Dreaming a Future for Everyone

Psalm 126

What are your dreams? How did they come about? Do they arise out of hopes for the future, life events that are anticipated and celebrated, or do they arise out of grief and deep longing for change?

There are many ways that we come to find our dreams, to name them and to hope for joy and to find it as we live life’s journey.

In our series on Being the Church we have named many concerns. We have considered the many who experience poverty of substance and spirit, those who outcast by reason of racism. We have looked at the idea of environmental justice and the future of the planet, thought of those who have little power, whose voices are not heard and respected, those for whom one or more of their demographic descriptors often sets them apart subject to rejection in the community at large.

Today is Pride Sunday in the Lehigh Valley. It is a day to honor those who struggle and are excluded because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a day for us to celebrate with them, and to help them find joy in being and to the new freedoms they have found. As I speak, people are beginning to gather for ecumenical service later this morning which will affirm God’s love for these our siblings. In the afternoon many others will join them to celebrate and offer information to all who have questions on matters of faith, health, and many other local and social concerns in the public square. As at most fairs; music, food, and crafts are part of the festival. Covid precautions will be in effect for the entire event which takes place outdoors.

But for me, the most important part of the day is seeing the number of booths on what they call Faith Row. I will be there at the PNEC booth for awhile this afternoon. Each year the number of faith communities that take part in this event is growing. This year they emphatically echo the theme of this year’s Pride Day, You Are Included!!

So let’s consider where this church is in this conversation. Let’s think about the hopes and dreams of the LGBT community. Perhaps you remember that it was not that long ago that few churches stood beside the LGBT+ community.

In 2002, while I was still working as a nurse, I was approached by the pastor of my congregation who asked me to facilitate conversations on the Open and Affirming process in my home congregation. At that time only a few hundred churches in the UCC had done so. But as more and more people shared their story and reached out to friends and family who had courage to come out of the closet, the time was ripe to address how faith communities would respond.

Among the members of the church were a couple, women who had lived in my neighborhood since we moved there in the mid 70s. There were only two houses between us and for those 30 years they worked together at the university in the nursing department as professors and they had lived together as “roommates.” And there were others; a gay man who had taught history prior to his retirement, a couple of young women with aspirations for a family. There were some who had family members who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and knew the difficulty they faced each and every day. You see, often people we know are among those who are afraid to claim who they are for fear of rejection. So they come to churches, to celebrate their faith but they feel unable to bring their whole selves and name their reality.

And so we set out to consider the experiences and the dreams of LGBT folk. I’ll admit, I had questions, even reservations then. But I was willing to study and learn what the Bible, the scientific community, and personal story had to offer. I remembered the LGBT+ folks I had cared for in the hospital. I had witnessed their pain as they fought for recognition of their personhood and desired support from their family. Too often experienced the trauma of rejection when they most needed support. When they became ill from whatever cause, they were really and truly alone except for the support of the medical staff and a few close companions.

As I considered times when I had felt rejected or left out, as I studied Jesus’ teachings and actions that demonstrated love for everyone who approached him, I came to unconditionally agree that we needed to claim our acceptance and affirmation of all people.

It is true, some folks at first thought the conversation unnecessary. This was before the Still Speaking initiative and still people questioned, “Didn’t we after all welcome everyone who came?” But one event helped to move hearts and minds.

Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was being installed as the bishop of the Episcopal church in NH, and the ceremony would take place in the sports arena of University of New Hampshire just a mile down the street. Another church in town, a conservative evangelical one, chose to host Fred Phelps and his church and family who came to protest and condemn Robinson and all LGBT folk, and it was not pretty.

The pastor put the question to us, “‘When we and this other church down the street both say everyone is welcome what does that mean?’ How are people to know that we will not condemn them and try to change them once they come in the door unless we stay it in terms that are very clear?”

And so I ask,” What do we mean when we say ‘No matter who you are of where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here?’” What exactly do we believe and affirm, and how are people to know? Is it time, as we look to what we are becoming to ask the question? Should we as someone recently suggested study the idea and consider making a statement, craft one so that everyone will know? No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. No matter your age or your race or your economic circumstances, or where you grew up, or what country you came from, and yes, what your sexual orientation or gender identity you are welcome here.

How might we express that we truly and completely affirm everyone? Let us consider the dreams of those who have felt left out as we strive to follow Christ’s call to Be the Church.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,    
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,    
and our tongue with shouts of joy. 
The Lord has done great things for us. 
     Ps.126:1,2a,3 NRSV

Be the Church – Embrace Diversity


Friday I went to the zoo. I went to see what it had to offer: animals that swim, creep, slither, walk, run, fly; animals with horns, feathers, fur, spots, stripes, bright colors, dull colors that camouflage; animals that bray, crow, call, and animals that are entirely mute. They are only a few of the millions of series on planet Earth. 

I especially loved the unusual ones like the black swan. I’ve seen many swans many times before, living on lakes and bogs throughout the northeast, but never a black one. I imagine this swan knew he was being observed as he preened and fluffed his feathers in preparation for his swim across the pond. He looked so regal. 

In truth, I had come as much to people watch as to observe the exhibition. Like many of you, I’ve been missing the ordinary. I have miss seeing children and their parents at work and play. So I loved watching them move eagerly from one exhibit to the next, Identifying animals they’d seen in books, and I loved observing  them on the playground.

