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

The Pentecost Gift – Understanding

1 Corinthians 12:3-13

Acts 2:1-8      

Today is the festival of Pentecost, the day we remember the work of the Spirit in our lives. From the moment Jesus’ followers felt the spirit moving among them, blowing like a mighty wind and setting their hearts ablaze, they were unstoppable. The fear that had filled their hearts was no longer central. They not only stood up to be counted but shared the story of Jesus’ life and ministry with a passion that inspires people now some 2000 years later.

Listen closely to what the writer of the book of Acts says, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages as the Spirit gave them power to proclaim his message.”*

You see the text doesn’t exactly say which other languages they spoke, but it goes on to say.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem Jews of deep faith from every nation of the world. When they heard this sound a crowd quickly collected and were completely bewildered because each one of them heard these men speaking in his own language. They were absolutely amazed and said in their astonishment, “Listen, surely all these speakers are Galileans? Then how does it happen that every single one of us can hear the particular language he has known from a child?”**

So maybe they each actually heard their native tongue. It may be that suddenly all those young men who had grown up in the region of Galilee speaking Aramaic suddenly became conversant in a variety of very different languages from the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.  Or maybe what the bystanders heard was simply the language of the heart.

Remember also Paul’s words to the people of Corinth: All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful [and as we heard they include speaking in] tongues and the interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God.***

As I think about it, I imagine the people in Jerusalem who heard the Spirit-filled disciples were simply moved by the disciples’ fervor and devotion. I want to tell you, my friends, that we are much in need of the two gifts named in this passage today, the speaking of and interpretation of tongues. We need people who can speak the truth clearly and plainly in a language that others can understand, and we need people who can interpret the language of hearts that are so broken they are often misunderstood.

This week the country has been rocked by more evidence of the pervasiveness of racism. The encounter in Manhattan’s Central Park was prelude to what came later. Two people were out enjoying a day in the park. The man had come to pursue a favorite activity, birdwatching. The woman was walking as her dog wandered freely nearby.

Signs in that area of the park clearly state that dogs must be leashed. So, the man concerned about protected flora and fauna asked the woman to comply with the leash law, and it went downhill from there. She called the cops, and to give teeth to her claim for assistance, she emphasized her observation that the man was African American and said she was being threatened by him. Now I don’t know what was in her heart, but I do know as do we all that too often encounters between the police and black men do not end well. Often black men, boys, and, yes, women have been killed in encounters with police.

As if to emphasize that concern, while the country was still deep in discussion of the incident in the park, George Floyd was killed later in the week in Minneapolis. A $20 bill he gave the clerk was apparently counterfeit and complying with Minnesota law she called the police. When they arrived, the police treated Mr. Floyd roughly. Handcuffed and on the ground he begged for air, for water, for his mother, for life itself and died as police held him down with a knee on his throat for long minutes as bystanders who were recording the incident pled for mercy for the dying man.

Understandably, black people across the country are in agony at yet another senseless death of one in their community. Centuries of abuse, ancestors in chains, mistreatment and second-class citizenship are not just in the past, they continue to be and feel all too real today. There is a reason one of the most basic lessons black mothers and fathers teach their children is how to respond to an encounter with police and other white people who see themselves and privileged, entitled, and empowered. And – still – they – die.

No doubt you’ve heard the reports of protests and vigils by black citizens and their allies in Minneapolis and other cities and towns across the country. The daytime and nightly events that keep us focused on the unjust treatment of black Americans have now resulted in curfews as violence ensued. Some have been quick to quote Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But the story of the violence we have seen is complex. Yes, some is at the hands of those who have not been heard when their silent peaceful actions and statements have been made. Anger seeks expression and white America has turned away, averting eyes and silencing those who spoke out. It is troubling to hear of the destruction of businesses and property, of cities in flames. Especially so knowing that many assume that all the damage is being caused by the protestors. But that is not the case. What started out as peaceful protests turned to chaos when white men, yes, white men, opportunists with an agenda, were the first to start breaking glass and setting fires, hoping to incite violence.

Friends, we must not be fooled. We must listen well and carefully to a variety of sources, to trusted witnesses to these events. And we must have the courage to speak out on behalf of those who have been denied access to the best jobs and education, denied entry into neighborhoods, denied basic services, health care and access to healthy food in their communities, denied even the recognition of their humanity.

