. And remember, all sermons are free range!

My Anger

August 30, 2009

First an apology for the audio quality. The batteries in my digital recorder died 2 minutes and 2 seconds into the sermon. So I was stuck using the audio tape. To make up for this, I now have the battery for the microphone to the recorder. This will give wonderful clarity. Next week.

Next an apology about using offensive language. Westboro Baptist ‘Church’ is going to use it, I hope that using it will remove the first blush offense that the words have.

If you are not in our media area to hear about this group and visit, you can get more information at Barre Times Argus In brief they are the Kansas group calling itself a church that likes to picket the funerals of our military to make the point that they died because God is angry at the US because we are soft on gays and Jews. They even have their church’s website named godhatesfags. They are visiting to protest that Vt. will now allow equal rights in marriage for gays and lesbians.

I spent a little time on their website. I would not encourage it. It made me really sad. I can understand them better. I mean I know the roots of their theology and understand its lineage. It is extreme and fueled mostly from their own psyches, but I do see where they are coming from in our tradition. But it is just gross and ugly and icky.

The Lectionary scripture for this Sunday was James 1:17-27. The sentence that I keyed in on was “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” And the first thing I say in the sermon is that scripture helped me this week. It did. My self righteous adolescent really wanted to take it to these people. Scripture helped me.

In the sermon I mention some scripture verses that I want to shout out at them. Just so you know, this is what they are: Romans 2:1, Matthew 5, Ezekiel 16:49-50, John 3:17-18. I wanted to mention I John 4:18. But I got going too fast and did not. Check them all out.

Of the things I mentioned that we were doing in response to this hate ‘church’ group was a letter to the editor. Becca Clark, the Montpelier Methodist minister with a blog at Becca Clark, emailed and stopped by so we might have a bit of a unified voice in response. After talking around and around the pros and cons of active silence and proactive response, we decided a letter to the editor would prevent people from assuming that our silence was agreement. Plus we could also be clear that we have a different understanding of God and scripture. So we worked on a letter together. After agreeing in general what it would/could say I plunked down a starter document. Becca clarified, cleaned up, punched up (especially the beginning) the letter. A bit of back in forth later and we had a letter. We LIKED it. It was also about 2.5 times too long for the Times Argus. So, in a hurry, I chucked it into the Cuisinart and came up with a letter 300 words or less. We then asked other four other Montpelier to sign on. Here is what was printed Letter to the Editor

The long version may appear some where. Who knows.

But in the sermon as in the letter, I wanted to do more than bash Westboro Baptist ‘Church’. I wanted to bring out what we/me could take away from it all. It is so easy to bash. And when the target is so easy and richly deserving of a good bash it can make us feel real good. So I wanted to do more than that. This is what I came up with My Anger

All hail those who saw a way of responding to them in such a way that it was not about you or them and only about the issues. I did not think I could do it. My internal adolescence is very strong and use to getting his way. Amazingly, once I gave up thinking I could make them think/believe/act like I wanted them to they stopped having a lot of power over me. Once I said what I needed, they had no hold over me. I could not even pray for them as those who persecute me because they lost the power to persecute me. I just did not care.

So, scripture helped me to be slow to speak and slow to anger. As such I think I could do a better job of producing God’s righteousness. If I did our not is always a question. But I have to think that living with the values of God’s realm has to be a good start.

May scripture touch you this week. May it help you. [And may you give it a chance to touch you…]


August 21, 2009

Have we all seen it? Two people who love each other and one of them sees some flaw/imperfection/rough spot in the other. In order to smooth out this slight bump they apply pressure in the form of displeasure. Oh, the expression of displeasure varies. I have used the silent treatment, grumpiness, sarcasm, cold shoulder, disapproving looks, rants, snide pokes, amusing cracks, and angry words. I have given reasoned lectures on why the failing was born, exists, survives, should be removed, and how to remove it. I have seen it in myself.