I stopped on the way back to the valley to spend some time beside Jordan Creek. I just wasn’t quite ready to ford the creek in my car and say goodbye to the day. So I sat in the shade for a while and read a book, just feeding my soul. Again I was aware of the families at play. There were many, so many more this year than I’d seen there in years past. They too were taking advantage of the cool refreshment of a mountain stream, a shady place on a hot afternoon and the freedom of being unrestrained, unmasked in the out of doors, fresh air and open spaces. 

I had chosen a spot a bit removed from most. Still, there was one family nearby, a mom and two children. A girl, about 11 played in the creek, wading and splashing, standing, sitting, and even lying among the rocks to get the maximum benefit of the cooling waters. On the shore her brother called to her and gestured his joy in watching her play. His call non-verbal as the 9 year old had difficulty with speech. He uttered but a single unrecognizable syllable as greeting to her. Their mom sat nearby, offering simple clear directions to her son to keep him safe considering as his awkward movements  posed a hazard if he ventured into the mud and rocks of the creek.

What was remarkable was the communication between the three: mom offering gentle guidance to the son while allowing as much freedom as seemed wise. She responded to his every move with just enough instruction while observing his response to what was going on around him. She noted his joy at the sights and sounds of nature, his attention captured by the cry of an owl in the distance and other birds chirping nearby. Occasionally mom rose from her bench to offer a firmer caution and a hand to bring her son back to the grass, all the while shouting words of encouragement as her daughter laughed and played in the water. I was struck at how she was so perfectly attuned to the differing needs of each of her children. 

As they prepared to go, it was clear the children demonstrated as much care for each other as mom had for them. As they came near, I greeted them, and commented on their closeness and care for each other, and I named the challenge of parenting a neuro-diverse child and the special gifts that close attention affords in forming  family bonds. Mom was touched and grateful.  I introduced myself as a pastor telling her I’d like to share a bit of her story in my sermon. I felt honored to be in the presence of the holy

Later in the evening, I read a story a friend had posted Medium. A close cousin of blogs, Medium is an internet tool that allows people to publish their thoughts, observations, and expertise without the benefit of a magazine or newspaper. Medium organizes essays by categories of interest and subscribers receive a daily or weekly summary of new postings they may find interesting based on their stated interests. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of it as a local newspaper but with a wider audience,  or a special interest magazine but not bound by geography. 

My friend told the story of parenting her daughter recounting the ordinary joys and challenges of infants and toddlers; the joys of discovery, creativity, and friendships; and then the anxiety and depression that came with adolescence. There were counseling sessions and her daughter’s eventual courage in saying the words that had caused so much anxiety, “ ‘Mom, I’m gay.’ …she hated being a disappointment to her Catholic parents.” In that moment, my friend says, all else faded into the background. She said, “I love you unconditionally, and want you to be happy.” Those ten simple words have seen them through all the soul-searching and conversations that followed “I love you unconditionally, and want you to be happy.” That’s all they needed.

My friends, June is Pride month. It is recognized by LGBT folk and their allies as a time to affirm the humanity and the rights of those whose sexual orientation and gender identity are at variance from the simple binary heterosexual definitions that have been in place and favored for so long. 

We have learned a lot about anatomical variations and about the effects of genetics and genetic mutations, of chemical balance and variations thereof, of hormones and the prenatal environment as influences of the reality and lived experience of gender and sexual attraction. Jesus spoke many times about loving our neighbors, all of them. The UCC is fond of saying We welcome everyone. Do we really mean it? Would we say it aloud? We welcome you if you are gay, bisexual, transgender,… or some other variation of sexuality, if you are same gender loving and married, even with children…?

I invite us all to think about that this Pride month I have a t shirt. I’m not generally inclined to be so informal as to wear one in church, but I brought it to show you today. Here goes…….. It says, Love is love is love is love is love is love! or as they say in the south, Y’all means all. Amen. 

 Laurel Wenson, Medium, Not sure what to say if your child comes out to you? https://dizzylaurel1.medium.com/not-sure-what-to-say-if-your-child-comes-out-to-you-5ca33b18dcbd

Communing as One – Summer 2021


Isolated through recent months of the Covid pandemic, we have experienced the pain that comes with isolation. In coming together once more, we recognize how our actions or failure to act can be sources of pain and estrangement from those God calls beloved. In the sacrament of Holy Communion we are reminded of God’s grace and we recommit our lives to God, renewing the bonds of our commitment to one another. 
Invitation to Communion
Some came alone.
	Some were part of a crowd.
		They were fearful, timid, hopeful, imperfect, 
			and Jesus welcomed them all.
He quieted their fears.
	He healed their infirmities.
		He affirmed their faith.
			He blessed their journey. 
And so, today we come,
	our lives, like theirs, marred by events, 
		some the results of our action or inaction
			and others beyond our control.
We come in trust that in the meal prepared in his memory
	Jesus will touch and heal us just as he blessed them. 
So come. Come everyone. Be fed. Be made whole. 

The Great Thanksgiving
Holy God, Creator of all things, we worship you.
We give thanks that you made this world of incomprehensible beauty.
You created everything and everyone to be in relationship
	with you and with one another.
But we confess that as humans, 
	though longing for unity, we missed the mark, 
		once again bringing chaos to the grand design 
			of your interconnected creation. 

