Giving Voice

(Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, which I am posting because a few folks have asked for it.  The title of the sermon that appeared in the bulletin was for the first sermon I wrote; this one is still untitled.  But the blog post is called “Giving Voice” because, as  my husband commented, the sermon gave voice to the thoughts and feeling many have been having.)

Texts: Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12

If you’ve ever had a guest in your home who stayed for a while, you know what a challenge that can be. In the summer of 2015, a friend of mine from high school – with whom I’d not been in touch since high school – stayed with us for ten days. She was moving to Portland, I had learned on Facebook, and I offered our house as a home base while she looked for a place to live.

She was a perfectly polite guest, but it’s hard to have someone else around, especially when you only have 1.5 bathrooms. Your guest’s schedule may differ from your own; they may eat different food, watch different tv shows, wear patchouli and you can’t stand patchouli (my friend did not wear patchouli). Your guest may start to grate on your nerves; you may start to grate on their nerves, despite all your generous hospitality.

My friend developed a terrible cold while staying with us. During her ten days with us she went to the beach for a day and a half and miraculously the cold went away, only to return when she came back to us. She thought she might be allergic to something. She thought we might have mold in our basement, where our guest room was. She was right.

So a year later, with a generous loan from the bank, we have gotten rid of the mold from our basement, and fixed the leaking pipes, and the crack in the foundation, and the drainage system. My friend’s visit proved to be expensive for us. It also proved to be quite beneficial to us in the long run.

My friend, with whom I had not spoken for thirty years, was a bit of a stranger to me. And I will be the first to admit that welcoming the stranger is hard. Welcoming the stranger is also a moral imperative, a constant thread throughout our holy scripture. Welcoming the stranger is the basis not only for our faithful understanding of hospitality, but also the way in which we live out what the prophet Micah commanded: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

There is injustice in the world. There has always been injustice in the world. This week the world observed Holocaust Remembrance Day and I could not hear the news without getting teary, listening to the survivors of concentration camps tell their stories. Part of the story of the Holocaust, the story of Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people, is the anti-Semitism that pervaded the world, including the United States.

Let us not forgot our own role in that. “In June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”

Then, “in the summer of 1942, the SS Drottningholm set sail carrying hundreds of… Jewish refugees, en route to New York City from Sweden. Among them was Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old from Germany, who was also seeking entry to the United States. When he arrived, he told the same story as his fellow passengers: As a victim of persecution, he wanted asylum from Nazi violence.

“But during [the] interview process… [his] story began to unravel.” Through a long investigation and trial, he was found guilty of being a spy for the Gestapo. Then “his story would be used as an excuse to deny visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

“Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Yet today, historians believe that Bahr’s case was practically unique—and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.”

There was justice for Bahr, who was found guilty of his crime. But where was the justice for the Jews trying to save their lives and the lives of their children?

Earlier this week I attended a gathering of folks from the faith community, from the Muslim community, from APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), IRCO (the International Refugee Center of Oregon). We were there for a press conference which did not happen that day, but as we waited to see what would unfold, we introduced ourselves.

This is what I heard: people are angry and afraid. People who came to this country as immigrants and refugees are afraid. People whose skin is not pale like mine are afraid. Person after person who spoke – Portlanders who are contributing to the good of our community – spoke through tears and strained voices.

I believe many of us who are majority people – we who are white Christian Americans – have forgotten how to do justice, how to love kindness, how to walk humbly with God.

I live a comfortable life. I have a home with a room set aside just for guests. I have a job I love. My child goes to a fantastic public school. There is no good reason why I should have to worry myself about the plight of people across the world. I’m good. I have everything I need. I can just stay in my little bubble.

Except for this: I believe in God and I love Jesus and everything he taught about how to be human. And try as I might, I cannot turn away from the 3000 year old teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I cannot turn away from the tug in my heart. I cannot turn away from that voice that whispers into the depth of my soul, “Do you not see My children who are suffering?”