Have also you seen the usual responses? Initially there is great confusion because we do not tend to be very clear that our displeasure is directed at improving a blemish. It just feels unloving. And that is confusing from someone who loves us. Then there are failed attempts to comply, denials of a problem, diminishent of the flaw, or deflecting the jabs as the first sort of responses. These are followed by feelings of failure and/or persecution. Then they respond with their own sarcasm, listings of the failings they see, firm statement of their unchanging nature, criticism of the tactics, anger at completely other issues, and now displeasure swirls between each of them and in the relationship. Then either can say they feel unloved and unlovable and it is the others fault because they are using mean methods to force a change, usually an immediate change. In many ways these responses can be seen as returning the attack to the attacker.

Can you see this might be a problem? The attacker thinks they are helping. The recipient of unasked for help thinks sandpaper is being applied to them to smooth out some small bump in their flesh but the raw wound that is being created is ignored as inconsequential. Can you see this?

I have also seen this same dynamic in people’s relationship with God. Wanting us to be perfect, they think God is punitive and will withhold love until we become perfect humans. The withholding of love is seen in how life can have difficult moments, times, and situations. Even the smallest things of life are seen as God throwing a road block in the way to force us to be perfect (or ‘more perfect’ – which is a very funny phrase). Have you seen someone stare at a stoplight and say, “Well, that is God trying to to tell me to slow down.” And we can maybe insert our own examples of people seeing something as cosmic displeasure for some aspect of who they are. But God is not a 2 year old or a terrorist.

Even the biggest stories of the bible speak against this. Moses, King David, and Paul were all flawed people that God seemed to love. And of course there is Jesus who dies for us, not because we were perfect, but because we are not. And wont be. God loves us unconditionally. As in, even with our imperfect/blemished/flawed/rough spotted/ wart covered selfs – we are loved just the way we are. It is in that love that that we may want to change. But the impetus or drive comes internally, not externally because someone is pushing us by withholding their complete love in shows of displeasure. Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.”? In being loved there is more power to change, as in grow, than in the hope of a fuller love. Even our dogs love us unconditionally, just the way we are. Why then do we think God will not love unconditionally and we think others will change if we show our displeasure?

Have you seen a woman who has put up with unpleasantness in order to be loved? We call this wife abuse. And she is not loved any more fully. Love as a tool is never love. And withholding love by all the ways we try to compel someone to be better or ‘more perfect’ is like sand paper on our skin or our soul. It may smooth the bump but leave a raw bleeding wound. The wrong tool. And if we think we want the person we love to be different than they are, then I think it has to be said that we do not actually love them. We want to love the ‘next them’, the them we are trying to make. And we become a 2 year old abusive terrorist to force the change. Very un God like.

So, let God love you, unconditionally, just the way you are. And then love others the same way. Put down the sandpaper. Let go of the silent treatment, grumpiness, sarcasm, cold shoulder, disapproving looks, rants, snide pokes, amusing cracks, and angry words. Walk away from reasoned lectures on why the failing was born, exists, survives, should be removed, and how to remove it. Embrace the person with love. Hold them until they do not need to change for you.

And then see what happens.

A Proverb Is Born

August 19, 2009

So, I have been trying to finally clear out about 2 boxes and 4 piles of ‘stuff’ that never got moved into my office 7 years ago. I started here with a bang – off and running and never really fully settled and organized. There have been times over the 7 years that I have been grumpy about this. But mostly I can not figure out why this time and place should be any more organized than the rest of my life.

Mostly it is stuff that I did not know what to do with before and put off deciding, hoping for clarity. It is as if I think that God and Jesus are going to bring clarity to THIS when there is still some ambiguity about the whole “Do not kill” commandment. But I really know better. And I have to say, that if I have not missed something in 7 years, there is profound clarity about how much I need it. What a shame that landfills are filling with ‘stuff’ that is created to be filed but then is never looked at again. This has gotta be one of the least of our concerns, but still.