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus into the world
	born of human parents and filled with the divine.
Through his life and ministry 
	he showed us the way of reconciliation.
In his death and resurrection 
	he offered grace and forgiveness.
Living in hope, we come now to his table
	remembering the meal he set before the disciples.  
Institution of the Elements
When he took the bread and cup in his hands 
	he lifted up all the fruits of our labors. 
He blessed the bread saying, 
As this bread is broken and shared, 
	so I give my very self, broken, that you may have life. 
As this cup is poured out and received
	so is my covenant, my promise to you, affirmed for all time. 
Take, eat and drink, that you may find healing for your soul.
Do this in remembrance of me. 
Celebrating the Spirit Among Us 
Holy Spirit, come now. Move among us and bless this food 
	that we may be strengthened for our journey
		and assured of your abiding presence now and always. 
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Holy One, Giver of Life and Love, 
	we come rejoicing for the gift of your presence 
		which we have celebrated in this meal. 
We have been fed by the fruits of earth as food for our souls, 
May the lives of all touched by your grace 
	be gathered as one to proclaim your glory in all the earth. 

Address the Stigma – Mental Health Sunday


Seventh Sunday of Easter

Mental Health Sunday 

May 16, 2021

John 17:6-19 

I was in sixth grade that day when my grandmother came to school. She was there to help my brother and me pack our things and come to live with her and my granddad. We would also be transferring back to the school near them. This was not a new experience as we had lived with them off and on from the time my dad first became ill when we were very young and then again after his death until Mom remarried. What was new was that Mom would not be with us this time, because earlier that day she had been admitted to the hospital for severe depression. She would stay there for 3 months while receiving various treatments. This time we also had a baby brother, the child of Mom’s second marriage. 

The crisis was not entirely unexpected. There had been signs of stress in the marriage and family, but I did not understand the implications. Though Mom was eventually well enough to be discharged, the marriage was unhealthy and she finally would file for divorce. 

Mom’s hospitalization was not my first encounter with mental illness of a family member, but it was the beginning of what would be a long journey to where I am in my understanding of it and of the toll it takes on the individual and the family. 

Then and in years to come, I wondered about what was being spoken in whispers. It seems some adult family members thought my brother and I  would not have remembered that my dad’s death was an act of suicide. I did remember, I was in the house when it happened, and i wondered if their whispers suggested I bore some responsibility for his death even though I had been only four at the time.. 

Where is a child to go with questions when all about them is silence and fear for other family members? What do they make of questions like…What does your dad do for a living? How did he die? What was wrong with him? Why is your mother in the hospital? No wonder I worried if I too was flawed as such questions and condemnation of suicide as sin seem to suggest.  

In years to come I worried my mother’s life might also end tragically, but it was several decades before a caring physician referred me for counseling. In the meantime, I experienced firsthand the ways in which society and the church both cause and perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illness. And I was also the grateful beneficiary of loving support of teachers, church friends and their parents, community members, and even family members who cared in their own way despite the silencing.

We do not know entirely what is the cause of mental illness, likely some complex combination of physical illness, chemical imbalance, hormonal and environmental factors, personal and generational trauma, and genetics. But we do know that it is pervasive. 

We know that a stigma associated with mental illness has developed from suggestions that people with mental illness were cursed, that they must have done something wrong to deserve their plight. Perhaps they and family have been told they would not be ill if only they tried harder, believed more. 

We know that the already complicated lives of family members are made even more difficult by feelings they must protect their loved one, or by alternately feeling embarrassed, angry, and  helpless. When families are most in need, too often there is no-one who will bring casseroles and tangible offers of help as they do when a physical illness strikes. 

This month of May is dedicated Mental Health Awareness. And so we ask, What does this mean for us? 

We read today about the love Jesus had for his followers, and we are reminded that compassion is key to living in community. We must learn the facts and reverse the bias. Seek out information made available by the National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI and other organizations. 

One in four adults experience some form of mental illness. One in twenty live with a serious mental health diagnosis. Children also are affected. A third to half of adults seeking help first experienced their illness as children. 

Despite efforts to blame society’s troubles on them, only a few crimes 3-5% are committed by those with mental illness. They are instead more likely to be the victims of shame and bullying. They are more likely to turn the pain inward. One third of teenage deaths are caused by suicide. There is help, though not nearly enough mental health providers. There is a growing store of knowledge about the causes and effective treatment. 

Finally, one of the things we know is that family, community, and environmental trauma especially during childhood are huge contributors in the development of mental health challenges. And this is a place we can all make a difference; in supporting parents in our families and those of our neighbors, in promoting programs and public policies that provide assistance to families in the form of child care, health care, equitable wages, safe and affordable housing. 

We can make a difference by changing the perception that mental illness is a sign of weakness. take a look once again at our centering words for today. C. S Lewis says, Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain) 

And when the one who is hurting learns to deny and hide their pain to protect others who fear talking about mental illness, he says, The more often [one] feels without acting, the less [one] will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less [they] will be able to feel. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)

Let us together resolve to provide a place of safety where the hurt and can be seen and named. Let us facilitate healing, lifting up the stories of courageous individuals and families who have benefited from support. If you or someone you know and love is in need, please reach out to be a part of the healing process.

I am grateful for my parents gifts: my dad’s music and love of children and my mom’s determination. And I am among the fortunate ones, who received compassionate care. I was and am inspired, perhaps with a little bit of help from a stubborn determination, to commit to the hard work of seeking personal insight with skillful clinicians as guides, medicines as tools,   and loving friends as companions. I have learned always to seek help when I am struggling. I have been guided by faith to choose hope and assurance of God’s presence and readiness to walk with us through our darkest days and our loneliest nights. 