All this comes in the midst of an already divided country challenged by indecision and conflicting leadership in a time of pandemic.

We pray for peaceful resolution, for wise and courageous leaders of the communities in crisis. And there is more to be done. It is up to each of us to speak out… for silence is complicity. Speak out for justice and restraint by law enforcement and we must also take time to reflect on our part in and our reactions to the problem of racism.

Those of us who are white must be willing to observe how we have benefitted from a system devised to give every advantage to those of European ancestry, especially the wealthy and educated few who established it. We must be willing to listen to how we respond in words. When we hear the chant Black Lives Matter, we must resist the impulse to respond as some have, All Lives Matter. Yes, it’s true, they do. But in this time, it is black lives that are most at risk. So yes, Black Lives Matter. We must also consider how our body language and our deep instincts often betray the way we have been conditioned to think of blacks and other people of color as different and perhaps something to be feared. You see, this Pentecost we do need the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues, languages, and culture.

So, the next time you are in the grocery store or in the parking lot or on a street downtown, or in a place of business, when you encounter a person of another race try to notice how your body and thoughts respond. Does it seem natural? Are you surprised and caught off guard? Do you move away? Do you instinctively guard your belongings? Is your smile genuine or strained? By noticing our responses, we begin to see how we might learn the language of the other. Are we responding to the person or to our lack of understanding of their culture?

Friends, as we pray for our country, pray for the Spirit to move in our hearts and across this land. Let us also pray for the wisdom and the courage to be led into a future that considers and values the humanity of each and every one. Let us resolve to listen deeply to those we know well and to those whose culture and experience is very different from our own, for we are all God’s children.  

*Acts 2:4 NIV

**Acts 2:5-8 JB Phillips

***1Corinthians 12:8-11 The Message

C 2020 Judy K Brandon

The Good Shepherd Cares for All His Sheep (and so Should We)

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Psalm 23

John 10:1-10

One of the Sundays during the season of Easter each year is set aside to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Many churches celebrated last week, but we rearranged the schedule a bit to celebrate Earth Day in April. So today, I would like us to think about Jesus as shepherd and I want to remember those he refers to as his sheep.

News from Georgia this week brought to light the February 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the subsequent mishandling of the case by law enforcement and court officials. This was only one example of the many ways blacks and other people of color are treated differently than white Americans. The evidence is all around us, and in this time of the coronavirus it is especially noticeable as it is often the marginalized who work essential jobs, long hours, with little pay, and often no protection. So it is also that a disproportionate number of the ill and dying are blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants.

A seminary friend of mine deals every day with trials such as these, the trials of being black in America. Louis is one of the kindest most caring souls I have met. He gives of himself in so many ways. If you tuned in to the most recent UCC General Synod you would have found hhe was one of the people leading worship. He serves as resource for LGBT folks and especially the trans community holding a special place in his heart for the trans women of color who are now and always so at risk that their life expectancy is 35. Ten have been murdered this year just for being who they are. Louis is an advocate who is in tune with the feelings and fears that come from walking in black skin and with all the very real attendant discrimination and struggles of those with whom he identifies.

This week Louis issued the following challenge: “Ask yourself how you would move in freedom, faith, joy, creativity when you are afraid of the cops, the robbers, the church, the government, some folks in your own family….sit with it for a few minutes. and then join me in celebrating those of us who get up, come out or connect from a non-disclosed position, stretch to serve and support each other, stand in the trenches while carrying the terrifying reality that every day is a chase to the finish line and every town is a sun-down town.” *

Some of us may not instinctively understand that last reference. But if you think about it with some of the movies you’ve seen in mind. You may remember how many times black folks have heard words cautioning them not to be caught outside after sundown. Think of it and then imagine choosing life, choosing hope in such circumstances. Every day working toward the beloved community, working to make our communities safe for those who are marginalized because of what color skin they inhabit, of who they are and who they love. Every day reading in the news some reason for concern, some reason they might need to be looking over their shoulder worried about their safety and yet choosing to go on. Could you do it? Are you willing to speak out for those who must? Can you think of some way to engage on their behalf?