The words of Matthew 25 haunt not only my dreams but also my waking thoughts.
“…I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“… ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I don’t know if I believe in eternal punishment. Most days I believe that at the end we will be called to account for how we lived. I will admit I could be wrong about that. I don’t know if I believe in Hell. But I do believe there are people who live Hell on earth, in part because comfortable people like me do nothing about working for justice for them, offering kindness to them, or walking humbly with God.

So let me say, quite plainly, something about Friday’s executive order – to suspend the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days; to stop receiving refugees from Syria indefinitely; and to bar from entering the United States for 90 days refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.  I think this executive order is immoral and stinks of fear and hatred. I am not alone. Just ask the Pope or Dick Cheney.

As the primary preacher here, I am aware of the one-sided voice of the pulpit. I know there are some who would love to hear political sermons every week, and some who never, ever want to hear a political sermon. Because I believe so deeply in welcoming the stranger, every time I write a sermon that veers into the political, I picture the faces of those I know in the congregation whose politics, I imagine, are different from mine. Because I think we come to worship for a variety of reasons, and because I know that we need to be encouraged as much as we need to be challenged, I will not preach a political sermon every week.

But this week I have felt compelled to because politics has collided head-on into faith. This executive order shows no justice, no kindness, and no humility. It flies in the face of the imperative to welcome the stranger, to remember that the Israelites were refugees, and Jesus was a refugee. And I don’t know what to do, because I am powerless to undo that action.

But I – and you – can continue to welcome the stranger into our midst. It is hard, uncomfortable even, like having a house guest who wears patchouli for ten days.

I think about the courage and humility it takes to be the stranger, too. I think about the first two women to be ordained as elders here at Westminster, and how strange or uncomfortable it must have been for all those men on session to have women in their midst.

I think about the courage it took for the first people of color and the first bi-racial couple to come to Westminster, the courage of their presence where they did not look like others around them.

I think about the courage it took for those first gay and lesbian and transgender folks to say who they are, how brave it was for them to come to church when all the big C church had ever done was tell them they were, in the core of their being, wrong.

We who are comfortable may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Discomfort won’t kill us. It may make us grow, though. Doing justice may make us uncomfortable too. It’s still the right thing to do. Loving kindness and walking humbly with God are blessings, they are cups that runneth over, they are the reward we get for following this God who calls us to great and challenging and world-changing things. Blessed are the kind and humble, indeed.

I want to leave you with a story that may help. It may not. But it’s a good story, and I give the last word to a man named Darren O’Conner.

“My dad and I, him a Trump supporter, me, Green Party supporter. He believes we went into Iraq (twice) for good reasons, I believe it was for oil and power…. Both of us speak out for the poor, both of us have spent much of our lives being poor, both of us advocate for unhoused people, both of us bring them into our homes. My dad, however, does so for months to years at a time.

“A couple of years ago, he brought a man into his home who had pancreatic cancer, an extremely lethal disease, expecting the man had weeks to live. He lived much longer, and my dad and his wife walked his path with him, providing shelter. Despite our political differences, we don’t differ on this: every person has value, everyone deserves love, and every time we step in to help, we are the ones who come out enriched….

“… I love him, and sometimes I just can’t talk about things we disagree on. So we don’t.

“My dad now has pancreatic cancer himself, and his life is in God’s hands. I pray often that God will continue letting him do his work…. In my prayers, I accept that God will do what God wills, it’s not for me to demand anything. But I hope and pray for more years of being able to agree and disagree about most anything and to still share love with [my father] John Malcolm O’Connor, blood of my blood, bone of my bones. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.

“This life is temporary y’all. Our walk here is not meant to be about what we can accumulate, unless those things are friendship, love, friendship, justice, friendship, helping others, friendship, common ground.”

Amen.

 

Grief

You wake up and for a second don’t remember.  Then you blink your eyes once, and it all comes back.  The grief, the loss, the heaviness behind the eyes that feels three feet deep, the bags under the eyes that feel full of lead.