A hymn written and composed by American Baptist minister Robert Lowry and first published in 1868, and it speaks to this confidence I have:

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn

That hails a new creation

Through all the tumult and the strife,

I hear that music ringing

It finds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

An Epiphany, the Unveiling

Matthew 2:1-12

There is dismay, anger, sadness, and fear abroad in our land. It is an age old story, like that of Herod, of struggle for power, of attempts to hold onto personal gain and influence at any cost. Seeking to gain and keep control one has misled and misconstrued their actions and intent offering flattery, feigning rapport in exchange for loyalty.

This week, led by such a sense of loyalty, an angry crowd stormed the nation’s capitol in an attempt to disrupt and even destroy our governmental system and the people’s representation in it. Chaos and mayhem broke out in the halls of Congress with invaders parading Nazi symbols and the confederate flag. Desecrating walls, floors, and carpets, the rioters were seeking to take our legislators captive and the turned to destruction of furniture and art. 

Those who might have imagined that these extremists had dialog and reconciliation on their minds soon learned otherwise. 

I imagine you are as disturbed by these acts and their implications as am I.

On this day when we celebrate the Epiphany, we remember the magi and their actions. After they had observed the workings of Herod and his court, something, an angel, told them there was danger hidden in Herod’s promises. They recognized the risk to the infant and to themselves. After worshipping at the feet of Jesus they went home by another way.

My friends, it is time we recognize the danger before us. We need to take a deeper look at what is at work here. And it’s complicated…. So complicated, in fact, that we may be tempted to leave it to wiser, more experienced minds to solve. I believe what we need is more engagement and  willingness to engage the tangled mess before us. 

You see, the way of the world is to give in to temptations like those Jesus faced in the wilderness, temptations of one to pursue power and satiation of desire and wealth. Often a person is tempted then to veil their own intentions in an appeal other’s basest desires. And so, alliances are created and abandoned at will to advance their own cause. 

Stay with me now as we consider where that temptation has led. This country as many others depended from the beginning on a pool of workers to do the hard labor required in agriculture and industry for providing the basics, food, housing, sanitation. Many of our forebears came to this country engaged in just this type of work. But if we go back to the beginning we see the colonizers imported nefarious and abusive systems with them. Systems of serfdom of Europe had transitioned to workhouses, craftspeople and their apprentices. Coming here they brought the idea of indentured servanthood in which people were promised the opportunity to earn self sufficiency through a protracted season of back breaking work.

When the numbers of indentured servants were insufficient to meet the need for labor, they turned to capturing and enslaving free people of Africa. Still today that legacy endures. You see, the practices of subjugating those who had been slaves did not end with emancipation. No, even now blacks and other people of color are scapegoated.

It is easy and convenient for the wealthy, the privileged, to sow suspicion and point fingers, to distract those who feel left out, and often are left out and left behind. As the rich grow richer and the poor struggle. It is easy and convenient to name people of different cultures, traditions, and faith communities as being to blame for the problem we face. It is easy and convenient to say the poor are lazy, incompetent, unskilled, getting more than their share even as they work longer, harder, and die younger as a result. It is easy to lead people to fear the intentions of others and to suggest they must protect what is hard-earned and rightfully theirs. 

My friends, this is exactly what epiphany reveals. It reveals the power hungry who see others, even supposed allies, as disposable.

Today let us turn to God, asking for wisdom to save us from this madness. May we be led once again in this season of Epiphany by the light of that sacred star.

Let’s look into the corners where fear dwells, so that, recognizing the beloved of God in our neighbor we learn to appreciate the humanity of those who have been scapegoated and pushed to the margins. When promises are made, let us ask, “Is this promise genuine? Whom does it serve? Is it for the common good? Who benefits? Is it for me, my neighbor, all of us, or only a favored few? 

Let us like the magi seek wisdom to recognize when people are unjustly blamed by those who seek only their personal success. Let us seek to build a better and beloved community. Let us be guided by our own Epiphany star. Amen. 

Love Born in Us at Christmas

The following poem was written by Laurence Hausman, a British novelist and playwright from the early 20th century.

Light looked down and beheld Darkness.

“Thither will I go,” said Light.

Peace looked down and beheld War.

“Thither will I go,” said Peace.

Love looked down and beheld Hatred.

“Thither will I go,” said Love.

So came Light and shone.

So came Peace and gave rest.

So came Love and brought Life. *

This poem has been quoted in sermons and adapted by John Bell of the Iona Community to use for liturgies and meditation in Advent. It has been expanded to include the themes of candle lighting for Advent wreaths and as a benediction as you will hear it tonight. 

There are many ways to tell the story of Christmas. Sometimes we witness it told by children 

dressed in bathrobes with shepherd’s crooks, some in flowing draped gowns with tinsel halos and cardboard angel wings, and some coming as kings with jewelry boxes and perfume bottle gifts. We tell the story in carols sung by a single voice, by carolers wandering neighborhood streets, or massive choirs with organ and orchestra. We see the way the love shows up in movies and stories of people in modern times who these two thousand years later take note as the holy enters their lives and relationships.