I know that much of the work of feeding the hungry and the homeless continues to go on in Downtown Allentown, and many of the clients of those programs are blacks and other people of color. Some of our UCC partners there are continuing their longtime projects, modified for safe practices. Some are stepping into the breach supplying essentials like the diapers not covered by food stamps for families who are now are having trouble making ends meet. The need is great in these times and some of you are already involved. I have been wondering what we as a church community might do when our usual mission practices are on hold. How might we explore further how to engage now and in the future the work of mission and justice as this crisis has peeled back the layers meant to conceal systems that privilege some and dismiss others.

When Jesus talked about being the Good Shepherd, he did not refer to just a favored few pets. No, Jesus talked about and cared about all the sheep, the black ones, the mottled ones, the brown ones, the white ones, the ones who are covered with thorns and brambles, the ones who have strayed far from the fold, the ones who have been walking through the mud and grime. He loves them all. He leads them to safety and tends their wounds. And so should we all. May it be so.

*Louis Mitchell

© Judy Brandon 2020

As We Walk this Road…Abide

Luke 24:13-35           

Abide with Me*

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with m
e.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me. 
                                                                             

I had never considered the hymn we just sang to be a part of the Easter story. But this year as we have observed before, the entire story sounds different in light of our current situation, of being confined to quarters. As we spend long hours, days, and weeks indoors for fear of contracting the virus, we begin to hear the story of Jesus followers with renewed attention. The idea of taking great care about our surroundings no longer seems strange.

We think today about a familiar story of Jesus traveling on the road to Emmaus, and encountering two of his followers who did not at first recognize him. Their preoccupation with the events surrounding Jesus death and early stories of resurrection conjure up for us thoughts of recounting our own experiences in a time of upheaval.

Like those who at the end of an unbelievable week of trauma and surprise returned at the end of the Sabbath to their home in Emmaus, we find ourselves revisiting the stories we have experienced and heard in our time. We retell the tragic and heartrending stories, the brave and inspiring stories, the encouraging and affirming stories, the mundane and routine turned upside down stories. We try to make sense of what has been happening in our lives and what is yet to come.

Natalie Sims, who grew up in the Methodist church and lives in Sydney Australia. She has a love for music for the church and began in 2008 to blog** about the choices of hymns she recommended to her small church. From that small beginning she has become a primary resource for pastors and lay leaders of churches around the world, though her efforts are entirely voluntary. Her passion for the many genera of music used in worship has grown to include: traditional hymns, praise music, African American Gospel, medieval and modern chants, and music of other countries and cultures. She says, “Congregationally, I like songs that are beautiful, that are intelligent, and that are inclusive. I believe a song doesn’t have to be new to fit these criteria.” You would be right if you guessed that I refer to her website on a regular basis.

When I looked at her suggestions for this text and saw her idea of considering the old favorite Abide with Me with this story it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “Really?” and then I thought…”Of course!”

Like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, we want, we need, Jesus to abide with us. We need the comfort Jesus provides on our journey through this time of uncertainty. This is precisely why we Christians tell our stories, why we retell this particular story, and all of those told by the disciples in the days  following the resurrection, and the ones we tell now in the 21st century experience of a worldwide pandemic.

It is said that people who experience trauma need to retell their story forty times in their attempts to make meaning before they can find healing. Perhaps you remember that the number forty shows up repeatedly in the biblical account. That number 40, often used in scripture to symbolize completion, is just as important now as in times long past.

Like the followers on the road to Emmaus we benefit from telling our stories. In telling and retelling them, we will begin to recognize how Jesus shows up now. We will notice how he is present with us in these days of isolation to comfort and sustain. We tell the stories so that we might re-member hearts and bodies broken and in pain. By re-membering, we slowly and with much care, putting them back together. 

So when the pain of loss, or loneliness, or boredom, or of too much togetherness overwhelms you don’t be afraid to tell your story. Now as always we called to be a community where joys are increased and cares are divided. We journey together knowing Jesus walks beside us, even as we appeal to him to stay, to tarry, to linger, to abide with us.

Help of the helpless, O abide with me,

O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

*Henry F. Lyte, Abide with Me, Tune: Eventide by William H. Monk,
Public Domain
**Natalie Sims, Singing from the Lectionary blogspot, http://lectionarysong.blogspot.com/

Earth Day in the Era of Coronavirus

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Psalm 19

Isaiah 40:12-14, 28-31

Each Earth Day for fifty years now we have taken a look at what is happening around us with an eye to the long term health of the planet, not just the people but other life forms, plants and animal. We look at the ecosystems in which they live and wonder how things have changed in the past year, and what it suggests might be coming in the future. This year is different.