But still you get up, and make your coffee, and put out your kid’s vitamins.  Comfort in the quotidian, I suppose.  The dog comes bounding down, bringing the first smile of the day.  You get dressed, even though your heart is still in bed under every blanket in the house.  You find the leash and the bag and the treat, and the delighting dog comes bounding over.

You feel like crying or keening, but instead the morning chill braces you and you notice the oblivious hummingbird, the obnoxious crow, the neighbor’s new poem, the few remaining patches of snow that have miraculously stayed white.  You smile and nod at other people who are not crying, whose faces are not puffy with evidence of recent tears.

You do everything you can to avoid that chasm of emptiness where joy and light and gratitude once lived.  You eat, knowing you really can’t afford to put on one more pound; you watch reruns of The Golden Girls; you make lists and lists of Things To Do, to occupy the void without filling it.

And maybe at some point in the day you stop and sit and look outside the window and wail. But you’re afraid that if you do that, you’ll never stop, and you can’t get anything done if you grieve.  The solitary hours are the hardest.

You make a plan which you know is ridiculous.  You call a friend which you know is a lifeline.  You stay upbeat for appearances’ sake which you know is fraudulent.

And you remember you are not alone, that all of us lose someone or something that we can never get back.  You remember that other people and other things will come that bring joy and love and delight.

You remember that waiting is terrible, even more terrible than grief.

Inauguration, Ordination

img_0207This Sunday in worship, we the congregation will ordain and install Ruling Elders and Deacons in the class of 2019, two days after we the people inaugurate the 45th president of the United States of America.

So that’s gotten me to thinking about these two rites, in a time when we don’t have many public rites or rituals.  In both ordination and inauguration, someone has been chosen to serve in a particular office.  In both someone makes vows or takes an oath.  In both, scripture is present, either in the vow to accept the witness of scripture or to pledge one’s integrity about the oath by placing the hand on the Bible.

In our Presbyterian system, once an elder or deacon, always an elder or deacon; one is either actively serving in that office or not.  A president is president for four or eight years (usually) but is called by the title “president” for the rest of his (someday or her) life.

To be honest, I am much more excited about Sunday’s ordinations than I am about Friday’s inauguration. I hold a greater sense of community with this congregation than I do with our nation.  I know these people; I know about their lives and their joys and griefs.  I have been called to serve them and to serve alongside them.  We are on a mission, and in fulfilling that we spend time together, studying, praying, laughing, challenging, eating, singing, listening, working.  Good stuff.

A president is elected by the people, in a roundabout way.  An elder or deacon is called by God through the voice of the congregation.  That seems to be a significant difference.  Elders and deacons make vows; presidents take oaths.  Merriam-Webster says this about the two: “Oath: (1) a formal and serious promise to tell the truth or to do something (2) an offensive or rude word that is used to express anger, frustration, surprise, etc.
Vow: (1) a serious promise to do something or to behave in a certain way.”  (Perhaps in making vows we promise not to say oaths.)

When we who are church officers take ordination vows, we are promising to behave in a certain way: to be obedient to Jesus, to be a friend among colleagues in ministry, to love neighbor and work for the reconciliation of the world. (That’s not all but those may be my favorite.)

The president swears the oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and…to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun as the ordination vows’ work.

I know the Bible better than I know the Constitution although I recognize the importance of both.  I am rooted in the places of scripture more than I am rooted in the ideals of the Constitution.  These days I am finding it harder to be patriotic than to be faithful.

So maybe this is all an unnecessary comparison of the two. I just have this sense that in the long run – and I’m talking eschatalogical long run – what we do on Sunday will have more impact than what happens on Friday.  What we do on Sunday is holy.  Going to committee meetings and serving cookies at a memorial service might not seem like much, but in that way that small things are really huge, it is the work of heaven.