This year, like everything else, we tell the story simply, listening once again to Luke’s words. This year, we consider two stories from Luke; the traditional view of overflowing lodgings for travelers and a stable out back. Of Mary and Joseph, alone with only the animals for company as Mary labors, as Joseph assists and comforts, as Christ is born unheard, unnoticed until angels spread the news. 

And then we consider a second story born of close, recent readings, noting that the innkeeper is only imagined but not mentioned in our reading of Luke’s story, and the stable is also discovered only in between the lines. This reading notes the practice in the middle east of Jesus’ day and long into the future in many places of keeping animals inside on the lower level of the home. 

Archeologists and scholars have discovered in studying scriptures of long ago that the family lived on the lower level of such homes with their animals, with the upper level, the inn, reserved for guests. In this telling, the upper room is full, likely even crowded and Jesus is born in the midst of the flurry of activity of feeding and lodging distant relatives. He’s born over in the corner with the sheep and the cows, and laid in the manger where the animals usually feed. And in this telling we also hear angels singing their alleluias.

I tell this story of contrasts tonight to remind us of the many ways and places Jesus enters our homes and hearts this year in 2020. Some of us gathered here tonight come alone, from our living room, kitchen, or bedroom to hear the age old story. And some gather tonight and tomorrow with family in crowded spaces where they’ve had plenty of companionship but little time for peace and privacy in recent weeks in the busyness of working and studying and playing and cooking in and among a crowd. 

In either case, Jesus comes. And he invites our presence with him and to one another in the days to come. He comes in the silence and the stillness, in the joy and the shouting. He enters into our lives bringing that hope for a cure for the illness that plagues our world. He brings peace for our division and quarreling. He brings light to guide our way. This addition to Hausman’s poem by Rev John Bell of Iona Scotland is affirmation of the love he brings. 

So he,
the Lord of Light,
the Prince of Peace
the King of Love
came down and crept in beside us.

My friends, wherever you are tonight, and wherever you celebrate tomorrow, Jesus is there beside you. Amen. 

Pray with me:

 Be near me Lord, Jesus.
 Be with me. Be with us in the stillness
 and in the noise and clamor of the city streets
 Be with us in silent meditation and public witness.
 Be with those who have an empty place at the table
 and those who are so busy at essential work 
 they hardly have time to note this special day.

 Be near us Lord Jesus, and love us we pray.
 Nurtured by your loving care help us; 
 To grow in faith and love for my neighbor,
 To reach out to the lost and the forgotten,
 To comfort those who are ill or falsely accused,
 To welcome the stranger into my heart,
 To hear the voice of our shared humanity
 on the lips of those whose traditions are different.
 As you love, so may we love and work for peace good will toward all. Amen. 

*Laurence Hausman, (1865-1959)

**John Bell, Wild Goose Worship Group, Cloth for the Cradle: Worship resources and readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Wild Goose Publications, 1998


Season of Creation – Forest

Trees, the largest specimens of life on land were practically nonexistent where I grew up in West Texas. The native mesquite is barely a shrub by any other standard and the elm trees planted by early settlers stood few and far between as my grandmother would say. They were bent a bit to the north by the prevailing summer winds from the south. The lack of trees where we lived prompted a question from my brother when we drove to central Texas to see my dad’s family. It became one of those legendary family stories that’s told again and again. Motivated by his understanding of God and creation, my brother asked, “Mommy, why did God plant trees here?” In reality, there were lots of trees by comparison to West Texas, but the scattered live oaks and 8 – 10-foot cedars were nothing like the forests of the northeast.  

In third grade I began to study geography. Some of what I had heard in stories began to come to life. Pictures of Vermont seemed impossibly beautiful and the text described the family fun of leaf raking in the fall. About that same time Uncle Henry came to visit. My granddad’s brother, Uncle Henry was a teacher in a parochial school. He and I shared a love of music and on this particular visit he taught me a couple new hymns, one of them was How Great Thou Art.

I was overcome by an appreciation for creation, parts I had yet to witness; the hushed stillness of woodlands interrupted by babbling brooks and birdsong. I began to imagine possibilities of landscapes very different from the semi-arid desert landscape with which I was familiar. Now I must admit that my imagination was helped along by the 6-8” pinecones Uncle Henry brought with him from California.

New Hampshire was a different experience altogether. Forests there make up well over 80% of the land area. The images of the hymn came to life as I wandered the tree covered hills and northern reaches of the Applachian mountains.  Roadways where canopies of maples and oaks extended across their width made for picture perfect images of autumn splendor. But in NH that old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” was reversed “You can’t see the trees for the forest.” Still, it was and is a thing of beauty—a place for celebrating, in reverence and awe, the wonders of creation.

Then came Iowa and now Pennsylvania. What I have loved in these last two places I’ve called home is witnessing the beauty and history of individual specimens. I wait each year for the first yellow green leaves of the trees in spring and for the freshening of the world with their flowering. Later I am filled with wonder at their architecture visible in the stark outline of the leafless trees in winter. When I see those branches against the sky, I experience a sense of timelessness. I wonder about people through the years who have witnessed the tree’s growth from a tiny sapling and how many have found shade from the summer heat or eaten the fruits of autumn from its branches.

This is how the writers whose account is found in the second chapter of Genesis describe the forests: Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.  The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food……[i]

Genesis 2 is different from the first account of creation which is more formal, structured, and poetic recounting a planned and systematic course of days. The second creation story is just that, a story recounted through the generations by storytellers until it was combined with the work of priests account from the previous chapter and the rest of the Torah probably about the time of the Babylonian captivity about 600 years BCE.