Had we predicted what a 50th celebration would be like last October, we would have imagined a very different experience that what has unfolded. We would have expected ongoing discussions about all types of pollution, the impact of conservation and recycling, what can be done to reduce our carbon footprints, preserving the quality of soil, water, and air. We would not have expected that large segments of people in countries around the globe would be staying home to avoid the contagion of a deadly virus.

So what has changed? What do we see now? I’d like to suggest that we think about this time not just to observe what is but also to see it as offering us an opportunity…. and opportunity for a change of perspective.

Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures: People in India are getting clear views of the Himalayas for the first time in decades. Dolphins swim up canals in Venice. Deer roam the streets of Nara, Japan. Turkeys gobble while walking the streets of Boston. Coyotes cross the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Noise in major cities has been reduced by 30 decibels allowing city residents to hear birdsong they’d forgotten and hear the sound of birds in flight. The reduction of stress improve the ability of wildlife to reproduce and increases their sense of safety.

It would be shortsighted to look at this and see it as a quick fix to the environmental problems that confront us. We know many of us want only to return to what was familiar. We want to return quickly and fully to life as we experienced it before. We know there are concerns that we will do just that and that some will use of this downtime to discontinue the following of best practices in environmental standards and relax monitoring of compliance with protections for wildlife. Compound that with the worry that today’s challenges to the world economy will leave fewer resources to address the climate crisis. Those are very real concerns and will require our diligent attention, but while we wait and wonder I’d like to suggest we take another approach.

What if we look of the reports of improved air and water quality simply as a sign that such progress is possible? What if we take this opportunity to rethink our relationship with the planet, all its elements and life forms? As we consider this relationship let’s think of it in light of what we value and miss the most during this time of confinement. Let’s listen to the sound of earth breathing. How might we change of habits and our consumption if we keep the health and wellbeing of the entire planet in mind?

This week Yes Magazine published an opinion piece by its editor David Korten, “From Emergency to Emergence.” Korten says,

“The combination of the two emergencies [coronavirus and climate change] is helping us awaken to the profound implications of the simple truth that we are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Our well-being depends on Earth’s well-being. Life is the goal, community is essential, and money is only a tool.”*

I believe that the actions suggested here align with the words we read from the psalmist and Isaiah. The one who set creation in motion,who flung stars and planets into space creating the galaxies and bringing life to the world and its inhabitants calls us to care for those myriad interconnected component parts. Let us take this time to remember the great and wondrous gift and to reset our plans and priorities to reflect our gratitude for all we have received.

*David Korten, “From Emergency to Emergence,” Yes Magazine, April 23, 2020, https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/04/23/coronavirus-rebuild-economy/

Thomas and Us: Living with Uncertainty in the Shadow of the Cross

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2020 Easter 2

John 20:19-31

Where was Thomas that Easter day when the others heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Where was Thomas when Jesus stood among them alive again?

Perhaps Thomas was foraging for supplies, or for the word on the street. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to be inside. Perhaps he needed to walk… as the one who paces the floor waiting for the doctor to return after a loved one’s surgery. Perhaps he just needed to see that life still existed beyond the walls. Perhaps….perhaps….

Who was Thomas anyway? Though not often mentioned by name in the gospels, we have heard enough to know what distinguished him from all the other disciples. He was the one who understood what was coming. Among the followers of Jesus, those twelve named as apostles very early in Jesus’ ministry, Thomas was outspoken in his belief in Jesus’ mission, not brash or impulsive like Peter, but strong and assured.

In the days before Jesus’ passion, at the healing of Lazarus, Jesus told his followers about his plan to go the Jerusalem and he spoke of the danger of doing so. It was Thomas among the twelve who urged the followers to go, “Even if we must die with him.” He had understood both the plan and the risk, and he was willing to follow.

Thomas knew about death, some might have called him a realist. He had anticipated Jesus’ death, what he didn’t anticipate or know in advance was how to come to terms with that reality when Jesus was gone and he remained. And he asked the question many have asked since, “How do we go on living when death is all around?”

As we hear the story one of the few that is told every year it seems different. It’s hard to know just where we fit into the story this time. Do we identify with the disciples, shut up behind locked doors in fear? Or are we like Thomas feeling guilty, unsettled, and uncertain? Maybe we’re a bit like Thomas and the rest of the disciples.