In the end, let’s just say I have a lot of confidence in what our elders and deacons will do – and who they will be as they live out their vows – in the coming years.

You can infer the rest.

 

The Christmas bread is leavened

The Christmas bread is leavened, of course
This is a feast of joy and warmth
The yeast will rise

We have been anticipating this
For nine months
For four Sundays
There is time to let the dough rise, let the yeast ferment, let the child form

Joy comes in the morning
As mother and child sleep

Another child rises early
Anticipating cinnamon rolls

For the Christmas bread is leavened.

May our hearts be leavened too

cinnamon-roll

 

Thanks be to the custodians

mopAfter we all leave the church building on Christmas Eve – after the old friends who grew up here reconnect and go over to Broadway to find a place to have a drink together; after the choir trundles back downstairs to hang up their robes and put away their candles (you will put away your candles, won’t you?) and says ‘see you in the morning’; after the pastors hang up our robes and collect the sweet little gift bags that make their way to the office; after the deacons scour the pews and find some bulletins and a glasses case and hopefully no one’s cell phone – after we all leave this building on Christmas Eve, our faithful custodian will still be there.

We will say good night to him, of course, and thank you, and see you in the morning and do you want us to stay with you till you’re done, but he will say no. No, I’m fine.
And then I imagine he will double check the other building and turn off some stray lights. He’ll make sure the Christmas tree lights are unplugged, as well as the lights on the wreath in the balcony, and that the sound system is off. He’ll make sure the candles are really, truly extinguished. He may restock the paper goods in the restrooms. He probably won’t vacuum , and that’s fine. He’ll check the building to make sure everyone has left, and he’ll turn off the final lights, and set the alarm, and make his way home an hour after all the rest of us.

I am grateful to the custodians, the ones who work at our church and all the custodians, who are the first to come and the last to go, the ones who turn the lights on and off, the ones who do the cleaning that most of us don’t want to do, the ones who fix dripping pipes and restock supplies, the ones who sweat or freeze down in the boiler room when the dang thing won’t work (again), who graciously receive all our complaints with the patience of Job.

There is something holy in that work, don’t you think? There’s something in all those tasks that seem so mundane that echoes the divine a bit. Think about it. The first to show up and the last to leave. The one who cleans up the messes. The one who hears all the complaints with an expansive heart. The one who makes sure our spaces are safe and warm and welcoming with the most pragmatic of things.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus comes back, he won’t seek out all the custodians and janitors and sextons first. They know. They know what it’s like to be a bit lonely in work whose scope is hard to appreciate by lay folk like you and me; they know what it’s like to clean up messes that we thoughtlessly left behind. They, like him, are the ones who are often unseen, unacknowledged, unappreciated.

At Christmas we appreciate Jesus very much. We are so glad he was born, not simply because it gives us a chance to celebrate. We appreciate Jesus because he did something he didn’t have to do: he put on the mantle of human flesh, as that saying goes; he limited the divine unlimitedness to know us and save us, however we understand those verbs. We appreciate that little Lord asleep on the hay, that infant so tender and mild, the one whom shepherds greet with anthems sweet.

We appreciate him less during other parts of the year, as the snow melts and carols are replaced by love songs or Irish jigs or “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” or whatever seasonal song needs to blast away in the elevator. We acknowledge Jesus less in July. He’s still at work, healing, cleaning up after us, receiving all the complaints. So maybe we can work on acknowledging him a bit more in July or September or Groundhog’s Day.

In the meantime, think about those janitors and custodians:  the ones at church and the school janitors, Lord love them; the folks who clean up airplanes, especially after a trans-continental flight; the ones in hospitals and nursing homes and stadiums. If you’re so moved, seek one out. Say thank you.

It’s a holy thing to do for someone who does holy work.

Mary & Me

img_9952Mary is making the rounds again this Advent, and as per usual, I’m not entirely sure what to do with her.