In these days, millennia later, we do not imagine there is one right way of speaking about the divine. We know of cultures that existed long before our forebears and even the writers of our sacred texts and ancestors in faith came on the scene. We know other civilizations in other lands had their own ways of speaking of how they experienced the divine. Many of those traditions endure even today and we have come to respect their wisdom. Yet, gathered as followers of Christ we remember and value our own stories and traditions.

We hear Paul, the prominent apostle of early Christianity, as he spoke to the crowds in Athens:

 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. [ii]

In his words there is reverence for the stories of the Genesis and an appeal to the points of connection with the stories of another culture

Our centering words today by Enos A. Mills also speak of creation. Mills was a naturalist and conservationist of the early 20th century. He was an important advocate for preservation and creation of parks, and especially the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

The forests are the flags of Nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united and peaceful world.[iii]

If the forests are the flags of nature we need to be attending to the ones that are at half mast, in danger. Western forests in the US are threatened by fires that are leading experts to rethink their ways of managing the forests. Foresters have begun asking the indigenous people of this country to teach the ways they, the Native Americans, managed the land for centuries before the coming of the white Europeans.

In another part of the world another flag is flying at half mast. The greatest source of oxygen for the planet, the rain forests are in danger. They are being sold and cut down to make way for grazing land for cattle and plantations for growing palm for oil, sugar cane, bananas, tea and coffee. But the land is often soon depleted, and more forests are cut down.  

We need to plan for the future, recognizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all species of living things. Like everything it starts locally. As we consider finding places for housing, infrastructure, and employment for the people, we need also to remember other species and their important role in ecosystems and the environment on a larger scale.

Genesis tells us: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.[iv] Let us take that call to care seriously. Let’s follow the example of the many youth who are concerned about the viability of life on the planet in decades in the not too distant future. Every decision to build another development or road or parking lot should also consider preservation of forests and habitat for wildlife. It should take into account the integrity of farmland and waterways because the future depends on us fulfilling our call to care.   

[i] Genesis 2:8-9a NIV

[ii] Acts 17:24-27 NIV

[iii] https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/415380.Enos_A_Mills

[iv] Genesis 2:15 NIV

Tiny Parables with Great Insight

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Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46, 52

Today we ask, “What are we to make of these tiny parables?” The kingdom of God is like a tiny grain of mustard seed, like yeast or leaven, like treasure buried in a field, like a pearl of great value. What can we learn from these few words, these puzzling parables?

It’s tempting to see them as simplistic, taking them at face value. As we’ve noted previously, when we do that, we run the risk of missing out on the nuance that was intended by Jesus. And we miss the fact that by their very nature parables are intended to intrigue and even confound us.

Remember that a short while ago we noted the recent notion of speaking not of the kingdom, but the kin-dom of God.

I like this idea, and I think Jesus would as well. The word kingdom evokes domination, power, and control. Whereas the work kin-dom lifts up the importance of relationship, and that my friends is what Jesus was all about. So what do these parables say about relationship, kin-dom?

Let’s take the shortest of the parables, the one sentence parable. The New International Version (NIV) of the Bible says:  “The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, taken by a woman and put into three measures of flour until the whole lot had risen.”

Well, okay, but isn’t that what yeast is supposed to do?

So, what insight might another translation provide? With this passage we find that sometimes even our older translations are helpful. In the King James Version we read: Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three [a]measures of meal till it was all leavened.”

Leaven, not the little packets of fast rising yeast we buy today that sits on the shelf or in the refrigerator or freezer for months until inspiration strikes us and we pull out a recipe that we remember from our mother or grandmother, or maybe we call Sandy for her recipe for sweet rolls. Okay now I’ve got my mouth’s watering for a yummy cinnamon bun with gooey caramel and maybe a few nuts on top. Maybe you can just taste them, too. But I digress.

No, for an old-fashioned parable we need and old-fashioned word. Leaven in those was not the little packet of yeast, but more like a sour dough starter today. A starter must be tended and fed to be ready for baking tomorrow, and the next day, and next week. They say some of the most prized starters have been tended for years and even decades.

But that, as we know, was not the Jewish practice. Every year at Passover all the yeast, all the leaven, in the household was diligently cleaned out and started afresh. They recognized that leaven like relationships could go bad. There might be a hot spell or a delay in feeding and the sour smell would turn foul, putrid, and it would be time to throw out the whole batch and start over.

So now that we have a better idea of one of the ingredients, the leaven or the yeast, let’s look at another translation. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) says: He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” 

Wow! Sixty pounds!! Sixty pounds!!  Picture it! Six ten-pound bags, or if you prefer, another version describes it as a bushel of flour. Yes, three measures of flour is the amount one might ask for when visiting the mill for a month’s supply. This isn’t just your family supper we’re talking about. This is a meal for a festive occasion, dinner for a crowd, a reunion, even for the entire town!

Now we see where it is Jesus might be going with this. It’s another teaching about nurture and hospitality. We must nurture the yeast. We must attend diligently to Jesus’ teaching about our relationships with one another. And we must spread that Good News and that goodwill around. Be generous even extravagant in our sharing.