ANYWAY. I did find a couple of things of interest. One is an old story written by Carl McColman. I can not decide if I should read it, mail it, or quietly put it in the shredder. I guess quietly is now a lost option.

But I also found two letters I received after the same sermon I preached years ago. It is clear why I kept them. They typify my work environment. Let me quote:
“Dear Mark,
I was alternately surprised, disappointed, irritate and ultimately dismayed that your May 29 sermon was without mention of Memorial Day or any of its related and interwoven themes. I can think of no special day that cries more for the special role that the church can play in the furthering community remembrance and spiritual examination of the extreme sacrifice the nation and members of this very congregation- not to mention their ancestors- have made over the years. I find it hard to believe that nobody thought of Memorial Day in planning the service or, if you did, what possible reasoning could have been at work as Noah and the Ark prevailed as the theme for this particular Sunday?
My disappointment as a veteran and one who has lost friends and relatives to war over many years is not quite the point. My disappointment is as much in our default to the future and to those many whom war has not touched.”

Yes, that is right. I was chastised for preaching a sermon based on scripture and not a holiday that is a holiday for our nation and not for Christians. And yes, I do think he was particularly irritated that the text was Noah’s Ark. He undoubtedly sees this as a fable, suitable for children only. He eventually became a deacon of the church. I hope that at some point he learns about the lectionary and how it is used as a foundation for Sunday scripture lessons.

Okay. Not all that unusual for me, really. I do not tend to pay attention to either civic or Hallmark holidays. I would like Christians from any nation to feel right at home when I preach and lead worship. I have at times touched on (or at least mentioned) Mother’s Day or the Fourth of July, but only as they serve the service/scripture/worship of the day. Our nation has Memorial Day. A day that we should as a nation remember what people have done for the nation. Our church (as in all Christian Churches, not just the U.S. ones) has All Souls Day to remember what people have done for God. The two are not the same and each community should celebrate their own. IMO

Now here is the other letter:
Dear Mark
You leadership of service today and your sermon were so great that I want to praise and express my thanks. [She then talks about how my illustration of being a Sea Scout and stuck in 36 foot boat during a day and half gale while 7 of the 9 people on board were smoking cigars reminded her of her own sons time as a sea scout.] You made Noah’s Ark a reality.”

The illustration was important because the point I was making about Noah’s Ark is that it is like Christ’s Church. The Ark would have been loud, small, crowded, smelly, uncomfortable, and filled with some (like a mosquitoes and vipers) that you would not want to be with. Like the church, the only reason to be in the Ark is because you know there is a storm our there and the shelter provided by the Ark or the Church is better than being adrift without either. I did not like the cigar smoke in the cramped cabin of the boat, but it was better than being on deck! I did try.

And yes, this is still why I stick with the church – even with my wonderment at its continued existence.

I now use as a proverb, “No matter what you do or don’t do- someone will love it and someone will hate it.” It could be used as a way of saying “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. But I use it to free myself and remind others that pleasing others and avoiding surprising, disappointing, irritating, or dismaying people is not what we strive for in the church. It is always about God. Knowing that I will please and dismay people with the same sermon (or anything or nothing) frees me from concern about reactions and helps me to focus on being faithful. And it means that people can not push me around with their likes and disappointment. I get nudged, but not pushed…

Just for fun, let me share the post scripts each person wrote. The first one said, “All that aside, thank you for all you do here and in the community. We appreciate it.” The second said, “Thanks also to your busy spouse!”

So – anyway – this seems to describe my work environment. Sort of like Noah’s Ark… Only I wish I could say who is mucking out the bilges and who gets to be on look out for land. It seems that in many ways ministers must do both. The one calls for more time and the other needs more time. I am just not sure which is which. Maybe once God has clarified the “Stop Killing” commandment this will be next up for clarification. Or clarity about what I should do with the new pile of ‘stuff’ from the two boxes and Carl’s story. Clarity in any of these would would be appreciated by me. And sight of land.