Is she the model of female submission?  The victim of unwanted impregnation?  Is she too young to marry and bear a child, or just the right age for her time and place?  Is she quiet and shy, head bent down, eyes gazing at the floor?

Or is she a warrior, a Rosie-the-Riveter, the woman who not only said yes but also said let’s topple the patriarchy?  Is she the one who turned surprising news into a power play?

Is she the faithful servant?  Is she a good-enough mother?

Oy, Mary.  Oy.

True confession: in the first few weeks after I gave birth, I found myself praying to Mary.  I was pretty sure that God the Father and God the Son and that merry, floating, fire-y Holy Spirit could not begin to understand hemorrhoids, c-section scars, engorged breasts, and the complete feeling of inadequacy and terror, even with all the Godhead had learned during the Incarnation.  So I sent a few up to the BVM.  Because she knew.  She had been there, and on a donkey, no less, in some small, non-private smelly place with animals, away from family, donut cushions, and Tylenol.

This week in worship our choir is presenting five songs about Mary and while I’m off the hook for a sermon, I do find myself wondering about Mary again.  The Magnificat could be posted on Pantsuit Nation and get 10,000 likes.  The role of women in Christianity could be looked at anew – are we simply to say yes to the church, yes that’s our role in the kitchen and the nursery, yes we’ll let the men do all the heavy lifting of teaching and preaching?  Or do we look to Mary and say, hey, we’re called to topple thrones and send the rich away hungry?  We’ll be in the kitchen and the pulpit, thank you very much.

Mary fades from the story as it goes on; it is Jesus’ story, after all.  Maybe the tune of the Magnificat faded too, and people forgot the melody.  Maybe we lost sight of what a revolutionary Mary was.  Maybe we need to reclaim that, for the church, for Pantsuit Nation, for our daughters, for our sons.  For our world.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

May it be so.  Amen.

 

Bleak Midwinter

rainIt rains so much in the Pacific Northwest. Although our little family usually doesn’t put up any Christmas decorations until the first or second week in December, this year has been so rainy and so dark we decided to hang the outdoor lights on the day after Thanksgiving.

There are those years when “In the Bleak Midwinter” is my favorite Christmas carol, that or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  This year the bleakness wins, and it’s not just the weather.

We’ve lost some dear saints in the congregation this year. I look out in the pews on Sunday morning and I see their spouses and their children and their friends sitting there without them, and melancholy descends.  It’s their first season without this person who brought light or warmth or laughter or kindness to their life.

Then there is the bruising left over from the election season, and the uptick in hate crimes since November 8.  There’s Syria, and refugees, and poverty that never, ever abates for some people.  There is the reality of aging parents.  On some days if feels as though Yeats was terribly prescient: the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world.  I too am slouching towards Bethlehem.

If my sweet little family’s Christmastide celebrations began on December 24 and ended on the 26th, I would be happy.  But my daughter loves Christmas.  It’s her favorite holiday, and it has nothing to do with Santa or presents.  There’s nothing she really wants for Christmas – except to be with family, which is hard with two clergy parents.

When I ask her why she loves Christmas, this is what she says.  “Everyone is so joyful, and everything is so pretty and decorated.  There are so many lights, and people sing.”

I’m not sure where she picked this up as I’m usually a bit crabby during Christmas, failing miserably at being mom, spouse, and pastor all at once.  She sees through that, or around it or beyond it.  She sees the big picture: we celebrate Light coming into the world.

So perhaps this month, as the rains pour down and it’s hard to tell if the sun has risen yet; this month, as the news tells more terrible stories, and people tell stories of grief and fear; this month, as I once more fail at being a cheerful pastor/mom:

I will look to my daughter, so happy for this season.  I will look at her with hope for the joy she will carry into this month and the years that lie ahead.  I will look to her with a gratitude that goes beyond words, gratitude for her presence and her life.  I will look to her so that she can show me the way, even through the bleak midwinter.

For a little child shall lead them.