I believe Jesus is asking us to nurture all our relationships. I was reminded of something from one of the autobiographies of Maya Angelou. Her mother, she said, in speaking about relationships told Maya that if she had only one smile to give away that day, she should give it to someone at home. “Don’t go out and waste it out on the street on someone you don’t even know.” She said to give that one smile to someone at home. Perhaps it was her mother’s equivalent of the saying, “Charity begins at home.” Practice first at home and then take it out on the streets.

Now Maya took this teaching from her mother and those she learned growing up with her grandmother. She took teachings from the Unity church of her young adulthood and from her diverse life experiences and became one of the warmest most generous of people, sharing her wisdom through language and art. In recent years, before her death, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey*, she was asked, “So what words do you turn to for comfort?” Her answer was simply, “Love”…. And then she elaborated, “Love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it allows us to forgive.”

My friends I believe this statement gets to the core of Jesus teachings. Love well. Nurture relationship. Practice at home and spread that love generously around.

In this time of pandemic, we need to remember Jesus teachings to nurture and love all people, even our enemies. And one of the easiest and most visible ways to show that love is by wearing a mask to protect ourselves, and even, more especially to protect others. So, as we say a blessing for our masks today, let us remember Jesus’ call to love one another so that we are moved to live it out in words and actions.


* Interview with Oprah Winfrey, Supersoul, The Revelation That Changed Dr. Maya Angelou’s Life 5/19/2013 http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/the-revelation-that-changed-maya-angelous-life-video

A Time for Lament – Life Among the Weeds

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Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Romans 8:12-25

I’ve been thinking about an idea that God plants weeds suggested this week in a poem* by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. I remember that we are not always in agreement about which plants are weeds. Many folks think of dandelions as weeds spending lots of time and energy ridding their lawns of them. But others remind us how important they are in the life cycle of bees. Dandelions are a great source of nectar for bees as they go about the work of fertilizing flowers and food crops. Some people eat dandelions in salad are use them and their relative chicory as a beverage. It’s not so clear what plants are weeds after all.

Folks, I’m going to tell you right not, this was not an easy week. In preparing for today, I worked a lot on this sermon, thought about the text, studied, wrote and rewrote it. Maybe there’s still more that could be done and maybe that’s the point of the reading today. Maybe we need to stop and think about what in our life is wheat or productivity, and what is weeds or distraction.

Here I am trying to be productive, or if not productive, at least faithful and all these weeds are getting in the way. The simplest tasks are overlaid with Covid concerns. Will it be safe, the distancing, the masks? Can I trust others to act responsibly? What are their values? Everything must be measured by the Covid yardstick.

I’ve been trying to plan vacation while remembering past vacations and what I had expected to do this summer. What’s out? What’s in? I think of people I hoped to see this summer, friends and family. They live in Covid hotspots. Traveling to see them is not an option. Meanwhile my social media feed tugs at my heart, offering reminders of friends and places I visited in times past. I used to say when I lived in a small Iowa town, that social media kept me connected. Now it’s not only a source of connection, but also of grief.

The constant reevaluation of risk and need translates into a lot of worry and sadness, and it’s tiring. This week’s parable led me to think of it as life as among the weeds.

What heaviness do you hold in your body and in your heart?

What weeds are in your garden threatening to choke the life out of you?

What do you mourn in this time?

When we turn to our sacred texts, we see there’s a ritual for that – lament. There’s even a form for it. Many of the psalms are words of lament. They begin with indignation, with anger, or at the very least an expression of unfairness at a world gone awry.

God, I’m angry. I can’t see the people I love.

It isn’t fair. This virus is out of control

and it’s getting on my nerves.

People debate and disagree about how to respond,  

The lack of clarity and distrust is only making it worse.

Just make it go away! Make it stop!!!

What heaviness do you hold in your body and in your heart?

What weeds are in your garden threatening to choke the life out of you?

As we gather here this morning, I know that for many of us one of the things near the top of our list of weeds is the need to do church differently right now. I hear you. I miss seeing you all in person. I’m concerned about church members, aware of their needs, and struggles, and pastoral care as I have long envisioned it is hampered by limitations on connecting in-person.

Not only that, I long for the times I’d say hello to Bob who sat at the door greeting all of us,

guests and members alike on Sunday morning. I miss the hospitality and care of the women and men who offer a cup of coffee or tea and a friendly smile and kind words. I miss the little surprises I’d find on my desk after worship when I’d find that Dolly, or Sophie, or Annette, or Sonia left a treat there, something I just had to try even if I was counting carbs and calories. I miss hearing the singing and the choir, live and in person. Miss the hugs and high fives, the handshakes and fist bumps of the adults and children who are passing the peace.

And here’s the sad part, even if we were to go back into the sanctuary next Sunday, all those things would still be missing. They are the things that are unsafe in this time. Yes, coming back together would be like pulling up the weeds in the field and finding ourselves uprooted as well, still deep in grief.

So, what can we do? What should we do? I’m not going to consider the last part of the question. I know there is a lot of debate about what we should do. And we have a team of faithful folks considering how to proceed. We know that the church has faced difficult times in the past, times when there was no clear path forward. And yet it survives. We survive. And we know that the virus we face is very contagious and serious. It is serious enough to give us pause.

Pause…… now that we CAN do. In the pause we can commit ourselves to gratitude and to hope.

That in fact is the next part of the formula of lament. You see, having expressed sorrow, lament refuses to dwell there. After anger, it moves on to remembrance. It speaks to awareness of the ways God shows up, has shown up in the past, and might yet show up again today, moving to hope in the midst of uncertainty.