We look out from our shuttered homes, seeing the ill, and the brave, and the foolhardy. We hear the news of those who taunt fate, who laugh in the face of the risk. We listen well to the warnings, taking them seriously for the sake of the future, of our children and grandchildren, and for ourselves. We see the ones who can’t stay home, those who work at jobs providing the most essential needs of society, and we see those who have no safe home or lack the necessary supplies.

We may like Thomas feel unsettled at what we see and what we imagine to be going on beyond our closed doors. It may be hard for us to wait quietly while the world is in chaos outside.

I remember my training and hear the oft-repeated instructions for chaplains and ministers who are told to provide a non-anxious presence. In this time of isolation and social distancing, we all need someone to calm our fears. How can one be non-anxious in this time of great loss and uncertainty? How can we sit in stillness when there are so many struggling?

And then we hear the words of Thomas’ encounter with Jesus. In awe, we hear Jesus welcome, even anticipate, the questions. “Come and witness my wounds and know that I am with you. In the scars of my suffering and death see that even now I am with you in life.”

It is hard, no it is impossible, my friends, to see the path that is before us. But we know this, that Jesus’ call for us to care for one another continues, and he promises to be with us in the process. Even as we sit in stillness, in prayer, standing vigil as many suffer. Knowing that those who live crowded in cramped living quarters suffer more illness and death and that those who must work are indeed at risk. It is right for us to be keeping watch. As we hold vigil for them and for the world, as we care for one another to limit the scope of the crisis, let us also reflect on how we live now and in the future. I believe even now God is bringing forth new life in us. Let us imagine how we will live into a future that values everyone. Let us remember that Jesus is with us, bearing with us the pain of the world and speaking to us those words for which we hunger, “Peace be with you.“

Meditation For Earth Day

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Introduction to reading and meditation

From the beginning, God called us into relationship with the divine, with our neighbor, and also with the heavens, seas, mountains, and forests, and all that live there. Isaiah invites us to look to creation, to observe in God’s handiwork the possibility for peace that encompasses all creation.

Hear the words of Isaiah 55: 8-13 (NRSV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

I invite you now into a time of meditation and reflection. Perhaps the past few days have been frenetic. Your to-do list has kept you inside, removed from the beauty of the outdoors. Today with a still heart you feel deep gratitude for this time set aside for personal renewal and consider how we will protect the fragile and wondrous gift that supports the life God created.

Make yourself comfortable. You may want to close your eyes. With your feet on the floor, relax your body from your toes, to your midsection and then to your face. Breathe deeply of the spirit of God that moves in and around you and release all tension as we imagine a walk in God’s garden.

You have come to this favorite space many times before. Checking your small pack, you prepare to set out with a bottle of cool water and a snack…. Ahead of you a trail beckons. The day is warm as sunlight floods the forest. Overhead, the forest has only begun its springtime transformation from its winter skeletal forms to lush summer canopy. Tiny chartreuse leaves begin to fill the once empty space.

Along the wooded path, you note branches felled by some storm several years past. Now they show evidence of change and decay that supports the new growth on the forest floor where bits of moss are turning green and a new seedling has taken root. Even with just two leaves showing, the seedling will compete with older stronger saplings nearby. Here and there trillium and Dutchman’s breeches flower, intent on gathering strength for another season of growth, their hope to propagate and sustain their species for another generation in this fertile biome.

At long last, you come to your favorite spot, one to which you return at different seasons, year after year. Sometimes the small spring-fed stream swells with the runoff of snow-melt or a summer rain. Today its mere trickle of water from the spring bubbles gently along. You rest your pack against the trunk of an old oak and sit listening.

Other notes fall on your ear… the melody of birdsong and a rustling of leaves in the underbrush as a squirrel scampers across an open space and up a maple. It occurs to you to wonder what the future holds for wild places such as this. You reach into your pack and celebrate a quiet communion with the forest flora and fauna grateful for their presence and their gifts to the cycle of life God created.

As you prepare to leave the forest now, you open your eyes, your mind, your heart and consider how your appreciation for these woodland spaces has led you to respond to the call to stewardship of God’s great gift.

Once again you hear the words of Isaiah…. sharing their earnest hope for many seasons of joyful celebration of all creation.