We have words of encouragement from Romans today: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. …. [and] if we hope for what we do not yet have [as we most certainly do], we wait for it patiently.**

While mourning the things that are out, things that we miss, remembering God’s presence in former trials makes room for gratitude, for things previously taken for granted. It makes room for creativity reminding us of the tools we do have and can use. It commends the tools we possess as members of the body of Christ.

We begin to celebrate those who have stepped up in this time. We rejoice that shared leadership is strengthening our connections. While they cannot meet in person the choir and members of the music and worship committee meet virtually to discuss how they can bring their gifts of music and melody to worship. We all benefit from hearing the diversity of voices lead our worship.

Perhaps in the end we will celebrate how the weeds of this moment the forced solitude and separation have in fact brought us closer as we are called from week to week by members of the telephone team and as we pick up the phone ourselves and call those folks we miss seeing and spend some time in conversation. Perhaps in the end this time will lead us to imagine new ways of doing and being church. Perhaps the time of quiet has opened our eyes to matters that did not concern us in the hurried life we led before.

My friends, let’s not let the weeds get to us. What we are doing now is faithful and worthy. The connections we are making and nurturing are lifegiving and sustaining. We are reaching out, living in community, spreading the Good News one can of vegetables, one jar of peanut butter, one telephone call, and one Zoom meeting at a time. It is good and holy work we are doing. Thanks be to God. 

*Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Weeds,” Unfolding Light, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/ct7j58r82ldgpwkwa7xx9gflrena7e
**Romans 8: 18-19, 22, 25 NIV

Strive for Full Restoration

2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

This week I needed the words from the letter to the Corinthians . Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. I long for peace, but I think we have a lot of hard work to do along the way before we get there. Still, let’s think about how we might begin. The passage says, encourage one another, be of one mind, strive for full restoration. My friends we need to consider what that restoration might look like. A good place to start is a recognition of the humanity, the inherent worth of those who have long been oppressed.

Early this week, Monday or Tuesday, the days seem all to run together now, I found myself anxious, worried about the events across the country last weekend, the protests to the killing of George Floyd, the violent and destructive acts of some protestors and opportunists, and the disproportionate use of force to largely peaceful protests. As I sometimes do when I am struggling with a difficult situation in my life, I sat down to write. I didn’t get very far but I want to share a bit of what I wrote that morning:  

“And so, I rise to face another day. My body aching from another restless night on top of a day which will be remembered as one more day when the president’s actions revealed his casual disregard for the people of this country. Insult added to injury. A nation sick and in mourning is greeted not with compassion, with words comfort and encouragement, but with insensitivity to the understandable grief and outrage at the cumulative weight of racism. I am worried, I am angry, I am bereft, and I know this feeling in my body. Some might say it is a feeling in their bones.”

Yes, I know this feeling. Perhaps you know it too. When I say I know this feeling, it’s because that sense of being on high alert, the feeling that every nerve ending is alive, was one I lived with as I dealt with my experience of childhood trauma. Thankfully it’s not a feeling I experience often now, but it is something I would not wish an anyone. And yet I’m aware some know it all too well. Now no doubt some experience it differently, but the worry that come with a perceived threat to the self, the family, or the community demands attention and diverts energy from the everyday routine of usual commitments. It is exhausting. And recognizing that, I am brought to my knees for those who experience it on a regular basis.

Think about what it is like for our black brothers and sisters. Every time there is a report of a black man or woman in an encounter with police or self-appointed community observer that ends badly, your heart aches once again. You remember the person in your community who had a close call when stopped by the police for a busted taillight that wasn’t out after all, but just an excuse for a stop. Perhaps you remember threats made when you walked into an establishment where the owner preferred not to serve people they called “your kind.” And you remember the many across the country who did not survive such incidents. Once again you feel called to set aside what you were doing, or worry simply gets the best of you as grief takes the place of the productive work you had planned for the day. And then, next week, next month, it happens again… and again…. and again.

I happened by chance upon an article that voiced the same concern. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist who works with groups seeking solutions to the climate crisis. Like others she is aware of the costs to the poor and people of color of unwise environmental practices of the past. She is aware that black communities are especially vulnerable to the ravages of storms and pollution by virtue of having access only to overcrowded areas that whites have abandoned. Blacks and other people of color are often consigned to places deprived of clean water and good soil for growing food crops and polluted by chemicals. So, Dr. Johnson, policy expert on the environment and NYU professor, wrote about all the things she had planned that didn’t get done last week because she was distracted from her work. Once again, the deadly results of racism invaded her thoughts and her community, and she says she couldn’t concentrate. Now imagine what that takes away from our society when entire communities are affected, making it difficult for them to function. Dr. Johnson puts it this way. “Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.”**

We need our black brothers and sisters. We need each and every one of us working together if we are to create a just and equitable society. We need to encourage one another, be of one mind, strive for full restoration. Only when we learn to nurture and value the contributions of each and every person will we begin to realize the prophets’ visions of a repaired city and nation. Let us all be about that work. Amen.

*2 Corinthians 13: 11-12 (NIV)
** Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet. Washington Post, June 3, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/im-black-climate-scientist-racism-derails-our-efforts-save-planet/?fbclid=IwAR15SrmZTFh98NfOe1HN-UE6sPd2lIUvryT-vVW9cR62cM_DK7U8oW1jC5g